Wednesday, July 08, 2009


On racial awareness

On Monday, Miss Incognegro wrote about having black dolls to play with as a child, what it meant to have a doll that looked more like her, and the idea of being “color blind”. It’s a good post; go read it, and, while you’re there, look at yesterday’s post, too, about watermelon.

Miss Incognegro ended Monday’s post with the question, “What are your childhood memories and recollections about race and racial awareness?”, and I commented on that in the blog entry. I think it’s worth repeating it here, so what follows is what I said there — my comment followed one by a black man called Jovan.

From a white guy looking at it from the other side: Like Jovan, I grew up in a racially mixed environment — a few years ago, a friend looked at my high school yearbook (1974), and was surprised to see all the different-coloured faces, among the teachers as well as among the students. My father always taught me that everyone’s the same... or, really, that everyone’s an individual, and you judge each person for what s/he is, and the shade of skin makes no difference. I internalized that at an early age.

I started my life in Brooklyn, but we moved to south Florida when I was quite young, and that’s where I grew up. Realize that “south Florida” is not “the South”, but that other parts of Florida are, so I sporadically had glimpses of what that meant. It was the early 1960s when we went there, and, while it was unknown where I lived, I did see “Whites only,” and “No coloreds,” signs in other parts.

I’ve always been skeptical of people who say they “don’t notice” skin colour. Of course we notice it, just as we notice hair colour and style, and choice of clothing. The question isn’t whether we notice it, but what it means to us. The difference never meant anything to me, because of how I was brought up, and I often “didn’t notice” in the sense that the race of someone often didn’t really stand out for me, until someone pointed it out.

William Marshall as Dr Richard DaystromI’ll share one particular story that stays with me. My family had black-and-white TVs only, and the first program I ever saw in colour was the Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer” (so I can even tell you the date, thanks to IMDB: 8 March 1968, so I would be 11 in a month). I went to a friend’s house, and it was the first time I saw the colours of all their shirts (references to “red-shirted guards” didn’t mean much to me before that). The episode was about a scientist [Dr Richard Daystrom, right, played by William Marshall] who invented a computer system that could run the whole starship by itself. The Enterprise got to test it out, and, of course, there were some bugs in the system that they had to work out.

As the episode progressed, I heard occasional mutterings, grunts, and grumbles from my friend’s father, a middle-aged man from the deep South. Finally, about halfway through, the scientist said something and my friend’s father said, “Huh. This is ridiculous! They’re making out like he’s as smart as they are.” I replied, “He’s smarter! He’s the scientist!” I was quite impressed by scientists, you see. And friend’s dad burst out with, “But he’s a n*!

So. Yes, now it was pointed out. Of course Dr Daystrom was a Negro, as we’d have said at the time, but what difference did that make? I didn’t know what to say, and, as a not-quite-11-year-old I had the sense not to say anything. So we watched the rest of the show. And I don’t remember spending any time around that friend’s father after that, but I’d have felt very strange if I had.

What makes me feel sad is that, while we’ve come a very long way in the 41 years since then, there are still people today who would respond as my friend’s father did.


Anonymous said...

Hi, Barry. Thank you for the linklove, and for posting your comments here on your blog. They should be available for a wider audience. I am sure that your experience will resonate with those who read your post.

D. said...

I grew up in Brooklyn, and although my neighborhood and parochial elementary school were lily white, my parents taught us much the same things about race as your own did. It wasn't until I was much older that I realized that they did this despite the fact that most of my relatives were more of the ilk as your friend's father.

One of my earliest memories about race comes from when I was very young, maybe 4, not more than 5 or 6. My mother took us to the local free clinic for vaccinations, and there one would see all kinds of sizes, shapes, and colors of people. On one such visit, there was this little girl (little is relative, but my guess is perhaps a year younger), who seemed to me far too gussied up and well-dressed for such a place as we were. As I noticed her, in a voice too loud to have been missed by anyone in the waiting area, she exclaimed, "Mommy, look at all these chocolate people!"

Even at my own tender age, I was so mortified that I remember it still. I have no recollection of what her mother might have replied, or my own to me, but now, over 40 years later, I can still remember feeling embarrassed at how anyone, especially someone who seemed more upper-class than I, could be so ignorant.