Racial Tension: 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: