As you'll note from my previous "procrastination" post, I should currently be taking down all my Christmas decorations and getting the house back into shape. Instead, I've still been thinking about The Family Blender's post on racism. I've been thinking about it since I read the initial posts last Sunday, but I haven't had the time to try to get something into words, especially something that didn't sound trite. Like Mimi at The Family Blender, I think the best way to communicate my experiences with racism is through a few key stories.
First, you should know that I grew up deep in the heart of East Texas, not far from Jasper, which made national news a few years back for the dragging death of an African-American man. My parents moved there when I was two years old. My father, not long after completing his tour of duty in Vietnam, decided that practicing law in Dallas and the long commute and longer hours that it brought with it, was not the way he wanted to live life. He sought out a slower pace and a smaller town in which to raise his family. My mother's aunt and uncle had been long-term residents of my hometown, and it was both close enough to and far enough away from my mother's own hometown to be a good fit for us.
This brings us to my first story. The year was 1970, and my parents were house hunting. The realtor informed them that he was sure they'd want to buy in a particular school district, School District A. When my father inquired as to why that was, the realtor informed him that there weren't any black people who went to school there like there were in School District B. My father then informed the realtor that they would only be interested in purchasing a house in School District B. I would have liked to see the look on the realtor's face at that point.
This is exhibit A in my own upbringing. My parents chose to send me to school with a diverse group of kids rather than giving in to the white flight that was taking place at that time. Of course, it's also interesting to note that in 1970 at the time of this conversation, the schools in District B were actually still segregated. Black students could voluntarily attend the city's main high school, but only a handful did so. The realtor must have seen the writing on the wall, though, considering that Brown vs. the Board of Education had been decided 16 years earlier. Eventually, the schools were integrated in 1973, one year before I started 1st grade. It happened under threat that the national guard would be sent in otherwise. After the decision to integrate was made, a man who lived a few blocks from us, ironically on a street called Sunshine Court, bombed several school buses. At 6, I had absolutely no idea any of this had occurred. I thank my parents for the fact that I assumed it was perfectly normal to have black kids in my class.
Now that I've portrayed my parents as open-minded and unprejudiced, I have to admit that this was not entirely the case. My mother grew up in a very segregated area of the state, and her relatives remain to varying degrees quite racist. I have had to ask them not to use the "n" word around my children. They think I am strange for making such a request. I have actually never heard my mother say anything racist or seen her do anything overtly racist, but it's little things that show that the attitudes of those who raised her still impact her. Primarily, it was in her not wanting to cause a fuss about the everyday slights that took place in our town. My father, who was an Air Force brat, grew up in a much more integrated setting, but even he warned me against ever dating a black guy, and marrying a black man was certainly out of the question. Interestingly enough, though, his major prejudice was always reserved for Arabs. This far predated 9/11, but he always warned my sister and me to avoid Arab men. Maybe he was ahead of his time on the racist front.
Getting back to my mother and her not wanting to cause a fuss about things....An example of the ongoing racist practices in my hometown was the exclusive parties that took place after major events in high school. At the start of senior year a group of parents always got together and organized parties to follow our winter presentation of seniors and selection of class favorites, the prom, and graduation. "Amazingly," only white parents and students were invited to participate in these parties. Later, I realized that one of the goals of this group was to keep us from "mixing" with the black students. It was quite interesting to hear my mother explain to the German foreign exchange student who lived with my family during my sister's senior year why she could not invite one of her black friends as her guest. Yes, guests were allowed to be taken by a member of the group. No, she couldn't take that particular guest because "it just wasn't done." Lovely. She also seriously debated about inviting one of her black co-workers to my wedding. Why? Well, because she was black. I am happy to say that she did indeed invite her.
In the face of this seemingly pervasive racism, though, I have always had examples of real friendship and respect between people of opposite races. Surprisingly two of these involved my grandmother and her sister who grew up as privileged white girls among black sharecroppers who worked for their father. My grandmother had a friendship that spanned 30 years with her former maid. Fanny came to work for my grandmother, and, if the truth be told, was never much of a maid. My father always joked that there was never a woman who lived up to her name more. She was quite overweight, and had trouble completing the tasks at hand. But my grandmother liked her and kept her on. She also drove her to the doctor, took her food at the holidays, and loaned her money she knew she'd never see again. In return, Fanny checked on my grandmother every single day until she moved to my hometown to be closer to my mother. We knew if there was anything ever wrong with my grandmother Fanny would know and let us know.
My great aunt's relationship with her next door neighbor was also a testament to how people can become friends despite their outward differences. My great uncle was diabetic and toward the end of his life needed daily dialysis. He was also very heavy and my aunt had difficulty helping him out of the car after his treatments. Their next door neighbor, a black man, began daily to watch for their arrival and to help my aunt get my uncle into the house and settled. He ran errands for her and truly became a lifesaver. Without him, my uncle could not have remained at home as he did until his death. My uncle was a prominent man in the community, having been the high school principal for almost thirty years. When he died, my aunt immediately stated that she wanted her neighbor to be a pallbearer. In typical fashion, several of her friends questioned this decision, even saying that the neighbor might not have anything appropriate to wear. My aunt stood firm. Her neighbor was the best-dressed pallbearer of the group.
So, where does this leave me? With such conflicting messages about race and the less-than-ideal treatment of those who are different swirling around me, how did I turn out? I like to think that each generation of our family has improved in this area. Going to a school where about half the class was black helped me tremendously in my relationships with others. I can't imagine having been able to do a good job in my first teaching position, where white students made up 25% of the population if I had never had the opportunity to interact with people who were from a different background than myself. Currently, All-American High School is experiencing some shifts in demographics. Having seen what I saw in high school and knowing the inequities in the education system there have made me an advocate for guaranteeing a quality education experience for ALL our students. It also helps me relate well to our minority students, and I believe they see me as someone whom they can trust, which, unfortunately is not the case with all of our staff. But even better is what I see in my own children. They go to school with a diverse group of kids, and more importantly have friends from various cultural and religious backgrounds. Do they see examples of prejudice? Yes, but they are always willing to talk to us about it and express their own dismay that anyone could judge a person simply by their skin color or religious beliefs.
I'll close with one final story. This fall I attended my 20th high school reunion. After the big Saturday night party at the country club, the one that didn't allow any black members and frowned on black guests until about 1o year ago, one of our black classmates invited us back to his house to continue the party. We crossed Martin Luther King Drive on our way over to his home, one of the historic houses in town but one that is literally on the "wrong side of the tracks." When we arrived, the gates were closed, and we were not sure we were going to be able to get in to the party. I told Adventure Guy, "This will be the ultimate irony in this town if we are not able to get through the gates." Fortunately, one of our classmates was directing traffic and took us in through a side entrance. At the risk of sounding trite and preachy as I said I wasn't going to do at the beginning of this post, I like to think of those opening gates as a metaphor for life in the future. It's only through working together and acceptance for all that we can truly move forward and succeed in the 21st century.