I have been asking myself this for years; most of my life, in fact. But it’s hard (and sometimes dangerous) to speak out loud about it. Just the word racism conjures the worst images. Of …
I have been asking myself this for years; most of my life, in fact. But it’s hard (and sometimes dangerous) to speak out loud about it. Just the word racism conjures the worst images. Of lynchings and slavery, of police brutality and slums and riots. But racism is the culture we were born into. Our whole nation was founded on it and built on its shoulders. Most of us can recall an instance of being made aware of its pervasiveness, even as children.
For me, it was a trip my family took down south in 1963. We went to Washington, D.C. to hear Dr. King speak at the March for Jobs and Freedom in August. I was just 11 years old but already aware of Dr. King and the struggle for civil rights because my mother was someone who cared about such things. My youth minister at Community Church in Manhattan, Dr. Richard Leonard, marched with Dr. King in Selma.
After the event in Washington, we ventured farther south to Virginia, where for the first time I encountered separate drinking fountains for whites and “coloreds.” I was incensed seeing this and went to drink at the colored fountain, thinking I was being an advocate. The Black women who saw me were not amused. Neither were they supportive of my innocent civil activism. I didn’t yet understand their perspective that I was a member of the oppressor class and my gesture was but a token.
An oppressor, me? As an 11-year-old white girl from New York City, I went to school with different races and nationalities. I thought I was enlightened. But it would take many more years for me to begin to understand their perspective.
On that trip, my mother took us to see the film version of“To Kill A Mockingbird” in Richmond, VA. Just next to Washington, D.C., it felt like another country, with its segregated movie theater sections and drinking fountains and public bathrooms. And the film was further enlightenment. I began to understand the deep inequities of being Black in America. I identified with Scout’s character, partly because I wanted a father figure like Atticus Finch, but also because of our shared oblivion to the rotten core of racism in our midst.
Just last week, I attended a writers conference in New Jersey. On the first day, I took my breakfast in the dining room among 100 or so other writers and sat at a table nearest the tea service. Only two other women were already seated. Both women were Black. I ate my oatmeal and asked how everyone was enjoying the conference, what workshops were they taking, between bites of my cereal. One woman, who sat directly opposite me, engaged in conversation willingly. The other physically adjusted her posture to avoid me and directed all her conversation to the other woman. I noted this behavior and wondered if it was race-related and the interaction left me feeling rebuffed. Over the weekend, we had occasion to see each other a few more times. On the last day, our conference celebrated Martin Luther King’s birthday. At one point, our leader asked us all to get up and dance to a piece of music. The woman who had turned away from me at breakfast was at the next table and as we danced, we made eye contact and smiled at each other. On leaving, we said goodbye.
When I talked with my daughter about this experience, she helped me see how I could be seen because of my race, which is not something white people often confront. As a white woman, I can go anywhere and expect to be welcome. But could those women expect the same treatment? Would they have felt the same ease I felt, sitting down at a table of white women? Could that have generated resentment? Was sitting at their table the same as drinking from the water fountain in 1963? I began again to try to understand the complicated path this country has made for us all by fostering systemic racism.
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