Sign posted on Facebook after the Women's March on Washington.
"I'll see you nice white ladies at the next Black Lives Matter March. Right?"
I saw the posting on Facebook and thought back to the 1950s when I was in high school. I noticed for the first time that we had one African American in our small western town. I'm sure he had a family, but I never saw them or any other black in our town. We had some Mexicans and once I innocently accepted a date with a really good looking Mexican boy. He showed up at our front door in a suit and tie to take me on a double date with friends. When he met my parents, they were shocked, but thankfully hid it. When I got home from our date, I got a lecture about what would happen to the family name if word got out that their daughter was seen with a Mexican boy.
Our one African American was a high school football star. Everybody liked him, he was active in student government and we elected him student body president. He had no one to date and I remember seeing him standing around on the sidelines talking to the guys at school dances. If I look back through my 1955 Tiger Annual and remember that our football team was called the Tigers, I shudder at the sight of cartoons depicting Black Sambo chasing a tiger around a palm tree.
The next time I noticed Negroes (the proper word at the time) was on a family trip to Chicago. Unlike home, everywhere I went I saw Negroes. They didn't seem so well off as our football hero back home. To me they looked tired and poor. Maybe I stared and averted my eyes when caught. I felt sad for them and puzzled. My sheltered life had quite literally blocked me from seeing the poor, white or black. The only poor person I knew was our white housekeeper. Later in our trip, I saw the crowded slums of Chicago where the poor lived in dilapidated tenement houses. Slum was a new word, but I understood the connection between the slums and how I had perceived the black people I'd seen there.
During the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, I was a young married woman living in Charleston, West Virginia. My husband worked for the Associated Press and until our baby boy arrived, I wrote a column for the Charleston Daily Mail. Images in the newspaper and on TV made me aware of the struggle for civil rights going on around the nation. I was horrified by what I saw: water hoses knocking blacks off their feet, a little girl escorted through the school door by a U.S. Marshal, murders of black and white civil rights workers, governors of southern states defying federal orders, and the riots and biting dogs.
I didn't find a civil rights march to attend in Charleston, so I decided I would see if the black community wanted my help. I was put on a committee of concerned blacks and whites. We had frequent meetings and talked about what we could do to help the ghetto children. I worked with a black community organizer and he and I, along with others, became allies. Hoping to expand the black children's world view we took them on field trips. I remember our wide eyes as we toured the State House--none of us had ever been inside. I put my young son in a black preschool program and with him in my arms, wept in the little black church on the Sunday following Martin Luther King's assassination.
The time came when our community organizer, appeared discouraged. He told me that he finally realized that his black brothers and sisters must move forward by themselves. Whites were detrimental to the cause. His words were kind and I understood and withdrew. We remained friends.
When we moved to Spokane, Washington in the early '70s, whites were involved in consciousness raising groups with blacks. Because of segregation we were isolated from the black community and they from us. These gatherings of blacks and whites made it possible for us to talk to one another, and, of course, our conversation was about race. My husband and I invited a number of progressive white friends and held a consciousness raising group with blacks who had been imported into our neighborhood. As complete strangers we sat down together in our living room and tried to talk to one another. Whenever I look back on that night I have to laugh at our naivete. We started out cordially and ended up yelling at each other. The blacks said that we were racist and we argued that we were not. How on earth could we possibly be racists? Through all those arguing voices I tried to tell them about my work in West Virginia. If I had thought to bring out the Bible I would have sworn on it that I WAS NOT RACIST. I remember saying, "You don't know ME!" That night became an exercise in futility. It took thirty some years before I understood what they meant about me being racist--it took that long to raise my consciousness.
From my nice white lady point of view, the rest is easy to explain. Over the next thirty years the world changed. Segregation ended, the integration of blacks was a done deal, it was the law of the land. I saw blacks in TV commercials advertising toothpaste and insurance companies, I wasn't alone among white women in thinking OJ was the handsomest man on the planet, I enjoyed black entertainers and comedians, blacks attended college and ran for office like never before. Then we elected a black President. American racism no longer existed--even in the modern south!
Well, as we know now, racism and every other hateful ism didn't go away. It went into hiding. Now we are back to the '60s or, if I'm magnanimous, to the '70s.
Now, you ask, how is it that I finally understood that I, like every other American, have racist tendencies. Racism is part of being an American. Study history and you will know why--go back to the landing of the Pilgrims. The only way you or I, white or black, can come to that realization is to look inside. Look honestly, humbly inside and you will find it. Still, I beg to differ with the person who so cynically scribbled those words on that sign. If we are willing, all of us, white and black, are able to overcome our hidden racism. We do that by noticing it and letting it go every time it rears its ugly head. I don't know what overt racists can do to heal themselves.
But the greatest cure for racism or any other ism happens the moment you take a black person into your family as a son or daughter-in law. That happened in my family and our closeness and the love that grew between us erased everything else. And when you become a close friend with someone of a different race, religion, or orientation (as in sexual or gender), in time, you see only the essence of who they are and prejudice falls away. Unlike the young me, my grandchildren are free to date people of other races and religions.
"We shall overcome." I believe it is possible.