I was 9 when I had my first glimmerings of consciousness about racism.
One day in 1957 the Associated Press took a photograph of my fourth grade class running down the front steps of our school. The caption essentially pointed out that Littlerock, Calif., was superior to Little Rock, Ark., because we had black faces sprinkled among the white. The photo was published in several other papers across the country.
What the newspaper neglected to mention was that nearly all the black faces belonged to children of migrant farm workers.
One of the black faces in that photograph was Willie. I liked Willie a lot. In P.E. we would often run relay races. Willie was the fastest boy in the class, and he would always pick me to be on his team, because I was the fastest girl. No matter who else was on our team, we’d always win.
I liked Willie for another reason. One day a boy named Leonard — another one of the black faces in that photograph — chased me into the girl’s restroom, threw me down on the floor, and started pulling off my underwear.
Willie heard what was happening, came in, pulled Leonard off me, and punched him out. The school punished both boys for “fighting.” Leonard was sent to “reform school.” Willie was suspended — I don’t remember for how long. But it was a gross injustice. He should have been made a hero and given a reward.
Willie was my friend. But the only time I could play with him was at school. Willie lived outside of town in one of the migrant labor camps, while I lived a mile straight down the street from school. I usually walked home, because the bus made a big circle, stopping at the labor camps before coming back up my street on its return.
Occasionally when I was tired, or the weather was bad, I’d ride the bus. I remember seeing the labor camps and wondering how anyone could possibly live in them.
Bernice was another one of the black faces in that photograph. Bernice was big and she was mean. Sometimes she would gang up on me with her friends, threatening to beat me up because Willie liked me instead of her.
One day I got very angry at her. She and her friends were ganging up on me, and I was afraid. I wanted to hurt her before she hit me. So I screamed at Bernice and her friends, “You niggers are just a bunch of monkeys! Go back to Africa where you belong!”
That shut her up.
I didn’t learn to talk like that from my family. If my mother had heard me saying those words, she would have washed my mouth out with soap. In my family, saying the “N-word” was far worse than saying any number of other words that children are often punished for using.
I knew that what I was saying contradicted both what I had been taught and my friendship with Willie. But I didn’t care. I wanted to make Bernice leave me alone. Still, 62 years later I still remember the hurt on her face, and how she walked away, head down, shoulders slumped.
I am so sorry, Bernice…So very, very sorry.
In February 1958, six months after that picture was taken, my family moved to Santa Clara, Calif. There were a few Hispanics attending my schools (also children of farmworkers), but otherwise my classmates through junior high were bone white.
Then, when I was 14, we returned to Southern California, renting a house in Pomona while my parents searched for a house to buy. Pomona, like many other cities in the early 1960s, was in transition. It was about a quarter of the way toward becoming the predominantly black city it is today.
The house my parents bought in 1963 was in Claremont, a small college town north of Pomona, where many of the whites from Pomona had begun to flee. My parents were intellectual types, and the fact that Claremont, with 25,000 residents, was home to six colleges, a graduate school, and a divinity school, made it very attractive to them.
A few months after we moved Claremont was abuzz with the news that Myrlie Evers, widow of the assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers, and her children were coming to Claremont so Myrlie could go to college.
The house the NAACP had bought for them was two doors up the street from ours.
As soon as the news got out, the “blockbusters” started coming around. “Blockbusters” were real estate agents who would call upon homeowners in a neighborhood about to be “integrated” and try to scare them into selling.
My parents, along with several other families, organized the neighborhood against the blockbusters — and they won. Only three families moved.
I was 15. Like many teenage girls then, I earned spending money by babysitting neighborhood children. I became the Evers’ primary evening and weekend babysitter, sometimes staying overnight while Myrlie studied for exams in a motel room nearby.
At 15, I was privileged in a way that most other young white women are not, however many other privileges they may enjoy.
I was privileged to learn about racism in the Evers’s living room, at their dinner table, and sometimes while sitting on Myrlie’s bed as she got ready to go out.
I was privileged to learn about what it was like to grow up poor and black in Mississippi when the state was ruled by the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. And I was privileged to learn that racism is everywhere, that the rest of the country had no reason to feel superior to the South.
I was privileged to learn about the buried racism of white liberals — including the buried racism of my own white liberal parents. In 1971 my sister, taking seriously what she had learned in friendship with the Evers, judged a man not by the color of his skin but the content of his character, and gave our parents a son-in-law and later two grandchildren of African-American descent.
The racist words that came from my mother’s mouth when my sister announced she was pregnant by and about to marry a young black man from south side Chicago utterly shocked me. She wanted me to talk my sister into having an abortion. She didn’t want to have a “picaninny” grandchild. Her prospective son-in-law was a “nice boy” but “ignorant” — he couldn’t even speak “proper” English.
My parents eventually adjusted to the situation, and welcomed Kenny and the children into the family. But always after that I was much more conscious of the subtle ways in which they remained racist, and the ways in which they and others had passed that on to me.
Thanks in many ways to the Evers family, I learned, two decades ago, that indeed it is possible to fight against racism and at the same time be deeply, deeply racist.
But I learned much more than that. Equally important, I learned about enduring enormous terror and pain and grief and loss while at the same time holding onto hope. I learned about standing up for one’s convictions no matter how much others may hate you or try to destroy you because what you say, and what you stand for frightens them.
I have indeed been a very privileged white woman.
I would have been even more privileged if I had been able to play with Willie outside of school, if I had been able to see, from the inside, how he had to live. I would have been more privileged if I could have learned how to make Bernice my friend. I would have been more privileged if I could have understood what may have motivated Leonard to do what he did to me — as I now try to learn how sexism and racism intricately connect.
I gained my “multicultural” education outside the classroom, by the luck of circumstance. As a teacher, I want to share my good fortune — even if it means some students hate me for making them look at things they don’t want to see.
*This is an un-edited version of an article published originally in the Rochester (New York) Democrat and Chronicle, September 1993, in response to some complaints I’d overheard a few of my SUNY Brockport communications students say about what I was requiring them to read and discuss in class. I had taken seriously my department’s supposed commitment to integrating multi-cultural education into the standard curriculum. But the students were resisting…and I was the only member of my department making a real the effort to integrate multicultural perspectives in a way that challenged the standard narratives of white curricula.