Racism – I’m Still Learning…My Story

I’m Still Learning…

Everyone has a story. Actually, everyone has many stories. Here are some of mine and maybe you’ll understand how I’m still learning.

   I must start this by saying I am a middle-class white person. I have blonde hair and green eyes. My grandparents lived in Montgomery, Alabama. Every summer we would travel to stay with them for a week or two during summer vacation.

My grandfather was a hard-working, kind, good Christian man. He read his big Bible every day and dropped to his knees every night to pray. We didn’t have books to read at his house so our bedtime stories were always from his Bible. We learned to kneel before God and give Him thanks.

As a very young child, I remember stopping along the way to go visit my grandparents. We needed to use the restroom and I remember almost going into the wrong restroom as I couldn’t read yet. My mom grabbed me and said, “That one is for colored people.” It was the same for water fountains. I didn’t understand. From the eyes of a child, I always wanted to go into those restrooms to see all the beautiful colors. Why didn’t our bathroom have pretty colors? I wondered, “Does their water fountain have pretty colored water?” I was learning.

Fast forward a few years. I was still young, less than 10 years old. My grandfather and I went to run errands and had to stop for gas. This was back when the gas was pumped for you. There was a crowd of Black people who were all yelling and chanting. I did not understand but felt afraid. They seemed so angry! My grandfather paid for the gas and we started to drive off. Suddenly, a bottle was thrown and shattered against the car. I started to cry in fear.

I asked my grandfather what the people were so mad about. “We didn’t do anything wrong. Why do they hate us? They don’t know us and we don’t know them. Why are they so mad at us? Why did they hurt our car? Aren’t you mad they messed up the car? What are we going to do about it?”

My grandfather asked if I noticed anything about the crowd. I said, “Yes, they are mad at us. Why?” He asked if I noticed their color. From the eyes of a child, I did not see their color until he asked me that question. He said, “They are colored people.” “Why does that make a difference?” I asked. My grandfather then replied with an answer I have never forgotten. He said, “The way you feel right now…all the questions you asked me….that’s how they have felt their entire lives. People treat them differently. They feel angry and want things to change. They are just like us except for the color of their skin. I am upset about the car but I am not angry with them. I am not as upset as they are for being treated poorly. Yes, we are going to do something. We are going to pray that God will protect them and change the hearts of those who don’t treat them fairly. We must be kind to everyone, no matter the color of their skin. It is what is in your heart and your actions that matter.” I was learning.

My grandmother had a lady that would help her occasionally with some of her heavy housework. She was a (colored) Black woman named Lucille. We loved Ms. Lucille! When we came into town, she would come over just to see us. She ate at our table. She wanted to know how school was, what kind of grades we made, and what sports we played. She told jokes and gave the BEST hugs! She sang gospels with us. From a child’s eyes, she was a friend and remained so until she passed away. Even though my grandfather’s words never left me, even as I aged, I never had a conversation with Ms. Lucille about her life experiences and what all she suffered. I’m sad about that. I was still learning.

Time went on. I was a young teen when there were to be three protest marches from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery, Alabama. Even though I was still young, the news grabbed my attention because they were talking about where my grandparents lived.  They were marching to demonstrate the desire for Black people to exercise their constitutional right to vote, in defiance of segregationist repression. I could sense how tensions were building leading up to the marches. I felt afraid again.

When the event turned into what is now known as Bloody Sunday, I remember crying and asking what they had done wrong. I remember feeling helpless, thinking there was nothing I could do as a child to help what was going on. From the eyes of a young teen…..I wanted to scream, “THEY ARE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO BE ABLE TO DO WHAT EVERYONE ELSE CAN! WHAT DOES THEIR SKIN COLOR HAVE TO DO WITH IT?” My heart was breaking. Why? I didn’t know these people! There were some changes made after those events. The Voting Rights Acts was passed.  I was learning.

Fast forward a few years. I was on my high school gymnastics team. There was a new member of our team who was Black. I noticed she was warming up by herself. No one would spot her. I started warming up with her and spotting her. We would work out together.

I was also a cheerleader and we were at a Friday night basketball game. All of a sudden they rushed the players to the locker room and everyone was told to go home. There was a riot going on outside the school. What were we going to do? I had gone to the game with my boyfriend who was a basketball player. As we were leaving, we were swarmed by a large group of Black students who had made a big circle around us. There were fights going on. Students were fighting with sticks and hitting each other with glass bottles. I was terrified. We continued to walk, not knowing what we were going to do. Then, I came face-to-face with my teammate. Our eyes met and what happened next, changed my life. My teammate did some special hand squeeze and the circle opened up for us to pass. We made it to the car where once again, we were swarmed and students were rocking the car. All of a sudden, unexpectedly, the swarm opened up and we were able to drive out of the parking lot. This is the day I TRULY learned the power of kindness.

I saw my teammate during practice on Monday. While we spoke unspoken words with our eyes, we never had a discussion. I now am sorry about that. Why didn’t I, as part of the “privileged” class, do something to help? What could I do to help bring justice to the Black community? While I understood the power of kindness, I still needed to learn.

Ms. Laura was my 3-year-old son’s babysitter. She was MORE than a babysitter. She was part of our family. We would visit Ms. Laura at her house. We had meals together. She always called my son “her little friend.”

We were getting ready to go out of town for my brother’s wedding and Ms. Laura came over to make sure my son’s shoes were polished and had clean shoelaces! She wanted “her baby” to look spiffy when he walked down the aisle as the ring bearer. While we were away at the wedding, Ms. Laura had a massive heart attack and passed away. Trying to explain what had happened to a three-year-old was difficult. All I remember from the conversation was him saying, “Oh no! Now I won’t have ‘fwiend’!” He had no understanding of skin color. He just felt the love. I never had a discussion with Ms. Laura about her trials or experiences as a Black person. I STILL needed to learn!

As a teacher, I was asked one day whether a certain student in my class was Black or not. I had to stop and think. I didn’t see color. My heart said he is just a precious child of God. I didn’t realize the effects of not seeing and recognizing color. I was still learning.

When I moved from the classroom to train teachers, I worked with some fabulous people of color. My boss was a Black woman who I admired tremendously. She was smart, funny, a great leader, and talented in so many ways. That is what I saw. Never once did I stop and think about all the obstacles she probably had to face to get to her position. I took it for granted. I didn’t think about how much harder it had to be for her than her White counterparts.  I was still learning.

A very dear friend of mine, Bertie Simmons, spent 60 years in education. Yes, you read that correctly…60 years! She is my hero in more ways than one. I just read her recent book  Whispers of Hope . It tells about her life experiences growing up in rural Louisiana during the Jim Crow era. In her story, she used (and continues to use) her life experiences to bring about changes in the fight for equity in our educational system. I am still learning! Her innovations to turn a school around that was a gang-infested drop-out school is nothing less than remarkable. It is because of her courage to stand up and fight for what was best for the students in her community that gives me the courage to write some of my story. It gives me courage to stand up and do my part to fight for equality. I am still learning!

I am including this poem written by Bertie Simmons. It is in her book. This too is my dream. I could never have written anything any better. Thank you, Bertie, for teaching me and giving me HOPE!

I Dream

I dream of a world full of hope
Where sunbeams sparkle with delight,
And raindrops wash away all hatred
While moonbeams wrap us at night
In a blanket of peace.

I dream of a world of unconditional love
Where no one is judged by race, color, or creed.
And the fresh breeze delivers chances
While snowfakes provide the ambiance we need
To view the world with wonderment and awe.

I dream of a world with no hunger
Where each has shelter and care,
And our doors are always open
In case someone is there
Who needs a helping hand.

I dream of a world where hope is not a whisper.
Where it is shouted around the earth,
And free to each individual
With no regard for one’s place of birth
Or the number of one’s zip code.

    ~Bertie Simmons~

In conclusion…

Please don’t hate me for being white. Please don’t hate me for the mistakes I have and will continue to make. I am still learning. I don’t “do” social media. I can’t get out and march with you. Yet, I FEEL some part of what you are feeling. I am still learning. I will never know the extent of your pain. I am still learning. All I know is your pain is more than what I am feeling and I cannot imagine that. I have sobbed every day for a week. I am an anti-racist and I am still learning.

What I CAN do is use my words. I CAN write letters to demand change. I CAN make suggestions about how to make things better. I CAN vote for those who will make change. I CAN have tough conversations to continue to learn. I CAN teach my grandchildren about kindness and how not to judge anyone for the color of their skin. AND believe me, I CAN get down on my knees with you and lift you and our country up in prayer…just as my grandfather taught me so many years ago. I am STILL learning!

Written by Susan
The Fun Factory
Please send comments or questions to thefunfactoryontpt@gmail.com

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