From the Classroom

I talked about racism with my 79-year-old white Southern grandmother and here’s what I learned

I was curious about what beliefs she holds, including why she supports Donald Trump.

My Nana insists James Earl Ray, the man who confessed to assassinating Martin Luther King Jr. in 1969, was framed.

She and my relatives in the South thought Ray was a nice guy, which of course, set off alarm bells in my head.

I found all this odd but fascinating. I was curious about what other beliefs she holds, including why she supports Donald Trump.

I wanted to know more about what an older, white Southerner thinks about racial justice since the death of King. My 79-year-old Nana, Peggy Pool, was born and raised in the South. She likes Trump because she thinks he stands up for working Americans and pushes for strict immigration policies. She  voted for him in the past two elections, and after much prodding from me, she admitted to making a $50 campaign donation, knowing I would complain about it. She was right. “You could have given that to me, for college,” I teased.

In 1942, Nana was born in Spring City, Tennessee, a small, rural town with beautiful greenery, lakes and lots of white people. Her mother died when she was six months old, so her aunt took her in and raised her in Petros, Tennessee, another small town with Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary as the main source of jobs. “She became my mother, and I loved her dearly. I remember she used to bake pies back then and set them on the window sill,” Nana said.

When Nana was 7, her aunt died in a car accident, and she was sent to live with her cousin who had many other children and treated her poorly. Luckily, in seventh grade, Nana was taken in by her cousin, Mary Ramey, who provided her with everything she needed and more. For the first time, she had new clothes and shoes to wear to school. From there, she had a better life. “I loved high school… You know I was a majorette,” boasted Nana. Of course, I knew; it is one of the accomplishments she is most proud of.

She now lives in California; she and my grandaddy moved here to be near my mother and me.  This allows me the luxury of frequent home visits. Despite our vastly different ideologies and regular biting remarks to one another about the latest political affairs, our relationship is full of love and acceptance. Standing barely 5 feet, Nana never backs down. She is more stubborn than a mule, but her charismatic conversation, beauty and fiery personality make her one of my favorite people.

In interviewing her, I wanted to understand her beliefs and experiences when it came to racial justice in the South. I hoped to find out what shaped her perception of racial justice and American society.

Given that there are many people who share beliefs with Nana, I find it important to learn about the role her upbringing during segregation in the South plays in her opinions today, and whether she is open to my perspective.

***

Nana picks on me for voting for Biden and doesn’t understand my support for the racial justice protests following the murders of Black Americans by police last summer. To her, violence and destructive measures are not acceptable forms of protest. She manages to be progressive about racial justice movements so long as she doesn’t see them as “violent.” I reminded her that as a white person, she will never know the frustration and oppression felt by Black people.

She insisted that, as a nation, we are more divided now than ever because of the increasing conversations surrounding racism in our country. In her mind, these conversations are divisive because racist tendencies and microaggressions are being called out. Because she grew up around segregation and obvious racial division, these less overt forms of racism do not seem racist to her.

While sensitivity is important and aims to be inclusive, for older Americans, this can feel exclusive. By increasingly deeming not-so-obvious language and thoughts around racial justice as “unacceptable,” it can be limiting to those who are willing to have an open dialogue, but feel like they will be viliniazed if they make a mistake. While many ideas are no longer OK, understanding people’s journeys and their abilities to evolve will be important when it comes to achieving true inclusivity.

She and I discussed racial justice movements in response to racial inequality, the murder of George Floyd and the Derek Chauvin verdict. She initially brought up Floyd’s past with drugs and run-ins with the law. Wait until you hear about Chauvin’s track record, I thought.

I told her that Chauvin, the Minneapolis police officer who murdered Floyd, accumulated 18 complaints in his 19-year career as an officer, according to Business Insider.

“He should have been fired a long time ago,” Nana said. She favors harsher consequences for officers who engage in misconduct.

When first asked whether she thought Chauvin murdered George Floyd, Nana said Chauvin, “contributed to Floyd’s death.” Upon further discussion around Chauvin’s excessive use of force and the medical examiner’s autopsy report, I asked her a second time if Chauvin was responsible. “Well, I think yes he did,” she said with newfound conviction.

***

Growing up during segregation, she remembered that Black Americans would board the buses she was on, and immediately go to the back. She remembered having separate bathrooms and drinking fountains. When desegregation happened with schools and public spaces, she was happy. She also recalled the early racial justice movements, though she wasn’t involved in protests or marches.

My Nana and I discussed Rosa Parks and her refusal to give up her seat for a white man. “I think she was very gutsy... I admired her,” she said, adding, “I applaud her for her work.” Nana doesn’t remember how she first heard about Parks’s symbolic stance against racism, but suspects it was over the radio.

I asked her what segregation was like in school.

She said she didn’t think about segregation much when she was a student.

“When I was in high school, we had other things on our minds… like, ‘Who are you going to go out on a date with?’ or ‘What’re you going to wear?,’” she said.

Although it wasn’t at the forefront of her mind, she believed that Black Americans deserve equality.

“I do remember Gov. Wallace standing on the footsteps and refusing to let the kids into school; I didn’t agree with that,” Nana said. She was referring to The Stand in the Schoolhouse Door at Foster Auditorium at the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963, when Wallace attempted to block Black students from entering the previously segregated school.

She said that she didn’t understand how the Black students felt, but she knew she felt sorry that this happened to them.

Growing up during a time when races were strictly separated, she did not have many interactions with people of color.As an adult, she met more Black Americans, and thought back to a woman who did housework for her. “I remember when I was pregnant with your mother, I had to quit work and I hired this older [Black] lady to help me… I would try to get her to sit at the table with me and have lunch and she wouldn’t do it,” Nana said. She continued working for Nana for a few months until she quit due to health reasons.

This wasn’t my first time hearing about her, which tells me she made an impact on Nana’s opinion, even if their relationship was strictly professional and short-lived.

“I just loved her. I thought she was sweet,” Nana said.

***

Nana also grew up believing some conspiracy theories.

“I’ve heard all my life that Martin Luther King Jr. was communist,” Nana said. She couldn’t remember where she first heard the rumor, but her family members passed it along growing up.

Because Nana had always thought King was a communist, she theorized that the government was behind King’s assassination and framed Ray.

It is important to note that anti-communist propaganda emerged during racial justice movements in the South in the 1960s. Red-baiting was used as post-Cold War rhetoric. According to George David Gwynder Lewis’s essay, “The Uses and Abuses of Anti-Communism by Southern Segregationists as a Weapon of Massive Resistance 1948-1965,” red-baiting was used as a political weapon. “Allied to the traditional Southern fear of ‘outsiders,’ many Southern segregationists seized upon anti-communism as a weapon to undermine opponents promoting change to the region’s racial status quo,” wrote Lewis.

Despite King’s denouncement of communism, he was investigated by the FBI and people dismissed his movement as a part of a communist agenda.

Upon explaining the use of anti-communism propaganda, Nana agreed that this offered an explanation for how she perceived King, and that it’s likely he wasn’t a communist.

When Nana thinks of King now, she also thinks about the strides he made for the Black community, which she said she always supported

I’ll admit, she was more open to this conversation than I expected. I appreciated her listening to me. My mind was flooded with topics I wanted to ask her about.

I decided to ask her her thoughts on racial justice since the death of King.

She was quick to condemn rioters and looters. “What I’m so prejudiced against is… When somebody thinks they have a right to go out there and destroy other people’s property, and riot and steal. That’s wrong,” she said. For this reason, she does not want to support the Black Lives Matter movement. This was one of the hardest topics to discuss with her, due solely to our vastly different outlook. “You also didn’t approve of quarterback Colin Kaepernick kneeling during the National Anthem as a form of peaceful protest,” I said. “That’s disrespectful to our country,” she persisted. “How many people put their lives on the line to give us freedom? Think about your granddads,” she added.

As someone who was married to two military men, I know she conflates saying the Pledge of Allegiance and the National Anthem with patriotism. She isn’t as open to understanding the “why” of Kaepernick’s protest as long as she is caught up on the “how.” We’ll have come back to this one another time.

Let’s get into the protest paradigm, I thought; something I know she’ll be open to. With the public’s increasing distrust in the media, Nana has grown skeptical of both liberal- and conservative-leaning news outlets, because she finds political coverage to be one-sided.

We discussed the protest paradigm — the theory that news media marginalizes protesters’ demands by consistently focusing on violence and negativity, cultivating biases among viewers. She did not associate Black Lives Matter with any form of peaceful protest until reflecting on media coverage. She was also accepting of this perspective, but continued to reject any form of looting or rioting, regardless of the situation.

That led to discourse around white privilege. Given her poor upbringing, this is not a term she easily attaches to herself.

“I slept on a countertop, I never had a bed,” Nana admitted to me for the first time. “My first bra was bought at a garage sale… I was poor, honey.”

Without undermining her obstacles and experiences, I listened to her. Now that I understand where she is coming from, I knew I should take the time to explain how white privilege can still apply. We discussed how many white Americans had access to more opportunities and in turn, had a better chance at achieving upward social mobility. She understood.

Upon unpacking the concepts behind labels such as “white privilege,” she was more comfortable and willing to delve deeper.

The ideas she rejects seem to correlate with unfamiliarity and progressive steps that make her uncomfortable. She has not had anyone explain these things to her. While she still pushes back against some ideas, she is more receptive than I had anticipated.

This conversation was different. I was speaking with her, with the intention of understanding. In turn, she felt comfortable opening up about her beliefs, and why she has them.

***

Nana likes Trump because he’s “Gutsy.” Yet she said she supports racial equality.

I tell her Trump had vastly different responses to racial justice protests and the attack on the Capitol.

He called BLM protesters, “Thugs,” “Anarchists,” “Anti-American” and “Violent demonstrators.”

When speaking to the protestors who stormed the Capitol in a video message, he starts by saying, “I know your pain, I know your hurt,” and goes on to say the election was stolen from him and his supporters. He then said, “Go home, we love you, you’re very special.” For someone who condemns looting and rioting, he seems to make exceptions when these tactics serve him. Additionally, in response to the violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017, over a confederate monument,  Trump said there are “very fine people on both sides.”

When I asked Nana about Trump’s statements, she said she was not aware of many of his problematic statements. We compared his statements following different riots. “If he has double standards, that’s wrong,” she said.

Nana still hopes Trump will run for president in 2024.

***

I know she remains closed off to much of my thinking, but the moments where she truly valued a new outlook and that made the subtle bickering — and even the headaches — worth it.

Despite our disagreements, Nana enjoyed learning more about racial justice, and my perspective. I learned that it’s important to listen to why she holds the beliefs she does, and as long as she’s open to discussing important topics, I’ll be the one to sit with her on her couch, tea in hand, engaging in lively discussions on America’s most pressing issues while we both continue to learn from one another.

At the end of the conversation,  Nana said: “I think we needed this talk.” I think so, too.

This story was reported and written through a journalism course on opinion writing and edited by USC Annenberg Associate Professor Alan Mittelstaedt. Annenberg Media student editors reviewed the story and published it per newsroom guidelines.

Annenberg Media is a student-led multiplatform news media overseen and funded by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Many of the journalists are working weekly shifts in its newsroom, known as the Media Center, to fulfill curricular requirements. Annenberg Media is independent of the university administration. Please direct news tips and press releases to mediacentereditors@gmail.com