I was having a discussion with friends recently about racism and our personal experiences with understanding race issues. All of us were white and everyone but me grew up in neighborhoods that were completely white as well. They all remembered the first time a non-white person moved into their neighborhood. I though grew up in Dallas where the majority of my classmates and most of my teachers were African-American. I then moved to Austin when I was 12 and encountered an even larger ethnic mix. We lived in a mostly Jewish neighborhood, but I had friends who were Korean, Russian, Egyptian, Brazilian, Indian, Mexican, and Iranian. The dividing lines in Austin were less racial and more economic and educational. Most of my friends had parents involved either with the University of Texas or in the lucrative computer technology boom. So I didn't think much about racism until I had to deal with it head on in 8th grade.
Austin spent the majority of the 80's and 90's imposing forced integration on its school system. Kids from one sort of ethnic neighborhood were bused across town to go to school in neighborhoods that were generally of a different racial mix. So for Jr. High I got to catch the bus at 6AM to go to school in East Austin. My school also happened to be the Math and Science Academy to which I applied and joined. Those of us in the academy represented just about every race and nationality, but the kids in the regular classes who were from the local neighborhoods around the school were almost exclusively African-American. And these were very poor rough neighborhoods. Riding the bus through them we would frequently see drug deals taking place and the boys on the bus (Jr. High remember) would toss nickels to the prostitutes on the streets. It goes without saying there there was a lot of tension between the local students and the academy students. Teachers did their best to ignore it and never got involved in inter-racial fights - they valued their job too much. The principal was an African-American woman who also ran a night-club. Two of her husbands had mysteriously died from poisoning. She spoke every morning on the intercom about what a nice happy family we all were, but that did nothing to relieve the racial tension. We students thought she was a joke.
That tension came to a head for me in 8th grade. That year a local African-American girl named Kiva started attending the school. We never had classes together (I was in the academy, she wasn't) but we passed each other in the hall. One day she noticed I was missing my left arm (it was harder to notice then because I wore a cosmetic prosthesis). She freaked out and started screaming. From that point on she would start screaming "it's the one armed girl" every time she saw me and run away from me. It was Jr. High, so that was embarrassing, but then it got worse. She got over her fear of my arm and started harassing me. She would follow me around calling me names, throw my books down the stairs, and rip my folders and homework. She would open the courtyard doors during lunch and let her gang member friends in to harass and throw things at me. Teachers would witness this, but like I said, they would not get involved in inter-racial issues.
One day I was about to walk up the stairs and she came up behind me and told me she commanded me to walk up the stairs. I told her I didn't want to and started walking away. She then told me that even though I was white and thought I was better than her because she was black, I really wasn't because I was missing my arm. She was better than a handicapped person and so could tell me what to do. She then tried to make me give her my watch, and I said, "leave me alone bitch" and walked away.
Things came to a head one day when (in front of two watching teachers) she stabbed me with her pen and it drew blood. I had to tell my parents then. They were of course livid and called the school to complain. So both Kiva and I were sent to the principal to talk. I told her all that Kiva had done to me and then she asked Kiva why she did it. Kiva said because I called her a bitch. And so I got in trouble for using a curse word and not trying to be part of the big happy family. Kiva was asked to be nicer to me.
I had a hard time learning to deal with that sort of racial tension. I had friends from various racial backgrounds, but I didn't know how to cope with being hated for being white, educated, relatively wealthy, and handicapped. I think it opened my eyes to a lot of the underlying issues behind racism and the systemic nature of the problem. But that didn't mean I did anything to help heal racial relations. I left that school for the highly educated IB Academy high school, I went to a nearly all-white college, and now live in a homogeneously white Midwestern town. And I have conversations with friends about racism, but instead of learning from my Jr. High experience on how to tear down the walls that divide I've apparently only managed to build thicker walls. And I don't know how to change that.
Labels: Culture, Personal