We aren’t born prejudiced in the womb but learn to treat strangers differently by exampleby Toni Morrison / August 11, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in September 2017 issue of Prospect Magazine
We still played on the floor, my sister and I, so it must have been 1932 or 1933 when we heard she was coming. Millicent MacTeer, our great-grandmother. An often quoted legend, she was scheduled to visit all of the relatives’ houses in the neighbourhood. She lived in Michigan, a much-sought-after midwife. Her visit to Ohio had been long anticipated because she was regarded as the wise, unquestionable, majestic head of our family. The majesty was clear when something I had never witnessed before happened as she entered a room: without urging, all the males stood up.
Finally, after a round of visits with other relatives, she entered our living room, tall, straight-backed, leaning on a cane she obviously did not need, and greeted my mother. Then, staring at my sister and me, playing or simply sitting on the floor, she frowned, pointed her cane at us, and said, “These children have been tampered with.” My mother objected (strenuously), but the damage was done. My great-grandmother was tar black, and my mother knew precisely what she meant: we, her children, and therefore our immediate family, were sullied, not pure.
Learning so early (or being taught when one doesn’t know better) the ingredients of being lesser because Other didn’t impress me then, probably because I was preternaturally arrogant and overwhelmed with devotion to myself. “Tampered with” sounded exotic at first—like something desirable. When my mother defied her own grandmother, it became clear that “tampered with” meant lesser, if not completely Other.
Descriptions of cultural, racial, and physical differences that note “Otherness” but remain free of categories of worth or rank are difficult to come by. Many, if not most, textual/literary descriptions of race range from the sly, the nuanced, to the pseudo-scientifically “proven.” And all have justifications and claims of accuracy in order to sustain dominance. We are aware of strategies for survival in the natural world: distraction/sacrifice to protect the nest; pack hunting/chasing food on the hoof.