Friday, June 17, 2011

A new post concerning an old question and a story

This is a post a few of my older readers (and when I mean old, I'm not referring by age) had read about three years ago. It was a very moving post, and one where quite a few readers had to comment on. Well, the day that inspired this post is coming soon, so we --as myself and the person who asked this question-- are revisiting this time again. I hope you enjoy this post, and perhaps change a few perspectives for some people.

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.


  1. Thank you so much, Michelle, for sharing your story. As a little white girl from a military base background, where diversity is the norm, I struggled with a lot of ignorance when my Dad retired when I was only 11, and we moved north of Syracuse--The Great WHITE North--which is just as full of rednecks.

    They called me Nazi, because I was born in Germany (WEST Germany, at the time, but rednecks don't really care that their teasing isn't actually accurate).

    And I'm sure you can imagine what happened when a black family moved to town. I was in 7th grade before this happened, and other 7th graders would lean across the table to tell the new girl her kind wasn't welcome here. I got into a lot of fights that way. I'd tell them their parents were assholes for teaching to believe stuff like that.

    So I know (second-hand) how ignorant, cruel and inhumane people can be when it comes to racism, and I'm sorry you had to go through it. And I'm forever grateful that I had as much diversity in my youth as I did.

    Happy Juneteenth, Michelle!

  2. I remember this, Michelle; thanks for re-posting it.

    As I read it again, I'm a little stunned that a teacher in the early 80s could still get away with racial bullshit like that. It wasn't terribly unusual when I was growing up in the 60s, but by the 80s it was the kind of thing that, even if you thought it, you didn't say it out loud. . .

    (You might recall that, between you and Suldog, you provoked me to write a 'racial post' of my own; but I don't mean to play 'Can You Top This?', by any stretch. . .)

  3. I think what surprised me about this post is that this happened in 1979.

    I grew up in the inner city of Chicago. Our first black classmate was in 1964. Like the rest of the boys, he wore a suitcoat and tie. But that was normal for the time.

    Since he was a boy, he stuck with the boys. And when we finally got girl classmates of color we mingled by gender and not race. But then most of us were Hispanic and we too think of ourselves as people of color.

    Only much later, when the population percentage equalized, and after I left high school did I notice the races segregating themselves.

    I am really surprised such a thing happened that late in the decade for you.

    I guess that proves change happens slowly and irregularly.

    An interesting observation.

  4. Thanks (again) for the kind words, and for agreeing to do this with me, MDGF.

  5. Sometimes it's hard for me to truly express my thoughts regarding race relations simply because I worry about coming off as not "politically correct." But since you kind of know where I'm coming from here, Michelle, I'll give it a shot.

    I believe that white America will NEVER even come close to understanding the plight of minorities in our country, and here's why. If I, a white male, choose to avoid all contact with, say, African American culture, it would be relatively easy for me to do so.

    The same can not be said for African Americans. Living in this country, there is no choice but to, and I'm not being ironic here, "get along" with us white folks.

    I don't think you can ever understand this concept unless you've lived it.

    Anyway, as a representative of the education community, I would like to apologize for your first grade teacher. People like that shouldn't be allowed anywhere near a classroom.

  6. Yes, I too, am shocked that in the late 70's early 80's you had such a bigoted and racist teacher.

    That is a horrible shame.

    Your experiences are compelling because how does a young person ever really know how to deal with such unexpected hatred?

    And to even have other black people turn against you for being accepting of whites?

    It's truly sad.

    I'm half-Mexican/half caucasian. Some people see it, some people don't. My experiences some very negative pale in comparison to yours.

    And that leaves me with a heavy heart.

    But I do have an inpolitically correct or is it unpolitically correct question.

    Why do you use the moniker African American? Is "black" considered derogatory?

    I don't call myself an English American for my white half, or a Mexican Indian American for my brown half (ha!).

    Although I do think black people have been horribly treated, just incorrigible treatment by white people, why does the black community want to use this term?

    I see it as divisive. But I don't know. I'm not black. So it's easy for me to say, right?

    However, I wish we could just identify with being Americans, but I see the problem with that too. "Americans" historically, have been white upper middle class.

    Not an easy situation and there is probably not an easy solution.

    Forgive my rambling, but is it offensive to regard your skin color, your being as black and not African American?

    Forgive my ignorance too. I look forward to your reply.

  7. Tere: I understand how things could have been for you. Racism is every, and it can happen to anyone. I have a rather sad story to tell about a girl who was in a similar situation as you.

    A German family moved into the valley in the late 90s, about two years before I graduated high school. The daughter had a horrible time in middle school, with the kids through stuff at her and calling her a "Nazi." She had a terrible experience when entering adulthood. Unable to cope with the negativity and low self-esteem, she committed suicide.

    It's a sad state of affairs when intolerant people, bullies of any age, believe the way to raise their self-esteem is to belittle other people.

  8. Craig: Ah, I remember your story well. I should have asked you to post yours along with ours. My apologies!

    Maria: Yes, it did happen so late in the decade. But perhaps it's more based on the "where" this happened then the "when." I saw this because of a FaceBook message I received regarding this post. She also lives here in PA, and said some interesting things. I'll post what she said here, because I think it's very important to know that such negative opinions can still live on today.

    " I grew up in another redneck area in Pennsylvania but the bias here was based on ethnicity and religion when I was a kid. Thankfully, much of that has now gone by the wayside but I'm not so naive as to think the same kind of bias, prejudice and hatred doesn't still exist here but of the racist variety. However, since the area is pretty much still "lily white" it isn't exhibited as much -probably because there aren't many targets for it to come out of the woodwork and push other factions around with that stuff. But it's here, that much is for sure, and what a shame, what a loss that people don't even realize how much they are missing, how much they are losing by holding stupid hatreds like that in their hearts."

  9. Suldog: It's always such a pleasure, MLGF, to do such things with people. Perhaps we can have a more light-hearted dual-posting together.

    Chris: I understand where you are coming from... and yet I wonder if such a thing can still hold true in today's day and age. Saying white people will never know what it feels like to be a minority may no longer be the case with so many interracial relationships happening. And as I mentioned in my story, the boy on the bus who was upset about his sister having a "half-breed" shows that there are a few white people who, indeed, feel as if the world is closing in on them as a race, and they may one day become a minority.

    Don't take my comment as anything but a general rambling/musings I do now and again. Ask Suldog. He can tell you a WHOLE bunch of societal ramblings I've related to him.

  10. "We were the only black family there."

    Okay, that deserves a post. Or did you already post about how it happened that your family lived where it did?

    As for your current post, it was great to read it. I also was thinking of how, even today, some of what you describe may still go on. It always "surprises" when it comes out into the open. Then it just depressses me.

  11. Quirky Loon: I don't have a real answer to your question. I don't see the word "black" as derogatory. I think I used "African American" in my story just to be "politically correct."

    I can't answer how other black people see such a word or how they would want to call themselves. We've gone through generations of coming up with a "name" for the black race, everything from Afro-American (I believe that was an early 70s moniker) to People of Color (which I believe showed up around the 80s.)

    Classifications... I despise such as thing. I believe Craig, from up above in the comments, was the person who once mentioned how whenever he gets a paper that asks for your race, he placed down "human." I have the same sentiment. I don't use either black or African American. I see myself as human, and that is good enough for me.

  12. Judith: I don't think there would be much of a post in how we came to be there. My father was in the Marines, and my mother had family living in Pittsburgh. For whatever reason they choose this town at that time, it's something my parents never discussed.

  13. I sure wish I had been younger and lived in PA and went to school with you. We would for sure have been pals. Thank you for writing about things you learned and endured growing up. It made you into the knowledgeable and fair minded woman you are today.

  14. I was a city kid once and lived where there were a number of "other" races. I saw them all of the time. The novelty of having any close enough to talk to didn't occur until my mid teens, when I finally went to high school with them. The problems weren't necessarily with the kids. It was parents and other adults.

  15. De facto pretty much describes how folks were segregated when I was growing up. I'm sure I saw black people when I was first growing up in San Francisco. Heck, my paternal grandparents lived three blocks from Fillmore Street. About the only instance of discrimination that specifically comes to mind... and it made headlines... was when somebody mentioned refusing to sell a home to Willie Mays when he was moving to SF with the Giants. That was after we'd moved to the suburbs 30 miles south.
    I can think of only two instances where I had any real contact as a preteen. The first was in a game of "king of the mountain." As I tried to wrestle another kid off the hill, I noticed his hair wasn't like mine. We were just kids playing. The second was a little different. A friend, Mike Zimmerman, and I had ridden our bikes over to the college football stadium to sell newspapers at the game. We were probably eleven years old. It was an all day thing, but the best sales action was after the game when folks were headed to the train back to the city and points in between. I was finding my way out of the stadium to go get a fresh stack of papers when I was approached by a slightly larger black kid accompanied by two or three others. They had evidently arrived too late to be signed up for selling papers, so they wanted mine. They got them and I got a fat lip.
    I didn't attend school with black kids until high school. That wasn't because there were no black families in the district. There just weren't any on the side of the highway where we lived.
    In high school I can't think of a single race incident, other than the High school district finished three new schools and further conveniently segregate the district.
    I'd like to say I don't have any prejudices, but I'd be lying. I just try very hard not to give them any credence because they're based on what I heard from other white folks not on experience... except for one time.

  16. Like I just remarked on Jim's blog, 'And when we prick our fingers, do they not bleed red blood?' - the one colour that's the same for us all since time began... Good on ya for posting this , Michelle. ♥


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