I always knew that many in my hometown harbored racist views.
Nowhere was it more obvious and on display than in the high school cafeteria, where almost all the black and Hispanic students sat at one table, at the end of the room furthest from the line where you could buy your lunch. The other tables were all sorted by the traditional high school hierarchy of popular and rich kids. Then there was that table.
No one who was white ever sat there – it was understood that one table was where the “other” students sat. Always.
My sophomore year, one of my closest friends was Hispanic and her boyfriend was black. I sometimes ate lunch with them, and once I got over the weirdness of being the only white person at the table, I had a great time. I realized that if I, in a room filled almost exclusively with white people, initially felt a bit awkward as the only person of my race at this table, how must many of the people I was now sitting with feel every day?
I wish I could say that made me an activist against racism, but life isn’t that simple, and for a very shy Jewish white girl growing up on Long Island, I usually sat at one of the white tables. By junior year, I tried not to eat in the cafeteria at all, and some of my friends and I would sneak into the auditorium and eat our bag lunches there.
As I shared something on Facebook last week about racism and white women, the conversations from some of my high school classmates blew my mind. How could I have been so oblivious the overtly racist acts that happened in the 1970s and 1980s in my hometown?
Keep in mind: This was “progressive” New York. Our little village of Rockville Centre was very close to the Queens border, and took only about 30 minutes or so to get into Midtown Manhattan by train. We were a bedroom community of New York City and were filled with people who worked in banking or who were police or firefighters. My parents were teachers in the city.
Apparently, when we were in elementary school – the late 1970s – there were discussions about building a pool at the high school. It was shot down primarily because the white parents in our idyllic burg were so frightened that black boys would see their virtuous daughters in – gasp! – bathing suits.
This could not stand, and the pool was shot down.
I always wondered why our high school building had marble walls.
It had marble walls.
Marble. Walls. In a high school.
Because a bunch of racist parents couldn’t abide that the very small number of black children (who were being bused in) might use the same pool as their precious children. This wasn’t particular to good old RVC, of course. Why do you think it was such a big deal when Simone Manuel became the first black woman to win Olympic gold in swimming only last year? Because racists would rather close (or not build) their pools than allow black people to use them.
Classmates whose parents attended those meetings and came home furious told me about this, and it surprised me, as I had no idea. But it didn’t shock me.
After all, in a village of only about 25,000 people with two synagogues, I’d been called a dumb Jew in middle school. And I often heard people use the phrase, “He Jewed him down” when talking about someone who bargained for a better price (side note: I had thought, at first, that people were saying “He chewed him down,” which held literary imagery to me and I was quite disappointed to learn I’d heard wrong).
I recalled a student named Rodney – the only black child in my first-grade class – and how he’d disappeared after he was suspended for saying the “f-curse.” I was so busy trying to find out what the “f-curse” was, it never occurred to me to wonder if he’d actually said it.
Knowing what I know now – and knowing how angrily parents objected to the busing – I wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out he’d never said it, but was blamed because of course everyone would believe the white kids from the neighborhood over the black kid who was bused in.
Another classmate told of the time in driver’s ed when the teacher made a snide remark about how the black students in the class wouldn’t be able to afford cars anyway, so why should he have to teach them? They were on the road, practicing driving, when this happened. This classmate called him on his racist views and he forced all four students to get out of the car and walk back to school.
They looked pretty and fancy, but hid something very ugly.