A Lesson About Racism as a Child
When my sister and I were children, my father was stationed at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland, near the end of the Jim Crow era.
We lived on the base. Across the street from us was a white woman from Georgia named Thelma, who had a daughter named Wilma.
Next door to us was an African-American mother (who’s name I regrettably do not remember), who had two children named Marshall and Sylvia.
All of us were about the same age; thus we were all playmates.
My mother became friends with Sylvia’s mother when, shortly after moving in to the base housing, my mother found Sylvia climbing the rose trellis in front of our house. My mother yelled out the door, “Sylvia, get off my trellis before I throw this bucket of mop water at you.” Sylvia’s mother yelled back from next door, “Don’t come in dripping on my clean floor!”
We all played in the common areas of base housing.
Marshall and Sylvia’s mother allowed us to come play at their house. Wilma hectored her mother for some time, asking why my sister and I could play at Marshall and Sylvia’s, but she could not. (Answer: Thelma was a first-class racist.)
Thelma came over to talk with my mother about her quandary. Basically, my mother told her that was her problem. She had to explain her own position to her daughter: My mother wasn’t going to do that for her.
With Wilma continuing to hector her, Thelma eventually relented and allowed her daughter to play at Marshall and Sylvia’s home.
The same “problem” played out again, when in response to Marshall and Sylvia’s mother’s offer, my mother put out a similar offer. All the children could play at our house.
Again, Thelma put her foot down. There was no way Wilma was going to play with “those” children in our house. (I suspect, but do not know, that Thelma’s thinking went along the lines that my liberal mother’s values about equality would corrupt Wilma.)
Wilma continued to hector her mother about why she couldn’t play with her friends at our house, and again Thelma came to ask my mother’s advice. Same answer: You raise your own kid.
Eventually, Wilma started bugging her mother about allowing her friends to play at her own house. My mother allowed it, Sylvia and Marshall’s mother allowed it, why didn’t her own mother allow it?
That was a bridge too far for Thelma. She simply would not allow under any circumstance “those” children in her home. Again she came to my mother for advice on how to explain this to her daughter.
My mother today tells me her answer was, “Well, you could tell her you’re a racist.”
That might explain why we weren’t allowed to play with Wilma any more (by her mother). However, that was quite a lesson for both my sister and me. I sometimes wonder what happened to Wilma. Did she break out of the cycle of racism, having seen it play out against her friends (even her white friends)? What happened to Marshall and Sylvia?
Those questions likely will not get an answer. I would like to think that Wilma got an eye opener that day about how racism even negatively affects white people (she couldn’t host her friends in her own home, or later even play with her white friends). It’s hard to say but I hope Wilma went on as an adult with a real education about racism.