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ClearClearClear

Second in series in how Black lives and Black culture colored my Whiteness.

As a child I was completely color blind. I know today people would say that was unlikely. Or even problematic. White people declaring they are color blind is seen as a kind of whitewash, or cop-out, a way to refuse to deal with the problem of systemic racism. People of color born into racist societies do not have the luxury of being color blind.

But it is my recollection of my personal experience as a young child. Certainly I saw differences in skin color, but it meant no more to me than differences in body size, hair color, gender, age. I assigned no value to these things other than appreciating that there was difference. It was a natural part of life.

My first “brush with Blackness,” as I call it, happened in third grade. We were living in Omaha, Nebraska in the late 50’s, in an old haunted house that I write about in another series of blog posts.

On the school playground I befriended an older girl named Barbara in the 4th grade who happened to be Black. She was kind and fun and we shared a love of books. As she lived nearby, sometimes she walked home with me, and occasionally came to my house to play. Eventually she became my best friend. She was beautiful, tall and slim and had the loveliest smile. One day she invited me to her house to spend the night.

I only found out later what a ruckus that created between my mother and stepdad, who did not like the idea at all. But my mother insisted that I should be allowed to go. She met with Barbara’s mom, a nurse at the local hospital only a few blocks away. She was also a beautiful woman, fuller figured than her daughter, but with the same upswept hair and regal bearing, the same sweet smile and soft, warm voice.

It was my first sleepover and I was so excited. Barbara lived in a large home with several stories and a basement. Lots of her relatives lived there with her, including an uncle younger than she was, a fact that amazed and delighted me. How was such a thing possible? He was a fresh-faced boy with cute grin who liked to tease us. At dinner time we all sat around a huge dining room table eating the most delicious food I had ever tasted—barbequed pork ribs that melted off the bones. Everyone was friendly and laughed a lot, and made me feel a part of the family. My first sleep-over was a huge success.

But later that month I learned in a very personal way what racism was all about. In those days it was popular to wear dresses with full petticoats that made them flare out. While I loved them, they were also a nuisance. When I walked down the aisle of my classroom the dress would swish papers off desks if I wasn’t careful. So I got into the habit of holding the sides of my dress in when passing between desks or in crowded hallways. It seemed the polite thing to do so I wouldn’t be bothering anyone.

One day I was walking home from school on a narrow sidewalk. The girls in front of me were walking slower than I wanted to go, so I passed them by, politely pulling in my skirt as I did so. When I was in front of them, one of the girls began yelling at me and calling me names. Then she kicked me and made me fall. All I remember is being so hurt and angry and scared. I took off running as they laughed at me. When I got to the corner (my home was only a few houses away down the adjacent block) I turned around and yelled back at her the worst name I could think of, the one my mother had told me to never call anyone. I didn’t know what that word meant, but I felt she deserved it. I called her the N-word.

The next day I was called into the Principal’s office. My mother was there along with the girl who had kicked me and her 6th grade teacher. I thought we were there because she was in big trouble for being so mean to me. But instead I found out that I was in big trouble for calling her that horrible name. It seems she had thought I was holding my skirt in because I did not want it to touch her black body. And the fact that I had called her the N-word proved it. My mother explained that I did not know what that word meant, that I had nothing against Blacks. My best friend was Black.

Barbara and her mother came in to testify in my defense, and I was so grateful to see them there. Barbara told me later that the girl who kicked me was a bully who was always getting into trouble. She came from a bad home and her teacher was trying to help her.

I can’t remember what happened after that. Whether the girl and I had to apologize to each other or what the consequence was. Barbara and I remained friends. But I never got another sleepover at her house.

My colorblindness was shattered that day in the Principal’s office. Skin color became a thing that tainted all of us, me most of all. My whiteness set me apart from my Black friends. It made me suspect. It tainted me with the guilt of my forefathers and of my own prejudiced step-dad and other family members. It did not change my feelings for my Black friend or her kind family. But it changed my feelings for that Black girl who kicked me. I learned how my whiteness had marked me as a member of a race whose prejudice had scarred her, and how I had unwittingly contributed to that. I had a crash course in race relations, and from what I could see it was the White race, who had enslaved and oppressed others who were the tainted race, not the people who we had oppressed and continued to discriminate against.

Not long after that my stepdad was transferred to Vandenburg Airforce Base on the central coast of California. There were no Black children in the school I attended there, and very few in the small town I grew up in.

I feel for the girl who had kicked me, the hurt and outrage she must have felt as I passed her holding in my skirt, calling her that name. I feel for my friend and her mother, that they had been put into the position of defending me against another Black child, even a trouble-maker. I wonder what damage I did to race relations in that family who had welcomed me into their home with such loving-kindness, only to hear about what I had called another child, and feel betrayed.

The experience only deepened my empathy toward others and my commitment to fight for equality and justice for all people, whatever our race or ethnicity, gender or faith, economic status or sexual preference. But it also made me realize how easily we can misjudge each other, how a sense of injustice (hers and mine) can make us say or do hurtful things, things we wouldn’t if we knew better. How difficult it is to win trust and sustain it.

The worldwide protests against racial injustice, the insistence that Black Lives Matter, the kneeling of police officers with protesters, the public outrage against the senseless, violent deaths of Black men and women, make me hopeful that change is possible, that change is coming. None of us are free until all of us are free. That’s a lot of freedom yet to win. We’ve no time to lose.