Monday, January 16, 2012

The Color of One's Skin

My first encounter with the race-relations/troubles in the U.S. was when I was "fresh off the boat" so to speak. I was 12, and soon 13, and new to the U.S. and new to my school and new to everything.

The missionary house that we started out living in, being hosted by our church, was sort of in the "city" if you will, on 17th Ave. South in Nashville. My bus stop was several blocks away, so I walked into "the projects" every day to catch my school bus.

I mean, on an academic level, I knew there'd been trouble. I knew about the slavery (my mom had read us Roots when it came out, and we'd even procured a TV so that we could watch the show...dubbed into German...when it came on TV) and that is was wrong and the Civil War, and the emancipation proclamation. I'd heard about the KKK and Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement. All that stuff.

So, somehow, I thought America has been FIXED. I thought it was a better place and that stuff was in the past.

How wrong I was.

I was unprepared and mystified at the raw hatred that rolled my way from the other girls at my bus stop...who happened to be African American. I thought that if I don't hate them, they won't hate me, right? I'm not a racist because I know it's that leaves me with a "not a racist this one's cool" sign flashing above my head, so that all those girls at the bus stop would somehow accept me? Right?

So. Did. Not. Happen.

No, the hatred rolled on like a river....rolled eyes, mocking tones, derision. It was palpable.

I learned how to be afraid. I did not understand the aggression or the bravado that I was encountering in my busmates/classmates.

I learned to cower and to be shy.

But to be fair...all these really really bad vibes, and a few verbal jabs...that's as far as anything ever went. I was never physically assaulted or harmed.

But the bad vibes were enough for me to learn fear and to put up some serious walls.

THEY didn't know I was "fresh off the boat" and new to this country. THEY didn't know that I felt that my own personal story sort of made me a clean slate to the whole "American inter-racial dynamics" thing. They just saw me, a white girl, at their bus stop, in their territory, and reacted in a normal way based on their own life experience...and judged me negatively.

I could feel the hatred and anger.

It's not much fun being judged by the color of one's skin.


Laura said...

When I was in the 8th grade, my family moved from Maine to small city in southern Virginia. I was a rather shy and quite strange creature to these girls. One of the caucasian girls started teasing me in the locker room after gym class one day. I don't remember the entirety of the exchange, only that it ended with, "you have to lick my shoe." An African American girl came to my rescue, "You need to leave her alone. That girl never does nothing to nobody."

Life is strange, eh? I never had any trouble in locker room after that...

Lady of the Ozarks said...

I always thought the same thing growing up, that everyone could just SEE that I'm not racist, like a sign over my head. As a white American, I've never really experienced racism, but I've experienced prejudice against me for another reason-I'm bipolar. I don't know what it feels like to be judged on the color of my skin. I wish no one did.

I still was naive and didn't think racism was so alive in my own neighborhood until one of our African American friends had his white neighbor refuse to fix his broken down car because of his race. I guess I thought that that stuff happens to other neighborhoods, but surely people in our own neighborhood are civilized. I was naive to think that. There are a lot more racists that I've become aware of, and I really do think that racism is uncivilized.

I absolutely love your stories about coming to American, so please keep them coming. I always read every new blog entry, this is one of my favorite blogs. I also have fibromyalgia and am struggling with my weight. It helps to read about someone else who is going through the same thing. I hope this new diet brings lots of good health! :-)

gemma said...

Racists come in all colors and the sooner we recognize that....the sooner we can fix it. For now though - unless you've been there - racism is only what the press and the politicians say it is. You can't fix a problem you don't acknowledge.

Sallyford said...

Dare I say this. I was pretty shocked at the underlying racism that I noticed when moving here from the U.K three short years ago. I thought that the U.S was light years ahead of the U.K but sadly not. One friend that I met here (British also) told me how nobody at the School gates spoke to her for over a year, until someone overheard her talking on her cell & realized she was British. Apparently here in Florida you are ignored if you are black unless you have a British accent and then you are welcomed. This really shocked and saddened me. I'd like to think it was the exception but have heard many other stories similar since.

Hilary Miller said...

Thank you for this post. In my high school English classes we had to watch some videos of interviews with African Americans who were extremely angry at white people. While I am sure that they had good reasons for being angry, instead of giving me an appreciation of their sufferings, these videos left me feeling afraid of them and frustrated that rather than being seen as an individual, I would be lumped in with racists just for being white. (Or later, with Nazis, just for being of German descent.) Not all black people are like the ones in those videos, but it seemed like such interviews were counterproductive ... exacerbating race relations, instead of healing them.