My First Real Awareness of Overt Racism
Growing up in inner city Oklahoma City, I was the only white kid on my block. We had moved from a moderately suburban environment to one that was definitely urban. The junior high was very integrated. My high school was part of the busing movement....we inner city kids were bused to a suburban school to "integrate" (it didn't work).
I made friends with an elderly couple on my block and helped them by mowing their yard, shoveling their snow, changing lightbulbs, etc. I had grown quite fond of them and enjoyed hanging out with Mr. Smith (not real name) as he told me of stories in the past, especially his time in the military. I thought he was a terribly interesting man. However, he had a complaining, rough edge to him.
He had grown cynical, argumentative, grumpy and just plain cantankerous. He had purchased his house several decades earlier when the block was filled with "proper" people. He was finding all of his neighbors either dying or moving away to the suburbs. Now, his block was being inhabited by people that had "questionable" reputations (I'm cleaning up Mr. Smith's language quite a bit.)
Being quite young, naive and inexperienced, I had grown tired of his statements about "those people." I had several friends on that block and in school that were of "those people" and Mr. Smith let me know that he didn't approve of me allowing "them" into my home.
The last time I visited Mr. Smith (I didn't know it was my last time), I knocked on the door and he yelled for me to come in. He was watching the TV Mini-series, ROOTS. He looked at me and said, "you know this TV show is pure fiction, all lies. Those F****** N****** are nothing but b*******!" I didn't know what to say. This is the most hateful I had ever heard him talk. He continued to denigrate "those people" and a statement just popped out of my mouth. I don't know where it came from, but I said, "how would you feel if you were born black?"
For an old man, he sure moved quickly. He picked me up, ushered me to his front door, pushed me off the front porch while kicking me in the butt and I landed flat on the sidewalk that led to his house. He then yelled, "I see what kind of people go in and out of your home! Don't you ever come back here, you n***** lover!" I walked home, dejected, just a few doors down, and told my mom what happened. I said, "what do I do? Mr. Smith is my friend?!" She proceeded to say, "he told you not to come back. Don't ever go back there unless he apologizes to you."
I wish I could say that there was a happy ending to this story. I think that Mr. Smith didn't leave that neighborhood until after I left for college. Every day, walking to the bus stop or walking to my friends' houses, I walked right past his house. I never saw him on his front porch again, so I didn't even get a chance to wave at him. I never heard from him again, I never was back to his house.
I still grieve over my broken friendship with Mr. Smith even though that was almost 50 years ago. I still feel his foot on my butt.
I grieve more over the injustice that humanity perpetuates upon humanity. I grieve that there are people like that in the world. I grieve that there are people who have to experience overt (and covert) racism everyday and at a much earlier age than I did. *I tell this story to my graduate students to broach the subject of racism. I've found by telling my experiences, my students feel more comfortable in talking about their experiences.