Not What I Say
My father was an open-minded, liberal, humanitarian Democrat who campaigned for that champion of civil rights, John F. Kennedy. He was also a flagrant racist, sexist, xenophobe, and anti-Semite. The first of these impressions came to me through the evidence of his actions, and the second through his words. At family dinners he maligned blacks, Jews, women, gays, and foreigners. He never insulted members of these groups to their faces, treating them with courtesy and even solicitude. It was only outside their presence that he would refer to “that nigger who took our bags,” or “that fairy actor.”
The bigotry that I heard him express was so unequivocal that it might not have mattered what my eyes saw except that they occasionally saw scenes like this: In the fall of 1976 I sat in a Washington, D.C. hotel room with my father, mother, two sisters, and a young partner from my father’s law firm named Mark Sisitsky. I had come from college to watch my father argue a case before the Supreme Court. The night before his appearance, he summoned several of his colleagues to our suite for a last round of preparations. I had first heard him mention Sisitsky’s name in our house a year earlier, when he referred to him as that Jew-something—Jew-lawyer, Jew-boy, I can’t remember which. His tone sounded more humorous than malicious, insofar as one can say something like that without sounding malicious.
In calling Sisitsky that name my father was complaining about a decision the younger lawyer had made relating to the long-running case that they were working on. Their firm was one of the foremost litigators on Wall Street, and I knew that in order for Sisitsky to be assisting my father, a name partner, on a case bound for the Supreme Court, he had to be brilliant, a crack lawyer, and have my father’s complete trust and respect. What I couldn’t figure out was how to square their partnership, not to mention Sisitsky’s hiring, with the anti-Semitism that my father had expressed in our house throughout my childhood. How could he stand working with a Jew, and how could Mark Sisitsky stand spending so much time with such a blatant anti-Semite?
When Sisitsky arrived at the hotel he greeted my sisters and me, then pointed to my father and said, “That man is my idol.” He clearly not only respected my father’s legal skill—we overheard him in the next room interrupting him with questions that the justices might ask, and praising his extemporaneous answers—but his personality as well. At one point Sisitsky asked which of us had inherited our father’s sense of humor, as if that would be the greatest legacy we could receive. My father could be very funny, but a good deal of his humor around the house depended on his denigrating minorities, and I wondered how he managed to avoid this in Sisitsky’s presence and still impress him with his wit. If, as it appeared, my father confined his offensive talk to his family, why would he want to do that?
I noticed other evidence that my father spoke this way only at home and only for show. Though his dinner table conversation would have sounded appropriate coming from the patriarch of a family of rednecks in the Deep South, there was nothing narrow-minded about the way he raised his children. We all attended progressive private schools and colleges and were encouraged to engage him in conversation about our reading. In spite of the backward rhetoric that came out of his mouth, he managed to instill us with progressive values. From the time I was a toddler in 1960 until my parents sold our house forty years later, a framed front page from our town’s newspaper sat on a table in our den. It showed my father shaking hands with J.F.K. at a local campaign event, receiving the candidate’s thanks for his support. In the late 1970s, the conservative son of my father’s best friend published a book entitled Harvard Hates America, which deplored the university’s liberalism. My father had great affection for the author and engaged in spirited debates with him about political and social matters, but made it clear at home that he approved of Harvard’s politics and found the book’s thesis ridiculous.
The biggest disconnect between my father’s words and behavior occurred when I was a junior in high school, during the publicity surrounding the Joan Little case in North Carolina. Little, a black prisoner, went on trial for murdering a guard who she alleged had tried to rape her. The case became a cause célèbre among civil rights activists and feminists. My memory is hazy on whether my father ever mentioned Joan Little in my presence, but if he did he would have called her “that nigger”—that was simply how he referred to blacks, male or female, rich or poor, famous or obscure. The surprising thing was that he contributed to Little’s defense fund. I can’t remember who told me this, but if my father did, perhaps in response to my asking him about the case, it would have been typical for him to refer to “that nigger” and his contribution in the same sentence. Like his mutually respectful relationship with Mark Sisitsky, this paradox is one that I grappled with while growing up: how to reconcile the man who missed no chance to slur minorities in front of his children with the humane liberal whose actions contradicted his words.
One explanation is that he didn’t mean what he said, which seems more plausible than that he did mean it, but for some reason acted against it. It’s easier for me to understand why he would play down his generous actions than why he would risk, even guarantee, that his children would be infected with the views he spouted. If he was joking, speaking outrageously in order to get a rise out of his audience—and he succeeded at this as my siblings and I got older and remonstrated with him for his comments—then again I have to ask why. I can understand him performing in this way for his cronies at Wall Street lunches or in the country club bar, but why would he scandalize his children, especially at the risk of teaching them values that he did not hold? Was he trying to sabotage our upbringings, or just an incompetent, careless parent?
I often feel stupid taking those comments of my father’s seriously, as if he could hear me and roll his eyes at my lack of a sense of humor and inability to distinguish his convictions from his performance. In this way he reminds me of the rapper Eminem after the release of his album, The Marshall Mathers LP, in 2000. Criticized for his homophobic lyrics, Eminem defended them by saying that the speaker in his songs wasn’t him, even though he wrote in the first person and made autobiographical references. But I wasn’t mature enough as a child or teenager to distinguish my fair-minded father from his bigoted persona, and even if I had been able to do so, it’s hardly more forgivable to joke that way around one’s children, even if one explains that one is joking, which he didn’t. In one of my earliest memories he taught me a version of the counting rhyme “Eeny, meeny, miny, moe” that included the line “catch a nigger by the toe.” He allowed me to repeat this line with no awareness of its inappropriateness until my kindergarten teacher heard and made me stop.
The fact is that if my father was alive today, he would sit in front of the TV and call Barack Obama a nigger, Tiger Woods a nigger, Oprah a big fat nigger, and anyone else who didn’t look like him a hebe, chink, guinea or other name. Reading the New York Times over breakfast, he would make obscene jokes about Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel. When Obama was running for president, I came to admire the candidate’s intellect and literary ability, but kept hearing in my mind the racist commentary that my father would have regaled our family with if he had been alive, though he respected nothing more than a sharp legal mind and liberal politics like Obama’s, and would have voted for him. Watching an NBA basketball game on TV, I still hear my father’s comments like “look at that monkey jump.” No matter my age—twelve and heading off to seventh grade or thirty and home for a visit—I flinched every time he said things like this, and tried to calculate his actual respect for these people given the words that he used.
I was fourteen when the television show “All in the Family” debuted in 1971. In interviews, many viewers said that the vocally racist and anti-Semitic Archie Bunker reminded them of their fathers and grandfathers—“men of a different era” in one woman’s words. I too saw a lot of my father in Archie, especially the pleasure he took in his family’s outraged reactions to him. As far as I know, my father never watched the show, and it never occurred to me to watch it with him in search of clues to how he felt about this theatrical version of himself. No doubt he would have kept up his own act, cheering Archie’s rabid pronouncements in order to infuriate me the way Archie baited the son-in-law he called Meathead.
I suppose there’s a good side to my father’s reckless talk in that it forced me to think about his words and decide whether to condone or repudiate them. Growing up in a wealthy suburb of Manhattan and attending private schools, I found it hard to read the signals coming from my friends’ parents—the subtle asides, jokes, or glances among adults that might or might not have indicated prejudice. My father’s talk was too blunt to overlook or misinterpret. But even as I came to recognize its wrongness, I couldn’t help but internalize it until it became part of my character. I may not have agreed with him, but his words echoed in my ears as I encountered different races, genders, nationalities, and social classes. I hope this doesn’t make me part of what Nicholas Kristof, in a recent New York Times column entitled “Is Everyone a Little Bit Racist?” calls “a broad swath of people who consider themselves enlightened, who intellectually believe in racial equality, who deplore discrimination, yet who harbor unconscious attitudes that result in discriminatory policies and behavior.”
My mother, while less prolific in her comments, came across as just as intolerant as my father, though she never sounded like she was joking and therefore left no doubt about her true beliefs. She made a show of sparing her young children, but her practice of calling someone a name in my presence and then saying, “Pardon my French” or “I shouldn’t have said that” seemed more insidious than my father’s unrepentant speech. As an adult, I told her after one of these incidents that my father knew that he sounded like a monster and took pride in it, but that she didn’t seem to realize how repugnant her words were. Not that I’d have wanted my father to be that straightforward—part of me likes hanging on to the possibility that he didn’t mean the objectionable things that he said, even as I torment myself trying to figure him out.
As a boy on vacation with my parents in the Caribbean, I befriended the ten-year-old son of one of the housekeepers at the resort where we stayed. My mother made no secret of her disapproval of this black child, questioning his hygiene and trustworthiness, and talking to him as if he was mentally slow. My father, who gleefully referred to the child out of his and his mother’s hearing with as many racist names as he could think of, was friendly to him to his face and seemed unconcerned that I played with him on the beach and even visited the impoverished neighborhood where he lived. To judge from the amount of time that I spent with the boy, I was attentive only to his friendship, not his race or economic status, which suggests that my parents’ benighted views, however facetious or genuine, had not seeped into me.
Or, more precisely, they had seeped into me—how could they not?—but had not yet shaped my opinions or actions. Which leads me to ask whether they ever did, or do, or will, and how much of the way I interact with the world is influenced by my parents’ examples and how much by my own thoughts and experiences. I can’t find any prejudice in myself, though it seems improbable that my parents didn’t bequeath me some. At the same time, I don’t remember either of them making a racist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic remark that I didn’t disagree with, know was wrong, and regret being exposed to. Could I have rebelled so completely against them as to transform their noxious influence into pure open-mindedness?
I’d like to think so, but my memory produces another contradictory scene. I’m in eighth grade and arguing with my friend Robert Barron, the only Jewish student at our affluent, all-white, Episcopalian private school. Our debate escalates into trash talking and then physical grappling, as he jumps me from behind. I swing him around, saying, “Get off me, you stupid Jew,” except that I mumble the last word so that I will be able to claim afterward—and I do—that I said “jerk” and he misheard me. I blame my father’s confusing example for the fact that in appropriating his language I forgot that he never directed it at his target in person.
Besides that school’s exclusivity, plenty of other factors in my youth helped to give me a blinkered view of society. There were no minorities other than servants in the suburb I grew up in, though the neighboring town, which supplied those servants, was predominantly black. I didn’t spend time around blacks my age until I arrived at boarding school in 1971, where a small but militant group had led a revolt the previous year that overturned many of the school’s antiquated rules about dress, chapel attendance, smoking, and curfew. The group’s leader was a tall senior who looked like Sly Stone, the front man for 1960s funk group Sly and the Family Stone, with his sculpted Afro, flamboyant clothes, sunglasses, and jaunty hat. He and his friends commandeered a table in the cafeteria, excluding all but a few of the white students.
At the time I found those black activists supremely cool and inspiring. When I look through my old yearbooks today, the aura of confidence and self-containment that they exuded has not diminished. My grandfather, father, and three brothers had attended the school before me, and pictures of them in coats and ties, surrounded by white males in the shadow of the two Gothic chapels, were part of the imagery of my childhood. Arriving on campus in 1971 and seeing boys with shoulder-length hair wearing blue jeans to class and congregating in a drafty shack to smoke cigarettes legally, all thanks to that charismatic black man and his cohorts, neutralized some of my father’s racism.
I’d like to say that I benefitted from the school’s diversity in other ways, but it took white students more outgoing than I was to integrate the minority cliques. I associated with my kind—WASPS whose families had attended the school, and my teammates on the lacrosse and hockey teams. My only memory of a racial interaction involves our hockey team’s only black player and his white roommate. Whenever Steve Isaac, the black player, boarded the team bus for an away game, his roommate would shout, “Back of the bus, Isaac,” to the other players’ laughter. It was a delicate joke: that the speaker was Steve’s best friend and a popular team captain gave him alone permission to make it. Steve’s reaction combined indignation, helplessness, exasperation, and amusement, as if he was calculating how to respond and decided that going along made the most sense, though who knew how he really felt? The coaches, knowing the two boys’ relationship, must have intuited that the scene did not call for a scolding, at least not a public one. They navigated the same line that I sensed, without fully grasping it, between the humor and the toxicity of my father’s bigotry.
I never told my father about the business on the hockey bus, which he would have found funny and harmless, and used to justify his own behavior. Though I wouldn’t go so far as to agree with him, I owe him my awareness that blatant racial humor is more honest and even inclusive than polite reserve. It wasn’t lost on my hockey teammates, Steve included, that he was also the only black on any of the teams we played against, and we knew from history class about the treatment of blacks riding buses in white communities. By shouting out that joke from the comfort of his acceptance of Steve as an equal and friend, Steve’s roommate did us the favor both of stating what was on our minds and making fun of it. My father may have performed a similar service by giving voice to the kind of racism that many people in his social circle felt, but kept quiet about; in our house those thoughts were not repressed or taboo. If that was his intent, I was too young to understand it (and still don’t fully understand it), and besides, certain words probably should be taboo in the presence of children.
The portrait of my father that I carry in my head is so contradictory that I can’t tell how he will appear to someone meeting him in this essay. Do his words alone define him as a monster, or does that fact that he confined them to his family and always seemed to speak them in jest soften their effect? To my knowledge, no one else saw him as a bigot, and the people like Mark Sisitsky that he disparaged out of their hearing found him charming. This also goes for the employees of the swanky places where he took his family out to eat or on vacation, who bantered with him, laughed at his jokes, and welcomed him back year after year. But who knows how much of their behavior was sincere and how much motivated by professionalism and his potential as a tipper?
As a result of his wealth and social and professional status, he mostly interacted with minorities from a position of authority. A life-long horseman, he owned a stable and horses, and employed black grooms whose manifest respect for him was, again, impossible to read given their dependent roles. Once my father, sister and I visited a stable that boarded a horse my father wanted to buy. While he was inspecting the horse in a stall, the head groom, a black man, drove up, parking near where my sister and I waited. He asked our names, and when we told him, he said, “Dev Milburn your daddy?” His expression, tone, and the way he said my father’s first name without minding who heard him, has stayed with me: even with my father out of earshot, I heard respect and affection in the groom’s voice. I don’t know for sure whether my father subjected this man to his racist jokes, but however he treated him, he appeared to have earned his friendship.
Another factor that keeps me from giving full credence to my father’s spoken words is his literary taste. A constant reader, he showed no discrimination in his choice of authors or subjects. Among his favorite thinkers that he regularly read books by and about was Gandhi, whose race and appearance he made fun of nevertheless. He kept up with current nonfiction and well-reviewed novels, including Portnoy’s Complaint and each of Saul Bellow’s new books when they came out. If I had spotted a copy of James Baldwin’s essays or Toni Morrison’s Beloved on his bedside table, I’d have teased him about his open-mindedness, but found nothing surprising in his choices. Riding behind him in silence along bridle paths or watching him set off for a walk with his dog, I sensed that he was thinking the kind of philosophical thoughts that he read and sometimes spoke about, not seething about blacks and Jews.
Sometimes I think that my father’s spoken biases were just vehicles for his most enduring legacy to me—not humor, as Mark Sisitsky would have had it, but scorn. The words I have quoted were only his most inappropriate ones; he expressed contempt for everybody, every perceptible trait and failing, including my mother’s, my siblings’, and my own. Though he was alcoholic and chronically overweight, he criticized these afflictions so relentlessly in others as to distract from his hypocrisy. He was equally free in insulting intelligence and personality. His use of scorn to make himself look and feel superior is one that I practice and had to remind myself not to model for my son when he was growing up. Since race, religion, gender and sexual preference don’t qualify for me as measures of character, I tend to focus on people’s looks and behavior when running them down.
When I was a senior in high school, the first poem of mine that a teacher praised as having a distinct voice recalled a day when I was taking photographs on the boardwalk at Jones Beach on Long Island. My viewfinder framed a woman that my father would have savaged for her skin color, gender, looks, and dress. As his voice threatened to drown out my thoughts, I realized how much of his subjectivity I brought to my observation of people, and how hard I had to work to hear his words without believing them. He was a flagrant racist, sexist, xenophobe and anti-Semite. He was also an open-minded, liberal, humanitarian Democrat who campaigned for that champion of civil rights, John F. Kennedy. Throughout the writing of this essay, I have debated which of these statements deserves to come first, and still can’t decide; they’re both true.