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Helping My Dad Discharge Oppressive Attitudes

On my way back from the RC Communities' South and North American Continental Conference in July, I stopped to visit my parents for six days. They live about 2,000 miles away from my home and I don't see them very often. Unlike other times in the last dozen years, I was visiting them without my immediate family with me.

My mother is in a nursing home and had lost almost all awareness of her environment over the last few years due to a series of strokes. I arrived Monday evening, and the next afternoon my mother's situation suddenly became worse. It was immediately clear that an infection had become untreatable and her death was now only a matter of weeks away. My dad was handling her situation fairly well, conveying to her how much he loved her, asking for my help, and talking frankly about her health.

My mother's condition was bad enough. However, during the week I visited I could see my dad dealing with a number of other struggles: his difficulties with ageing including poverty and the isolation that has become a part of it for him; and moving from living in small towns with a mostly Caucasian population to living in a major city where about half the residents are people of color. During the week I was with him I was struck with the indifference he received from some nursing home and hospital staff as an older, working-class man. In some of the interactions it was as if he were invisible.

My dad has not been listened to well in his life and carries a great deal of embarrassment about his background including being raised poor and working-class and about himself as a parent or a spouse.

He was a volunteer in the civil rights voter registration drives in the Southern USA in the early 1960s but became embittered and reactionary when African-Americans began to take control of the movement in the mid-sixties.

From the beginning of this visit my dad was fervently stating prejudices against people of color. I had occasionally seen it before but not this frequently. In the past he seemed to do it when he hadn't been getting attention and was able to get my attention by arguing some position that he knew would anger me. Over the years I have tried a number of things such as arguing with him, yelling at him for being prejudiced, and trying to humor him about it. They never seemed to work.

I made the decision on that Tuesday that I would treat him and listen to him with complete respect. As part of that decision I decided not to say anything that might indicate I was critical of him. However, I would not do anything that might indicate that I agreed with the racist comments. I couldn't think of another solution that would work.

By Wednesday morning in order to hold onto a picture of reality I decided to keep a count day to day of the number of clearly prejudicial comments he made and seeing if there was anything I could do to reduce them. I counted twenty-eight comments that day. This was not counting observations or questions he had about people of color.

I continued to convey to him that I loved him, appreciated him for being my father (which he thankfully responded to), was respectful and never indicated that I was critical. I looked for opportunities to make occasional physical contact with him but that was awkward for him so I kept such touching brief and casual such as my hand on his shoulder for brief moments. I never said anything that might indicate I supported any racist viewpoint even though this led to a few long silences from me.

On Thursday, he was noticeably more relaxed and enjoying being listened to as we spent the day together. The racist comments dropped to seven for that day.

On Friday, his racist comments dropped to two for the day. He spontaneously told me about his respect for the African-Americans he had met in Alabama during his civil rights work and he told me some of his experiences as a guard in a military prison in World War Two where on one occasion he was scared and forced by another guard to beat a Gay prisoner with a club -- a story he had never told me before.

On Saturday morning, on our way to the hospital to visit my mother, I asked him about his first memories (as a child) of African-Americans. He liked the question and he took about a half-hour to answer it. He was so engrossed in telling me that when we got to the hospital, we sat in his pick-up truck for about twenty minutes so that he could finish telling me memories that indicated he was as a child acutely aware of how extremely poor the conditions were for African-Americans in the 1920s in East St. Louis, Illinois. I was struck that the memories he shared indicated caring and an insightful awareness and conveyed no hostility or prejudice.

The racist comments he made that day were again two. That was the last full day we were together. He did joke at one point when another car was following ours too closely. The point of his humor was at himself recognizing that he might be more prejudicial about "the poor fellow" if the driver was an African-American.

I was with him all his waking hours during those six days. What was helpful to me during this time was remembering that I loved him, that he as well as I have always been good men; noticing how idiotic the argued perspectives about people of color were; and at night after my dad went to bed, I would go jogging and made a point of talking with some of the people of color I saw on the street.



Last modified: 2020-07-02 14:27:35+00