I grew up in a mid-sized city in the Midwest. Most people there were white, including myself and my family. When we first moved there I was about 4. We lived on this side of the railroad tracks. “The Blacks” (said with wide eyes, in a certain kind of voice) lived on the other side.
My mother was scared of The Blacks. She’d grown up in Chicago, the daughter of conservative and working class 2rd generation German immigrants. My grandparents were kind to us. But they had stereotypes for everyone. My grandfather told “Polack jokes” and any time we passed a garishly painted house, someone would comment “looks like the Polacks moved in.” The Irish were either “lace curtain Irish” or “shanty Irish.” The beaches were not safe because the Puerto Ricans were there. When we’d drive over the railroad tracks to the other side of town, my mom would say (in a sing-song voice that my brothers and I mock nowadays) “Lock your doo-oors! We’re in Jiga-boo land!”
To this day, my mom is still afraid of “the Blacks.” At family gatherings, she’ll sit at the dinner table and make statements like “Black people are very afraid of death.” (Yeah, and white people aren’t?) or “Black people steal because they have no concept of private property.” When she’s not around, my dad and my brothers and I go off on her. Where does she get this stuff? But there is no use arguing with her. Despite any rhyme or reason or facts or evidence to the contrary, she will keep her beliefs. So aside from the occasional outburst, mostly we just try to change the subject as soon as possible.
I wasn’t aware of my own racism as a child. I wrote things in my journal when I was 9 or 10 like “We went swimming with The Black Family that moved into our neighborhood.” Or “At the YMCA a Black boy liked me. But I don’t like him!!!!!” But we all played kick-the-can and hung out together in the summer, and the fact that some of the kids were from The Black Family didn’t matter then.
My best friend in 4th grade was a “boat person” from Vietnam who had brilliant drawing skills, and the most beautiful handwriting I’d ever seen. I totally wanted to be her. I’d go to her house almost every day after school. There was always a pot of rice cooking with meat or egg in it. We’d eat peanut butter toast and play in the small apartment where she lived with her parents and her 4 older brothers and 2 sisters. My first (very platonic) boyfriend was also a refugee. He used to call me up at night when I was about 12 and sing long sad, soulful songs to me in Khmer.
In 7th grade, a Haitian girl started at our Catholic school. No one talked to her and no one sat next to her if they could help it. She was quiet and proper. She was also from an unknown place with an unknown language. We didn’t know quite what to make of her.
Our 8th grade teacher Sister Mary Martha told us in a scandalous voice that people in Africa were so starving that they had to eat bugs. She showed us photos of emaciated, pot bellied children who had ‘cried so much their tears had dried up and they couldn’t cry anymore.” We prayed for them at church on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Considering my mother’s fears, I’m not sure why we took in K., an Ethiopian refugee, through church in the early 80s. Looking back I realize he was a really interesting person. He was incredibly handsome. He had a big afro and a nice, smooth scar on his warm brown cheek. We didn’t talk about why he was a refugee. I had no idea what the political situation was in Ethiopia, or why he had left his country. He would spend hours on the phone with his friend Moussa. One time we all went to eat Ethiopian food. As Midwesterners, we were not used to any spices other than salt, and a tiny bit of pepper. No one ate much, except for K. and Moussa.
By the time I was in high school, I had became more conscious of race. There were girls that dated Black guys, and none of the White guys would go out with them. The girls didn’t seem to really mind that though. I listened to Bob Marley and had no idea what he was singing about. I listened to Ska and new wave and tried to overcome my racist frameworks. I had a couple of Black female friends that I talked to a lot at school, but we didn’t hang out outside of school. I thought I’d achieved racial tolerance when I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t bad to date inter racially, you just shouldn’t have kids because they’d suffer a lifetime of discrimination, and that wasn’t fair to do to a child.
By the time I went to college, in a big city on the West Coast, I thought I was pretty tolerant. (I hate that word, by the way, as it’s normally used to gauge your willingness to put up with something that is not good.)
But there were 3 of us bunking in a dormroom made for 2 people, and one of us was Black. And that, my friends, is a story for another post. A post that I’m ashamed to share.