The high school I attended was all white—except for one of my girlfriends and her two siblings. Their father was white; and their mother was Nicaraguan. That was about all the color in the school, except for the one black student who showed up for one day. He didn’t return the next day.
My memory was that everyone was very nice to him and welcoming. I just always assumed he looked around at the sea of white faces and thought, hell no, I’m out of here.
Unfortunately, back then I had a tendency to view the world through rose colored glasses and often missed the ugliness staring me in the face. Until I hit my fifties, I tended to give people the benefit of the doubt. Today, I am more of a cynic.
I hope my fellow classmates back then were nice to that African American student. But, I’m no longer sure. I have no idea what some of the other students may have said to him. After all, it was decades after graduation that I learned how one of my friends had been cruelly harassed by the male classmates for the size of her large breasts, and how another friend had been physically abused by her boyfriend—both popular students in the school. I had no idea, but other kids knew. Heck, when one of my close friends married young, I was probably the only person in the school who never considered for a moment she might be pregnant. She was.
Growing up in Covina, California, I attended what was essentially an all-white elementary school. There were one or two Hispanics and Asians, but no black students the years I attended there. My first encounter with a black person was a student teacher I had in the fourth grade. I adored that teacher, yet now, looking back, I have to wonder what type of reception he had from the all-white school. This was in the mid-60s. I would love to sit down with him and find out what it was like for him back then.
My next encounter with a person of color was a few years later, when my parents were off on a snow skiing trip, and my grandmother was staying with us. My grandmother’s first husband (my mother’s father) had passed away when Mom was a little girl. Years later, Grandma married my Grandpa Pete, a dear man, who was a wonderful grandfather to me.
While Grandma was staying with us, Grandpa Pete’s grandson came to visit, bringing his army buddy with him. The two came to our house to have dinner and to visit with Grandma. I remember Grandpa’s grandson and the friend were very nice, and we enjoyed the visit. Did I mention the friend was black?
It wasn’t until I was much older that I learned my grandma’s sister had had an absolute fit over the fact Grandpa’s grandson had had the audacity to bring a black man into my parent’s home. My parents weren’t upset over the visit, and the story told in following years centered on my great-aunt’s foolishness and bigotry.
It wasn’t until we moved to Havasu did I have any real exposure to minorities. Before going to that all white school I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I attended the last half of my eight grade, and freshman year, in racially diverse schools.
I only recall witnessing one racially motivated conflict. I was riding home on the bus (it was a considerable drive from Parker, Arizona to Parker Dam, California) when a white girl—who was dating a black student—was being verbally harassed by several white girls on the bus. I remember saying something to the boy I was dating, about how I felt bad I hadn’t spoken up, and that I needed to, if it happened again. He told me to keep my mouth shut, that those girls would kick my ass.
My next encounter with bigotry came at that all-white high school. I can still remember; I was in biology class, when one of my classmates, a boy who was a year or two younger than me, declared his hatred of black people.
He had always seemed like such a nice guy; I found that expression of hate out of place. I asked him why he hated blacks. He didn’t really have a reason, he just did. I then told him I was part black; did he hate me too?
I had lied, but I have very dark brown eyes. I used those eyes to convince him, after he initially laughed off my claim.
“Why do you think I have such black eyes?” I asked him in seriousness.
He looked at me strangely, and then said he was sad, but he couldn’t be my friend anymore. He told me he wished I had never told him. Just like that, in an instant, he disliked me for no reason aside from the fact he believed I had a person of color in my family tree. And he was serious. Oh, he didn’t start yelling obscenities at me, or threaten to burn a cross on my lawn—of course no one had lawns in Havasu—but he was instantly cool toward me.
When he found out I had been pulling his leg, his demeanor once again changed, and he figured we could be friends again. Needless to say, I never looked at him the same way. While he was a classmate, I never again considered him a friend.
So what is my point in all this?
Just because you don’t see racism around you, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.