I spent last Saturday‘s rainy morning letting the royal wedding brighten my spirits as I watched Prince Harry marry Meghan Markle. Ms. Markle, a black, divorced American was marrying into the House of Windsor where, only 82 years before, King Edward VIII was forced to give up the throne to marry a white American divorcee. I found myself getting all weepy when the English black gospel choir sang a moving rendition of “Stand By Me.”
As I watched the wedding, I found myself contemplating how America — a country that has struggled with racism throughout its history — surprised the world when we elected a black man as our president and then re-elected him. While I wasn‘t always enthusiastic about his ideas, I was always proud that he was my president. His election proved that, in America today, race doesn‘t keep anybody from leading our nation.
America elected Barack Obama and an American black woman was playing a lead role in shattering racial barriers in England. Watching that wedding made me proud to be part of a country that has worked so hard during my lifetime to heal the racial divides that have historically separated us.
Yet, I know many people in America don‘t see it that way and still view many Americans as clueless, unrepentant racists. While I‘d be the first to admit we aren‘t perfect, I believe that perspective to be flat out wrong. The journey past racism my generation has taken has been a lifelong quest with enormous progress to show for it.
So, in the interest of enlightening those of you who don‘t fully appreciate my generation‘s journey, I‘d like to tell my story of how I found out I wasn‘t a racist anymore.
As a child, I lived in New Salem, Penn., a small Appalachian town in the heart of coal country. Our community was largely segregated into three tribes — the Catholics, blacks, and us Protestants. While there was no real animus amongst us, as there was in some places further south, we each had our own churches, intermarriage was rare, and black folks ran in different circles altogether.
In seventh grade, I moved to Buffalo, N.Y., where my school bused in inner-city kids as the U.S. Supreme Court told it to. While us white kids didn‘t mix much with the black kids, just being around one another took away some of the strangeness of people who were clearly from a different culture with a different skin color. It opened my eyes.
In college, I got my next big lesson. Our dorms were largely self-segregated, but my dorm floor had two black guys, Les and Lou from New York City, who chose to live amongst us white kids. Living day-to-day with Les and Lou cleared up a lot of confusion for me. I learned that, when it came to living life and our dreams for the future, those guys were a lot like me.
So, in 1975, I graduated college committed to a fight to the death with my inner racist and to treat people of different races equally. But, while it wasn‘t hard to walk the walk, I was never really tested. I always wondered how I would feel when an opportunity arose for a truly intimate relationship with a black person. Would intimacy come naturally or would my inner racist get in the way?
My daughter, Erin, helped me answer that question when she and her husband decided to adopt a child of a different race. On Feb. 6, 2011, Autumn was born in Utah to African-American parents and Erin was at her birth mom‘s bedside that same day. Two days later, Autumn was officially a member of my family.
The trip home for Autumn came through Boulder. Before she arrived, I was more than a little concerned about how my inner racist was going to react. The test I had feared was about to arrive at my doorstep in the form of a 5-pound, 6-ounce package.
When Autumn first arrived, my initial reaction felt pretty good … cute little kid, all squirmy and soft. But, I still wasn‘t sure how I really felt. Could I really give her the simple and unconditional love of a grandfather for a grandchild that I felt for the two grandchildren I already had?
The epiphany came the next day as I lay reading in bed. Erin walked into my bedroom with Autumn in her arms and, without saying a word, laid Autumn face down on my tummy for a nap.
Things got real clear real fast from that point on.
I don‘t know if it was seconds or minutes, but Autumn wasn‘t sleeping on my belly for long before I felt the love for her that I had hoped was there. I was flooded with an unconditional love for that little girl and knew that, from that moment on, I would spend my life doing everything I could to help lead her through life. It was that simple.
Autumn is 7 now and we‘ve had many lessons in how skin color affects her and our lives, some of which I hope to share with you in the future. But, one thing I learned that day was that this old hillbilly has everything he needs to love and raise a black grandchild the same way he loves and raises the white ones.
If you want to still call me a racist, go right ahead. In my heart, I know better.