I grew up in small town Texas. It was about as Friday night lights as you can get. It was also home to one of the biggest kkk groups in the state, and at the time, I didn’t think that was weird.
I knew what racism was, but I certainly didn’t think I was racist.
I’ve spent the last four years married to a black man, and understanding racism is something I do every day. I still don’t understand it the way he does, but knowing that is one of the first things I needed to learn.
For me growing up, racism just wasn’t discussed. We didn’t use the “n” word, because we didn’t know any black people. It wasn’t that we hated them, it was worse than that.
They didn’t exist. This was before the internet, before wifi and cell phones. When you could live in your own space and know nothing more.
With the exception of one family in my small town, the only black people I ever saw were on television shows like “Fresh Prince” and “A Different World.” And while I liked watching them both, I couldn’t relate to either of those in any way.
They might as well have been foreign films.
There was one black girl in my school. In the sixth grade she slapped me. I didn’t know what I’d done to provoke it, and I was mad.
Later I found out it was because someone had told her not to let her “n*#%$r hair” touch them. My hair was long and blonde, and I sat right next to her.
I played with it all day, and when I whipped it back, some of it got on her chair.
Nobody ever told me to watch where I put my hair. I could do whatever I wanted with it.
And so she slapped me.
It wasn’t okay. She spent the afternoon in the principal’s office. My mom met with the principal as well. After school, she picked took me to Dairy Queen.
Mom told me why the black girl had slapped me over a Dilly bar, “She said she did it because it wasn’t fair for you to be able to whip your hair around and nobody even care. She didn’t do it because she was mad at you.”
This made no sense to me. I didn’t care what that girl did with her hair, because she was a novelty to me.
The token black kid in a sea of blonde hair and blue eyes.
Beyond wondering if she could get a sunburn, or where she bought all those clacky beads she wore, I had no interest in her.
“That doesn’t mean she gets to slap me, mom.”
“I agree. You can’t slap someone just because they have pretty hair.”
And there it was. Something I didn’t recognize back then, but I see now. By saying I had pretty hair, my mom was implying that she didn’t.
Systemic racism so deeply rooted neither she or I saw it that day.
We were both just upset that she slapped me.
“Is she going to get in trouble?” For some reason, I didn’t want her to. I was mad. So mad. But it just didn’t seem right to punish someone for liking my hair.
“She’s suspended for a day.”
“Okay.” That wasn’t too bad. At least that might keep her from hitting me again.
“And she has to move away from you. She isn’t allowed to sit by you.”
And I thought she meant that year. But it turned out she wasn’t even allowed to be in my class the next year, or the next. Throughout junior high and even high school, she’s the only person my age I never had another class with.
I asked about it a few years ago. “They just decided it would be best to separate the two of you. After what I went through in high school, we didn’t want that for you.”
And that’s when my mom told me about how my grandpa was a big time farmer while she was growing up. They’d integrated her school with the all-black school across town her sophomore year. Many of the black children’s parents worked for my grandfather.
This wasn’t slavery. They got paid. But, it was a little too close for comfort for a lot of people. My mom spent quite a bit of time getting beat up by these kids. She ended up not being able to walk the halls without an escort.
“You thought that was going to happen to me?”
“I wasn’t going to let it happen to you.”
“So you kept us apart for six and a half years?”
“You bet I did.”
And I still don’t know what to do with that. When I tell my husband the story he says, “Sounds about right.” And that’s really all we can say at this point.
It’s in the past, and we can’t change it.
But what we can change is the future. I can unlearn the things I was taught. I can learn kindness and acceptance.
I now know that not seeing someone’s color is seeing them as an invisible person.
And that’s a start.