The first time I learned that my parents were racially prejudiced:
Sixth grade. We’re sitting at the dinner table. I’m relating some innocent event from school that day. As I list my friends who’d been there, and get to the name of a black friend, my dad and mom exchange a look. And then, my dad says something about Negros.
I don’t remember what he said. What stunned me is that he said it about Negros, plural—that he ascribed any characteristic to an entire mass of people about whom I had been raised, by that very dad, to think of as individuals.
What a terrible shock to learn that my parents had only been paying lip service to equality. I felt utterly betrayed. And confused: How could bigots comfortably spout anti-bigotry rhetoric as if they meant it?
In eighth grade, I had (yet) another excellent teacher, Miss Blue. We all liked her so much. She was pretty and interesting and smart, and she spoke with us kids like we were people. I quickly grew to love her, the way we do with our wonderful teachers when we are young.
My mother could never hear my Miss Blue’s name without laughing. Every single time she heard it. She never got tired of the funny, funny joke: “But Miss Blue is black!”
It made me feel ashamed for my mother, since she was too ignorant to be ashamed for herself.
My mother used to have another funny joke she loved to tell. No matter how many times she told it, she thought it was funny, funny, funny. I never did, because it had no punchline. Years later, I figured out that it would be funny only if two things were true: First, if you believed the main character was stupid solely because of her race, and second, if you took great joy in the feeling of superiority this evoked. The “joke” is that a white male doctor points to a urine specimen cup on a nearby table and tells his black female patient to pee into it. The black woman responds: “From here?”
That’s the entire joke. A rip-roarer. Only, the joke-teller adds spice by saying the “punchline” while attempting an ignorant white person’s notion of an ignorant black person’s accent. Like this: “From hee-yah?”
There. That surely makes it funny now.