I was born in 1943 in the City of Los Angeles, U.S.A. to parents of northern European heritage.
I was also born racist.
They say, of course, that no one is born with hate in their hearts, and I certainly was not born with hate in my little heart, but you don’t have to hate anybody to be certifiable as a racist. You only have to be born of European stock into a culture so racist that it was very nearly invisible. Racism was as much a part of my experience from the moment I drew breath as the leaves on the trees. And I was as conscious of it as I was of the facts of botany.
As I was of the existence of black people at all.
My family was white. Their friends were white. When my father was drafted into the Army Air Corps, my mother and I went back to her hometown of Badger, Iowa, which was completely populated by white Norwegian farmers and the like.
My first intimation of the existence of black people at all was in the church brochures asking for donations for the Lutheran missions in Africa. Before we left Badger, I wanted to be a missionary. Not because I was hot to spread the Good Word, but mostly because Africa sounded like a great place to be. I was always attracted to adventure, to the exotic. And I’m afraid that that was how I was to continue to see Africans – and African-Americans – all through my childhood and well into my teens. Exotic. Different. Interesting. Africans, in fact, stood higher in my estimation than African-Americans because of what I now understand to be the miasma of racism in which I was immersed. Africans, you see, could be warriors and kings. I remember trying to “rest” by standing on one leg, as the Masai did in pictures. I devoured Tarzan books. Me Jane, you grateful African friends. African-Americans, however, were janitors or maids, not teachers or even policemen. Slavery had in some way, to my juvenile mind, degraded them so that they could no longer aspire to much more than being Jack Benny’s butler Rochester on TV. I might have noticed that there were no black doctors or dentists or teachers – but I don’t remember thinking about it, so I probably didn’t. Why would there be? There never had been. Not in my world.
By this time, we lived in the town of Decatur, Illinois, and Decatur had its very own “colored part of town.” I began to learn something about the Civil War and to hear the first distant drum beats of what would become the Civil Rights Movement a decade or so later. I remember thinking about it, and likely having seen movies like Song of the South, I wanted to think well of southerners, so I can distinctly remember deciding that it was likely that some people down there were still miffed about the Civil War. I could understand that.
I met my first African Americans in Junior High. I can still remember their names: Jesse Simpson and the Cheeks twins. I was just emerging from the trees, and I found them all fascinating and very attractive. And we all became friends. Of a sort. Somehow we found ourselves sitting near each other in classes, along with a couple of other friends of mine whom I have forgotten entirely, and we joked and passed notes and I had big crushes on all three. We never saw each other outside of school, though. I knew they lived in the “colored” part of town, and although I was tempted to go over there just to take a look, but I chickened out. I did, however, tell my folks that I wanted to invite Danny Cheeks to our Girl Scout hayride, and to do them justice, they did not freak out. They did talk me out of it and looking back I think they were right to do so. I was in no way prepared for the blowback on that one. And I doubt that Mrs. Cheeks would have allowed her son to go on some fool hayride with an ignorant little white girl.
My parents were good Eisenhower Republicans with a sense of fairness. The "N-word" was forbidden in our family. My father was staunchly anti-union, but he treated his workers well, hired a black man, and later made that black man his plant manager. He got some guff for that, but he didn't back down. Looking back, our family may have been considered "n-lovers." Still, growing up, I had little idea of the culture in which I lived and breathed and participated every day.
Until I moved to Chicago. In 1963. When the Civil Rights Movement was the most exciting big-city thing happening, and I wanted to be part of it. Adventure, remember? Exotic. Different. Interesting. Me Jane.
My history in and out of the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s would take a volume, and not always a very interesting volume at that. My new husband had black friends that he had grown up with. His best friend was a white cop who was friends with other black cops. I remember wanting to impress them all with how very not racist I was. I fell in love (from a great distance) with black jazz musicians. I fell in love with Stokely Carmichael, and fantasized about meeting him, about him realizing what a prize I was. I made a conscious effort to talk with the busboys who helped cater events at the P.R. firm I worked for. I was chastised for fraternizing with the help. I felt good about that.
I was becoming, as I would later learn, the very spit and image of “Miss Ann.” Miss Ann was a stereotype in the African American community. She is usually white, although she can be “colored” as well, if she has risen high enough to “act white.” She thinks quite well of herself, and supposes, deep down, that those whom she befriends should be grateful to her and think her a wonderful exception. She is not.
Today we call her Karen.
I learned about Miss Ann when I joined the Movement for real. A black co-worker was a mover and shaker in Jesse Jackson’s Operation Breadbasket, and she gave me directions to the place where they met on Chicago’s near south side. It was one of my first comeuppances wherein I learned that I was not all that different from all the other white folks who couldn’t tell black people apart. Because I couldn’t. I walked into that first meeting, the first in which I was one of the very few white people present, and looked for Cora but found, to my dismay, that I couldn’t pick her out of the crowd. Everybody looked absolutely the same to me. It was appalling.
Later, trying to justify myself, I came up with the “orange room” theory. You walk into a room filled with many and varied beautiful unique objects, but the walls are painted bright orange. All you can see is the orange walls. Sounds lame? Well, it helped me get to the next meeting determined to take a closer look at the unique people within it. So I was there with my son, who was two, when Eartha Kitt came to talk to us – she spotted him and his claim to fame to this day is that he was carried around a room by Eartha Kitt. I was there when Mohammed Ali came, and when Dick Gregory came. I was there in the days after Martin Luther King was killed. And all the time, I was learning, learning. Maybe not enough, but enough to go on when I left.
Because I did leave. I was a young, attractive blonde woman who inevitably attracted many of the younger and even not so young black activists in the movement. I wanted to make friends with black women, but I couldn’t get past their resentment. It was assumed by many of them that I was there because of “the myth.” What was “the myth?” I wanted to know and asked my friend Cora. “You never heard the myth?” she asked, astonished. Turns out she assumed that’s why I was there, too. The Myth, it turns out, is that black men are more, ahem, sexually endowed than white men, and apparently a lot of white women come downtown looking for it. Anybody remember the scene in Blazing Saddles where Madeline Kahn, after hot sex with Cleavon Little, cries out, “It’s twue, it’s twue!” I would never have understood that scene without Chicago.
But, while I can’t say I was disinterested in the subject, I had to leave. Looking around, I could see lots of other young white women supporting black boyfriends, giving it all for the cause, and I did not want to become one of them. And I didn’t want the resentment of black women. It was a scene I could never have envisioned before Chicago, that my entrance into the Movement, that my acceptance of black people in all things, would not be taken for what I thought it was – the true goodness of my heart. That there would be prejudices against me the origin of which I had no notion. That I would be treated “unfairly.” Even taken advantage of. And I didn’t know how to handle it. I fled.
The Movement didn’t lose much. And it didn’t really lose me. I remained committed, if not particularly useful in any way. I’ve spent some little time in the ensuing years trying to understand what had happened. Trying to understand them. Trying to understand myself. I’ve even had a couple of black boyfriends. And a couple of “colored” women who came close to being friends.
But I don’t think I ever really grasped the entirety of what was meant by systemic racism. By a racist culture. Not until I began to grapple with the concept of white privilege. From which at first I felt exempt. In order for me to have had white privilege, I reasoned, I would have been able to point to certain advantages that I could see I had had, positions, raises, praise for this, that, or the other thing, and I couldn’t find anything like that. Then I mentioned how easy it was to get a cab in New York City, and got a stare from my black boyfriend’s sister, who lived there. She not only lived there, she was an attorney with the NAACP at the time, a published playwright, and had the looks and polish of a supermodel. I heard stories of being followed in stores. I had too, I protested. I was a Deadhead. I had been followed around convenience stores just because I was wearing a Grateful Dead shirt. Well, I was told, you had a choice. You could have changed clothes and come back. I can’t change skin. And when I thought about poor white folks getting lectured about their white privilege, I had to laugh. The only privilege these guys have is that they are not black. Exactly, my mentors said. That’s what Jefferson Davis thought too. And I read a quote from him that laid it out.
You too know, that among us, white men have an equality resulting from a presence of a lower caste, which cannot exist where white men fill the position here occupied by the servile race.
I began to see things a little differently then. I saw a flood of European immigrants who fled Europe in search of freedom for themselves and their families. Immigrants who had never owned servants, had always been servants. And here, in this bounteous land, there was already a servant class, an underclass, over whom they would always be masters of one sort or another.
It’s been a long strange trip for this little white girl, now become an OWL (old white lady), and we come at last to George Floyd and Derek Chauvin. There will be a statue made from that picture, a statue of the white man with his knee on the neck of a black man, the perfect metaphor of the last 400 years of Africans in America. It never was only a metaphor. It certainly isn't now. I cannot imagine what those 8 minutes, 46 seconds were to Chauvin. Snuffing out the life of a man. A big, black man. Kneeling on his neck with his hand in his pocket. At ease. Secure in his mastery. Looking around with a look of assurance that this, too, would pass. I do know that he, like me, was born racist. And that he, like me, lived and worked in a culture of systemic racism. A culture as present yet unnoticed as the leaves on the trees.
The protesters that have filled the streets for the past couple of weeks, that still fill some streets of the nation, have contained a rather large contingent of white folks, young and old, some who have taken my journey and others who were born into a world that seemed somewhat less racist than mine had been. Perhaps they went to school with black children. Hung out with black friends now and then. Saw black people on TV who were not janitors or maids, who were doctors and lawyers and a president. Worked with black people in schools and offices and laboratories. And so racism, as anyone born before late in the last century had known it, was not necessarily known to them except in books. And yet here it was, kneeling on the neck of George Floyd, the very epitome of the history of race in America. And they have set out to deal with it. May they live long and prosper.
I made a clever little quip recently that whenever I heard the phrase “people of color,” I thought, “Oh, do you mean people with heads?” My Movement friends in Chicago told me, “You’re white on the outside, black on the inside,” and at first I felt complimented, but then I felt slightly aggrieved. I wanted it to be okay to be colored white. Well, pasty beige. I wanted to be a Norwegian American. I wanted that to be all right too.
But it wasn’t. We, especially all of us of European stock, have been born racist. Because we were born in America. A country that came with live-in help. Where we have been, will we or nill we, the masters for far too long.