I grew up in the same kind of environment as most other white, middle class kids – a modest home in a working-class neighborhood, three siblings, one dog, two working parents and a racist dad. (Yes. I just admitted that and we are going to go there.)
And there were lots of jokes about black people… too many. He never used the “N” word, but it was abundantly clear that it was okay to make judgments about people based on the color of their skin. By the mid 1980’s, gays were added to his list of perfectly acceptable people to joke about.
I suspect this was par for the course in my father’s upbringing. It was not uncommon to hear my German/Dutch dad, his friends and relatives telling a racist joke at a party. There were derogatory remarks too, but for the most part, where my dad was concerned, it was jokes. It was meant to be funny. And my dad was funny. The laughter he elicited certainly blurred the line for understanding what was appropriate and what wasn’t. It blurred the line for him and for all of us.
At some point in my early thirties, I overheard my dad telling a joke disparaging Black Americans. He was in earshot of my ten-year old, twin nephews. It was wrong. I gave my dad an ultimatum. He needed to make a choice, “me or the racist jokes.” If he wanted to teach his nephews that racism was okay, I’d have no part in it. He was dismissive and I left with angry tears. I called the next day to let him know, I was serious. He responded, “Oh, I’m only joking.” “I don’t mean anything by it.” “I’m fat and people tell jokes about me. I don’t care.” As adamant as he was that he wasn’t trying to be mean, I was adamant that the intention didn’t matter. When it was clear I wasn’t budging, he agreed to stop.
At first, the jokes ceased entirely. Then, over the years, he’d try to slip something in to test the waters. Every once in a while he’d land in a place that felt like good-natured ribbing. And every once in a while, he’d step over the line. Way over. I’d give him a stern “Dad” and he’d stop. As if I were the parent and he were the child.
I thought there was a part of him that really could separate the jokes from his beliefs. On the occasion that my siblings or I dated a “person of color,” he never said a word. I also recall a vivid conversation that we had about gays in the military. He was a Korean War veteran. “Why do all these idiots think that just because a guy is gay, he’s gonna want them. If someone wants to fight for their country, let ‘em!” Twenty minutes later, he’d make a joke about gay people not fit to print in this blog.
Then my own best friend came out, my dad was quick to offer up a gay joke or two to him. My friend would laugh. My dad called him, Tinky. He called my dad, Grandpa Bob. My friend was, in my father’s words, “one of the family.” My dad was an Archie Bunker with heart.
A few years after the incident involving my nephews, my mother confided in me that my father had sought counsel from a priest. He wanted to heal the racism in his heart. Contrary to what I was thinking, he was struggling between the jokes and his beliefs. Whether this was before or after our big conversation, I do not know. Either way, my father never told me about this work he was doing.
I’m grateful to have learned that he did the work. I’m also grateful that he wasn’t the one to tell me about it. It showed me that he understood that this was his work. Whether or not I knew what he was doing, didn’t matter. He wanted to make better choices for himself. He didn’t want to hurt people. He wanted to make them laugh. I respect him for realizing that both were important.
Teresa L. Thome is co-founder and Managing Partner of Fubble Entertainment. She co-writes and co-produces the Emmy® award winning web series www.backstagedrama.com.
She and her partner are Executive Producers for LaughFest’s signature event having creatively produced shows with Betty White, Alan Zweibel, Martin Short, Kevin Nealon and Wayne Brady. Teresa also served as Executive Director for the Grand Rapids Children’s Museum for more than ten years. She has directed more than 20 theatrical productions in and around West Michigan.
She resides in Grand Rapids, MI with her husband, Fred Stella and two cats, Pickles and Simha. You can read more about Teresa here.