An odyssey, of sorts, and scenes of how racism begins to end

Janet's World

November 02, 2008|By Janet Gilbert

When I was about 5, I overheard my grandmother telling my mother that "the coloreds" were moving into Baldwin, Long Island, and that a lot of her neighbors were talking about selling their homes. She used that hushed, conspiratorial tone that naturally puts all children within earshot on aural alert.

"Some of them just bought a house a block over," she reported. "But they are the loveliest people!"

At the time, I was known as "Big Ears" for my ability to home in on anything even mildly controversial, and, more irritating, to repeat it to anyone who expressed the slightest interest. For this I received repeated lectures delineating the difference between "general information" and "family business."

Apparently, I never quite got it, as evidenced by this column.

Later, rattling around in the front seat of our car - as unrestrained and comfy as the Sansabelt slacks of the 1960s - I rattled off my questions about "the coloreds." Who were they? Why were people afraid? Was Grandma going to move?

"Your grandmother grew up in a different time," my mother said.

And then we had a talk: about black people and white people, and how some people are prejudiced. And no, my mother assured me, my grandmother was not afraid, and she was not going to move away because she was not prejudiced. It was a confusing, yet satisfying, conversation.

This is how racism begins to end, I think.

My next conversation about race occurred when I was 12, after an incident at an amusement park in New Jersey. My parents said my younger brother and I could have one more roller coaster ride, and after a half-hour of waiting, a group of about 20 black teenagers cut under the serpentine cordons to the front of the line, right in front of my brother and me.

"Hey," I said, "You can't do that!"

A girl who towered over me made some remark about my eyeglasses and my general skinniness, and my brother quickly said, "Let's go."

Crying on the trip home, I related the story to my parents.

"I hate them," I said.

"Who?" my father asked.

"Those ... those ... black kids!" I said.

I wanted to hate somebody for making me feel so humiliated, so powerless. But instead, we talked about how groups of rude teenagers occur in every color.

This is how racism begins to end, I think.

My third conversation about race happened when I was in college in France, with my best male and black friend, Chuck. A group of us got spiffed up one Friday night to try to get into a swanky club. The doorman motioned us all to go in, then refused Chuck. We challenged the doorman with whatever angry language we could muster in our limited French vocabulary. Chuck was conspicuously silent. We left as a group.

"Why didn't you say something, Chuck?" I demanded.

"Janet, if I got angry every time something like this happened to me, it would take up all my energy, my whole life," he said. "I just let it go."

I remember bursting into tears of frustration, and oddly, having Chuck comfort me.

This is how racism begins to end, I think.

A fourth conversation about race happened on a car trip recently, when a dear friend of mine asked if I would be OK with my child marrying outside my race, and I said yes.

Because what is my race, really? Next time I am confronted by that question with a checkoff box on a form, I will write in the following: Integrity. Compassion. Intelligence. Courage. These are the attributes that I hope will define me more than my apparent whiteness.

And these are the only attributes I will be evaluating in the voting booth on Tuesday.

This is how racism begins to end, I think.

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