ILLUMINATION
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ILLUMINATION

“That Lady’s Black”

Photo by Belinda Amoah in Unsplash

I thought I knew when my racism started

Childhood impressions last a long time. Even when one doesn’t actually remember them.

World War II raged overseas. I remember the icebox in the kitchen and the iceman because I’d get chips of ice to suck on. I was three-ish, and we lived in a little courtyard cottage in Santa Barbara.

One time Mom and I boarded a bus. As we made our way down the aisle, I stopped suddenly and pointed at a large woman (aren’t all adults large at that age?). “Mommy,” I said, “that lady’s black!” Mother grabbed my hand and whispered vehemently “She’s not black, she’s colored,” denying what was right before my eyes as she yanked me toward the back of the bus.

I wouldn’t have remembered the event had it not been for Mom retelling the story over and over again into my early teens. I do remember the green seats and handrails and the Black woman’s gray dress. And, of course, I remember Mother’s obvious disapproval of my take on reality. But I didn’t become conscious of color until many years later.

I’ve often wondered about the woman’s thoughts. Did my openness and honesty amuse her? Did she smile at my mother or look away? Was she uncomfortable or irritated by my outburst — or by my mother’s reaction?

1940s photograph of 2 year old white boy standing between parents
Me at two and a half.

So what was the effect on me? I don’t recall being embarrassed or feeling shame at the time, but most likely I did for a few minutes. Somehow, my pointing out the obvious made Black wrong. For some reason I couldn’t trust the truth my eyes revealed; that there was a “wrongness” about this “other” maybe even a fear that I didn’t understand then.

Certainly I feared displeasing Mom. Over the years Mom would teach me — by repeating this and other stories from a Tennessee plantation on which she was raised — a subtle sense of superiority. Those stories, solely because of my white skin, ingrained in me biases which I suspect linger still in my unconscious. They’re racist traces, waiting for discovery, exploration and understanding. They’re lies and myths impressed on a young mind by family and society in the 1940s and 1950s.

Racial bias starts very early

Research over the last 50 years consistently shows that bias develops earlier and earlier than once thought. The most recent research shows that 3- and 9-month-olds begin preferring and categorizing racial groups. By the time they are 3 years old, children are associating racial groups with negative traits. “By the age of 4, children in the U.S. associate whites with wealth and higher status, and race-based discrimination is already widespread when children start elementary school” reported a New York Times article in August, 2020.

I need not feel at fault or guilty for my early impressions of race and bias, nor need I take responsibility for their impact on me. They simply are what they were. They lurk in my psyche and may leap out in unexpected ways. That isn’t the real problem.

The first step toward anti-racism is acknowledgement

The real problem is accepting racist perceptions are there when they’re pointed out or noticed. Can I take responsibility for exploring the prejudices and biases about differences in the human race impressed on me at an early age? I believe we all have the ability to respond with curiosity and openness to those early impressions rather than with fear, shame or guilt. Then, and perhaps only then, can I or any other white person act to reject their influence.

In short, can I acknowledge my racist perceptions when they pop up? Can I reframe them into anti-racist positions? That is a continuing challenge for any white person in America.

I’m curious. Suppose the next time you have “knee-jerk” reaction to a racial situation, what would happen if you stopped and asked yourself, why was that so automatic? Do you know what triggered your response? What lies beneath the discomfort, or perhaps denial? Might the source be something you learned without knowing you learned it?

One thing I know for sure, becoming an anti-racist is a never-ending journey. Becoming an anti-racist is, like America, a work in process — for everyone.

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Nicholas King

Nicholas King

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I’ve been many things in life. Now, what I always wanted to do write and photograph — what I couldn’t make a living at before. In my rusty years I just do it.