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OPINION | LOWELL GRISHAM: What inherited attitudes deserve to be questioned?

Passed-on attitudes benefit from some questioning by Lowell Grisham | May 3, 2022 at 1:00 a.m.

My first Yankee friends were two girls from Ohio who were about the same age as my sister and me. Our dads had served together as FBI agents. They came to visit us in Oxford, Miss. They seemed exotic. The Yankee who was close to my age ate her food so differently. One thing at a time. First the meat; then the potatoes; then all the peas. That must be how Yankees eat.

It was the segregated South. "Whites Only" schools, public restrooms, waiting rooms and access to public businesses. The news was full of stories of "agitators" attempting to desegregate public facilities. We heard about them sitting at soda fountains requesting service. They were ignored and not served. Usually verbally abused. Often they were physically attacked. They were trained to remain peaceful when provoked. Generally they ended up being arrested and taken to jail. Kids our age heard about these things.

I tried to explain the situation to my curious new Yankee friends. I showed them the soda fountain at Leslie's Drug on the Square. I explained, "The colored people have their own version of Leslie's. I'll show you." And I took them down the block, around the corner and down a little side alley to Boles' Cafe. We peered in through the rusted screen at a handful of tables and a paste-on menu over the counter. "Look!" I said. "Buffalo Fish! You can't get Buffalo Fish at Leslie's. The Negroes eat different things from us. This is where they come, and they can get what they like."

I hope you can hear the innocence in my child voice. But there was very little that was innocent about it. I was the inheritor of generations of systemic racism. I was the product of my own unearned privilege. And I didn't know what I didn't know.

Not long after that visit, a young man named James Meredith wanted to enroll in the University of Mississippi. It seemed like the whole South descended upon our town to stop him. I saw car tags from Texas to South Carolina. It turned into a deadly riot. President Kennedy had to send federal marshals, the National Guard, Highway Patrol officers and U.S. Army soldiers to protect Meredith and dispel the rioters.

My fifth-grade teacher was furious. The Yankees were invading us again. Nearly all of the nice grown-ups who coached our Little League and planned our birthday parties were terribly frightened and threatened by integration. Most just quietly opposed it. Some were angry. Some became threatening about it. Good people did bad things because they didn't know any better.

I think about growing up in that time. It doesn't feel that long ago to me. But it seems that we keep playing the same record over and over. Every time a marginalized and demeaned people claim their place in the sun, other people who don't understand them and their stories feel threatened and afraid.

I feel lucky to have grown up in a culture that was so wrong about something so important. It has left me open to question cultural assumptions.

When I felt confused by the gay rights movement, a kind and patient gay person answered every stupid question I could ask. I thought about it, and I changed my mind. Later, my friendships with gay people helped me meet a lot of transgender people, and I listened to their stories. And their parents' stories. I learned.

Mainly what I learned is that we are more alike than we are different. We all want to be authentically who we are. We all want the freedom of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Every time I have listened to the stories of people who seemed so different from me, I've learned something beautiful about the wonder and complexity of life.

So, whenever your sense of discomfort rises, pay attention. When you find yourself perplexed by people who seem different, get curious. Relax your defenses long enough to get to know a few of those people. Hear their stories.

And whenever you get triggered by mean-spirited actions or words from people who feel threatened by so much change, have faith. Maybe you can help. You might be the kind, patient person who can gently answer their questions and dispel their fears. If we all live long enough, we will learn and grow.

It could be that you, like I, have lived in a culture that was very wrong about some very important things. We just don't know what we don't know.

Print Headline: Mistakes of culture


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