- Karen -
When did I become aware of this? There were many times I was confronted with racism but I’m not sure I ever saw myself as a racist.
My First Encounter
There was the time when I was very small, three or four. I spoke no English. My sister, just a year older than me, and I discovered there was a little girl living next door to us. She was about our age and a dark brown. We discovered each other through the fence in the backyard. We asked if we could go over to play with her. The answer was a definite “no.”
I didn’t understand why we couldn’t play together but we found a way around it. We played through the fence instead. We had little rubber baby dolls. Hers was brown. I always wanted one like hers but never got one, even though many times I had asked Santa to bring me one.
Our family moved to a new home when I was four. My sister and I became friends with two Japanese girls who also spoke no English. Language didn’t matter. We played beautifully. We all started school together. The Japanese girls were the same ages as my sister and I. We went to school and learned to speak English. Our parents were all bilingual.
I discovered that being Japanese was “bad.” These girls could not play at the homes of the other children in the neighborhood. I didn’t understand why. They were always welcome at my house and our mothers were friendly with each other.
Of course I later learned it had to do with hard feelings and prejudices from the war. I learned much later that some families in the neighborhood mistakenly thought our family was German. When they learned we were Danish, their attitudes improved.
There were no black people in Altadena when I was growing up. I remember some moving in during the late 50’s. That’s when there was a flurry of “for sale” signs going up. My parents had no intention of leaving. This was their home and they were staying. Many of the families in the neighborhood moved away but we stayed.
At that time I was in middle school at Eliot. There was one black girl in the whole school, Deborah Sweeney. She was little and smart and quiet. We had classes together and I liked her but, somehow, I knew we shouldn’t be friends. I only talked to her to say “hi” or discuss school work. She was alone most of the time. I look back and think of how brave she was.
In high school at John Muir, there was a boy named Greg. He was light brown with beautiful green eyes and a warm smile. He and I had a trigonometry class together. He was smart, funny and cute. He played a trumpet in the Muir band and had a lot of band friends.
I knew I wasn’t supposed to like Greg but I did. I never told anyone. He and I decided to take a summer school class together. We decided to take a class in speed reading. It would be easy and we could have a little time together. That summer just made me like him all the more.
When our se
nior year came, Greg had a girlfriend. She was brown. I eventually had a boyfriend. He was white, like me. I’ve never forgotten Greg. I can still see him in my mind. He’s an old man now but I see his young smiling face and green eyes and wonder what I missed.
My black friends have been few but I did enjoy some lovely friendships with black and brown people throughout my life. Mostly I have always had white friends.
I remember the time a boyfriend, who was white, took me to a black club in LA called, “The Total Experience.” It was so much fun but I felt out of place. There was a great band and people were dressed to the hilt. We danced but I didn’t feel like we danced nearly as well as everyone else. I did indeed feel under-dressed and out of place.
Years later, when I was married and had my second daughter, an adorable little redhead named Chelsea, we went to the Rainbow Lagoon in Long Beach to enjoy a day of R&B which my husband loved. There we were, the whitest family in the crowd.
Our little red-haired daughter with her mass of orange curls, was about three and totally into the music. She was dancing and laughing and charming everyone. She felt like my “link” to a crowd I didn’t think I had much in common with. It turned out to be a day of sheer joy and community and love of music.
I have lived through race riots, learned of police brutality in my community, tried to understand the systemic racism in our society and, at the same time, I’ve prided myself in overcoming any prejudice I have learned from my life experiences. These were not necessarily prejudices taught as much as implied, but insidious, none the less.
In 2019 the 1619 Project was published by the New York Times. It was the beginning of a whole new kind of understanding of a thing called, “White Privilege.” For the first time, it seems, I am beginning to understand this term and how it applies to me and how I have “gone along with the program” all my life. I want better for myself and for my community and for my country.
To answer the question, when did I become aware I was a racist? At 75 I became aware… unintentionally a racist, yet a racist, just the same. I am on a mission to change that.