Lurker Wednesday

So tell me.  What was your first experience with race?  Or any other anecdote you might like to relate.

14 thoughts on “Lurker Wednesday

  1. My first experience was when a family member came home from a celebration luncheon and mentioned to my mother (and I overheard) that another branch of the family had spent a large part of lunch railing against MLK and had called African Americans uppity. The first time I personally experienced anything to do with race was after adopting from China.

  2. When I was in (primarily if not exclusively white) elementary school (mid 70s), our campus housed a district-wide class for kids who were deaf or hard of hearing. One boy, black, became my best friend. I learned sign language to talk with him. Next year, they (all minority) were all gone and nobody would explain why, but I always thought it had something to do with the color of their skin.

  3. When I was in first grade I had a friend named Stephanie. Stephanie and I made plans to play at my house on Saturday. When I got home I asked my mom if it was OK and our conversation went something like this:
    Me: Mom can my friend Stephanie come over on Saturday.
    Mom: Sure, that’s fine.
    Me: Mom, Stephanie’s black.
    Mom: Oh. I’ll have to talk to your father about that.

    Eventually I was told it was OK for Stephanie to come over and play. I called Stephanie to confirm and was told that she couldn’t come play because her mom had planned a surprise trip for them to visit her grandmother.

    I don’t really remember being friends with Stephanie after that.

    When I look back on this situation these thoughts come to mind.
    1. At such a young age I knew I had to qualify that this friend was black before I could really have permission to play with her.
    2. My mom and dad did the right thing and in that season of their lives I think they just as easily could have done the wrong thing.
    3. Was the surprise visit to grandma a made-up story because Stephanie’s parents didn’t want her to play at the home of a white girl (knowing who my parents were back then and the way they were raised this might have been a good decision by Stephanie’s parents).
    4. I wish I could recall what happened to our friendship after that. My impression is that it just ended then and there.

    That is my first experience with race.

  4. I was about nine and at the beach one weekday afternoon with white babysitter and her kids. Another younger girl came up and began harassing me, calling me a “peppermill”. I didn’t even know what that meant and I’ve never heard that since, but the sitter laughed. “Oh it’s probably because you’re black.”
    I think I stopped liking her that moment. A few years later that same family had the nerve to ask me why they rarely saw me anymore.

  5. My first remembrance of race was when I was 5 or 6. I was at my mom’s community college. I was thirsty and she sent me to the cafeteria with change to get myself something from the vending machine. It was pretty far for a 6 year old. When I finally got to the cafeteria, a black man was standing there in the doorway (blocking half of it, there was plenty of room for me to walk by) I got scared and pretened like I had to go to the right instead.

    I got back to my mom without a drink and she asked me what happened. I told her. She wanted to know why this man was so scary. I told her he was black. She wanted to know why that mattered. I think I told her something along the lines of, “the news shows black men rape and kill people.” She pretty much yelled at me and I mostly got a BE COLORBLIND and a DONT JUDGE A BOOK BY IT’S COVER (as in he “looks” scary to me bc I am judging him bc I think all black men are one way”

    That was my first remembrance. After that, colorblind was the new attitude for me. Until a few yrs ago when I started reading and learning about race.

  6. I once wrote a poem called “The first time I knew I was black.” I will spare you the posting of it, but basically it was third grade, and I was walking to the cafeteria when someone said “nappy afro.” I didn’t realize they meant my hair. I thought they just meant me.

  7. When I was in second grade, I had an African-American teacher who had a blonde streak in her hair. I remember meeting her at Open House with my parents. While my mom talked to Ms. Williams I stared at her intently and thought to myself, “Oh, this should be an interesting year. I can see what black people with blonde hair are like.” That’s my first distinct memory of anything race-related.

    Later, in my junior year of college, I had a Panamanian friend tell me I wasn’t really Latina because I didn’t speak fluent Spanish. That stung.

  8. When I was in high school, I used to take the local rapid to go downtown to volunteer at a museum. I remember waiting at the main station for the train one day when a black woman came up to me and asked what time it was. When I asked her with the time, she said “Are you an Oreo?” I didn’t understand the term for a few seconds because I hadn’t heard it before. I could only assume that she asked because of the way I spoke.

    I’ve had friends tell me that I “talk differently” but no one has blatantly said “you sound like a white girl”.

    When I recently moved to a new city and started hanging out with my boyfriend’s friends more, one of them would look at me and say “no offense” before saying anything related to black people.

  9. In 1953 my family, all Anglo, made an interstate move by train. Daddy had driven the car to the new house, and Mommy and we three kids (ages 6, 3, and 9 months) took the train from Maryland to Connecticut. Our friend Mr. Williams, who had been a daytime part of our household my whole life, had decided to make the move along with us. He took our suitcases to the Redcap Man and then helped my Mommy get all of us and our diaper bags and so on into the train.

    Just when I thought he would sit down and play with us, the Conductor came up behind him and interrupted what he was saying to my mother, to say something to Mr. Williams in a low voice that I didn’t quite hear. Mr. Williams immediately touched his cap to the Conductor, and then to my mother, and said, “I’ll see you in Hartford, Missus.”

    I was heartbroken. Why wasn’t Mr. Williams riding with us? “Oh,” said my mother, “he’s probably going to play cards with his friends in the baggage car.”

    Much, much later I realized a Black man would not have been allowed to ride in the coach with us in 1950s Maryland. I was stunned. I was even more stunned to realize that both Mr. Williams and my mother had already known that, and were cooperating with it.

  10. Maggie, have you read Audre Lorde’s the Summer I Left Childhood Was White? It’s very similar to your experience, and Lorde had the same reaction you did. Beautiful short story–my kid had to read it and I never had. You can find it online.

  11. Suburban (almost completely white neighborhood) Ohio in the early 1980’s when I was somewhere between 4-5 years old, my back yard neighbor and I (she was a year or two older and we were both white lower to middle income) were making mud pies in my back yard. She came up with the idea to sneak out of our yard, to the end of our street (3 or 4 houses away) and dump/smear the mud pies on the driveway of that house. We must have been pretty loud (or in my worst imagined moments perhaps she convinced me to yell something I can’t even remember) because the homeowners saw what was happening. I was unaware of what was going on, only that I felt like I was doing something sneaky. Probably after we ran away, that homeowner called or dropped in on my mom (who must have been busy with my baby sister inside the house) and let her know what happened–she did not confront us directly so I still felt as if I had gotten away with something. Turns out, I had no memory of it, but that African American family had babysat for me quite a bit when I was a baby/young toddler. At my present age, however, I didn’t even know/remember who lived in that house. Apparently my back yard neighbor DID and as I remember, I was never allowed to play with her again.

    I got a severe spanking and got dragged, sobbing, back to that house to apologize and it was then that I realized the family was black and THAT was why my back yard neighbor planned our nasty excursion. I remember feeling very confused. I don’t even know that my parents made an issue out of race to me, they knew the people personally and were extremely embarrassed. I know this is SO not the lesson I was SUPPOSED to learn but the effect on me was that for years I feared black people because I had personally committed some offense against them, I felt lower than them (personal white guilt!) and like I had to walk on eggshells, lest I do something else wrong. I had no social context to see why my parents were so mortified and I still don’t know if they were trying to stamp out my racist action or make amends to people they once trusted to care for their child (probably both). They did not care (or couldn’t understand) that I did not even know what I had done. I’m not sure how I would have handled that differently had I been them but it was a fearful and bitter introduction to race. The interesting thing is, there were people of color present in our lives on a fairly regular basis before that and I had not somehow distinguished race until that moment of blindly following my neighbor and my ensuing punishment. Perhaps my family was trying too hard to be “colorblind.”

    I don’t remember anything else race-related until I was in the fourth grade. My best school friend (who was black) and I were inseparable on then playground and starting to call each other outside of school to chat, etc. I tried inviting her over to play but her parents would never allow it. She moved shortly after that and wasn’t allowed to give me her contact ion though I knew a family who kept in contact with her family for years. At the time I thought it was a race-related thing, that her family did not like that I was white (and perhaps they didn’t) but many years later I realized that they were extremely religious and that was probably more the motivating factor (the white family I knew who retained contact with her family was of the same religious persuasion). The fact that I considered this a purely racial issue for so long helped me, years later, to identify some of the extent of my de facto white privilege.

  12. My very first memory of race being mentioned was when, at age 7 or so, I met a friend’s mother for the first time and she expressed surprise, because she expected me to be “a little black girl”. She didn’t seem to feel bad that I wasn’t, and the conversation has only remained with me because it seemed like such a strange thing to say.

    My second memory was more traumatic. My best friend when I was about 12, a fellow nerd who used to play Magic: The Gathering with me, suddenly emailed me out of the blue. She said that we couldn’t be friends anymore, because she was Asian and I was white – we didn’t have anything in common and we could never be close or understand eachother, so she didn’t want to try to be friends anymore. To this day I’m not entirely sure what prompted this, although I’ve since heard several people express the same view that people of different races can never be truly close.

    After receiving the email, I immediately called a mutual friend to cry about how meanly I’d been treated – it was RACIST, I screamed. (Looking back, I know it was more complex than that, with racism playing a huge part, but this was about all 12-year-old me could wrap her head around). To my dismay this mutual friend agreed – she said that she also couldn’t be my friend because, as a white girl, I wasn’t the same as her. This (and my poor handling of it) eventually lead to several months of really viscous and scary bullying, which made it difficult for me to trust people I identified as “friends” for a long while afterwards. The bullying aspect of this, in this case, was more just a demonstration of how cruel children can be to eachother, than particularly racially motivated beyond the triggering incident.

    When we were much older, I was in the same history class as my former Magic buddy. We got to talking, and she apologised for how she had behaved – I know that, once things had spiralled so quickly, I would not have been any more able than she was to stop the bulling if our roles had been reversed. We were friends again for a few years, before drifting apart (amicably enough) when we went to different Universities.

    My school and the area I grew up in (South London, UK), were actually very well integrated and progressive. I didn’t recognise this at the time, because race WAS still a big issue, and social groups were often quite racially segregated. But it would have been unthinkable to utter a racial slur, “gay” may have been used as a catch-all term for “bad”, but it was possible for myself and several other students to be openly gay and bisexual, and one friend was able to openly transition as a transgender woman with the support of the school, her friends, and with only minor issues around inappropriate speech (no harassment).

    These are pretty small wins, I always thought. Until I went to university. Until I had friends who openly used racial slurs without a second thought. Who argued that it was perfectly OK to be afraid of black people “because they were more violent”, who I was afraid to come out to – and in fact often put myself back in the closet, who thought it was acceptable to call a mutual friend “Noodah” – scream it at him at every opportunity – because he was Chinese.

    I became friends with these people because I didn’t know I had to watch out for real, honest to god, unappolagetic racists. I stayed friends with them, first it was because I thought that their less diverse childhoods had just made them ignorant – that they could learn and that I could teach them – later, it was out of fear of being alone.

    It was only when I was sat crying, hating the person I has become – the kind of person who would let someone say something abhorrent, that would directly affect people she loved, and just roll her eyes instead of calling them on their bullshit – that I realized I needed to get away.

    I don’t know those people anymore. I’m much happier. I’ve found some real friends who accept me and others, I make myself call people on their racist crap, even when it would be less socially awkward not to, and I do my best to be honest about my own racial hang-ups and the privilege I was born into.

  13. I remember clearly the first time I realized what race was. The first day of kindergarten, my cousin (who is biracial) and I went in holding hands and one of the other kids called her a zebra. Neither of us knew what he meant, but we knew it was bad because of the way it was said.

    Now, as the white mom of a black child, I’ve experienced racism more intimately. The older white woman who asked if my naturally thin daughter was “one of those crack babies” because “she’s SO skinny!” or the myriad people who ask “where did you get her?”

    The most devastating day of my life will be the day she loses her innocence about racism. The day that her carefree childhood is over.

  14. I don’t remember ever not being conscious of race. My dad is black, my mom is white, and my first memories are of us living in the South. So I was conscious of the differences and how people saw us from as far back as I remember.

    Later, we moved to Hawaii, and the first time I actually thought about/began to understand racism was in 2nd grade, when a Kindergardener called me the n-word. I didn’t know what it was, and didn’t even know it was racially correlated at the time. When my mom told me that it only referred to a bad person, and that the only people it referred to were the people who actually *used* the word, I still didn’t get the racial correlation. Some time later I began to understand.

    That same year, the only other black (and Japanese) girl in school happened to be a thief. She stole a girl’s candy from her desk and ate it under the slide. She suffered a bit of shunning due to this, and there was a moment when I was alone, where she came up to me and said, “They don’t like us because we’re black.”

    To this I replied, “No. They don’t like YOU because you stole candy. *I’m* good.”

    We often were thrown together because we *were* black, I think. And smart. But it was hard for her to shake her candy-thief identity. We moved away when I was in 5th grade and I don’t know whatever happened to her.

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