Oleene

Oleene was the stereotype of a middle-aged Southern woman in the 1970s. Born in 1925, she’d worked briefly at an insurance agency when she was very young, but had spent most of her adult life as a housewife. She had three children, and supplemented her husband’s income by watching the neighborhood children while their parents were at work. I was one of those children…

Oleene’s family owned a spotless three-bedroom ranch house and two older Dodges. They attended church, ummm, religiously. Southern Baptist, of course. She made many of her own clothes, which tended toward polyester pant suits, and on dressier occasions, she wore a semi-bouffant wiglet she kept on a styrofoam head. She always complained about the moral transgressions portrayed on her afternoon “stories”, but never enough so to stop watching them every day…

Oleene was all in all a very sweet and kind woman, very moral (if often a bit judgmental) and loving. She considered herself a good Christian, she valued education and manners, and she held the kids to very high standards…

And she was one of the most horribly vile racists I’ve ever known…

Oleene constantly said the most awful things about “niggers” and “jiggerboos”, not only within earshot of the kids, but even when conversing with us. She declined to associate with African Americans in any way, even refusing to eat in restaurants because one might have washed the dishes or touched her food. The comments which came out of this woman’s mouth were completely out of character with the “Christian love” she preached. Even at seven or eight years old, I had a hard time listening to her…

This was really not an uncommon thing in the south in those days, and I still see it on visits home among women (and men) of a certain age: a tendency for nice, loving, moral people to lose these qualities completely when faced with someone of another race. One of my favorite aunts was the same way, and it disappointed me terribly that an otherwise wonderful person could be so ignorant and downright nasty about such an insignificant issue as skin color…

I always tried, with some success, to blame it on their upbringing or on the peculiar and change-filled times they’d lived through. But it was still impossible to ignore, and it shaped many of my attitudes on race and religion and other differences among individuals. For the better, I hope…

I was lucky. I came home to relatively sane parents who helped me “deprogram”, both from racist comments by an otherwise very nice woman, and from the fundamentalist dogma presented by my private elementary school. To their everlasting credit, they always encouraged me to think for myself rather than to parrot someone else’s opinion…

I’m not sure why exactly my parents subjected me to such radically different worlds during the day (although the lack of choices at the time may have played into it), but in many ways, I’m glad they did. It taught me to be skeptical of questionable teachings and dogma — whether from the left or from the right — at an early age. I also learned to spot hypocrisy and inconsistencies between expressed beliefs and observed actions…

I think my elementary school years were more important to the development of my critical thinking skills than any university course I ever took. And I think that a lot of younger people today, growing up in an educational system where revisionism and “newspeak” guarantee they are rarely confronted with any alternatives to the “correct” opinions, are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to these very same critical thinking skills…

It’s all well and good to teach that racism is bad and that adversity must be overcome. But when the school library bans all references to what racism really IS (except in the most simplistic and cartoonish terms) and when some vague notion of “building self-esteem” negates the concept of any actual adversity (such as getting a grade which corresponds with the quality of the work done), students are doing little but reciting a memorized set of “principles” which have no real meaning to them. And they question nothing…

Oleene taught me to question lots of things, even if she did so unintentionally…

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