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Russ Kay: "Confessions of a Sometimes Bigot/Racist"
Bar Harbor
Found on my dad's hard drive. File is dated 9/18/2012, which may or may not be accurate. I have no context as to why he wrote it, or for what audience he intended it.

Confessions of a Sometimes Bigot/Racist

I often, perhaps even usually, disappoint myself. I wish I were a better person than I am. I think thoughts and experience feelings that are simply not consistent with the values that I truly believe and hold dear. These unwanted thoughts and feelings seem very real, and I have to consciously fight against some part of my inner self to keep these bad apples from emerging into public view as actions or even speech.

This struggle against myself has been going on for as long as I can remember. Growing up as a child, I lived in a neighborhood that bordered on a section of the community where black people lived. Except we – and by this I mean my mother, stepfather, siblings, and maternal grandparents, who all lived in the same house – tended to use the term "colored" or even the “N” word in referring to those others. There was an unspoken fear, and the idea that one of “them” might move onto our block was just unacceptable. Indeed, many years after I had grown up and left the nest, my parents themselves opted to leave the old neighborhood for a new house in the suburbs, and they sold the house to a black family. Their next-door neighbor, a high school teacher, never spoke to my parents after that. They had committed an unforgiveable sin.

I went to school with a few black classmates (more as I grew older), but while I had nothing against them, neither did I count any as friends, nor did I mix with them except on rare occasion. In those 1950s American times, the races held themselves apart from each other in most social situations outside the classroom proper – the cafeteria, for example. I certainly never brought any to my home; that was an unwritten, unspoken rule. Although we lived just one block up from where black families lived, we maintained a lily-white existence at home, and even in the Baptist church we attended on Sundays.

When I was 17, I went off to college 1000 miles from home, in a very integrated and liberal part of Chicago. And in two months’ time, I was taking part in a sit-in aimed at forcing the university to integrate the various homes and apartments it owned in its neighborhood and to end the racially discriminatory practices of its commercial management agencies. That was in 1960, when everyone’s conscience and values were being examined and tested, when the national civil rights debate was starting in earnest, when the movement was beginning to take off. Some of my friends and classmates from that administration building sit-in went on the following summer to sit-ins and marches and demonstrations in the American South, where the stakes were considerably higher. I never considered doing that myself. The risks were far too great, and I had to examine my motives and feelings to determine just how committed was I to this newly born liberal and anti-racist outlook.

I turned out to be largely a fair-weather liberal, willing to espouse my beliefs in words but seldom in action. After a slight fling working (or at least showing up) for John Kennedy's presidential campaign, I retreated to the safe background, where I wouldn't be criticized, at least not at home. I was still acutely aware of my roots and upbringing – and beginning to realize that I didn't fit in very well with the community where I grew up.

I really strove to separate myself from my background and family. I never thought about moving back to the region or city I grew up in, although I did show up for most Christmases and an occasional summer visit, especially after my son (the first grandson) was born. But going back “home” was a strange experience. On the one hand, it felt very comfortable and I could easily find myself reverting to teenage habits and irresponsibilities. But I was at the same time very conscious of the fact that I did not belong there anymore. It was almost as if there was a split between my emotional and intellectual selves, though that isn’t an accurate description of the split that I felt.

Yet I realized that my original family was way too enmeshed in each other. When I grew up, in a three-family house, the main two floors were occupied by my grandparents and my own parents. This was not an unusual arrangement at the time, but it got more entangled as time went on. After my grandparents died and I had moved away to Chicago, there was a time when my parents occupied the ground floor, my sister and her family (husband, two kids) lived on the second floor, and the third-floor attic apartment was home to my other sister and her husband. It was a big deal when my youngest sister moved out … to the house next door!

So I really was the oddball, moving away to go to college and then staying away to live and work, while all my siblings tried to remain as close to the nest as possible.

Still, my actions at college shaped me in ways I would never have imagined. From sit-ins I “graduated” to participation in student government, but even there the politics were raging. The crowd I hung out with at the University of Chicago was most definitely a left-wing group, and at that time they were the majority in student government. It was 1962, the year of the Cuban missile crisis, and the country was going crazy. Student government quickly assembled and passed a resolution condemning the U.S. government’s policy and its blockade of Cuba, and this caused an uproar on campus and indeed across the city. In fact, the student body demanded a special election to recall the offending government members from office … and I got to run that election, and I got booted from office with all of my friends and (dare I say it?) fellow travelers. Although we had lost our political credibility, we hung together and got involved in other projects on campus. I particularly remember with some fondness the final intramural touch football game between the Flying Bolsheviks (my crowd) and the Robber Barons from the U of C Business School … although I have no recollection whatsoever who won! I developed a life-long interest in folk music and, particularly, the music of broad social movements, including the labor struggles of the first part of the twentieth century and the incredibly powerful music that came out of and helped drive the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s.

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Exceptionally self-aware, but that's kind of what I would have expected from Russ...

Thanks for sharing this. It resonates with my experience, in a lot of ways.

For what it's worth, as near as I can figure, the robber barons are currently way ahead (both at UC, and globally), but these things do tend to swing back and forth.

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