Racism as a Developmental Issue

I sing in a chorus. A few weeks ago, our director Bob passed out music for our next concert. One song is titled “Cielito Lindo.” Bob said, with a tad bit of embarrassment, “Those of you of a certain generation, like me, grew up thinking of this as the Frito Bandito song. Now we’re going to sing the real song.” Thanks, Bob. I hadn’t heard reference to that jingle since I was about 10; now I can’t get it out of my head, which of course is the point of an advertising jingle.

The obvious racism: changing the words of another culture’s song in order to sell corn chips, using a cartoon caricature figure intended to look Mexican. The more insidious racism: as a child, I never knew there was a song “Cielito Lindo” that had been appropriated. I never knew until I was long an adult that this is an iconic song, sung all over Mexico in many different contexts. I never knew.

I saw the Hollywood blockbuster How the West Was Won on television sometime in the mid-1960s. I always watched Bat Masterson, and the Rifleman. Bonanza. Nothing in my school history lessons challenged the view of the West I saw on TV. Insidious racism: I grew up with the belief that the West was settled by brave souls who ventured into unpopulated lands, bringing order to previously uninhabited areas. Indians were depicted as savages who popped up randomly and unpredictably to attack the brave homesteaders. Manifest destiny epitomized. Another interpretation? I never knew until I was long adult that the westward movement of white people was a genocide.

In 1965, a bus load of kids arrived at my elementary school. Perhaps we were told in advance this was going to happen – I don’t remember. If anyone tried to prepare us, it didn’t stick in my mind such that I remember what I was told. All I knew was, a bunch of black kids were now in our class. I was afraid of them. I was bullied pretty consistently by a trio who cornered anyone they saw alone with no teacher around.

Looking at this situation now, thoughts occur to me that didn’t at the time. There is a pretty close link between bullying and bravado. The buses made one-way trips; none of us white kids were driven to the mostly-black school. There was no attempt at helping us bond with the bused kids.

On a personal level, my mother once told me, “I wasn’t raised in a racist area. We were on the farm, and we played with the black kids who were around, like we played with everyone else. If you asked any of them, they’d say it was all fine and we all got along great.” The context? Rural  Missouri in the 1920s and early 1930s. My mother never did face either obvious or insidious racism in herself.

I don’t blame myself for not having such thoughts when I was 10 years old. I knew no more about the civil rights movement at that time than I did about the true nature of the westward colonization of this continent.

I am glad, however, that these kinds of thoughts occur to me now. The only way I, as a white person, can begin to change racism in myself is to look at where it came from. I’m a former therapist, so I’m big on self-examination and personal history. We were all shaped by our upbringing, from family dynamics to the overarching cultural milieu in which we came of age. I now recognize the insidious nature of racism playing out in my socialization. Can I overwrite my history such that I will never think of the Frito Bandito when I hear “Cielito Lindo?” Unfortunately, I don’t think memories that old can be erased completely. What I can do is listen to “Cielito Lindo” in its proper context, giving my brain new memories to access that help me overwrite the racism of my upbringing.

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