Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Response to a Roger Ebert Post: Racism

I grew up in a working class neighborhood in Philadelphia. I attended Catholic school. It was all white, no blacks or Hispanics. We were told that if we attended a Protestant Church service we would be “worshipping false gods” and committing a mortal sin. All through grade school, I believed that Protestants were pagans.

As a child, I rarely saw black people. There was an elderly couple around the corner. I never spoke to them nor they to me. They gave me the creeps. I rarely saw black people on TV (This was the late 50’s, early 60’s. The only black person I remember seeing on TV was a clip featuring Cab Calloway. He scared the daylights out of me. We rarely discussed black people at home. I remember hearing my Dad refer to someone smelling “like a nigger” because she wore too much perfume. He then explained that they smell bad. My mother, who liked rock and roll, especially the Platters and Chuck Berry, could not listen to it when my Dad was home. He called it “jungle music”. When I was 12, my best friend’s enemy had gotten a couple of her black friends to shove her. I said (the first and last time in my life) “Nigger”. To my surprise, the girl, who thought my friend said it, punched her hard in the stomach.

When I was 14, I entered a new stage in my life. Unfortunately, my parents, who never went to high school, were not able to cope well with my adolescence. I wound up living in a hospital for emotionally disturbed children. Since I had already started to question my upbringing, I was fascinated with the black children I met there. A girl named Bertha actually taught me what the word “Nigger” meant. After a few months, I was transferred to a group home run by a black woman, Mrs. Star (I think that’s how she spelled it). It was pointed out to me by my white friend, that I actually spoke with the same accent that my foster family used.

At this point, I took the entrance test and was admitted to Philadelphia High School for Girls. I did not make any friends there until my senior year. These friends were white. I did not stay in touch with them. There was a nice black girl in my English class, who at one point, became a Black Muslim. She was still very nice and signed my yearbook when I graduated. That summer, I developed a crush on a black guy, Kevin, but, since I was extremely shy, I never told him.

Years later, I was watching a TV show about Thurgood Marshall with my 6 year old daughter. In the beginning of the movie, they described the difference between the white school and the “colored” one. My little girl and I talked about it and she exclaimed, “But that’s not fair”.

In 2008, my husband and I and my three children voted for Barack Obama. Things aren’t completely fair now, but I hope the gap is narrowing.

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