I DIDN’T WANT TO BE RACIST BUT I WAS

“epiphany: a moment of sudden revelation or insight;” “misogynist: a person who…is strongly prejudiced against women.”

overcomesubconsciousblocksThree epiphanies in my adult life have brought me face-to-face with some unfortunate facts about myself: I am a racist and a misogynist. I never wanted to be a racist, and for much of my life I had never even heard the word misogynist. I thought of racism as ridiculous, unchristian, and mean. As a 17-year-old college sophomore, I wrote a letter to the editor of The Baptist Standard, protesting rude treatment of my college’s African-American basketball players at a game with a segregated Baptist college. My letter was published and answered cordially by the editor, but it incited a backlash of frightening hate mail from a creepy preacher in Florida who called me a Pinko Commie and declared that, “Segregation is according to God’s law,” set to the tune of “Standing on the Promises of God.” He warned me of the dangers of “pure little white girls” sitting on the same toilet seats that females of color had used.

In 1961, I was vehemently and vociferously opposed when, in speedy reaction to a dark-skinned visitor from Sheppard Air Force Base darkening our church door (pun noted, but not intended), our congregation called an emergency closed-door business meeting and voted NO on the question of whether we would accept him for membership should he respond to the Lord’s invitation to be saved and baptized there. No one bothered to ask the Lord’s opinion.

“How can we send missionaries to Africa but reject someone of the same race in our own church?” I screamed through indignant tears.

I befriended some African-Americans at Midwestern University. A girl named Pat even came to my wedding in 1964, accompanied by our beloved Baptist Student Union director, Lena Faye Alford, but Pat had second thoughts about breaking bread–well, cake–with all the white people in attendance, even though we had sung Let us break bread together on our knees when we worked side-by-side at Vacation Bible School in the projects. Pat left before the reception.

My first epiphany was brief, just a flash of insight. I had left Texas in 1965 to teach in Guadalajara, Mexico, where there were more than a thousand US students in medical school. I saw two of them on a street corner–one black, one white. I mentally processed them as “gringo medical students,” not immediately making the black-white distinction. I had seen that black student as a regular human being. It may have been the first time in my life that I had viewed a person of color that way.

“Of course,” I thought. “I didn’t hate black people. In fact, I loved black people. But in our town, in our communities, we didn’t see black people.” Oh, we crossed paths with them, we sometimes went to watch Booker T. Washington High play football. Their outstanding choir sang at white churches. I had even interacted with them in the rarefied human laboratory that was my hometown college.  But they went home at night, safely tucked away from white view, to “Nigger Town” (Let’s face it: no white person I knew, including my own liberal, compassionate self, experienced the slightest discomfort when using that place name.)

When I returned to Texas in 1986, integration was in full force, and I was assigned to a middle school with a black assistant principal, whom I will call Mr. O. I’ll call him that because that’s what we called him. Mr. O was a few years younger than I; he was from Wichita Falls, a graduate of Booker T. Washington High School and a Golden Gloves champion. He grew up in the infamous projects where my friends and I had once helped out in Vacation Bible School. He was easy to talk to, and I found myself in his office often–usually to deal with some aberrant kid behavior–extending conversation beyond the purely necessary. On one occasion, I shared with him my epiphany about not seeing black people. He nodded.

When I finished high school, Wichita Falls had two high schools–Wichita Falls High School and Booker T. Washington, but if you ask the average white person from my generation how many high schools there were, even today they will say, “One.”  By the time Mr. O graduated, Ryder and Hirschi had been added. Wichita Falls High was referred to as “Old High.” On a particular day, he and I were talking about an upcoming football game between our school and one of the newer Wichita Falls schools.

“You know,” I remarked offhandedly, “when I was in school, Old High was the only high school in Wichita Falls.” Mr. O cocked his head, gave a crooked little smile, and looked at me over his glasses.

“Really?” he said. Busted! We both laughed, but my liberal compassionate ego was more than a little bruised. That was my second epiphany.

I think I made progress in confronting and fighting my own racism, but many years later, the third epiphany hit hard, and I knew the exorcism was incomplete. Some of those demons are lying so low they may never be identified and exposed to the healing light of day. My daughter-in-law had been delivered of my fifth grandchild, by C-section.  We were admiring the beautiful little girl when the obstetrician/surgeon came by to check on the patients. I gasped silently but kept my thoughts deeply hidden. Not only was Dr. S black; she was a WOMAN. The demons of Racism and Sexism, showed their ugly leering faces. Until that moment, I had thought of myself as a color-blind feminist, but when it came to cutting on live human bodies, I didn’t believe that blacks or women were smart enough to do that. Some error-driven beliefs are so deeply ingrained I don’t think of them as beliefs. They are “facts.” Although my conscious mind denies these “facts,” they were embedded long ago deep in the darkest parts of my subconscious: Blacks  are  not  as  smart  as  whitesWomen are not as smart as men. 

And the unfortunate truth about my compassionate anti-racism is that there is an element of pity–the well-meaning but oh-so-wrong empathy of that hateful phrase, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Bear with me. I am racist and sexist. My only defense is that I am still a work in progress.

 

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INSIDIOUS INVISIBILITY

When #BlackLivesMatter is countered with hateful slogans or the faux-egalitarian #AllLivesMatter, I recall sadly how for many years of my life, Black Lives really didn’t matter. Wichita Falls, Texas, didn’t hate black people. Many of us even kind of liked black people. We loved Sammy Davis, Jr., Mahalia Jackson, Dinah Washington, and Louis Armstrong. We expressed our racial bias in a manner even more insidious than hate or aggression. We simply didn’t see black people. The evidence of this can be found in vintage issues of my hometown newspaper, which lack evidence of any black population at all.

 I love newspapers. One of the most joyful sounds of my late childhood was the thump of The Wichita Falls Times, artfully folded into a kind of double boomerang that eased its flight from the hand of the boy on the bicycle to our front porch. (That sound was second for anticipated joy only to the postman’s footsteps on that porch, followed by the shuffling of papers, and the dull tinny ding of the letter box closing.) I would retrieve the folded newspaper, unfold it, and plop myself down on the living room floor to peruse the headlines, read Dear Abby, Dr. Crane, letters to the editor, a few comic strips and cartoons, and, on Thursdays, the high school news roundup, “Teen Times.”

My family was too busy for the morning newspaper, The Wichita Falls Record News, but on Sundays, the two newspapers were combined into an extravaganza for all subscribers to either or both papers: The Sunday Times-Record News. It was rolled, not folded, because it was so thick, and it hit the porch with a thud rather than a thump. On rainy Sundays, it came encased in plastic.

After church on Sunday mornings, my family members would divide the paper into sections and then exchange them as we finished. I always wanted first shot at the full-color comics or the society pages. I was enthralled by the photographs of beautiful brides in full wedding dress and the artfully retouched portraits of brides-to-be with their engagement announcements. I would watch for news and photographs of the Junior Forum Debutante Ball in May and the more elite Cotillion Debutante White Tie Ball in December.

Before 1964, black people were required by law to live in designated sections of town. In Wichita Falls, that area was east of the railroad tracks, Flood Street and beyond. Mexicans lived there too, by custom rather than law, clustered on the side closer to the tracks. A few of them lived in the “white” part of town, like Dr. Martinez from Mexico City and his pale and elegant wife and daughters, whom the town people called “Spanish” to distinguish them from darker and less prestigious “Mexicans.”

There were two high schools in Wichita Falls then, but if you ask any white citizen over 65 how many there were, he or she will invariably answer, “One.” Wichita Falls High School was not the white high school. It was the high school. Booker T. Washington High School had excellent facilities, although even now I can’t say where they are located–somewhere, I assume, way beyond Flood Street. I have never seen them. Booker T had a championship football team, an outstanding marching band, and a choir that was recognized statewide and occasionally came to sing in the elegant churches of the white people.

This is where my love of The Wichita Falls Times connects with the myth of one high school in Wichita Falls. You see, the newspaper was, for me, a mirror of my world. I knew that there was Flood Street and beyond. I knew that kids who lived there went to Booker T. Washington High School. I even ventured a few times to their home football games to watch the jazzy marching band. There were black people in town working in the few jobs open to them. I went on mission expeditions to teach Vacation Bible School in the Projects. Some white people even trekked across muddy Flood Street to benefit from the excellent work and lower prices of the “colored” dentist at his elegant home with a built-on clinic.

I didn’t hate black people. I thought racism was evil and spoke against it on occasion. I didn’t hate or dislike black people, but I didn’t see black people. The mirror of my world, The Wichita Falls Times, didn’t report Booker T.’s sports news. Their many band and choir awards got no recognition or photographs in “Teen Times.” There were no photographs of black students doing anything at all. Black brides and debutantes were never featured on the society pages. Black churches were not included in Saturday’s “guide to worship services.” Even black crimes were usually reported only in the police notes at the back of the news. Black people were not allowed to patronize the same local restaurants where I ate or the stores where I shopped. When I traveled by bus, they had their sections in the station and on the bus, and they used the toilets and drinking fountains marked “colored.”

No, Wichita Falls, Texas, had no problem with black people. We simply ignored them to the point of near non-existence. There were no black faces reflected in our mirror on the world.