Thursday, December 5, 2013

Smacked in the Face: Racism

Years ago, when my sons were in elementary school, I volunteered to help with the Christmas play, and was assigned backstage duty on the night of the performance, where I mostly kept a bunch of very lovable and delightful first-and-second-grade boys hijinx-free. They called me "Miss T.", which always, of course, came out as "Misty". It was joyful duty. I loved those children, and their unconditional trust of me, a white parent among black children.

My boys were the minority at that school; we were the minority in our community. Our zip code, 98118, boasts the most ethnically diverse population in the nation. Proud to boast! (Although I suspect that, due to rapid gentrification, this will not be the case in ten years or so.)

And although the student body tended to be a bit rough, I'm glad my sons spent their first years at a school where their white skin tone granted them no favors.  As Reilly's first grade teacher said to me once, when he was experiencing a run of bullying, "I know you feel like you're throwing your son to the wolves when you drop him off at school every day, but this is the real world." This, from a white, blond-haired, blue-eyed first grade teacher who looked like a human version of Bambi's mother.

A harsh real world, but indeed the real world.

Months after that Christmas play, I was sitting in the bleachers at a little league game on a balmy Saturday morning, when one of my backstage first-graders came running up to me shouting "Miss T.! Miss T.!" He charged into my lap, hugging me and laughing, nearly knocking me off the bench in the process. What complete delight!

Until his mother caught up with him, yanked him up and away by his arm, shouting: "DON'T YOU TOUCH THAT WHITE WOMAN! DON'T YOU DARE! WHAT DO YOU THINK YOU'RE DOING!" The boy tried to explain, and she slapped him and dragged him away as he burst into tears.

Believe me, it wasn't that she was worried that her son was "touching" a white woman. It was more that I was poison, garbage, worthless. Her glare might have withered someone with a disposition more delicate than mine. All it did was sadden me, mightily. Devastated me, really, that the lesson her effervescently joyful child was receiving was that the white woman sitting on the bleachers was someone to be reviled.

Here was racism smacking me in the face.

That single incident changed me, really. At that moment, I understood, deeply,  what racism meant, on my very small and, albeit, insignificant scale. I was judged by my skin color, period.

I want to believe that the child grew up to be a young man with an open and generous heart, with perhaps some memory of his early grade school years when a woman with pink skin, or green skin, or purple skin, maybe, kept him and his friends in good-natured line at a Christmas play at Whitworth Elementary School in Seattle. That we giggled quietly and waited for the right cues, backstage, where in the darkened light, we were all the same color.


  1. The institutionalised racism of both the US and S Africa is so foreign to a simple English boy. I grew up with very few black skinned people around, but the ones that I did encounter were always just 'people' with the same rights and aspirations as everyone else. Nowadays it's sadly all very different.

  2. Hurt people hurt people. This is an incredibly sad story in some of its particulars but also a hopeful one in that you have raised you boys to be part of the solution in our deeply wounded country.

  3. a sad situation...imagine having dark skin and being negatively judged each and every day because of it! There is a powerful TED talk by Bryan Stevens about the US prison system and the 1 in 3 chance that, if you are a young black man, you will end up there. Seriously messed up.