“When this war is over, there will be one between colored and white!” These were the words of my parents that I listened to in horror from the back seat of our car outside of the A&P in East Providence, R.I. I had seen war in the newsreels on Saturday afternoon. I had seen people shooting at other people from the protection of hedgerows. I pictured myself shooting at my eight-year-old white friends. My only friends of color were my cousin and Anna, and neither lived in my neighborhood. It was the early ‘40s and my parents were referring to the segregation of our armed forces in the Second World War. I got over that.
My mother subscribed to two black newspapers, The Boston Chronicle and The Pittsburgh Courier; they presented to me a vague idea of what Jim Crow meant, and a vivid picture of lynchings. I was horrified but somehow felt this didn’t apply directly to me.
My mother graduated from Commercial High in Providence in 1927, fully prepared to enter the white-collar world, quite a feat for a colored woman at that time. Every so often she would take civil service exams for a clerical job with the government. She was always among the top-scorers and would eventually be assigned. At the last moment she would back out. “I’ll have to spend most of the money I make on clothes.” or “Everyone will be younger than I am.” I can only suspect she was afraid that as a “colored girl” she would be stepping out of bounds, even for Rhode Island in the ‘40s.
She did work from time to time, however. In white people’s houses doing housework for people like Mrs. Rosenstein who addressed her as “Doris,” while my mother addressed her with the honorific “Mrs.” Mrs. Rosenstein’s husband was a doctor and they lived in Rumford, an affluent white suburb. She told Momma she knew how she felt because “we’re Jewish, you know.”
And then there was the time I naively decided to try out for our senior play, Junior Miss, and was told by my embarrassed English teacher that the only part available to me would be that of the maid. I bitterly declined.
In 1953 when I went to work in Washington, D.C., I spent my first two weeks in orientation and saw very few blacks. I blithely decided that this particular government agency was not segregated. Then I was assigned to an all-black office—these were the only blacks employed except for guards and janitorial help. I still didn’t get it.
When I came to California, I married a man who had been raised a poor black in Oklahoma. He thought my lack of racial consciousness appalling. We would have heated arguments over whether or not the police were racist. I heard stories about blacks being beaten by Oakland cops for traffic violations. I didn’t believe it.
Before I left Rhode Island, I made application for a clerical job at UC Berkeley. My qualifications and experience were effusively acknowledged by personal letter from the UC Personnel Office. But after arriving at Berkeley and being sent out for interviews, the dawn slowly broke. I would watch the faces of my interviewers as I entered. Mouths would drop open; faces would redden. They would stammer inanely and I wouldn’t get the job.
“Where did you say you are from?” they would ask, as if my application was not on the desk in front of them, as if my birthplace had any bearing on my qualifications. “New York?” they would venture tentatively. I felt I was being viewed as an aberration since my complexion did not match my “accent” and I was therefore disqualified. Eventually the Math Department hired me for a two-week period to assist the secretary arrange the Symposium on the Axiomatic Method. They decided to keep me. Since a number of blacks were then hired in that department, I assumed Personnel thought it was safe to send us there.
Then it was 1961; black was soon to be beautiful. I walked up a cement path and three steps to the wooden front door of a modest two-story house just east of Telegraph Avenue, down near 40th St. There was a For Rent sign in the window and the nameplate on the door read Sousa. The neighborhood was definitely downscale but neat and quiet. My husband had continued to tell me (I was not, at that time, clear why) that I could not look for lodging in certain, very specific places; east of Telegraph Avenue was one of them.
“We don’t rent to coloreds.” The wrinkled white face peered at me through the crack in the barely open door.
I was enveloped in hot rage beginning to surpass the surprise. I had no recollection of my drive home.
In 1964 when we bought a house in the Oakland hills, the white people next door couldn’t move fast enough—their FOR SALE sign went up almost immediately. I found out later we were blockbusting. This infuriated and embarrassed me because I was beginning to get it—it felt terrible!
A tearing was going on inside of me. Why didn’t I feel victorious because we blacks had won one? Why instead did I feel sad and sick? Why all the trickery? Why couldn’t I learn that blacks must use any means possible to get ahead, even when it was dishonest or hurt somebody?
Whites continue to fool me. I guess it’s taking me longer because it was so well hidden from me in the beginning. Nobody talked about race relations to me directly when I was young. It was just something that was there but seemed to have really nothing to do with me personally. And I don’t know yet if that’s good or bad. If I had been aware early in life, might not that just have been an excuse for me not to be a success? I had enough excuses as it was. Which kind of racial prejudice is the most destructive?
Overt, in which one has the visual aid of restrictive signs—“Colored Folks to the Rear,” “Whites Only Need Apply”; restricted neighborhoods into which a person of color would never venture seeking housing; segregated public schools so designated?
Or covert, in which a person is born into a society that, on the surface, doesn’t show prejudice; in which a person attends twelve years of public school and is allowed to feel special because of excellent performance, supposedly with no racial preference, in which there are no “colored” neighborhoods; any part of the bus or train can be occupied.
Overt, in which everything and everybody tells you your place: that by virtue of the color of your skin you are inferior or, at best, to be treated in an inferior manner? The world holds no surprises for you in terms of fairness. You aim low so as not to be disappointed. You, whether consciously or unconsciously, emulate the superior race by straightening or artificially curling your hair--making it shiny. You have plastic surgery to correct non-caucasian features. You bleach your skin using lighteners advertised in black publications. You marry light: if you are dark-skinned you try to marry lighter so that your children will be lighter.
Or covert in which you are made to believe that your color makes absolutely no difference; you go to school and play with white children who treat you just like anybody else; you read about the experiences of others of your color in big city ghettoes or in the south and somehow feel that you are spared this curse, though you are never quite sure why. In some very vague way, you are aware that all is not well but you don’t know what this means. As a growing child there is much that confuses; this race thing is only one of them and, at the time, doesn’t seem the most important.
I continued to attribute these and countless other racist incidents in my life either to innocent oversight or total ignorance on the part of the specific white individual, certainly not to the entire white race.
All the while, my “black identity” was being questioned by my black friends. I was told I didn’t have enough of it. Again, I wasn’t sure what “it” was. All I knew was that I was Doris and Gene’s daughter and that they were at first colored, then Negro and now black. So how black was I supposed to be?
Then came the San Quentin shoot-out, which killed George Jackson, other blacks, and a couple of prominent white people, one of whom was a judge. The authorities decided to take off after Angela Davis—they had their scapegoat, black and an avowed Communist to boot. And suddenly I was black. I had finally been slapped hard enough. I was enraged. I decided I had to act and had no idea what I could do. Up until then I excused my inaction by saying that I was fighting my own war to prove to whites that blacks don’t fit the stereotype engendered by whites.
So I acted. I decided I would no longer be a part of the white power structure. Silly me. Nevertheless, the next day I fully intended to quit my job at UC. No one tried to stop me. I collared my boss when he came in and told him I needed to talk. I spent at least two emotional hours explaining to him why I could no longer work for him. He never interrupted. I went back to my desk; I never quit.
But from that moment on I have been learning. I no longer resist the fact that I live in a racist world, in a racist society, in a racist city and a racist neighborhood. I spend my money in racist stores and attend racist classes. White doctors, teachers, service people, firemen, policemen and clergy are racist. I don’t care how many of us are here or how much money we are making or how many of us are graduating from how many colleges. When whites are born into this society, they know inherently that they are superior to all third world people, and especially to blacks. No matter what negative condition they find themselves in, they are still superior to blacks. And some blame blacks for their negative condition. Liberal whites decide just how much slack they will cut us, and then assume we should not only be grateful, but also friendly. I have never met and probably will never meet a white who believes himself racist. He will tell me about his racist mother or his racist brother-in-law or his racist neighbor, but not him. Rather than to accept the fact that I might be equal, or maybe even better, white people have told me that I’m “not really black”.
This situation will never, never improve until whites can admit to themselves that they are by definition and innately racist. They should identify as closely with their racism as they identify with their gender. If you are born white, you are born racist. Blacks like me become racist in defense. Identify that you are racist and, recognizing yourselves as such, you can check yourselves. Blacks do not want your love. Your like isn’t even important. And your understanding is not necessary. We don’t even care whether or not you smile at us. What we do want is that you not stand in our way. What we do want is equal justice by law, no favors. And just for the record, affirmative action is just that, not a favor.
Thirty years ago, in a fit of panic and pseudo-generosity prompted by fear, the white power structure admitted blacks, almost indiscriminately, to some schools and some jobs. Since this action was indiscriminate, many blacks failed. At which point the whites sat back and said, “See! We gave them a chance and they failed.” And that was the end of it. So now it’s cut welfare, cut the quota system, beat ‘em up and throw ‘em in jail.
It will take years of exposure for the rest of the United States of America to fully realize what a monstrous thing American racism is. And all during this time one proceeds quite naturally with one’s life dealing with racism on a day-to-day basis, too overwhelmed by the monstrosity of it ever to be able to get up on a soap-box screaming in rage. And as the realization slowly inches its way into the consciousness, the surprise, the hurt and then the rage take over. How many times must one silently, but clearly, be called “nigger” before it finally sinks in? And if one is to be a nigger, then one had better track down the meaning of this negritude.
My particular racism is my particular experience. I’ve never written about it before for two reasons: I wasn’t sure I was black enough to discuss it with blacks, and it does no good to discuss it with whites.