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Racial Tension: What I Grew Up Not Talking About

Posted by on Jan. 20, 2013 at 5:43 PM
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What I Grew Up Not Talking About

In corresponding just now with friend of this blog Alisha De Freitas, on the topic of blacks and whites talking, or not talking, about the tensions between us, I realized something that’s huge for me, given my background, that many, probably most, of you have no experience with.

As you know, I grew up in the Deep South. I was born in 1967. The public schools were integrated a few years before I started school. My generation was the first one to go entirely through integrated schools. Half the kids in our school were black, the other half white. We didn’t know what it was like to be segregated, but that by no means meant that we integrated ourselves socially. At recess, the black kids played with the black kids, and the white kids played with white kids. What we had was the absence of hostility, which is not the same thing as engagement. Same school, different worlds.

I hadn’t quite thought of it before writing to Alisha, but in my generation, we were all raised — black and white — to Not Talk About It. “It” being race, and racial conflict, both historically and in the present day. That’s how we kept the peace. Sure, we little white kids talked about race among ourselves, often abusively, and I’m quite sure little black kids did the same. With each other, though, we for the most part just didn’t mention race. At all. I don’t recall being instructed on this point, but we white kids got the sense that it’s better not to talk about some things. The idea, I guess, was that if we started talking about it cross-racially, things would be unpredictable, and this communal project that had to succeed — integrating the schools — could blow up.

Forty years later, our local public school system is a big success, overall. In the next parish over, integration prompted white flight to a private school in the community, and I’m told that that community is racially divided in ways that our parish is not. Our leaders back then made a decision to make integration work, no matter what. So we children, black and white, were taught passively not to talk about the experience of race, and racism. The risk to the entire community of those passions breaking out and tearing us apart is too great.

You know, I think that was probably the best solution, though very, very far from perfect. Given the deep wounds of history, wounds that white people in this place inflicted on black people, and given the urgent need for us all to live together, keeping silence and a cold peace was probably the best of a bad set of options. I don’t like it, but this is our inheritance. If you have not lived in a place like this, with a history like ours, and are responsible for protecting something as potentially fragile as integration, you should think twice before condemning what you don’t understand. I could be wrong, but my guess is that the leaders and parents, both black and white, who were responsible for making integration work back in the 1960s and 1970s did the best they could in helping us kids do what was required of us. Sometimes, the only way forward is to shut up and get on with it, and figure the rest out later.

We are better than we were. We are not as good as we should be, and, God willing, will be. If time heals all wounds, then wounds as deep as those inflicted by slavery and Jim Crow will take more time than most.

UPDATE: My wife points out that it’s a very Southern thing to refuse to talk about anything unpleasant in mixed company (a phrase that includes people who are likely to have strong but differing opinions), because to do so is to risk disharmony. She’s right about that. It is considered vulgar to do so. I cannot tell you how much social anxiety this conditioning caused Julie and me when we lived in New York City. Once we went to a dinner party at which we were the only Gentiles at the table, and, when everybody started arguing with each other, we very nearly became the Gentiles under the table, to get away from what to us felt like a disaster. Of course they weren’t really fighting at all, just conversing in the usual robust New York Jewish way. Down South, though, that would have been a dinner-party disaster. I’m actually not joking.

UPDATE.2: Turmarion posts this classic scene from “Annie Hall.” Yep, exactly. Well, not exactly; Southerners are generally far less formal and uptight than these East Coast WASPs in the clip. Still, that’s the general idea:


by on Jan. 20, 2013 at 5:43 PM
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romalove
by Roma on Jan. 20, 2013 at 5:49 PM
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Interesting article, thank you for posting. 

ramonafrog
by Bronze Member on Jan. 20, 2013 at 5:49 PM
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I think I was 12 years old when I first learned that racial discrimination existed. We never talked about race in my family. Not because it was something not to discuss but because my parents taught is that we were all humans. No person was greater or lesser than another. We are all the same. I didn't know my friends as "brittni" my black friend, "Sally" my white friend, "lori" my native american friend, "raj" my middle eastern friend, and "Mary" my Hispanic friend. They were just my friends. When I learned about slavery and our history as Americans I was very sad.
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radioheid
by Libertarian on Jan. 20, 2013 at 6:42 PM

 I attended a predominantly black elementary school (I was typically one of two or three white girls in a 30-kid class), and race was very openly discussed. I think the black kids felt emboldened by their dominant numbers, and I was often asked about my...well..."whiteness", as in why I dressed the way I did, talked the way I did, listened to the music I did and watched the television shows I did. I didn't really have friends because I was so different, and my interactions with black kids were generally limited to the curious "white" questions, or alternatively, why I didn't dress "black", listen to Kris Kross or Salt & Peppa or watch "Martin" or "In Living Color" (yes, I'm old, LOL). A couple of times I was invited to play double-dutch, and when I declined, that was the end of it. I was the odd little white marble in a sea of black marbles.

My school took the study of black culture and race relations very seriously. Black History Month was a huge deal, culminating with the annual "Brotherhood Week". In 1993, I won the grand prize for my own presentation, a poster featuring the "Half-Man" character---a literally half-black, half-white man dressed in my best guess of what prehistoric tribal garb may have looked like, crossing a plain. As a 10-year old 4th grader, I "got it", that black and white people are simply PEOPLE, that we share a common history (even if most of it has long since been forgotten), and that all of our differences, aside from the obvious skin color, are invented and can be blended.  

That poster hung in the hallway until the school closed a few years ago.

I wish to GOD the discussion would center on what makes us THE SAME, versus what makes us DIFFERENT. It is fine to celebrate our differences, cultural difference is an awesome thing, but it should be done in a way that doesn't seek to make one culture even *seem to be* superior to another. The bigger discussion at the end of the day, however, should gravitate back to earth and history where we are all people. Just people. There's nothing we can do to change what already happened, other than to make sure we don't treat each other like crap from this day forward.


"Roger that. Over."

R   A   D    I    O    H    E    I    D

Euphoric
by Bazinga! on Jan. 20, 2013 at 6:43 PM

 Interesting

Veni.Vidi.Vici.
by on Jan. 20, 2013 at 6:45 PM


Quoting radioheid:

 I attended a predominantly black elementary school (I was typically one of two or three white girls in a 30-kid class), and race was very openly discussed. I think the black kids felt emboldened by their dominant numbers, and I was often asked about my...well..."whiteness", as in why I dressed the way I did, talked the way I did, listened to the music I did and watched the television shows I did. I didn't really have friends because I was so different, and my interactions with black kids were generally limited to the curious "white" questions, or alternatively, why I didn't dress "black", listen to Kris Kross or Salt & Peppa or watch "Martin" or "In Living Color" (yes, I'm old, LOL). A couple of times I was invited to play double-dutch, and when I declined, that was the end of it. I was the odd little white marble in a sea of black marbles.

My school took the study of black culture and race relations very seriously. Black History Month was a huge deal, culminating with the annual "Brotherhood Week". In 1993, I won the grand prize for my own presentation, a poster featuring the "Half-Man" character---a literally half-black, half-white man dressed in my best guess of what prehistoric tribal garb may have looked like, crossing a plain. As a 10-year old 4th grader, I "got it", that black and white people are simply PEOPLE, that we share a common history (even if most of it has long since been forgotten), and that all of our differences, aside from the obvious skin color, are invented and can be blended.  

That poster hung in the hallway until the school closed a few years ago.

I wish to GOD the discussion would center on what makes us THE SAME, versus what makes us DIFFERENT. It is fine to celebrate our differences, cultural difference is an awesome thing, but it should be done in a way that doesn't seek to make one culture even *seem to be* superior to another. The bigger discussion at the end of the day, however, should gravitate back to earth and history where we are all people. Just people. There's nothing we can do to change what already happened, other than to make sure we don't treat each other like crap from this day forward.

I like your points!

FromAtoZ
by AllieCat on Jan. 20, 2013 at 8:40 PM
1 mom liked this

I am trying to remember the first time I realized that black people were different, to some, outside of the obvious difference in skin color.

I can't recall my age, I would say around 10ish.  We were in a grocery store.  The checker mentioned that she felt 'that' lady and 'her kind' were either doing some thing or saying some thing..........no idea what.  The phrases caught my attention.  I asked my mom why she talked that way about the other lady.

For all the evil my mother was, she was not racist.  She told me that many people do not like black people.  Of course, I asked her why.  Simply because they are black.  She told me that the color of skin should not matter to any one but to many, it did and does.  Then she told me I would learn more about 'all of that' as I got older.  She told me that I was to remember the color of skin was not as important as who they person is.  That ended that conversation.

When I was older, I asked my oldest sister (20 years older than I) what it was like in school.  She said that most of the kids were awful in that they called the black people names and would not talk to them and indeed felt they were better, their schools were better, based on nothing more than the ugliness their parents taught them and the color of their skin.  She shared a few stories with me.

She once brought home a friend.  A little black girl.  She was about 11 at the time.  The only reason my mother allowed her to come in and play was because my dad played professinoal football so it would be more acceptable to present themselves in a proper manner.  My mother did pull my sister aside and explained to her that, personally, she welcomed the little girl but others would not so my sister was lucky her step dad was famous, it made it more okay and they would not be talked bad about.

How awful is that!!

I cannot imagine basing any thing on the color of skin. 

NWP
by guerrilla girl on Jan. 20, 2013 at 8:51 PM
1 mom liked this

Hahahahaa! I busted out laughing at this part""My wife points out that it’s a very Southern thing to refuse to talk about anything unpleasant in mixed company (a phrase that includes people who are likely to have strong but differing opinions), because to do so is to risk disharmony. She’s right about that. It is considered vulgar to do so. I cannot tell you how much social anxiety this conditioning caused Julie and me when we lived in New York City. " because I have soooooooo lived this experience!

I remember when I first moved to New York I thought everyone was fighting! Then I realized that is just the way they talk to each other...I also came to understand that many North Easterners felt that Southerner's were untrustworthy because they didn't state their mind up front...But we were just being polite the way our mama's taught us...

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