Empathy, like Hate, Starts in Childhood

I might have been 12 years old. At best. Safety laws were different then, and I sat on the floor of a hippie van between the two front seats, tired from a long evening. Darkness filled the van with only the faint green glow from the radio reaching my vantage point. The cold metal floor made the ride all the more uncomfortable.

My daddy focused intently on the road, driving us home from somewhere. I forget exactly where we had been or why I had tagged along. My father and his business partner owned a DJ business. Together they spun records – yes, actual vinyl records – at bars, school dances, weddings, and private parties. 

For reasons unclear to me, my dad sometimes invited me to tag along when they went to school dances. For reasons even more unclear, I nearly always accepted the invites. Many times, they spun for school districts so far away that I would have no hope of knowing a soul my age. But I assume that’s why I was with them that night.

Daddy’s driving tossed me back and forth against each seat as he wound his way through typical Pittsburgh roads. In the darkness, an unexpected hand reached down for mine. Mr. Robinson, my dad’s business partner, held my hand tightly, allaying my motion sickness. 

Even when we finally hit the main highways and the swaying eased up, he held onto my hand. Strong, steady, gentle. I wasn’t his family, but in that moment, he was protecting and comforting his child. It made me feel warm and loved. And it scared me. 

Up to that point, I’d hardly spoken to Mr. Robinson. I’d quietly answer his direct questions to me and fade away as best I could. You see, my mother raised me not to engage with adults, not to bother them. Forget the adage “children should be seen and not heard.” I internalized her rearing to mean I shouldn’t even be seen. But there was much more to my trepidation that night than being seen or heard. 

Around that time, I was beginning to see how the unspoken messages I received conflicted with one another at home, at school, and out in the world where I increasingly ventured. Mr. Robinson was Black, which was fine (over there), except when it wasn’t (inside our home).

My mother didn’t think my father should be in business with Mr. Robinson. From my vantage point as a child, for all intents and purposes, my father ignored her. Certainly, their contradictory feelings about racism didn’t unilaterally unravel their marriage. They argued about many things and were increasingly at odds with one another, magnifying their positions to ultimately explosive results. 

To be clear, my mother never told me that White people were inherently better than Black people. In time though, I’d see her for what she was: a stereotypical street-crossing purse-clutcher who was terrified of Other. 

I cannot speak to how other families pass on their racism. Mostly, granddaddy doesn’t have to be a member of the Klan to share his bigotry. I suspect, much like my experience, it gets woven into the fabric of family lure so that it cannot be easily identified or removed. Racism becomes obscured with thinly veiled “reasons” that shade attitudes. Over time, it solidifies into an heirloom handed down from generation to generation.

Until someone has the courage and energy to wretch the ugliness out into the light, exposing it, and calling it by its true name. This is racism; racism is never okay. Period. 

Sometimes the exorcism can only be achieved by angry protestors shouting their solidarity with clenched fists held high in the air. Sometimes, a player speaks volumes by solemnly kneeling during a national anthem that does not match his reality. Occasionally, scales fall from the eyes of a White child when a Black man demonstrates how holding someone’s hand acknowledges our shared humanity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *