“White folks’ first experience with race is at least as far back as the moment of our births, at which time we enter the world as members of the dominant group; the group that has always made the rules, and for whose benefit the rules were made…”
—Tim Wise, White Like Me
“I came into the world on Monday, July 10, 1948… I weighed seven pounds, ten and one-half ounces and was twenty-one and one-half inches long. When I was born, I was bald or almost bald. As soon as I got hair it was bright red and it still is.”
—from essay “Me!” by Janet Carter, grade 7, 1960
I was born a little white baby. I sit staring at that sentence. What does it mean? It means something now, but it didn’t mean anything then. To me. But it did mean something, like Tim Wise says. I was marked for life. Invisibly marked with a stamp of approval, good for entrance into most circles, the ones I thought I had to work my way into, I had to earn. Which I did. Both are true.
So, how did I see myself as a young girl? In a series of essays written in seventh grade—“My Home and Its Surroundings,” “My Family Team,” and “Me!”— I come across as a self-reflective child with a sense of humor, belonging to a chaotic but happy, loving family. The oldest of six children, I felt a responsibility to help take care of the others and to do well in school, to make my parents proud.
Growing up in Vermont, I certainly never thought of myself as white. That I was an American was taken for granted. I liked saluting the flag, putting my hand over my heart, and pledging allegiance, especially proud of the “liberty and justice for all” that made the pledge meaningful. “America the Beautiful” was one of my favorite songs, with its spacious skies, purple mountains’ majesty, and best of all the way the words “crown thy good with brotherhood” rolled across my tongue, ending with the breath-taking image, “from sea to shining sea.”
Raised in a state that was – and still is – almost exclusively European-American, I had few opportunities to meet people of other races in my classroom or community. What I learned about race and racism I learned indirectly, through family, school, church, Girl Scouts, television, books, movies, and games. And in some ways, what I didn’t learn had an equally large effect on me.
My Story: “It’s not fair!”
Besides learning to read and write, school gave me another kind of training. We sat in desks in straight rows facing the front, where the teacher usually stood. Seated alphabetically, “Jan Carter” was always behind “Rodney Carr.” I learned to sit still, raise my hand, and resist talking to my neighbors. If I made a report to the class, I would stand stiffly, look straight ahead, and try to speak clearly. Body movement was only encouraged on the playground or in physical education.
My fifth grade teacher was Mrs. Patterson, a tall, handsome, soft-spoken woman, whom I loved and admired. One day while working at our desks, kids kept getting up, interrupting each other, clamoring for the teacher’s attention. Finally, the usually unflappable Mrs. Patterson said, “The NEXT person who gets out of their seat will go to the principal’s office.” The class settled down for a few minutes. I kept working diligently, and then suddenly I just had to show her my paper. I jumped up. “Mrs. Patterson!”
She turned to look at me, slightly dismayed. Then my favorite teacher said firmly, “Go to the office, Jan.”
Stunned, I walked between the rows of seats and out into the echo-y hallway. Step by step down the stairs, carefully holding onto the wooden rail because my legs felt funny. My face was making strange motions of its own accord. What was happening to me? Oh… I was about to cry. The principal’s office! How could Mrs. Patterson do this to me! It wasn’t fair! I hadn’t meant to jump up. I just couldn’t help it. And now I was being punished.
But because I was an exemplary student, a “good girl,” I received no punishment, certainly not one I remember. In my diary that night I reported matter-of-factly, “Today in school the teacher said whoever got out of their seat had to go to the office. I got up to show her a paper so I went down. Marcia and Hershy and Ruth Ann went down too.” My humiliation was short-lived.
How different my experience of “unfairness” was from that of another child, also ten years old at that time, also an exemplary student, who would one day be my friend and brother-in-law, but whose story I would not hear for another 40 years.
Bob’s Story: “I will not give in!”
Bob McIntosh was also the oldest child in his family, the son of a black man and a white woman. His parents sheltered him in his earliest years from the harassment they experienced as one of the first interracial married couples in Seattle. The family lived in mixed neighborhoods where he had both black and white friends. Like me, Bob was a responsible student, high achieving, and he knew his parents expected him to be the best. He did not feel that his skin color made him inferior to anyone.
When Bob was ten, they moved to one of the “projects” in South Seattle. His new teacher, Mr. Skelton was his first man teacher—white, as were all of Bob’s public school teachers. One day, early in the school year, Mr. Skelton stepped out of the classroom for a minute. Two of the white boys started getting rowdy, throwing paper and talking. Bob, who had always been a model student, never in any trouble, got caught up in the moment and joined in. When the teacher came back, the three boys were taken out in the hall. Mr. Skelton said a few words to the two white kids and sent them back in. Then he turned to Bob and told him directly and unabashedly that because he was a Negro, he should show more respect and keep his mouth shut in class. Bob was stunned.
In relaying this story, Bob said, “There were so many layers of message in that one sentence. Here was an authority figure I looked up to telling me, essentially, that black kids didn’t really have an inherent right to be at that school, so they had to earn the right by not making trouble… being seen but not heard. I actually don’t think he believed that black kids would ever be ‘on par’ with white students, but he would tolerate their presence as long as they behaved. If they didn’t, black kids would be dealt with more severely than white kids, and would have to work extra hard, would have to be excellent, just to be seen on par with average white students.”
But even that loaded reprimand wasn’t the most painful lesson. When Bob came back into the classroom, he looked around with new eyes. All the other black kids were staring down at their desks. He knew that they knew what Mr. Skelton had said to him. And they had known about this double standard for a long time. That was why his black friends, who were so lively and rambunctious on the playground, were so subdued in school, always keeping their eyes averted, never speaking up in class. And that was why they were such terrible students.
Bob’s response was unequivocal. “I will not give in. I’ll show them black kids can excel,” he told himself. He says if he had not had ten years in which he had already done well, it would have been much harder to be defiant. “Most of the kids had gotten that message since they were five or six,” he said. “I was lucky.”
Eventually Bob went to Renton High School, the largest in Washington state, with a student body that was historically 15% to 20% African-American. As far as he knew, he was the first black student ever to make the honor roll.
Meanwhile I, as a little white girl, did not receive any overt messages about my race, but continued to believe that if you were smart and spoke up, you would be recognized and rewarded. If I had been in Bob’s class, instead of one where racial differences were invisible or did not exist, how would I have perceived what happened to him? Would I have noticed what he noticed about the other black kids? Would I have taken for granted that they were quiet because they weren’t very smart, and seen the recognition of my own achievements as the result of personal effort rather than any advantage of being white?
And, if Bob had been my friend back then, what would this blatant unfairness have done to my faith in America as the land of “liberty and justice for all”?
Perhaps it’s not surprising that when Bob grew up, he became an educator and a strong voice for equity in our schools.
For two current day perspectives, see “White Teachers at the Crossroads” in Teaching Tolerance magazine, Fall 2000.
What about you?
Looking back on your early school days, what do you remember or see now about racism that was overt or under the surface, or even invisible to you at the time?