Months ago, I started musing on race and racism through the eyes of one 70-something white man. This is a continuation of that with more memories of my experiences.
My mother died when I was five. Soon thereafter, my father hired a live-in housekeeper, the first of several who were part of my family up through my high-school years. All were white. The first, a wonderful woman named Katie Durso, developed rheumatoid arthritis while working for the Wingards. She would die in just a couple of years, but while she was in our home and increasingly unable to do work with her hands, my dad hired a “cleaning lady” to help her. This black woman’s name was Bernice. I never knew her last name. I suppose she lived in the Hill District, one of the black neighborhoods in the city. It was a daily sight to see black women in their 40’s and 50’s getting off the bus in virtually all-white Squirrel Hill in the morning and reboarding the bus in the evening. We (white kids in Squirrel Hill) all knew without being told who these women were and why they were in our neighborhood. No big deal. But Bernice was the first person of color who really had anything to do with my life. She was large, I remember that, and kindly. But one time I overheard my dad complaining to Katie about her, calling her (Bernice) an “esmeralda.” I had no idea what that meant, and maybe my dad didn’t either, but I knew he was disparaging her — or her intelligence or her work habits. For some reason, I later decided he was calling her a “mule,” with connotations of “not very smart, stubborn, but hard-working at a limited task.” At some point, Bernice left my father’s employ — maybe after Katie died — and we never had another cleaning lady. Lots of my friends did, though; it was common practice.
When I got to high school, I would hear some of the boys talking about going to the Hill to get laid. Apparently, their were brothels there. I think it cost a dollar to have sex with a black prostitute. I was shocked and confused by the talk. But I also picked up more than a whiff of contempt on the part of these white schoolmates for these women. I never partook, but not because I saw the racism in the economy of Hill District prostitution. Or, for that matter, in the economy of housekeeping in Squirrel Hill.
At the same time, as I said in another post, many of my high school friends came from liberal homes — more liberal than ours. The zeitgeist of Allderdice High School when I was there was “pro-civil rights,” and many of the kids were pretty hip on the issue. Of course, it was easy to identify racism as an exclusively Southern phenomenon. At any rate, I came out of high school with liberal ideas on race. Naive, but liberal.
I played football in college, and there were a few black players on the team. I was never really friends with any of them, and, looking back, I wonder how they felt being at a mostly white college. As I recall, my teammates accepted them — especially if they were good. There was one black player, a guard, who was outstanding — probably the best blocking guard in the conference. He was also uncouth, in white terms: loud, grabby, kind of goofy. White guys used to joke about not lockering next to this guy because he had body odor, which was taken as a natural phenomenon of blackness. I don’t know; none of the other black players smelled bad to me, any more than my white teammates did. But I never said anything. Spring of my senior year, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. Riots erupted in black neighborhoods in several American cities. Black people were pissed off — understandably so. But a couple of the black guys, including one star running back, de-activated from the fraternity that they and I were members of, in protest of the murder of Dr. King. The attitudes among most of my white frat brothers ranged from mystification to anger: Why would they de-activate? None of us did or said anything to them? Isn’t that a little extreme? Screw them if they don’t want to be part of our club! Looking back, to my surprise, I spoke up in defense of their action; I said that if I were black I’d do the same thing. I don’t think I got through to any of the white guys.
I’m not trying to heroize myself here; just recalling some incidents in one young white American’s life where racism — usually invisible — asserted itself.
This year will be the 50th anniversary of my college graduation. Of course, there are events planned at the college, and one of my (few) friends from those days is on the organizing committee for a class reunion at homecoming, fall of 2018. I told her I wouldn’t be going, as I told a former fraternity brother who called me about the event. There are several reasons I’m not going, but one of those is my reluctance to be again, even for just a weekend or even just in the minds of my classmates, the guy I was then: not openly racist, maybe even liberal, but far from woke. Maybe I’m doing my classmates wrong by thinking this way, but I don’t believe any of them is, to this day.
Or maybe I should go, and try to talk to some of them about systemic racism?