Truth. Every person of color whom I have ever met, have ever loved, or whom I will ever love, will likely have no use for any of this because all of it is very old news.
I’m thankful that I was brought up in an atmosphere of acceptance because it could just as easily have gone the other way. My father grew up in Livingston Parish, Louisiana, where racism is often overt, even today, over fifty years after the Civil Rights Act took effect in 1964. My ancestors, some of whom owned slaves, go back at least five generations in that part of the country. As jarring as it was for me to learn that owning slaves is part of my family history, what’s even more jarring is the fact that my father was a man who raised his children with the opposite philosophy than the one so prevalent in the area in which he grew up. To say this is rare is a massive understatement.
He was raised in a small community outside of Baton Rouge, just as his parents had been and their parents before that. After graduating from college, he joined the Navy and was stationed in San Diego. (If not for that he may never have left South Louisiana at all.) While on leave, he came back to Louisiana to marry my mother, whom he had met and fallen in love with at college, and to bring her back to Southern California afterwards. When he was discharged, instead of returning home he and my mother drove up the coast to San Francisco, where they fell in love with the Bay Area. In 1953 they settled, first in Berkeley, then in the suburbs farther east.
My father made his living as a teacher and a basketball coach, and our family moved frequently, mostly in and around Northern California, until I was in fifth grade, when he accepted a coaching job at his alma mater near where he had grown up. In 1967, when my father was offered a job at the university where he had been awarded full scholarships in two sports, he must have seen a future filled with opportunity. So he returned to the state where he and his ancestors were born, no doubt intending to live in that small college town for the rest of his life, to see his own children go to high school, then enter college just as he and my mother had done. My parents built their dream home just off campus, and less than two years later he was gone, fired from a job which had held so much hope and promise.
Truth. Things observed by a child are never forgotten.
Not long after accepting his new job, my father began to actively recruit black basketball players to augment the all-white team he had inherited from the outgoing coach. When he asked to go on a recruiting trip outside the state to look for players who would likely not be white, he was told that if he was going to do so that it would be on his own dime. As ridiculous as this seems now, what seems even more unbelievable is that the university, considering the tenor of the times, didn’t find a way to have my father fired immediately. He would be fired eventually, after a second losing season, but that’s the nature of the coaching profession. Years later one of my sisters was visiting this small town we had lived in years before and happened to strike up a conversation with an older gentleman in a grocery store, a local who, when he found out who her father was, said, “Oh yeah, he’s the asshole who started it all.” These kinds of things can make a person learn to hate.
This same sister had two black friends whom she’d met in school, one of the very few that wasn’t segregated. Naturally, she invited them to our house to play, and they invited her to theirs. For them to cross that inviolable line, between the white side of town and the black, must have come as a great shock to many people. Three little girls, two black and one white, playing together would have made a lot of them very angry. Recruiting black basketball players was one thing, but third grade girls, playing where they didn’t belong was something else altogether. Certain members of the community decided that something needed to be done, and, according to both of my parents, the Klan threatened to burn a cross on our lawn. In retrospect, I’m shocked that they didn’t. I have very little doubt that, had we stayed, they would have.
More than once I asked my mother and father to explain racism to me. At ten years old, I would not have used the word “racism.” I would have said something like, “Why do the black kids go to different schools?” Or other questions that essentially asked the same thing: why are we separated? Of course they had no answer. How do you explain hatred to a child? To their credit, they never said, “That’s just the way it is,” or “Someday you’ll understand.” They did their best to try and explain the unexplainable, using words like ignorance and fear. I saw through all that, even then. There’s ignorance, I thought, and then there’s stupidity.
Not long after we’d settled into our new home, my parents took my sisters and me to a Sunday morning worship service at a black church on the other side of town from where we lived. Not surprisingly, we were the only whites, but were welcomed with open arms. It was an hour filled with music and joy, and the service the following Sunday at my own church, a church that I have always loved—and the church my parents were married in—paled in comparison. I wonder now how a black family would have been received at our church if the situation were reversed. In my more optimistic moments I like to think there would have been no difference at all, and that may in fact have been the case. I’ll never know. But what I think about more often is how my parents found the courage to cross that color line, not once but many times, thereby showing their daughters the importance of doing so, and instilling in us the willingness to do the same for the rest of our lives. I realize now how very special they were, how they made the decision to break outside the box, in a place where breaking outside the box was just not done.
All of these things would eventually help to shape my views about race dramatically, but I was very young at the time and their significance became clear to me only in hindsight. It wasn’t until I moved to Louisiana for the second time that I began to put them in perspective. I came south, alone this time—again, from Northern California, where my family had returned after my father was fired from the university—to attend college at this same university, the school from which my parents had graduated, to live in the town where they had met and married, and to be close to where much of my family’s history had taken place. I moved, just as my family had done once before, from one of the most diverse, most tolerant regions of the country (at least outwardly), to one of the most intolerant, a place where white pride—for many, but certainly not all—was worn as a badge of honor, something passed down from generation to generation. It was then, during my second move to the South, that race became very real for me, or as real as it could ever be for someone who is white.
Up until that point I had no life experiences to draw upon where racism was concerned, except for those that had happened to my family years earlier, and my parents had protected us from those realities as much as they could. At 19, I understood race only from the vantage point of my living room. I saw the Black Panthers on the news throughout high school, the assassination of Martin Luther King before that, and the March on Washington before that, millions of people talking about a dream that has never been realized, not in the way that Dr. King must have hoped. But I had grown up in a series of white suburbs. Although San Francisco, one of the most diverse cities on the planet, was less than thirty miles away, where I lived there were no black churches, no black schoolmates, and no diversity of any kind. Still, my sisters and I came of age in the Seventies, a time when women were encouraged to stand up for their rights, to speak their minds. We lived in an environment where this was taken for granted, at a time when the word “feminism” wasn’t under attack, as it would come to be later. So when I moved to Louisiana in 1977 I spoke up when I felt like it. I chose whom I wanted to be friends with. I had no fear of any consequences because I’d never had a reason to.
It’s my birthday and my house is full of people, many of whom I’ve never seen before. Most are, like me, very drunk. Some of them are here with children. A little girl walks up to me and asks for a piece of birthday cake. She is wearing a T-shirt with White Power in big letters across the front. I am so stunned I can think of nothing else to do, so I give her a piece of cake. She is, after all, only a child. I’m so angry I’m having trouble figuring out how to react, but before I can try to find her parents a friend drags me away, to smoke a joint, to have a drink, to prevent me from what would surely have been an ugly confrontation. It’s your birthday, she says. Forget about it. As if that were possible. A child with no free will wearing a racist slogan across the front of her chest, a girl who is grown by now, presumably with children of her own, is as shocking as anything I’ve ever seen. I never did find out who she was, and although I now wish I’d tried harder, I also know what little difference it would have made.
I already knew, from my time there before, that the town was highly segregated—blacks on one side of the railroad tracks, whites on the other. But I was surprised to find that there were still whites-only establishments in town, bars that blacks were forbidden to enter, for example, forbidden not by law but by an unwritten rule put in place many decades before. In 2016, these bars still exist, that unwritten rule still rigidly adhered to. (I know this because I frequently come south to visit friends and family.) As far as I know, that unwritten rule has never been tested because I can’t imagine any black person in his or her right mind stepping foot in a place like this no matter what the circumstances. Every now and then I think about these bars, filled with, at best, people who don’t know any better, or outright racists, and it is this one thing that has taught me the true meaning of the word systemic. Once, on one of the very few times I visited one of them, before I knew the truth about where I was, I overheard an old man say, “They know better than to come up in here.” They know better. For years I thought, what horrible people these are. I often still think that, of course, but now I laugh at the thought of a person of color, black or otherwise, walking into a bar (or a drugstore, or a restaurant), filled with people who want them simply to disappear, or if not that, then to stay safely on the other side of the tracks, out of sight. I’m afraid to go in some of these places, and I’m white. Being an outsider, and a person with black friends, will always mean that I’m a person who, on the crazy scale these people have in their heads, might as well be black myself.
Things got personal for me when I began dating a black musician, seeing him whenever he had a gig in town. Actually, “dating” isn’t quite the right word. I was with the band, as we used to call girls like me who were inevitably hanging around at last call. No one tried to warn me off, to tell me, “Girl, that is not a good move.” Although this musician didn’t play in the types of bars where someone would have quickly made sure I understood that, by whatever means necessary, later I would come to realize that he would have been in danger to some degree, no matter where he played (something I’m sure he already knew), but then, so was I. I lost quite a few friends because of my relationship with this man. I think of those losses with no regret whatsoever. After that I was very careful whom I spoke to about race. I learned to watch what I said, and whom I said it to. Decades later, I still know better than to bring up certain subjects in certain company. If you’ve never experienced the length and breadth of hatred that still exists in this country you might think I’m exaggerating. I can assure you that I’m not.
I’m walking through a park bisected by a walkway lined with oak trees that have been here for centuries. The walkway is about five hundred yards long, which means that people walking towards each other have more than enough time to decide how to react when they finally pass. I see a black boy who looks to be about my age coming towards me from the other end of the park. As he gets closer I notice that he has his head down. He isn’t just averting his eyes, which is what most people do when they’re walking towards a stranger. His head is actually down against his chest, as if he’s looking for a button on his shirt that has suddenly gone missing.
At this time in my young life I automatically greet passing strangers. So, as he gets closer I look over and say hello. That’s what people our age do. We flirt. We say hello. At least we do where I come from. He pauses and looks over at me. He seems wary, which confuses me. All I’d done was say hello. But when I see the look on his face I realize that it isn’t that simple and I don’t know why. He mutters a greeting under his breath and keeps on walking.
Later I wonder, is it really so rare for a white girl to talk to a black boy walking on the wrong side of the tracks? If so, what could he have been thinking? Maybe it was something as simple as who is this crazy white girl? I think about what his body language might be like on “his side of town,” four simple words that represent something I would never understand. Would he be confident? Cocky? I’ve thought about this day countless times over the years and I don’t believe for a second that he would have had his head down, unwilling to look a girl his own age in the face.
Truth. It seems clichéd to say that I learned about racism in the South, as if the South is the only place racism exists. It exists everywhere, of course, all over the world. The difference is that in some places they don’t bother to hide it much.
As much as I love the South, and I do love it, for many different reasons, it was there that I learned what racism looks like. Not what it feels like; that would be impossible. But my experiences there significantly shaped my view of the world and, eventually, little by little, taught me how to hate. I have never forgotten the girl at the party, or the boy in the park. I have never forgotten being called nigger lover by those I thought were my friends, or being threatened for who I chose to be friends with. I have never forgotten what it feels like to keep my mouth shut because it would be dangerous to do otherwise. All of these memories are deeply embedded in my psyche, and lie at the very center of who I am. The fact that I’m white doesn’t make them any less so. But the truth of the matter is that, for me, a discussion of race will always be nothing more than an academic exercise.
Although I learned to hate during my time in the South, something that my parents would be deeply saddened by, I no longer hate the same way I did then, or at least that’s what I try to tell myself. I tell myself that I hate racist behavior rather than the people exhibiting that behavior, that hatred is something that is learned from a very, very young age. This remains a constant struggle, however, because hatred of racists is much like racism itself. Once learned, it’s almost impossible to unlearn.
Sandy Ebner lives and writes in Northern California. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Connotation Press: An Online Artifact, Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, The Doctor T.J. Eckleburg Review, the HerStories/ My Other Ex anthology, and other publications. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, and is an alumna of the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. She previously served as the creative nonfiction editor at MadHat Lit and MadHat Annual (Mad Hatter’s Review), and is working on her first novel.
Read More of Sandy’s Work:
- A Conversation with Frances Dinkelspiel
- Some Thoughts on AWP
- Distracted by Life
- Brown Bottle by Sheldon Lee Compton
- Gracious Little Bastard: The Story of a Chef
- A Conversation with Meg Tuite
- An Alleyway in Paris