I’d like to tell you about my Grandma Daisy.
Born in rural Kentucky in 1912, she lived most of her adult life in Dayton, Ohio. What I know of her life before I was old enough to form longterm memories is limited to the stories she told me, and most of those stories focused on her bucolic (and likely fictional as told) childhood. Still, I picked up a few details along the way.
I know she was married for a time to an abusive man—my grandfather—long enough to have my father and aunt. After the marriage ended, she made her living as a seamstress, taking in piecework from local drycleaners. She was always poor. By the time I came along, she was barely scraping by in a tiny house in West Dayton, in poor health but still able to keep a small garden in the backyard.
To supplement the $186 she received each month from Social Security, she made homemade wine from Welch’s grape juice that she sold at her alley gate. She also grew and sold marijuana. I speak from personal knowledge when I say the wine was cloying and strong and the pot was harsh and weak, but both were up to their appointed task.
She was a merciless card player, savaging me and my family across the table on Saturday evenings at 500 Rummy and matchstick poker. Good humored, always ready with a tale or a joke, she was a delight to be around. She made sublime buttermilk biscuits. I spent countless days and nights at her tiny house, and loved her dearly. She died when I was 23, and it is a loss I still feel sharply as I sit here writing about her.
Grandma Daisy was also a racist.
When she and her husband moved to West Dayton, the area was white working class, mostly shotgun houses on tiny lots. The people who lived around her worked for Dayton Tire, or Delco, or in other similar industrial Midwest jobs that today are mostly gone.
Over the years, the area changed. White Flight took hold, and the neighborhood’s demographics shifted. I don’t know what’s there now—it’s been 30 years since Grandma Daisy died and I’ve lived in Oregon for most of that time—but when I was a kid visiting her, Grandma Daisy was the only white resident for blocks in any direction.
And did she ever know it.
From her, I heard just about every racial slur you can think of. She kept a small .32 revolver, because she was sure any moment one of “them” would try to rob her. When I got to be driving age, I once showed up at her house for a visit without calling first, and the first thing I saw when she opened the door to my knock was the barrel of that gun.
Despite her deeply ingrained and open racism, she was close to her black next door neighbor, Mrs. Long, and was friendly with a number of folks on her block. She was able to sell wine and pot because she knew everyone and everyone knew her. Even the police who patrolled her area were aware of her side business and looked the other way—though if she’d been black I doubt they would have been so accommodating.
All my life, she railed against the blacks* but truth be told, none of her fears ever came to reality. Grandma Daisy wasn’t robbed, burgled, or assaulted. On summer evenings, she and chatted with Mrs. Long—each on their adjacent front porches—while I played with Mrs. Long’s grandchildren in the street. When she died, Grandma Daisy’s funeral was attended by her black neighbors, many of whom wept for her. Mrs. Long and I cried together at the graveside.
Why am I telling you all this? It’s not, I assure you, to rehabilitate an unrepentent racist—because that’s what Grandma Daisy was. Now, I don’t know what Grandma Daisy’s politics were. In functional terms, I suspect she was apolitical in that she never voted nor showed any interest in voting. She never talked politics in the sense of discussing candidates or issues. I don’t have the slightest clue how she felt about Nixon, Ford, Jimmy Carter, or Ronald Reagan—the presidents when I was old enough to know about them and she was still alive. But that’s not the sort of thing she would have talked to me about anyway.
But of course her all her racist talk was political. Very political. I didn’t understand that then, but now I look back on my Grandma Daisy and the way she talked, and I understand all those racist tirades were fundamentally political. I also recognize that if she was still alive, she’d probably be a Trump supporter. She might not actually vote for him, but she’d probably agree with many of the things he and his surrogates say.
Honestly, there’s a very high likelihood she’d be in the basket of deplorables.
Officially, I was raised to believe racism is wrong. Mostly, this happened through a kind of mushy “everyone should be treated the same” sense that well-meaning white people confuse with taking an active stand against race-based privilege and hatred. I’d be told, “Don’t talk about black people the way your Grandma Daisy does”—a sentiment usually followed up by giving her a pass because she was “old,” or “grew up in different times,” or “doesn’t know better.”
At times, my anti-racist education was more explicit. One day my friend Demetrius came over to swim. He lived in the “black part of town” but we were friends from school—a place uncomfortably integrated. I really liked Demetrius. He was smart and kind and helpful. He got me through Algebra I, and tried to help me learn to catch a football well enough to try out for wide receiver. He laughed at my dumb jokes, and let me confide in him and confided in me in turn.
But I betrayed our friendship that day he came to my house to swim by making jokes about how he lived in the “black part of town.”
My stepfather—a man no one would ever describe as enlightened—actually called me out on it, directly and unexpectedly. He told me I’d been thoughtless, and unfair, and cruel—that I should be ashamed of myself. His words hit home. I felt terrible about what I’d said to Demetrius and determined to never do it again. But what I didn’t do was apologize. Well-meaning white people weren’t taught to apologize. Apparently, when we “felt bad” or vowed to “do better,” people of color were supposed to pick up on it telepathically or something. In any case, the damage was done and I did nothing to repair that damage, and so I lost a friend. Demetrius never came over again, and avoided me at school from then on. Forty years later, I still miss him. Not that I blame him in the least.
I may have been raised to “not be racist,” but I was swimming in racism my whole life. I loved my Grandma Daisy, but she was remorseless in her vituperation of black people. Even when I was very young, I think I understood on some level that what she was saying was wrong, but it never occurred to me to challenge her on it. Even as a college student in an enlightened interdisciplinary studies program I never thought to say anything to her. Around the time she died, I was going through that “I don’t see color” phase white progressives often go through, and often get stuck in. I’m sure I was very proud of myself, and probably thought I was “modeling” anti-racism to my grandmother by not joining in on her tirades. Perhaps I sometimes looked a little uncomfortable.
A revolutionary, I was not.
And besides, didn’t she have all those black friends? Mrs. Long was heartbroken by her death, so surely that proved Grandma Daisy wasn’t so bad. It was just talk, mostly to me and others in the family. And besides the besides, how could I say she’d be one of Trump’s openly and unapologetically racist supporters today? She never displayed Confederate flags or swastikas. She never screamed at black people from the car. And we can’t forget Mrs. Long weeping at her funeral.** Checkmate, libturds—amirite?
The problem with that is it dismisses the arc of American racial politics over the last five decades. It pretends the Southern Strategy wasn’t a thing, that mealymouthed white liberalism doesn’t take people of color for granted, that as a society we didn’t reassure ourselves with lullabies of living in a post-racial world—all the while ignoring the seething white resentment being coddled and exploited by corporatists and the retrograde religious extremists of the Christian Right.
Over the past thirty odd years, centrists and earnest white liberals comforted themselves the myth that the “not so bad” racists like my Grandma Daisy would soon die out as the post Civil Rights generations replaced them. The “bad racists” in this myth would still be there, sure, but few in number and politically inert—an uncomfortable and easily ignored anachronism.
Into this fatuous fantasy sprang Trump, a boastful buffoon whose only actual skills are leveraging a system designed to protect people like him from the consequences of their mistakes and monetizing his own narcissism. He’s lurched onto the biggest stage in the world and from there given voice to the most toxic and deplorable elements of our society.
And, yes, I think my Grandma Daisy would be one of them. If she was alive today, the dehumanizing things she would never say in front of anyone except those with whom she felt most safe would come bubbling out into the open. Because as a society, we let it happen. Because earnest white people like me have given people like her a pass. Because the Right has nurtured her fear and resentment and the Left pretended she was a thing of the past.
And I’m part of the problem. I never challenged her. I’ve rarely challenged myself. Hell, I couldn’t even bring myself to apologize to my friend.
True understanding is a long time coming when you don’t need to understand. For many well-meaning white folks like myself, it never comes. And don’t get me wrong. I don’t pretend to possess some kind of profound enlightenment. At best, I think I’ve come to recognize that there’s a lot I will never understand about what it means to be a member of a marginalized community in America, but that my place of privilege is unearned and undeserved.
I also recognize that defeating Trump is only one step in a much larger journey, one I and my earnest white friends can’t make alone—or even lead. But we do have a part to play: to acknowledge our role in propping up a longstanding system of racial inequity and abuse, and to listen to, to support, and to stand with people of color.
And also to apologize.
I’d like to start with the friend I hurt. Demetrius, I’m sorry. I was a dick to you, and I’m sorry.
Edit: After I posted this, I made a single attempt to connect with Demetrius. He wasn’t interested in hearing from me, which I respect. He owes me nothing—not forgiveness or absolution, not even a single moment of his time.