Monday, January 21, 2019

On Racism

Growing up in the East NY section of Brooklyn, I considered myself a liberal, though racism was endemic in my circle of friends. And I get how hard it is to irradiate racist roots when they are planted in the young.

The neighborhood turned from a solid Jewish neighborhood -- there was one Catholic girl in my class -- to a neighborhood in flight due to the influx of people of color by my time in college - my parents joined the exodus in 1965 to Canarsie. I'm sure there were not only Jewish people in the neighborhood but my classes in elementary school seemed to be Jewish. At Thomas Jefferson HS, there was a mix of races but being segregated in a college bound program there was little mixing except for gym.

At Brooklyn College as an undergrad and grad student from 1962-68 I had little contact with people of color and no contact with anyone on the left.

We had a young lady two years older than me from the midwest who was renting our basement and she and a guy on my block who she didn't know met each other at demos at Downstate hospital in Brooklyn calling for hiring more black people -- I think that was around 1962 in my freshman year. She told me she sat under the wheels of a truck to stop the construction. They were going to the next one together. He was older than me so not a friend but I saw him around for years and was surprised - the first inkling that what we were reading in the papers was touching people I know. (Or maybe he was just interested because she was cute - not unheard of in the world of male activism.)

My first contact with people who were active in the civil rights movement.

A few years later after she moved to Manhattan she called and wanted to stay over for the evening - she was going to a party not far away and wanted me to pick her up after the party. When she called to come and get her my parents hadn't come home yet and I didn't have my car and recruited a few friends to drive me over to an area around Highland Park - I guess today we call it Cypress Hills. I went into an apartment house and knocked on the door - it was opened by a young black man who invited me in. I was at an inter-racial party, something so out of my order of the universe I couldn't comprehend it. They offered me a drink and invited me to stay but my friends were downstairs waiting. And I wasn't very comfortable --- you can guess why.

We drove her back to my house and she was a bit drunk and in a happy mood. (I think my friends were getting ideas.) My parents weren't home yet and my two friends and I were watching TV with her when something came up on TV regarding race. My friends made some racist comments and I either laughed or said something stupid and she went wild -- broke into a crying fit and said she wanted to go home. They left and I finally calmed her down and convinced her to stay.

"What happened that made you go off," I asked her? "You know they are racist"

"Yes," she said, "but I thought you were different."

I thought I was different too. One of the best lessons on racism I've  learned. I drove her back to Manhattan the next day and I don't think I ever saw her or heard from her again.

I learned something about racism that night - my racism. How nervous I was walking into that party. I remember how they invited me to stay. The best way to battle racism is contact with people of other races where so many of your misconceptions fall away. A missed opportunity. If I wasn't with my friends I would have stayed.

Who knew that two or three years later I would be working in a school and neighborhood where I would be in constant contact with children of color which had been such an alien world to me and learn lessons daily about racism and my own racism and what a struggle it is to struggle against?

I'm still struggling - and learning.

1 comment:

  1. You know what I learned about racism. Blacks are racists too.


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