Friday, June 19, 2009

A question and a story

Were there any puzzling racial episodes for you? Was your neighborhood -- your part of the world -- multiracial? Was there some instance when you thought, “Huh? Why is this person saying that?” or “Am I missing something here?” and you were brought to a realization concerning skin tone that was either enlightening or painful?

This was the question posed to me recently in a conversation with a very dear friend. It’s an interesting question in and of itself. I emailed my answer to him, and he suggested that I post it on my blog while he posts a similar type of story on his - syncing our days and redirecting our readers to each other’s posts. I didn’t have any problem doing this simply because half the people who visit my blog already visit his site. I’m just basically giving everybody the heads-up that we did plan on having similar posts today.

So let’s get back to the question. Yet before I start, I should give everyone a fair warning. I am not going to hold any punches with this post. There might be parts that can make people feel uncomfortable. Please bear in mind that I dealt with this situation for 18 years. You will only deal with it for a few minutes, or however long it takes for you to read this post. If I could pull up my big girl panties and handle this long ago, then you should be able to handle these things now.

Don’t worry. I’ll be standing right beside you with my hand out. We can walk along this memory together. We’ll share in a laugh at the funny parts. We’ll shake our heads at the strange parts (of course there will be strange parts -- you are here at my blog). And when you gasp at the shocking parts, I’ll sigh and nod and assure you that those things really did happen. We’ll get to the end together where my mind and heart will be free from a little of the burdens I carry alone. Hopefully, you’ll gain something from this too. If anything, you can say it simply passed away a bit of a boring workday.

I’ll start off by describing the area where I grew up.

New Alexandria, Pennsylvania . . . you can easily think of this place as the heart of redneck country. If I may quote the famous pop-art icon, Andy (Campbell’s Soup Can painter) Warhol, “Pennsylvania is nothing more than Pittsburgh and Philadelphia with Alabama in-between.” I mean no offense to anyone living in Alabama. I’m just quoting something true about the people’s mindset in the area.

The town population was about 600. It was far from being a multiracial area. If I broke it down into a percentage, I would say it was 99.17% Caucasian and .83% African American. (Thanks, Jim, for giving me the right percentage - it is not my strong point.)

Anyway, the valley I lived in was remote and quiet. We were the only black family there. Everybody had a lot of property, and I think the smallest was 2 acres (ours was almost 6). All the houses were spread out, allowing everybody their solitude. A sheltered childhood? Yes, you would be right in this assumption, which might be the reason to the reaction I had for the following part.

My first racial episode happened when I was four or five, which meant this would have happened in 1979 or 1980. I stood in the driveway, watching the dragonflies drinking from the puddles while giving piggyback rides to each other, when a Landrover drove by with the windows rolled down. A man shouted, “I didn’t know there were any niggers living out here?” His female companion laughed.

I, being only four or five, had no idea what the word “nigger” meant. So I went into the house and picked up the dictionary. All it said was, “A Negro or member of any dark-skinned people: a vulgar and offensive word. [See Negro]”

Obviously, this was of no help in figuring out why the man had shouted it at me (I was completely oblivious concerning different cultures). So I checked the encyclopedias. Since this word was not between “Nigeria” and “Nightingale,” I contented myself with looking up why dragonflies liked piggyback rides so much.

Elementary school was the wake-up call for me. I was the only black student there for five years. Seeing the sea of lily-white faces ogling me like I was a space invader who might probe the teacher, it was a very uncomfortable time. No one talked to me, and no one invited me to play with them at recess. Every day, I sat by myself against the brick wall for the entire period until the teacher called us back in for class.

Bear this in mind. The kids were never mean. They just kept their distance. It was as much a culture shock for them as it was for me. Whenever I did receive a harsh remark, it came from the teachers.

My first grade teacher was the worse of the bunch. She ignored me during class. Whenever she asked a question and I raised my hand with the answer (the only student who raised their hand), her eyes would glance over the other students several times. Then she would turn around and say, “It looks like no one has an answer.” She even got fed up with seeing my raised hand and told me flat out to stop doing it because she would never call on me. Then when we had book reports concerning famous people in history, she picked out our assignments. Most were revolutionary heros or explorers: George Washington, Lewis & Clark. I got Robert E. Lee. She smirked and tried to teach me that the South was right to do what they did toward the “lesser races.”

By the last year of elementary school, four black students attended (this number included me). Middle school – 11. High school – 17. I attended public schools.

After several years, I started making friends with the students once the initial shock worn down and they realized I wouldn’t be leaving for my home planet Glorp. All my friends were white because, well, there were no other black kids in my elementary school classes (I was kept separate from the other three). When I attended middle school, and later high school, I tried to make friends with the growing number of black students I met. However, I was segregated from them-- by them. There was an instance when I walked down the hall with a white friend. We passed by two black students. One of them shouted at my back, “She’s made her choice.” For the last years of school, 1988-1993, the black students threw insults at me because I had supposedly “betrayed my race.”

On the flip side, I attended a vocational school for computer programming from tenth through twelfth grade. There was a boy on the bus who was angry with his older sister for having sex with a black man and getting pregnant. He continually called the unborn child a “half-breed.” Then he rolled down the window and spat on any pedestrians who weren’t white. The other white students joined in.

High school was the most hectic/ironic time. I experienced prejudice from the white students on the bus rides and the same from the black students during classes – all on the same day. The biggest lesson I learned from all of this: Racism works both ways, and they cancel each other out in my mind. So I won’t ever let hate enter my heart.



Well, this was my long-winded answer to Jim (Suldog) Sullivan’s question. Make sure to go visit his place. He has a similar type of story from his own viewpoint on when he first saw someone of my race. Don’t worry. You still have the time before your boss comes over to check on what you’re doing.

42 comments:

  1. Hello, MDGF! Thanks - I'm posting mine now.

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  2. Hi Michelle, Great stuff from you and Sully!! I'm not an avid blog reader but I do check in with Sully, although not an every day devote. However, I am a sucker for this kind of honest reflection. I've put you onto my desktop and will check in with you as well.

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  3. here from suldog's. as i said to him, thanks to you both for coming up with this idea. as a "neighbor" who was born and bred in small town PA i know all too well the way folks here can behave. i'm awfully sorry for the horrible experiences you had growing up.

    two things you said really stick with me though. one that racism is expressed by both sides (as i witnessed from whites in similar fashion to sully and as i witnessed from blacks when i was the only white girl as a day care program during a week in the city). and two, that if we walk side by side laughing at the funny parts, shaking our heads at the strange parts, and reassuring each other in the really bad parts we can all get through this and be better at the end.

    thanks so much for doing this dual posting with sully and for your honesty and openness.

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  4. Wow, your candor is refreshing...

    I grew up in a very racially diverse town where I had friends of many colors. That sounds lovely, but I was a little "sheltered" too. If anyone had said the 'n' word they would have been pounced on by black and white kids alike. I didn't really know what racism looked like until I moved to the South. Sad that it still even exists after all these years...

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  5. Great post Michelle. While I'm technically part of "the man" sector of society (white male), I don't really align myself with it. And while I shouldn't be surprised by stories like yours, I still find myself gasping a little at the wrongs aimed at our fellow human beings. I'm sorry to hear you had to deal with these things growing up, but obviously you've dealt with it all in the best manner possible.

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  6. Thanks to you and Suldog for sharing these stories. Growing up
    in the heart of New York City, the melting pot, it was so ethnically
    diverse that it seemed natural to have many friends and neighbors
    of different races and ethnic backgrounds. Reading your story
    makes me angry that you had to go through those experiences.

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  7. Thanks for the double post. It was interesting to see the two sides.

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  8. I still need to hold your hand after reading to remember your positive outlook. The stories evoked so many emotions, my heart grew heavy and then in two sentences (the last two) you gave it flight.

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  9. Wonderful idea you and Mr. Suldog had to do this joint post. I'm sorry there was such bigotry against you growing up in your neighbourhood. I grew up in quite a melting pot type neighbourhood where at least 15% of our classroom at any given time was not white. I have no doubt that some of my friends had similar experiences. As times change, and people evolve, hopefully ignorance will die out. I'm not counting on it, but I can hope.

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  10. I'd always assumed it must have been hard, but this post was an eye-opener.

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  11. Thank you for sharing this. What a lonely place to be. I'm glad you did not let this corrupt your values. It must have been very hard indeed.

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  12. Suldog: Thanks for bringing up this idea to me. I feel it does people good to read it.
    ***

    Pete: Hi! Thanks for stopping by! I must admit, I’m not usually this open in my posts as Jim is in his, and I can get pretty random and strange here. So I give due warning: if you read about naked ostriches dancing in green jello, this is the norm here.
    ***

    Lime: Thanks for stopping by (oh wow, I’m going to be saying this a lot today)! Since you grew up in this state, you can testify about the strange mindset here, especially over the fact that racism can happen to anyone, white or black, and nobody should deal with it at either end of color spectrum.
    ***

    Sarah: Yes, the “year” part still bugs me about these things. I would think people had grown from those days in the 1950s and ‘60s. But what happened to me was in the ‘80s up to the ‘90s.
    ***

    Eric: It’s all we can do, deal with these situations in the best manner possible. And I think that this is the sticking point we still have in our society. It’s so much easier (and I believe lazier) to simply hate the things we don’t understand instead of developing a tolerance for it...

    Sorry, I’m sort of musing to myself with my answer. I do this sometimes. I give Jim (Suldog) full credit for the dual postings. It gives us a chance to actually talk about these things and let people know about it.
    ***

    Ruth and Glen: You're welcome! Considering I didn’t have any physical violence happen to me, I consider myself lucky. I have no doubt in my mind that there our even more disturbing stories out there than mine. I just hope that one day those people will also share them and enlighten everyone.
    ***

    Jazz: I think that is the best thing about this. There are two sides to every story. Thanks for stopping by.
    ***

    Immersion: Hold my hand as long as you need to, but I'll need to get to bed sometime today. lol! :-) I'm glad you enjoyed it so much. Thanks for stopping by.
    ***

    Hilary: It's all we have to hold on - hope. I don't mind keeping such a thing in my heart. Perhaps other people will also do the same.
    ***

    Stephen: I suppose some stories should be told, if only to enlighten others.
    ***

    Ananda girl: A postive outlook is what kept me going. I suppose things could have been worse, but I never allowed such a possibility to enter my mind and bring me down. Thanks for stopping by!

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  13. I commented on Suldog's blog about your collaboration here and I'm sure you knew that I would be by your place as well. This was a terrific joint post! Pretty much the only difference between the area of PA where you grew up and where I did and still live too, is that growing up here, it was 100% pure white. (I don't use the word "pure" there in meaning it was good or the correct thing, etc., but I'm sure you know what I mean by that.) As mentioned in my comments to Jim, growing up here, the only issues of diversity were relegated to ethnic and religion with this village separated by those lines -Swede vs Slovak, Catholic vs Protestant. Those things were still very much in play when I was growing up although somewhat diminished from what it had been when my Mom was growing up here. It's still here, to a very small degree today -unfortunately -but it is slowly ebbing out. Several of us today, of my generation who are of different ethnic and religious backgrounds often speak of what we missed as kids, not being free to play with those who weren't of the same ethnic or religious backgrounds. What was sad about this aspect when we were kids was that the local priest and the pastors of the protestant churches were often the main instigators in keeping this crapola alive and functioning. Thankfully, today that isn't the case. I found your blog via Suldog's several months back and am really thankful too that you and he write about these issues so openly, so frank about how your lives (and also then, all the rest of our lives too) were so alike and yet, so different too.
    Great post all the way around from two really terrific bloggers!

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  14. Michelle,
    The final sentence should be trumpted from the highest mountain in the country. Thanks for giving us a peek into your experience. Being a southern red-neck, and proud of it, I have your back here.
    Still have to get you here to go crabbing. Great fun and better eating.
    Coach O

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  15. Jeni: Thank you. It is fascinating how the innocence of children can sometimes be overshadowed by an adult's shaded viewpoint, whether at a racial aspect or a religious one. I only hope such things are starting to dissipate, and adults can be better role models for their children.
    ***

    Coach O: Thanks! If everybody got everybody else's back, what a better world it would be right there. And I love crab, btw.

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  16. Michelle,
    I came in from Suldog and expected a tongue-in-cheek lashing a-la-Suldog. Instead, I found a sober, level-headed accounting of a very unconfortable childhood. I was shocked to hear about mean teachers; unforgiving.

    Thank you for sharing. This is the kind of authenticity we need to commnunicate with each other. Ironic that a tool as impersonal as the internet can actually succeed in getting us talking openly.

    I'm glad to have stopped by.

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  17. Great post. I was a white teenager in Mississippi during the sixties, so I have my own stories about race relations, but I've seldom heard the black viewpoint except in books (Black Like Me) is a good one. It was written by a white man who dyed himself black (the dye brought about his early death), and then traveled the South to see what life was like for the other side). I've also greatly enjoyed Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison.

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  18. Michelle...Thanks so much for sharing this beautiful piece. Your intro. had me in tears.

    My mother is Japanese. When I was younger I looked very asian (my eyes). I started kindergarten in 1971 (anyone remember Vietnam?). I know I'm not Vietnamese, but all us asians look alike. Don't we? I remember playing at recess and the kids would pretend to be fighter planes and they would buzz around pretending to bomb me.

    I now embrace my heritage. I wish I had that wisdom back then.

    Again, thank you for sharing a bit of your life with us. It was truly a wonderful read.

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  19. Michelle, you are quickly becoming not only one of my favorite bloggers, but one of my favorite people. This was incredibly touching and dare I say, soulful. Thank you.

    Now, regarding your first grade teacher. Can you find out if she's still teaching, and let me know so I can make her life miserable. I'd appreciate it.

    Take care, and once again, this was an outstanding idea that you and Jim came up with.

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  20. First time here. :-)

    Excellent cooperative effort between Sully and Surly! Being hispanic, I sometimes feel like I can blend with varying hues, and yet I have also experienced the senseless hatred of racism, though not to the harsh degree that has scarred many, many other people.

    I look forward to that glorious day, when I see Jesus face-to-face. I doubt that he will have blonde hair and blue eyes, but his resurrected body should look more like someone from the Middle East, and my guess is that he won't be tall. All around (in heaven), there will be people from every tribe and tongue... and it will all be very good.

    I am so blessed to live in a town and go to a church where we enjoy a lot of diversity. We have come a long way, but there is still a whole lot of reconciliatory work to be done.

    Great post, Michelle!

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  21. Read both. Said "wow" many times. Shame on your first grade teacher.
    It's so odd for me, I grew up in a small town in MN, population 1,400. All white. Moved to CA when I was 16. Ethnically diverse. I didn't feel any different living in both places. Maybe it's all in how my parents raised me, or my life attitude toward ignoring the stupid things some people say and do. I don't know. I know racism is every where. I too hope things in life, for every one, improves.

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  22. I read Jim's post first, seeing as how "Suldog" appears just above "Surly Writer, The" in my blog-roll and I read alphabetically most days. I AM a creature of habit.

    It must have been painful for you during your elementary school days, and some of it comes out in this post, Michelle. It also grieves me greatly to read of the time period during which this occurred. One would think that people would be better in this regard by the late '80s and early '90s, but clearly one would be wrong in so assuming.

    I'll not repeat the rather lengthy comment I left over at Jim's place; I'll summarize, instead. I was schooled in the DoD school system from the third through the seventh grades, in the mid-1950s. The military, as you probably know, was the first institution in these Untied States to be fully integrated, and its overseas school system reflected the policy. To make a long story short: ALL of us kids benefited from that policy. You begin with the children...

    Thanks for your post. It's a wonderful thing you and Jim came up with.

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  23. Michelle - over from Sully's. We've met there a time or two. ;0)
    Awesome post, like Sully's - standing ovation for your honesty and courage.
    The most shocking thing I think is to realise that your experiences were in the 80s/90s. The 1990s. I still find my head spinning for that.
    Great post.

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  24. Wow! Great Post.

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  25. Michelle - So glad you and Suldog did this dual posting - kudos to you for being so open and honest.
    I am shocked at the first grade teacher's behavior towards you, and that she got away with it.
    On the subject of racism, I am currently listening to "The Secret Life of Bees" as an audio book, I recommend it (so far) to everyone.
    Peace, Judi

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  26. Hi Michelle, this is my first time stopping by here. What a great idea that you guys came up with to post. You were both so honest.

    I grew up in a small town that was 99.17% white as you put it. The first time I saw an African-American student was when I went to a vocational school for data processing. This would have been when I was a Junior.

    Your story was very interesting, racism can be expressed in different ways. Believe it or not, I went through this not too long ago after a friend found out I was planning on going out on a date with an African-American man. She said very disgusted, "But he's black." To which I replied, "So what? Why would I limit myself to finding Mr. Right by the color of someone's skin?" She said, "How would you two have anything in common, he's black and you're white." Granted she was from an older generation, but it wasn't until that point that I didn't realize how narrow her mind was. So sad.

    She no longer talks to me about men/dating/diversity, etc. She also thought it was horrible that I let my 9 year old daughter play with African-American baby dolls. When I asked her why, she replied, "They don't look like her." I know my jaw dropped and I saw, "What???" Amazing the things people say.

    Thank you for your post! You know have a regular reader here. :)

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  27. So many people came to read this. Thank you to everybody who stopped by from Jim (Suldog's) blog, and for all the stories and sentiments.

    I wish I had the time to answer everyone's comment individually. Unfortunately, I don't right now. But thank you all for your kind words.

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  28. Oh, Chris, I forgot to mention. I can't even remember the teacher's name anymore. I spent more time blocking her memory from my mind. I doubt she would still be teaching though. She would have to be in her 70's by now (if I'm assuming she was somewhere in her 30's or 40's back then).

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  29. Michelle: You are brave and compelling all at once. Thanks for your experience, but more so for your courage and eloquence in relating the story to all of us. You and Suldog are a lethal combination. You both should be in charge of race relations. I got my racial come-uppance when I moved to Japan in 1991. They make sure that we Caucasians get our view of life on Glorp. You are terrific, and I will be back again.

    Best to you.

    ExpatFromHell

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  30. Thanks for sharing your memories. Thanks for not letting hate live in your heart.

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  31. Hi Michelle - just a great piece of work.

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  32. I came here via Suldog, although I didn't leave a comment on his blog. You had many difficulties during your formative years, and you describe it all so eloquently. As a child in the UK, I lived in a completely white community, I didn't see a person who looked any different from myself until I was about 7 or 8. But that doesn't mean there wasn't the local equivalent of racism. My life was made miserable cos I had red hair and cried easily. Other kids were ostracised cos they were Baptist, or Catholic, or they were poor and wore patched clothes. Any differences were picked on right away. With greater diversity in our lives now, I hope that sort of thing doesn't happen so often.
    When my younger son went to nursery school his favourite teacher was "Uncle Paul". About 5 years after my son started Grade 1 in our local school, the nursery school had a reunion of former teachers and students. We went along, and my son, now aged 11, was totally amazed when he met Uncle Paul.... he was black!!! Any my son had never noticed before.

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  33. Michele, here from Suldog's. What a wonderful idea for posting!

    I've gotta say, I applaud you both for being so honest. Now, we need to keep our hands gently on our kids and teach them better ways.

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  34. Again, thank you all for stopping by. It was a wonderful experience to share an instance from my life, and to read parts of your own stories.

    Thank you all!

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  35. Enjoyed this post.

    I'd still be picking my teeth up or sitting on a pillow if I'd made a racial slur in my house, being blessed with forward thinking parents in the 60s and in the deep south! Thankfully, we're one big melting pot here in Baton Rouge!

    Now...you have blog blingage awaiting at my place from yesterday...precisely because of posts like this.

    PS Suldawg's picture scared me! I though he had on a Roman collar! :)

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  36. Angie: Thank you dear, for the award and your kind words. Hugs!

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  37. I am so glad I had a Daddy who taught us to see people not color. There were words that WERE NOT ALLOWED in our house...and if we heard others say it, we spoke up - and almost always got our ass kicked - luckily, people for some reason were afraid to kick our asses - I think because we could get "crazy eyes" *laughing*

    I have been on both sides of this issue - I have almost gotten my ass kicked by a bunch of white football players because I had a black friend and they were NOT happy with me (this was in the mid-70's)...

    When I first moved to BR with my family, I went to a school that was probably at least 90% black - I think I was the only white girl in 5th grade and I am pretty sure the only white girl in 6th grade class - in 5th grade, the kids treated me horridly, calling my honkey and etc - it hurt, because I'd been raised not to see color like this ... I'd go home confused. Then the next year, in 6th grade (or maybe towards the end of 5th grade) there was a change...suddenly I was "cool" - I was loved, I was accepted - and I don't know what brought on that change - maybe the other students finally saw ME and not my color - I don't know. But, when we had to move to another part of town and I was in a all white classroom, I missed my friends terribly...missed that school...

    (my book deals a little with "skin color" - not overtly, but its there...in the background...)

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  38. Yet another amazingly thought provoking post, Michelle. This one caused a bit of soul searching, to be sure. First, and foremost, I am truly sorry that you experienced the things you did.

    I can only speak from the standpoint of a White Anglo Saxon Male, but here goes: My father was career Navy. For much of my formative years, we lived in government quarters in Virginia Beach, VA. It was multiracial neighborhood (and school) to say the least. I have no memories of looking at anyone differently based on skin color. We all played together, and being young, thought nothing of it.

    During my 2nd year of Jr. High, we moved to a lily white section area of Washington state. We had some Asian kids in the school, and one of my closer chums was the son of Korean immigrants. In high school, I think their were maybe four or five African American kids. From my observation, they fit in as well as any of us did, but only they could truly tell you if that was the case or not.

    Fast forward to my time in the Navy. While I'm not ignorant enough to believe that some prejudice doesn't exist, I was never witness to it. Particularly on submarines, where we were a tight community, people judged only on personal merit.

    While stationed in Hawaii, I was provided a brief glimpse into the other side. Some of the "locals" are none too fond of white folks. You learned that there were places you just did not go.

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  39. I'm here via Suldog. Great dual post idea, and your writing is truly uplifting. I'm glad I came over, I was planning on doing it for a while now. Your witty comments to Jim's posts are always a fun moment of the day for me. Now I meet you in these "circumstances" and the woman behind the wit is a leveled, analytical and refreshing person. I'm sorry your childhood was such a nightmare. Fortunately, you'll never let hate enter your heart. So there's your victory over those painful times.

    I grew up in an international school in Rome, Italy - where I had friends of many races, creeds, colors and cultures. I didn't really know what racism was until I witnessed it in America, my other home as a young adult.

    Ciao,
    Lola

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  40. Good morning,
    I came over here from Suldog's blog.
    Congratulations on David's Post of the Day Award!
    I will be back later in the day, to read your side of the story. I am looking forward to it,
    greetings,
    M.

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  41. Thank you all for continuing to stop by. Your comments are all so heartwarming. Unfortunately, I can't respond to everybody although I wish I could.

    Recently, I've come across some hardships in my life. This means I won't be able to monitor the activities on my blog. So I will be closing down all comments for my posts. Sorry. I hope everyone will understand.

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  42. Oh, please feel free to email me at:

    michhickman@gmail.com

    I will try to check it when I can.

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