what I want you to know: growing up with racism

What I Want You to Know is a series of reader submissions. It is an attempt to allow people to tell their personal stories, in the hopes of bringing greater compassion to the unique issues each of us face. If you would like to submit a story to this series, click here.

NOTE: I don’t usually editorialize on these posts, but I wanted to explain that this entry was actually an assignment turned in by a student in my cultural diversity class this summer. As a part of the class, I ask each student to write a historical exploration of their own racial development, with the aim of taking a hard and honest look at all of the racial messages, both overt and covert, that shaped their worldview. I then students share their essays with the class over the course of the semester. It’s hard to explain what a powerful experience it is to hear people talk frankly about the racial tensions they have experiences. The university where I teach has a very diverse population in the graduate program, and it is fascinating to hear how students of every race perceive issues of diversity, and how it has shaped their worldview and their relationships with people of other races. This assignment builds so much empathy among my students and I think they learn as much from listening to their classmates as they do from my lecture material. Without fail, some of the most impactful stories have been from students who grew up in the 60’s and remember experiencing Jim Crow and the implicit cultural acceptance of racial discrimination. It is sobering when we think about this history as being less than a decade behind us. I appreciated this particular essay because of it’s honesty, and because I think it paints a picture of the way so many people in this country were raised, and yet are reluctant to talk about. I asked the author, Karen, if she would be willing to share it on my blog and she generously said yes.

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I am Karen, and my heritage is diverse, but mainly European. I am Irish, Scottish with a smidge of goofiness thrown in. My mother is 3rd generation Scottish and English, with her grandparents settling in North Dakota when they came to America. Mix that in with some Irish marriages at the turn of the century, and you have her side of my family.  They were very strong people, farming in the rugged Midwest, and eventually all decided to move to California to escape the brutal winters when my mother was 2.  My father’s family was primarily Irish. We can trace back to 3 generations when his relatives came over on a ship out of Cork, Ireland. When they reached the US, they decided to go to Oklahoma during the land run years in 1891. The family settled in central Oklahoma on parcels of free land given away by the U.S, Government.

In my immediate family, our traditions were typical of an American family in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.  I was born in 1958, so I am at the tail end of the ‘baby boomer’ generation. It is VERY hard to describe how different life was when I was young, compared to now. I know that makes me sound old, but I don’t care. I can remember when we got our first TV in 1962, how excited I was because all of my little friends on my block already had one. My father was a truck driver, and we lived right over off of Bristol and Edinger, in Santa Ana. Back then, there was nothing where South Coast Plaza is now, except orange groves, strawberry and lima bean fields. We used to ride our bikes everywhere with no fear of anyone harming us. In the summertime, we would stay out until past dark, playing games amongst the orange groves and having orange fights.

As a child, I do not remember there being any question in my mind that there either was…. or was not, discrimination. It just was something that you accepted. It was the NORM.  In the early 60’s, there were few Mexican families in Santa Ana, but there was a growing population of African Americans. My father, being from the South in Oklahoma was a true southern racist. He called the blacks the N word, with no thought. In fact, I can remember at Christmas time, that my Mom would put out a very special and expensive treat, a bowl of nuts that needed to be cracked open. They were mainly almonds, and walnuts, but there was one particular nut that I liked, a large dark brown/black nut. My father called it the niggertoe.  No one ever thought that was wrong to call it that, we just did.

I do remember the stories my mother would tell me about ‘her President Kennedy’. She could not really talk much about him around my father and the Okie relatives, because they perceived him as a ‘negro lover’. His stance on civil rights was something that was very new to America. I do remember the day President Kennedy was shot. I was in kindergarten and I came out to the car to be picked up, and my mother was crying. She said that our president who was a very great man, who stood for equal rights for all humans, had died. I did not understand then, but later as I was growing up she shared with me stories about him. One in particular was his stance in 1962 against Gov. George Wallace on allowing the two ‘negro’ students into the University of Alabama to study. My mother admired Kennedy’s courage to stand up for what was right. She used to tell me that President Kennedy was the beginning spark in the storm of the civil rights movement in the 1960’s.

Every summer our family would drive in our car the 25-hour trip to visit the ‘Okie kinfolk’ in Oklahoma and stay for 2 to 3 weeks. My father was the only one in his family that lived in California.  I had dozens of cousins, aunts and uncles…and my grandparents as well, that lived in the central part of the state, near Oklahoma City.  In Oklahoma I saw a degree of racism that still puts the hair up on the back of my neck. I will never forget one day I jumped out of the car at Uncle John’s café and the very first thing I remember seeing was two water fountains, exactly alike, side-by-side. They were separate water fountains, but equal water fountains, if you know what I mean. One said “White Only” and the other said, “Colored Only”. Being from a big city (Santa Ana) in another state, I had never seen that so I asked my Mom “why?” She responded, “Because that’s the way it is here, sweetie.” To my left was a door so I bolted for it to get inside before my sister got there. Suddenly my Mom yelled, “Karen, stop! That is not your door. You go in the front door.” Sure enough, there was a sign above the door I was aiming for that said “Colored Only”, just like the water fountain. My door, the front door, said “White Only”. Separate, but equal fountains and now separate, but equal, doors. Bolting through ‘my’ door brought me into a world of smoke, Formica, ice tea, and blue plates. We sat down and it was not too long before my grandfather strolled in.  He used the ‘correct’ door. Grampa was mighty nice, knew everyone in Shawnee and he went around shaking hands and saying hello to everyone, well….almost everyone. He never did once pass through the open archway into the back of Uncle John’s café to say hello to, or even acknowledge, ‘those’ other people. He completely ignored them…. even though they watched him the WHOLE time.

When I was 12 years old my father decided we must move to Orange, because the Jr High/High School in Santa Ana had ‘blacks’ in it, and my father did not want us to go to school there. Describe my Dad?....Just think, Archie Bunker…then add an abusive, Irish, rag-a-holic drunk every single night... that was my father.  I went to Jr. High and High School in Villa Park, and I remember maybe there being a few African Americans and Mexicans. By then, 1969 the counterculture was in full force protesting every social and political injustice. As pre-teens, my sister and were stunned and somewhat fascinated with the rebellious spirit the protestors had and how they stood up to authority. I can remember watching history making on the TV, with Martin Luther King’s assassination, riots, civil rights, school segregation….everything you have read about in history books. I just remember being scared a lot, that everyone was angry about something and why couldn’t we just all get along. As I formed my own thoughts and beliefs, I had a wonderful role model. My mother was a woman who accepted others equally, and often told us to not judge someone by their race or color, but by their heart.

One final story for you…As for experiencing racism myself, the one time I experienced it was in 1979, when I moved to Chicago to put my husband through graduate school at the University of Chicago. The area was primarily black, and I had NEVER seen anything like the life I saw there. I was 21, and being from Orange County, California I was very underexposed to cultural diversity. Here in our Diversity class when we read the book, “Whistling Vivaldi”…that was ME! The University of Chicago is in Hyde Park. The situation the author described about whistling was on the very streets we lived on for 2 years. I was, one of the people who walked to the other side of the sidewalk ….when I was approached by a black man coming my way. Scared and uneducated, I never once thought about what my actions implied. 

One of my positive experiences was when I would go to the grocery store, and sometimes I would be the only white person in the entire store. I liked to hang out in the produce section and ask questions to the very large older black women, who were filling up plastic bags with collard greens and onions. I loved chatting with them, and they were generally pleasantly surprised that I was interested in what they were going to cook. On a negative note; I did though experience a great deal of racial tension at the comptroller’s office where I worked at the University. Most of the office girls were black and young, and it seemed like they had a defiant attitude much of the time. If I went into the ladies lounge when they were all gathered in there, the conversation would immediately stop, and I would hear whispers while I was In a stalls in the bathroom. They did not include me in their conversations during the day as well. Sometimes, they would snicker and laugh as I walked by their desks, and I would go home from work and cry, as I wanted to be accepted so badly. There was though, nothing I could do to change the color of my skin…an interesting and frustrating dilemma. My time working there was stressful and quite life-changing, and even after 30 years I still try to use it as a way to understand, (in SUCH A VERY SMALL way), what discrimination might feel like. To this day I will never forget what it feels like to be excluded and made to feel different because of the color of my skin.


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