I am from Florida, which is not exactly the South. My maternal family is Southern, descended from “those Carters and those Lees” as my grandma would say, referencing the peanut farming president and the Confederate general. The (white) South is a region in love with its past and slow to move on. My mom who is not yet sixty graduated from a one room Tennessee schoolhouse.
I always knew that my grandma was racist. It wasn’t a secret. My cousins, siblings, and I attended multiracial private Christian schools with small class sizes. We had friends with different skin colors, and grandma was bothered by it. One aunt stood up to her, and told her she was wrong, and wouldn’t be teaching her kids to think like that. I was in awe.
In fifth grade, now at a nearly all white Midwestern public school, I was assigned to interview elderly relatives about WW2. I sent my interview questions and cassette tapes to my grandma and her father by mail. They recorded answers and sent them back. My grandma but not my great grandpa defended Japanese interment camps from their Florida backyard during the early Clinton years.
Grandma was racist, was always racist. It was never a secret. It was a slight embarrassment: a social faux pas. A visible lace slip under a Sunday dress, a forgotten thank you card. Not something vile or grotesque, not a choice or an action, but a mere accidental momentary lapse of social grace. I can’t remember how young I was when she bragged about her great grandmother, the child slave owner who was gifted a black girl for her eighth birthday.
Never excuse bigotry and bad behavior because of age. My grandmother has lived through every civil rights battle of the twentieth century, and learned nothing. She has had eight decades to become a loving person and for more than eighty years she has chosen hate instead. The old can’t claim the ignorance of youth. They know better. Hold them accountable.