Embracing Regret

I grew up, from the time I was say maybe 9 or 10, listening to Bill Cosby records. You know the party records that were popular in the 60s and 70s. My friend Kelly and I – we were both about the same age – he and I would listen to these records over and over and over again. There were maybe 6 or 8 of them we listened to, on a phonograph, of course. They were scratched and sometimes warped and nearly worn out. We loved those records.

Some of you might remember these characters and stories. There was Fat Albert. Russell. Roland and the Rollercoaster. And Noah. There was Buck Buck. Hofstra, and Little Tiny Hairs, and a Nut in Every Car.

We took a lot of pleasure from Cosby, particularly when Kelly was going through a hard time in his family. His Dad left one day for work and never came back. Just moved away. Divorced his mom via the U.S Mail. Kelly didn’t see him again for years, until he was an adult. Cosby was familiar, consistent, and comforting, and even though we knew every word to every one of those records, they were no less funny and no less enjoyable. We were connected to them in a personal way.

With Bill Cosby, I was only vaguely aware of race. He played to the middle, and he worked clean. He characters were eccentric but it was never really in my consciousness that they were Black. They could have been any of the weird kids from my neighborhood. They were stories about people who might have been black, but it did not matter one bit to the story if they were.

Then one day, when I was maybe 12 or 13, I heard Richard Pryor for the first time, and it blew my mind wide open. Blew it to pieces. He was so outrageous, so profane, so far away from any frame of reference I’d ever known – It was like visiting a foreign land for the first time. Richard talked about religion, and sex, and drugs, and above all, more than anything else, he talked about race, in the most direct, brutally honest, some-might-say-angry way. Cosby’s humor avoided race, or at least made it easy and accessible. Richard Pryor was all about getting race in your face.

I grew up here in Minnesota – Dad is a farm boy from Wisconsin. Mom is from Texas, of Hispanic descent. This is the point where you look at me and say – he doesn’t look Mexican. Genetically I am not – my sister and I both having been adopted as babies. The point is I grew up around racial differences and didn’t really realize it. I had relatives that were half Mexican and half Chinese, and many others that are full-on Mexican. I grew up eating tortillas and frijoles and papas con huevos, and it was all very normal. It was also in Texas that I first heard Richard Pryor, on my uncle’s tape deck (we’d moved on from vinyl) an it was there where I first became aware of my own racism, something that I had never previously considered. Richard blew my mind, but he also opened it in such a way that there was no going back.

Now this is a very hard thing for me to say publicly. I do think that most, if not all of us, carry some level of racism in our hearts – for most of us in very subtle ways. Some of the things I’ll talk about in the next few minutes might make you cringe. They might make you look at me differently. This is ok. This is the point, the point I will make clear to you soon. This is also not not about race – this is really how we deal with people that are different than us. This is about how we honestly look at ourselves and the impact we have on people that are different than us, for better or worse.

I grew up hearing the n-word as a fairly normal thing. By they way, I’ll use the word Noodle as a substitute our our little chat here. I’m not gonna use the real word – that would be wrong. I am not going to try to take it’s power away, that’s a battle for others to carry on. Using the phrase n-word just feels strange. So Noodle is what we’ll use.

I grew up hearing the word Noodle with relative frequency. We didn’t use it in our house, but I had neighborhood friends that did, and their parents. I heard it in school, a lot. I had aunts and uncles and cousins, on both sides of my family who used the word as a pejorative term, but also as a supposedly inoffensive descriptor of persons with African-American heritage. It was used casually and without emotional charge, as if you were describing the color of paint on a car. A matter-of-fact – that Noodle that lives down the street – as if using it a plain ol’ noun and any ol’ sentence. If you were wondering, yes it’s true, Hispanic people in Texas can be just as offensive and ignorant and wrong in their thoughts about race as german-swedes in Wisconsin can be.

I grew up hearing lots of Noodle jokes, uncles and family friends telling their jokes followed by uproarious laughter. Noodle jokes, pollock jokes, gay jokes (although they were not called gay jokes), fat people jokes, and a fair share of Ole and Lena swede jokes – my Dad is half-Swedish. All of this seemed very normal. Very rarely did these practices receive any scrutiny. Once, my aunt was asked why she continued to use the word Noodle. She replied calmly and matter-of-factly, “well that’s what they are. That’s what they like to be called. That’s what they call each other” It was not in her realm of comprehension that this might be unacceptable to anyone.

Outside of the jokes, I heard Noodle used in disdain and anger. I heard Noodle used to taunt and tease. I heard it used in snickering, hushed tones, and combatively, brandished as a weapon to injure someone. And when I look back and reflect on these experiences, on this time in my life, I ask myself the hard questions – what did I do to contribute to this? How did I perpetuate this cycle of Wrong? You can call it ignorance. You call call it disrespect, or stupidity. You can call it racism, or you can call it hate. Or you can strip away all these terms, and you can view it as simple right versus wrong. And when I ask myself whether I was on the side of right or wrong, frequently I was very very wrong.

So, why am I telling you this? I am not here to seek forgiveness or absolution for my actions. I am not going to deflect accountability and say – “this is how I grew up. This is what people said where I lived”. I am simply here to offer myself as a case study on how you get there from here, or perhaps more accurately, how you get here from there.

When I look at this time of my life, and reflect on my actions, it is a real mixed bag of stuff – using derogatory terms to describe black people, and Mexicans, and people of Asian descent – even though some these were family members. And fat kids, and kids with disabilities, and effeminate boys. I think about the stereotypes that were perpetuated within me. Blazing Saddles. Sanford and Son. Three’s Company, and Mr. Roper.

And I think wow, I was clearly very capable of perpetuating all the Wrong. I think about how very easy and normal that was. And it scares the heck out of me. And it makes me sad. And it fills me with shame, and regret.

Richard Pryor died a few years ago, but remember what that recording did to me. The title of the record, if you were wondering, is That Noodle’s Crazy. Even today, listening to it, it is not for the sqeamish. What it did for me then was to teach me that the word Noodle had power, the power to create awareness and the power to harm. While I knew that these were bad words, it wasn’t until Professor Pryor gave his lesson that I ever stopped to reflect of the power of the words we use. This is a heavy lesson for anyone, but especially a 14 year old kid

Comedians like Chris Rock carry the torch today, carrying on the conversation. One of his HBO specials has a very funny bit where he talks about today where ‘Interracial Posses’ are common. He talks about what a great thing this is, a sign of how far we’ve come in the area of race relations. He said humorously, that while all of his black friends have lots of white friends, it still true all of his white friends have only One black friend. The interracial posse that was his audience laughed uproariously at the truth of the statement.

It was true for me too, even back then. I had one black friend. He had lots of white friends. We were part of a posse of boys that regularly hung out together, and remember him getting called Noodle with some frequency. Sometimes it was teasing; sometimes it was disdain. And I lost myself in the group-think. I suppose I imagined it was ok, maybe like my aunt did. I remember one day I used That Word, and he looked at me with this expression on his face that I’ll never forget – and just quietly said: Stop It. I told him I was sorry, and I stopped.

As adults, my experience is that this is a very hard topic to discuss, even in environments that are supposedly safe. There is nothing safe about admitting your deficiencies as a person. No one, particularly those who view themselves as Christian or progressive or loving or just thoughtful, wants to shine this kind of light on themselves. And talking about it can create an implicit invitation to share, one that is unwanted. Sort of a “I talked about it, don’t you have anything to say?” My experience is that we just don’t want to talk about this stuff, as it risks revealing aspects of ourselves that would portray us in a negative light.

And I get that. So, I am not suggesting that we open a grand dialogue on race, but I would encourage you to reflect on your attitudes. No matter how educated, or progressive, or right-headed any of us may be, I would suggest that there is a piece of Wrong that lurks within each of us.

It may not be overt. It may not be reflected in your choice of words. It may not be reflected in your politics. It may, however, be reflected in the subtle judgments we make about people we don’t know, people that have not had the opportunity to prove themselves worthy to us. What judgments do we make about race when it comes to our safety, if we, for example, walk by a group of kids on a street corner? What preconceived expectations do we place on people based on what they look like, before we get to know them? Do we truly embrace these differences, and love, not judge – or do we just like to think that we do?

I have used the word Noodle occasionally over the years, as an artifact of my own personal history, with friends who have similar stories of their upbringing. We’ve swapped stories – where you grew up, was the word Noodle used? How do you feel about it now? How do you handle it with your kids? How do you feel when you watch Blazing Saddles today? It can be a very useful dialogue, to get it out into the open, not just for the sake of doing it, but to make sure that we do not lose sight of the fact that each of us is a product of our past, that all of these experiences, the right stuff and the wrong stuff, collude and combine and co-mingle to form who we are today. To not acknowledge our regret deprives us of a real opportunity to advance the dialogue, to move the ball for generations ahead.

That’s Noodle’s Crazy was released in 1975. In 1979, Richard Pryor went to Kenya, and decided after that he could not use the N-word any longer. I pulled the following from a New York Times article that was published a few days after his death.

After touring Kenya’s national museum, Pryor sat in a hotel lobby full of what he described as “gorgeous black people, like every place else we’d been. The only people you saw were black. At the hotel, on television, in stores, on the street, in the newspapers, at restaurants, running the government, on advertisements. Everywhere.”

That caused Pryor to say: “You know what? There are no noodles here. … The people here, they still have their self-respect, their pride.”

In “Pryor Convictions,” Pryor said that he left Africa “regretting ever having uttered the word ‘noodle’ on a stage or off it. It was a wretched word. Its connotations weren’t funny, even when people laughed.

“To this day I wish I’d never said the word. I felt its lameness. It was misunderstood by people. They didn’t get what I was talking about. Neither did I. … So I vowed never to say it again.”

I consider myself very lucky. By the time I got out of my teens, I think I’d figured some things out. I wonder about the neighborhood kids I grew up with – how do they view the world today? Did they too figure some things out?

My sons have a very different view of the world that I did at their ages. My older son has run with his own interracial posse for a very long time – Black, Indian, Persian, Chinese, Egyptian, Mexican – all kinds of brown people. Friends that are gay and friends that are lesbians. Friends with 2 moms. Friends that are two moms. The interesting and amazing thing for me is how this is such a normal, typical, ordinary, non-eventful thing for him. It would never occur to him that this is not an experience that everyone has had in their lives

I’ve told him my stories about growing up, a lot of the stuff I just told you. We talk occasionally about societal views on race, and gender, sexual orientation, and ultimately, justice. He is confused and puzzled by what I’ve told him. He doesn’t understand why. It is illogical and nonsensical to him, and it is morally wrong. When he asks “Why would people be like that?”, I don’t have good answers for him. I don’t have an excuse, for me or anyone else. I choose not to not try to fabricate one. He needs to understand that we can change and evolve. His view of the world is post-racial. He has no concept of my experience. And this fact can not possibly please me more.

For my younger son, it is less complex. He’s told me: “I have friends with brown skin. I’m peach-colored.”

I hope that this is the legacy of what I leave behind. I look back at when I was a kid, recalling the attitudes and beliefs of those around me at the time, that maybe the ball was moved forward by finally realizing that, like Richard, I was wrong.

I do not assume that any of you has had the same experience as me. I do think though that we all have some regret related to race that has shaped who we are. Maybe they are overt, easy-to spot things like using the word Noodle or hearing someone else use it and not saying anything. Maybe it is tacit compliance with a Wrong, where we thereby provide a quiet complicity. Or maybe it is a multitude of small, subtle things we carry around that no one else can see, or that we do not want to see ourselves. Regardless of your experience, we can all choose to say: The cycle ends here. Stop it. Now. We can choose to do better, to be better, to expect better.

My hope is that by embracing our regret, and not ignoring all the Wrongs, we can make a lot of Rights.