I was a racist by the time I was nine-years-old.
Don’t get me wrong. I didn’t know I was a racist. I didn’t plan to be a racist. My parents were forward-thinking, progressive, liberal Christians who never spoke poorly about people of other races. I was a generally happy, smart and energetic kid who got along well with others and love kittens, candy and playing outside.
So how, you ask, did I end up a racist before puberty? (For those who want the short answer, it is simple: I grew up in America. For those who want some personal backstory, keep reading.)
Between the ages of four and nine, our family lived in Rye, New York. An affluent suburb of New York City, Rye boasted wonderful resources in education, recreation and community-based enrichment activities. It was a great place, as I recall. But the thing is, I do not remember any black people there. Not in my school, not in my church, not in my neighborhood, not in my gymnastics class, not at the ice-skating rink, not at the swimming pool, not at… well, you get my point.
The only interface I had with people of color was through television— Good Times, What’s Happening, Sanford &Son and The Jeffersons. Somewhere along the way, my young and impressionable mind came to believe that all black people lived in ghettos. Maybe a few were lucky enough to get out— as in the the Jefferson’s “Moving On Up”— but really, black people lived in ghettos.
In 1979, when I was nine years old, our family moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I attended Frank Porter Graham Elementary School. And guess what? There were black people there. Perhaps you can imagine my shock when, at nine years old, I realized my parents had moved me to the ghetto.
I was worried.
I was scared.
To make matters worse, I had to ride the bus to school. The bus route went through a low-income housing community before rolling into our white, middle-class neighborhood. I am sure it is no surprise to any of you that the students in the low-income housing community were black. Of course, to my 9-year-old self, getting on a bus that was full of black children was just more proof that my parents had moved me to the ghetto and that I was in danger. In fact, when I got on the bus, the kids who had already been picked up would typically be seated on the inside seats of each row. When the kids at our stop asked if we could sit down, the black kids would tell us to “go to the back of the bus.”
Let’s say, racial tensions were just that--tense.
I found this passage online, which gives some of the back story about North Carolina schools at the time:
"In 1971, the United States Supreme Court ruled in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education that it wasn’t enough simply for schools to open their doors to students of either race. Instead, schools must actively work to dismantle the “dual system of education” that had developed during desegregation.
The problem was that segregation had produced separate black and white communities, each with their own neighborhood schools. The solution seemed to be busing white and black children to integrated schools outside of their neighborhoods. While some of the opposition by whites to busing was motivated by racism, busing was opposed by both white and black parents. Many parents were concerned that their children were being bused across town, sometimes for more than an hour, and attending schools outside of their own communities. Some white parents objected to busing because their children were being sent to formerly all-black schools, many of which were in disrepair and underfunded as a consequence of segregation. African American parents were concerned that busing their children to predominately white neighborhoods might expose their children to racism." (1)
At any rate, forced busing certainly exposed me to racism.
I should probably pause my story for the purpose of facts, as opposed to the perspectives of my remembered 9-year-old self. In the move, my dad had left academic research for a lucrative position in corporate America. Our house was beautiful, spacious and much nicer than our house in New York. I was afforded every kind of lesson you could imagine from piano to violin to gymnastics. Our standard of living increased considerably because of the move to North Carolina. I had not been moved to the ghetto. Not by any stretch of the imagination was being in the ghetto the actual circumstance in which I found myself.
However, my felt experience was quite different than reality because I had never seen a positive image of a person of color in the first nine years of my life. Wait— I take that back. My mother had a friend from the city who used to visit us occasionally in Rye. Ruthenia was a Methodist minister and was pretty awesome. So, for accuracy's sake we can say that for almost an entire decade of my life, I knew one black person.
As luck and pluck would have it, I eventually made friends with the kids on the bus and in my class and, looking back I am grateful I grew up in an incredibly diverse, interracial community. Racial tensions were always present. And always tense. Yet, I remember my group of friends being in a constant dialogue with each other around these tensions and striving to do well. I will save some of those stories for another day as they are not the point of today’s walk down memory lane.
My point today is that by nine years old— even with progressive, kind and caring parents, and having only met one black person personally— I had ingested the toxin of racism. The indoctrination into racism I had received in those early years --without knowing it, mind you-- went something like this: “White people live in good neighborhoods, black people live in ghettos. Black people get out of ghettos by acting like white people. Black people are scary unless they are acting like white people.”
Okay, maybe not word for word, but you get my point.
In fact, one of my first friends at my new school was a black girl named Tiffany. Tiffany reached out to me on my first day. She was the only person who did so, in fact. She introduced me to Trixie Belden books and we spent many an afternoon at each other’s houses, playing and talking. She lived in a nice neighborhood. People would say, “Well, you know, Tiffany is more like a white person.”
Anyway, I was thinking about my early racist indoctrination on my bike ride today as my heart was full of pathos after this last week. I didn’t choose my perceptions about race-- I was conditioned to perceive things in a certain way. As I rode, the first step of the 12-steps came to my mind: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol-- that our lives had become unmanageable.” Reflecting on my younger self, I realized I had been powerless over racism’s insidious power to influence and govern my perspectives.
I went on to consider, in what way has that made my life unmanageable? Certainly, I have wounds around that school bus ride. And certainly, the racial tensions around dating were fierce enough to keep me from exploring relationships with boys I really liked over the years. And yet, clearly, I am a privileged white girl and racism doesn’t seem to explain any of my phases of unmanageability.
But there have been costs.
The seeds of separation, division and fear rob me of the depth of my own humanity and steer me into the waters of isolation, suspicion, hopelessness and apathy. And, that is just me. Certainly, it stands to reason that those same insidious toxins invaded the hearts and minds of more people than one slightly-spoiled, spunky and tender-hearted young girl. In my opinion, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the toxin on racism got in deep- far and wide- and the painful consequences of infection abound.
(Okay, that last sentence might win an Understatement Of The Year Award. At any rate, I am forging ahead with my story.)
I worked with the first step as I rode today-- “I admitted I was powerless over my racial indoctrination-- that my life has become unmanageable." I remembered the nine-year-old me well. I felt tenderness for her in that move for how scared she was. I felt compassion for her confusion. And then I felt grateful. Grateful that that she grew up and grew beyond her indoctrination and grateful that she can see her life and the pain of other people from a different perspective now.
Don’t get me wrong- I am not some perfect, non-racist, white person now.
I think about personal recovery from systemic racism like my eating disorder recovery. As insane as so much of that thinking is, I still watch eating-disordered thoughts arise in me. I can wake up any given day and decide that some problem in my life will go away if I lose weight. I can be in bed in the morning and watch my mind plan a weight-loss program. It is crazy. And so we are clear, I know I am not overweight. I know that weight-loss will not repair my heartbreak, make my jealousy any easier to face or diminish my fear of growing old. I am smart, soulful woman with a fascinating inner life, not a shallow teeny-bopper who only cares how she looks and yet, those image-based thoughts can come up with the force of a tsunami, depending on the day. I have spent almost 2/3 of my life working with these issues and still, here they are. The difference today, is that I know my thoughts can feel real, without actually being a valid representation of reality. Much in the way, at nine, I felt like I was in the ghetto, and I wasn’t.
And in the same way I wish I wasn’t conditioned by modern society to care so much about looks, I wish I wasn’t conditioned by 450 years of systemic, institutionalized racism.
But I am.
Luckily for me, there are 12-steps or chances are, I could not bear to take the first one. Who can admit there is a problem if they do not believe there is a solution? Not me. Talk about despair. So luckily for me, I also know that there is a pathway I can take to restore my sanity. I have yet to find a path that will make me perfect, but I do know there that there is a pathway for seeing the lies of the conditioned self for what they are. And luckily for me, I can appeal to a Higher Power— not to solve political problems that require action- but to help me hear my better angels and to help me find courage to live according to their wisdom.
(And the cool thing is that my luck, is also your luck. These practices and perspectives are available for anyone interested in taking the journey. Talk about lucky. But I digress. More on that later.)
I have more to say on the topic, but my main take-away from my writing practice today is that no matter how messy I have ever been at Step One— and believe me, over the years, I have been at Step One many times and NO ONE looks good there— that messiness has always led me to some part of me I was happy to find. And no matter how much I may hate my own conditioning and some of my own behaviors, when I can find compassion for myself about how those conditioned thoughts and behaviors got there in the first place, I know I am in the neighborhood of healing and helping.
At any rate, take what you can use and leave the rest.
I wish you honesty, compassion, tenderness, healing, and hope. More soon.
(Here is a somewhat depressing and enlightening interview with North Carolina Senator, Jesse Helms, on the topic.)
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