I have had people ask me how I would feel if my sons dated or married a black person or a person from another nationality/ethnicity, and my response has always been the same: I do not care who they decide to date or marry as long as they are a good person who treats them well. However, my heart would ache over the cruelty they would endure from people’s ignorance. I would like to believe that our society has changed, and it has come a long way. But, prejudice towards people of all races, ethnicities, nationalities, and backgrounds does still exist.
Growing up, I did not have close black friends, and the towns I lived in did not have Asians, Hispanics, or other backgrounds. The only interaction I had with black people was in school, extracurricular activities, and eventually my job at McDonalds. It was an unspoken rule; we could be friends with them but not outside those areas. We could not invite them home or go to their houses. That would be crossing a line. Honestly, it was a line I never thought to cross. Once a couple of my friends in junior high secretly began dating two black boys which I had no idea about. When their parents found out, they sat the three of us down demanding to know how long it had been going on for and how many black boys we were seeing. I had no idea what they were talking about, but my two friends were in tears. They had dared to cross that imaginary line, and their parents were not having it. They were forbidden from seeing the black boys again and were grounded for a long time. In the high school I graduated from, segregation was expected. The school was integrated of course because it was the early 1990’s, but blacks and whites did not intermingle. The high school seemed to encourage this by having a black beauty and beau as well as a white beauty and beau. Even prom was segregated. There was no official school prom. White parents hosted one, and black parents hosted one. No one discussed bringing them together because, again, that would have crossed lines people had drawn so many years ago and would have required tough conversations that no one wanted to have. It was easier to ignore the problem instead of dealing with it.
When I moved away from my small towns to attend college in Southeast Texas, I discovered there were places worse than where I grew up. While working as a secretary for the phone company’s union, I became close friends with the union’s black president, Phillip. He and his wife were two of the nicest people I had ever met. Phillip and I would have long discussions about so many things, race being one of them. He opened my eyes up to the reality he faced. As a phone repairman, Phillip travelled to many Southeast Texas towns and entered many homes to work on phones. He recalled times when phone customers refused him entry into their homes because he was black. Once, he was sent to a town on the Texas/Louisiana border to repair a line. While he was on a phone pole, a couple of white men drove up in truck and hollered that he better get out of town before dark if he knew what was good for him. He told me that he refused to work in that town after that. When I became a teacher in an all-white town and school district, I wanted to bring in Phillip to discuss his career with my 7th grade class. When a veteran teacher heard of my plan, she quickly discouraged the idea by telling me of when she attempted to bring a young black man in to discuss how he had overcome adversity. Parents protested and threatened harm to the man if he came to the school. So, she gave up on her idea, and as a naive, young teacher, I gave up on mine too.
In 2000, my husband and I moved to the Houston area where I began teaching at an urban school outside of Houston. Over my career in this district, I was able to work at different schools with a mixture of races, nationalities, and backgrounds: black, white, brown, Hispanic, Asian, rich, and poor. While here, I learned that in my heart I really did not care about my students’ skin color or ethnicity. To me, they were just kids who needed me. However, I also realized prejudices came in all areas. Black, White, Hispanic, and Asian students fought each other just because of who they were. Parents complained because a teacher was white or black which meant they were inherently racist. Parents and students of the same race and nationality from affluent schools looked down on those from the poor neighborhood schools. Some students and parents told me that as a rich white woman, I did not understand their life. They drew conclusions about me based on my skin and job as well as their life experiences. While working at an alternative discipline school, I witnessed a police officer slam a student into a desk for backtalking him. The same police officer calmly addressed a student acting the same way while I worked at a more affluent school. He never got physical with this student. The only difference between the students was the type of school they attended.
I wish I could write that prejudice and racism no longer existed in the little community I live in now, but that just is not true. Only a couple of years ago I dealt with a white police officer who was investigating a 13-year-old girl having sex with an 18-year-old black boy. He was more upset about a white girl being with a black boy than he was that she was only 13. I have seen teachers expect less of the poorer and/or black students in their classes. There have been coaches who opened up the gym on weekends and only invited their black students to participate. Parents have refused to attend a function in a local community because it is historically known as the black community. Teachers have allowed students to segregate themselves within a classroom because they (students and teachers) are more comfortable in their groups.
With all the prejudice and racism I have witnessed, what I have learned is that the majority of people are not okay with it, but they are fearful of standing up to it. People avoid tough conversations because they do not want to ruffle feathers. They would rather give in and let people have their way because it is the easiest path.
I will admit. I am not perfect. There have been times when I judged others by their looks and where they came from. Majority of those times, I was completely wrong. When I took the time to talk to the person, that is when I really began to understand who they were.
Over the years, I have pushed myself to have those tough conversations and to address injustices when I saw them. Nothing changes if we choose to ignore it. That invisible line needs to be crossed. Are you willing to cross it?