I am not now and have never been racist. I have reason to know I am not. But then, perhaps it depends on your definition of racism.
At the age of 75 (nearly 76 now), I’ve already led a full and interesting life, filled with the kind of experiences most people never have. I’ve been around and worked with Indigenous people and Black people, albeit only a few. My first boss was a Jewish man from St. Louis. I’ve dedicated many years of voluntary service to environmental efforts at the rate of at least 20-30 hours per week in my late 20’s through early 40’s, while I simultaneously worked full-time at low-paying jobs. During that same period, as I learned more about the reality of inequality in our society, I became a member of NAACP, and continued until I no longer had the money to pay dues. In short, I cannot understand why anyone would have thought I was ever racist.
I remember when I was a young girl (late 1950’s), my mother played piano in the Mission downtown. It was a small little room facing onto Sprague or Main Street, near Division. My mother took me with her and I would sit in the front pew just listening and watching, surrounded by men who were “down on their luck” as it was said then. They loved to have me there, mom said, because I reminded some of them of the childrend they had left behind – others of the family they would never have. We were sympathetic to their plight… not prejudicial or judgemental. We simply wanted to help them in the only way we could – food, warmth and caring.
At about age 8 or 10, I lived for a short time on an Indian reservation outside Auburn, Washington, where my grandmother had a church along with a female elder of the Tribe. My best friend was Doreen. I loved her dearly. We had a lot of fun running up and down the dirt road in front of our houses. I say houses, but they were really just square buildings made of plywood. We had an outhouse for our bathroom and an icebox on the back porch in which to put milk and butter when we had it. I knew Doreen’s family was poor – so were we. Dad cooked mostly beans (with a little hamhock thrown in when available) and we suffered the cold in the winter, although temperatures were not as bad on the West Coast as they are inland. There are two things I remember from that tender age: When kids made fun of Doreen at the public (mostly white) school we attended, I threatened to beat them up if they didn’t stop. And I remember learning many years later (we had lost touch) that Doreen had died at an early age – from alcholism. It broke my heart to hear that. I was not prejudice. I simply grew up loving Indigenous people – even before I had learned that new term.
When I was about 15, I was home alone when a man who knew my mother and me came to visit. He stayed in the doorway and seemed kind of strange in his demeanor. When he made an unacceptable advance towards me, I was really scared, but I backed away and he realized he had crossed some kind of line and let me go. He said to say hello to mom and he left. I shut the door and locked it behind him and ran into the back of the house where I hid until mom came home. You see, in those days many teen girls were pretty naive, so this was a shocking experience. To make matters worse, he was our pastor at the time. Oh, and he was Black. But I can honestly tell you that the color of his skin made no difference to me. I had been betrayed by someone I had trusted. Someone so much larger than me that he scared me.
About a year later, I entered into a public conversation with a young Black man at the train station in St. Louis where my mother and I had a layover between trains on our way south to Texas. He was very friendly and we both were smiling and laughing. But when everyone in the train station cafe stopped talking and looked over at us, he pushed his cart on to another table, head bowed in sadness. I sat there and cried. I was too naive – again. I had no idea that I was “not supposed to talk with” Black people.
Once we arrived in Dallas (on our way to Brownwood), a nice white woman drove us out to the Cotton Bowl where they had a museum. This was just after Kennedy had been shot there, and we passed the repository and the grassy knoll on his fateful route. On our way to the site which was about 20 miles outside the city, Black men lined the street on the other side from our lane and yelled terrible things at us. She said we had to lock the doors for safety. She explained they were very angry due to the mistreatment they had endured and the history of Black people in this country. Again – I was naive. Later, we went back to the train station on a public bus in which integration meant that Black people did not have to ride in the back. Instead, everyone in the bus sat facing forward – no talking, no smiling, nothing – and to my great sadness, the white people sat on the left side and Black people sat on the right side of the bus. Again I cried.
In Brownwood, Texas, which is about 120 miles S.W. of Dallas, we spent about 6 months living with the pastor of a very tiny little church (maybe 15 people), until for reasons I won’t go into here, we knew we had to leave and wanted to return to Washington. We found sanctuary in an all-Black church where they welcomed us with open arms. They also gathered together the financial help to get us home on the train. They were one of the finest, most “Christian” fellowships it has ever been my grace to attend. I will never forget those folks!
Another thing happened when my ex-husband and I went through Chicago in about 1970, on our way to visit musician friends in Nashville at the new Grand Ole’ Opry park that took the place of the old Opry building. We went into town from O’Hare Airport to go shopping in a “hippie” section and followed directions given to us, only to find ourselves lost. My husband was not uncomfortable because he had come back from Vietnam where he hung out with the Black guys most of the time. They were into music by Jimi Hendrix and old blues singers, and as a musician, he felt right at home. While we made our way toward what we then believed was the shopping area, we passed a church where the service was just letting out. As Black people streamed out onto a sidewalk that was nearly a foot off the ground, they made it clear with glares that we were not welcome on their sidewalk. They were mostly women. I had not expected that from “Christians,” but they had their reasons. Then a man came by (who later was shown to be a leader in that community) who walked us a few blocks to our destination, explaining that we should not be in his neighborhood alone.
As we walked along, people on little porches were asking him what was going on and he just explained that we were lost and he was showing us the way. In addition to the church incident, I also remember coming to a huge hole in the sidewalk where we could see down into what looked like a sewer pipe. It stunk badly. I asked him why it had not been fixed. He explained it had been like that for a couple of years and the city had no desire to fix it. They made sure their kids did not play there and fall in. Again, I cried.
Once, as I was walking to the bus-stop in downtown Spokane, I noticed a policeman pulled over on Washngton, talking with a man who was sitting on the bench. On a closer look, I realized he was an American Indian man and the policeman was explaining to him that “You know, Jim, you can’t sit here. You have to move on.” The officer evidently knew the man on the bench by name. I was about to walk on, but then another police car came “screamiing” down Washington, spun the corner and ran up on the sidewalk. A female officer jumped out with her hand on her hip holster and asked the first officer if he needed help. I definitely did not like this woman! So, I stopped where I was and kept “vigil” until it was sorted out… just as I had as a young girl. I don’t know what I would have done had things gotten carried away, but I was ready to help him. Just as I had been as a child.
There are more stories to tell, but not here, not now.
So there you have it. That’s why I’ve never considered myself “racist.” After my experiences:
Did I hate all men? No, but perhaps I did learn not to trust them freely. Did I hate Black men after my experience as a teenager? No. I went on to work with a couple Black guys when I became an entertainment booking agent in the 60’s. And in later years when I worked at the Musician’s Union. I didn’t shrink away from them because they were Black. I didn’t even hold all pastors responsible for the actions of one man.
Did I hate all teachers for the actions of a few, like the math teacher in high school who wacked the back of my hand with a large ruiler just because I passed an eraser to someone who asked, after the teacher had said “no talking.” I wasn’t even the one who was talking. But I learned that some women can be as mean and cruel as some men.
Did I hate police officers for the offensive actions of a few, like the vice detective who tried to hustle me while I was enjoying a visit to a local club to watch a band of musician friends. When I was in high school, I lived for a year with my best friend’s family – the father was a Lt. on the Police Force – a nice man. No – I always knew people are individuals – some good and decent, some selfish and not to be trusted.
And that brings me to the question I have been meditating on over the past year or so…. am I predudice? Am I racist? Well I suppose it depends on your definition of racism. There are some people, I am sure, who believe it is fair to call me racist just because I was born white. And there may be some people who would say I am racist because I have not taken responsibility for the past history of this country. I am not sure what I could have done that I have not already done.
Truth is, I am not responsible for the past, but I am responsible for what I do with the new information I get. I am not responsible for the wrongs of the past against…
…Black people, Chinese workers, Indigenous peoples (both Indian and Latin American), American Japanese, immigrants from Italy, Germany, Ireland and the many other countries from which our population has been drawn;
…Catholics, Protestants, Muslims, Buddhists, and all the other peoples of Belief;
…Women, children, the elderly, the poor, and people of different gender identifications;
…and people with physical or mental differences from what we consider to be the “norm.”
But I AM responsible as a citizen of the United States to do what I can to make sure people are treated equally and fairly. And I AM responsible as a human being to do what I can to make sure people are treated with compassion and understanding.
Is there such a thing as “passive racism?” Is it perhaps the definition for having not done enough? Could I have done more? Even now, can I do more? I’m working on it. And, please God, if there’s a group of people I’m unaware of who have been abused, ignored or sidelined, please show me so I can at least try to do the right thing in the future that is left to me.