Everything here is just like a simile, and almost completely alliterative.

Friday, January 27, 2012

Hi, I'm a Racist


“I think Martin Luther King Jr. is importinant because he stoped segregation. If he din't I would not know Kimberly or Malaya or Jalin.”

This is the opening of my second-grader’s paragraph for MLK Day. I was flipping through her weekly stack of papers the school sends home (Buy a yearbook! Sign up for science camp! Come to a PTA meeting for freaking once you giant sack of slack!) and I found this. Normally I glance at her papers to make sure she passed the spelling test and shovel it all into the Guilt Hole I call the trash can, but I stopped at this one. I had read lots of essays and articles around MLK Day talking about King’s influence and legacy (maybe the best and most moving one here), but nothing had hit me quite like my daughter’s simple, practical way of putting it. Dr. King is good, she says in inimitable seven-year-old narcissism, because he brought people into my life.

When I was in elementary school, maybe third grade or so, I remember my mother laughing with me in the car about something silly a friend of mine had done. This friend of mine was maybe a year or two younger, and she had been telling her mother all year long about Teresa, this amazing, wonderful, oh-so-cool girl in her class, and couldn’t she please please please invite Teresa home one afternoon. So of course her mom said sure. And the afternoon my friend’s mother was supposed to pick them both up, what do you think happened? My friend came bounding out of school, and right behind her came Teresa, BLACK AS THE ACE OF SPADES! That was the first time I’d ever heard that simile. My mother howled and hooted, giggling at the thought of it: her friend’s discomfiture, her nonplussed face, her struggle not to look shocked. What must she have thought??

This is not a black person.

I knew Teresa too, a little bit. I knew who she was, anyway. I can still see the shiny darkness of her skin, darker than most African-Americans I’d seen, though “African-American” was a term no one in my world had heard. I knew Teresa because black people were hard to miss at my private elementary school. I remember there was one in my class my sixth grade year. When I went to middle and high school, there were even a couple there, too. The guys did okay; the girls were studiously avoided. I never had a friend of color. The only black people I actually knew were in service positions—our maid, school janitors, occasional receptionists. I never had a black teacher, never saw a black man or woman in a position of authority. My world was scrubbed as white as if I were raised in the 1880s, not the 1980s. We belonged to an all-white country club, an all-white social circle, an all-white faith community. This was never discussed; it was just the way things were. Yeah, I might have some issues about race, you think?

Probably every white person can tell you the same story: their moments of discomfort when a colleague, a friend, someone you respect, assumes you are on the same page with them and willing to share a raised eyebrow of amusement at black people. It’s rarely so overt as a racist joke; I last heard one of those delivered sincerely in the 70s, about the black waiters at our country club. A racist joke today would just be so tasteless.

A couple of years ago, a colleague of mine was telling the story of her grand-daughter, who has “a little black friend.” And apparently she wanted the kinds of braids in her hair that her friend of color had in hers. Lo and behold, she came home one afternoon completely done in “those braids.” Her mother was horrified! There was a dinner party they had to go to, and oh my goodness! She had to spend forty-five minutes undoing her daughter’s hair and explaining to her that was not how we do our hair. This oh-so-amusing story was told in an undertone, establishing a circle of like-minded folk. Like most people, I find myself confused how best to respond in those situations. Nothing overtly racist or demeaning is ever said; it’s all in the lowered voice, the frisson of amused horror. Black things are bad. White things are good. I would imagine my colleague’s granddaughter got the message as surely as I did that long ago afternoon when I learned that you don’t make black friends, much less bring them home.

My friend and teaching colleague Bill Rothschild, son of the late Rabbi Jacob Rothschild whose aggressive championing of civil rights resulted in the bombing of The Temple in Atlanta, tells the story about the night the Kings came to dinner at his house. Bill was just a young thing, but he remembers it clearly. In those days before GPS and cell phones, the Kings got lost, driving around the neighborhood trying to find the Rothschilds’ house. They ended up arriving almost an hour late for dinner, full of apologies and explaining they had had to stop and ask for directions.

“No no, don’t worry,” Dr. King said. “We didn’t embarrass you with any of the neighbors. We figured out what to do. Coretta just hopped out and went to the side entrance and said she was working at a party here, and could they tell her where the house was.”

Rabbi Rothschild and Dr. King, at the South's first racially integrated banquet in 1965. (from Emory Magazine 2008)

I’ve often wondered about those people who encountered Coretta Scott King at their kitchen door that night. Did they ever figure it out? Did they see anything other than one more black maid, one more nameless, faceless woman there to pass the shrimp plate and refill the water glasses? I wonder if they ever opened a newspaper and looked at her picture and thought, holy shit. . .

I never got the chance my daughter has, to learn about Martin Luther King in elementary school. I didn’t study King in-depth until AP American History, and by then my father had already taught me he was a communist, and black people were fools for being taken in by his demagoguery. Would learning about King from an earlier, more accurate source have made me less of a racist? Maybe. I know I am a racist. I know I have serious issues of disbelief if a white person raised in the South tells me he or she is not a racist. I can’t scrub that way of seeing out of my brain, I can only adjust for it, with shame, repentance, and struggle. I envy those people who don't have to compensate or adjust, who don't have to do any mental acrobatics to arrive at instinctive openness and equity. I envy my daughter, for the world she is being raised in, and the friendships she is forming.

And maybe, just maybe Kimberly and Malaya and Jalin can help her with her spelling. After all, what are friends for?

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