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Never meaning no harm

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The first time I attempted to have a dialogue about race, I was ten years old. My mom had taken my siblings and me to her cousin’s home in Akron, Ohio, a tenement building near downtown in a neighborhood festooned with graffiti and filled with vacant houses. Carol Ann had been divorced for several years and was raising three children on her own and with the help of various welfare programs.

I remember the block-long row of apartments five or six stories high, the barren hallways, and the poorly lit stairways. We were celebrating a birthday, and some kids from the surrounding apartments had been invited, including several African American children. After the party, one of the mothers gathered some plates and boxes as she was getting ready to leave. My mom asked me to help her.

I followed this woman up to her apartment, balancing the load I carried as I ascended the dark stairs. She apologized about the elevator being out of order, “Again,” and she led me down a hallway, darker than the one downstairs. A door opened down the way, and someone stuck a head out surreptitiously, retreated, and slammed the door closed. The woman stopped in front of her apartment, fumbled with her keys, and unlocked her door. She invited me in, and I placed her belongings on a small kitchen table at the far end of a tiny living room. Toys and building blockslittered the floor.

“Thank you so much,” she said and smiled, white teeth contrasting dark skin.

Though I had interacted with some African American people a few times in my life, this was the first time I had been in one of their homes. The apartment was like Carol Ann’s, but it was a reverse floor plan, somehow smaller.

“What’s your name?”

“Paul,” I said.

“Thank you, again.”

I felt awkward for a moment. It seemed like she wanted to have a conversation.

“Your mom, she is a nice lady.”

“Yes.”

“And you are so helpful.”

It occurred to me this was an opportunity to ask a question I had been wanting to ask a black person. I had been confused by my family about the correct terminology regarding African American people. Some of my family called them the n-word, but when using the n-word, they never sounded positive or appreciative, more like hateful. Sometimes, they called them “colored,” but it wasn’t clear to me why they were considered colored while I was not. I mean, the color “white” in a box of Crayola crayons didn’t match my skin tone, nor did “peach.” I had a color, too, though it seemed impossible to reproduce when coloring or drawing. For that matter, “black” didn’t look like the skin on African American people I had seen. My grandpa called them “negroes,” but my mom said that was a bad term, too.

So, as a 10-year-old who had little experience around diverse people, I did not know how to begin a conversation about race. My family did not interact with people different from ourselves, and I had no model to go by.

“Can I ask a question?”

The woman looked at me. “Yes?”

“Why do people call you n — — rs?”

She winced, pursed her lips, and said, “It’s time for you to leave. Go on, now.”

Once I stepped through the threshold, she slammed the door behind me. I felt hurt. I didn’t mean any harm, but she was hurt, too. All this because I had asked a question.

Though the culture of the 1970’s seemed to be awakened to the reality of race, there was still a great deal of ignorance, especially in families like mine. One of my uncles used the n-word constantly. My grandpa openly hated Jews. My whole family couldn’t stand Muhammad Ali, and they cheered against him every time he fought. My dad grudgingly acknowledged he was a good fighter, but he hated Ali’s bravado and flamboyance. There was a minor controversy in my family when I rejoiced at getting a Hank Aaron baseball card in my Topps bubblegum package.

My uncle asked me what was so special about Hank Aaron. I said, “Because he hits homeruns.” My uncle retorted, “Well, so does Pete Rose.” My dad hated TV shows like Good Times, saying that Jimmie JJ Walker looked “like a goon.” We were not allowed to watch Flip Wilson because my family thought he must have been a “f — — t” since he impersonated women, never mind that Milton Berle did the same thing, but even he was regarded suspiciously, though absent the slurs. I remember the anger in my family when Frank Robinson became the manager of the Cleveland Indians and how they lamented their poor record, saying the Indians couldn’t afford better management. My Dad joked about Randy Smith, the NBA captain of the Cleveland Cavaliers in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, saying that his neighbors must always be trying to hire him when he mows his lawn.

During my childhood, we said rhymes like “Daniel Boone was a man, was a big man, but a bear was a bigger, so he ran like a n — — r up a tree.” I really had no idea what that meant. How does one run up a tree? And, specifically, how does a black person do so? But the kids in the neighborhood laughed at it, and I laughed too because I didn’t want to go against the grain any more than I already was as a youngster labeled as queer. Also, we chanted, “Eany meany miney moe, catch a n — — r by the toe. If he hollers let him go,” which was not as hard to figure out, except about why we used the n-word when other words could have fit.

We had The Dukes of Hazzard on television featuring a 1969 Dodge Charger called the General Lee and emblazoned with the Confederate flag. The Waylon Jennings song lamented about two good ol’ boys never meaning no harm. Yet, that show made a huge contribution toward normalizing the Confederate flag in our culture, reinventing it as a symbol of rebellion against inept corruption instead of what it really is, a symbol of rebellion to preserve the institution of slavery. No wonder so many white people think the Confederate flag is a legitimate part of our cultural heritage.

Through the 1980’s we could buy Truly Tasteless Jokes books at grocery stores. These books had racial, ethnic, and sexist jokes in them from cover to cover, many of them too awful to repeat, and I remember laughing at them because that was the thing back then.

In high school we did Hello Dolly! as our yearly musical. One of my classmates did a great impression of Louis Armstrong, and he was recruited to recreate the scene from the movie when Louis Armstrong serenades Barbara Streisand. The theatrical and musical directors thought it was a good idea to let him do the performance in black face, that is until someone complained.

The subsequent performances were sans black face but to the chagrin of some of my classmates. I must admit, I didn’t understand why it was offensive until one of the few African American students at my school explained it to me.

In the late 1980’s a friend of mine who had just graduated from the journalism department at the University of Oklahoma did a story about a Ku Klux Klan chapter that had won a lawsuit in Arkansas. The chapter had applied to the Adopt-A-Highway program, agreeing to clean a section of state highway in exchange for the privilege of placing a sign stating the name of the organization. They had been turned down by the Arkansas Department of Transportation and were represented by the American Civil Liberties Union, who stated the KKK had the right to exercise free speech though their message is considered despicable to most Americans. Various KKK chapters have repeated this tactic numerous times over the years, even as recently as 2016 when a chapter won a lawsuit in the Georgia Supreme Court after they had tried to adopt a section of highway, again represented by the ACLU.

Recently, a story broke in Tulsa regarding the employment of a woman affiliated with the KKK who works in the Tulsa County Court Clerk’s office. There has been a controversy about her continued employment. A friend of mine made a Facebook post about that employee’s right to keep her job as long as she keeps her beliefs and affiliation with the KKK separate from her work performance. I understood where she was coming from because of the lawsuits regarding the Adopt-A-Highway programs in various states. When looking at the issue from the perspective of the ACLU in these lawsuits, I agreed with my friend. I know her heart, and I know she did not mean any harm.

However, another friend of mine, an African American woman, found this Facebook post offensive and set about to protest Oklahomans for Equality, demanding that they shut down the Dennis R. Neill Equality Center in Tulsa since my white friend was a board member with OKEQ.

She posted videos of her protest, including her vandalism of the center’s interior space. My African American friend screamed in anguish about feeling betrayed, and though many people who support OKEQ sympathized with her anger, they were also outraged at her behavior.

Initially, I was among them.

After some reflection, I realized how frightened I was when White Supremacists marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia during the Unite the Right rally in August 2017. A Facebook friend had been relaying a livestream video during the infamous torch march on the campus at the University of Virginia hours before the incident became national news. The livestream video portrayed the siege of a church where pastors and counter protestors were planning a response, among them the Rev. Traci Blackmon who is the executive minister of justice and witness ministries for the United Church of Christ.

I heard the now infamous slogans the torchbearers shouted and the loud pounding on the church doors. I saw the terrified looks on the faces of those gathered in the church, empathizing with them and feeling trapped, unable to move.

When I saw the national coverage on television and on countless websites, it was a nightmare in full bloom. I cringed and cried, imagining that kind of movement here in Oklahoma City, imagining myself as a target being drug from my home and shot in the street. I have never been so afraid in my life, not even in combat. This felt like an unstoppable evil, and it promised to spread like cancer all over the United States, especially among the very red states like Oklahoma.

The Unite the Right rally triggered a deep depression, and I must admit to becoming suicidal a week later. I had decided to end my life, and I woke up early that morning to meditate upon the method. Shortly after dawn, my wife found me sitting in my easy chair, staring and unresponsive.

When she finally got me to talk, I began to weep, admitting to her that I wanted to end my life, that my hopes for better times had been dashed. I felt helpless, and I did not know what to do. I was in pain, and I could not face another disappointment.

Some dear friends came over to my house and sat with me and my wife for hours, showing me love and support. I surrendered my firearms to them, and I agreed to seek counseling. I agreed to talk to my pastor, and I agreed to stay home from work until my depression eased. If after three days, I was still suicidal, I agreed to go to the Crisis Center.

When I compare this experience to my African American friend who had protested the Equality Center in Tulsa, I feel hurt, the same kind of hurt I felt that day when I was 10 years old, confused and helpless, hapless because I had fallen into the trap of privilege I had grown up with, and convicted of the blindness I still have regarding the vexing problem of racism in our country and communities. I realize now that my friend’s feeling of betrayal comes from a long history of oppression and terrorism, generations of trauma, the kind of trauma that seeps deep into people’s psyches, the kind of trauma that can embed itself into the very DNA of those who have suffered through it. I can see how this feeling of betrayal compounds into crisis when it comes from an ally’s well intended but poorly timed statement about tolerance and First Amendment freedoms.

The KKK is a menace that has haunted the African American community since Reconstruction over a century and a half ago. They are nightmares brought to life for too many people, nightmares more visceral than the awful footage I witnessed on television a year and a half ago.

I feel awful about my two friends torn apart in this melee of differing perceptions about the ever- present threat of racism. I love and respect them both, and I love and respect their ideals. Nobody meant any harm, but like most white people, my well-intended friend and I are not aware of racism and its full impact because we had been raised in it like seeds thrown among weeds, and we sing along with the Waylon Jennings song “never meaning no harm” forgetting that a double negation communicates an opposite message when applying the rules of grammar.

Despite our intent, we indeed do harm because we do not know the correct way to phrase the dialogue about racism.

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About the Author

Paula Sophia Schonauer

Paula Sophia Schonauer is a novelist, slam poet, community activist, veteran cop and parent. Her...

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About Red Dirt Report

Red Dirt Report was launched July 4, 2007 as an independent news website covering all manner of news, culture, entertainment and lifestyle stories that affect and interest Oklahoma readers and readers outside of our state. Our mission is to educate, promote civic engagement and discourse on public policy, government and politics. Our experienced journalists provided balanced in-depth coverage of news stories that affect Oklahomans. Our opinion/editorial stories come from a wide range of political view points. We carry out our mission by reporting, writing, and posting news and information. read more

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