Early Experiences in Race & Racism

by Joyce Dowling

In studying antiracism, we often share personal stories to help us in our understanding about the origins of our own formation of ideas concerning race and racism. This is an important exercise: "What were your first experiences with someone of a different race?" I'm sharing my earliest experiences with learning about race and also a couple of personal experiences with racism.

I grew up in north central New York in a rural area (I was and am white, but never identified myself that way until later years when I had to fill out government forms). I can't remember when I first learned that there were different races - I believe I was very young. It was during the civil rights movement and my parents watched and discussed the news. I also knew that there was "a token black" in our town, though I'm not sure when and how I learned about that. The knowledge of it included the fact that some people were proud of it and others felt that one was enough. I also believed that the latter thinking was wrong (I'm not sure about all the variables that created this belief, but I was raised Unitarian which is a religion that highly supported civil rights and the politics in my area was likely fairly liberal which could affect how news was reported).

When I was ten years old, my mother was hospitalized and I was in the care of a babysitter most of the time. When my father worked over-time and weekends, she would take me to her house and that is where "the token black" lived. He was her father. I didn't perceive her to be different in color than me, because her mother had the same pale skin and reddish hair I have, which made her and her siblings light-colored. I never noticed anyone treating them any differently, so this was not an experience of racism. On the contrary, this man became like a father to me for a short period in my life. He also appeared to be very much like my own father (relatively short in stature, a little paunchy, had his special easy chair, and read the newspaper often), so even though I was aware that racism existed, I didn't understand why and thought it was a fear of someone who looked different from them.

Until a recent racial justice conference, I didn't have much thought of how the media may have influenced my thinking, but I loved Shirley Temple movies which showed African decendants as stereotyped servants and slaves and "Tarzan", which showed Africans unable to shoot a straight arrow to kill the white Tarzan (this was pointed out to me by a man of African decent). I watched a lot of TV and still haven't analyzed how these and many other programs may have affected me.

It was a year or two later that I learned that racism wasn't just about color. The youngest son of the man I described above, who was like my father, was just a year older than me. One day on a bus ride home from school, he told me that people were ridiculing him and acting racist toward him. His coloring was very much like my own and we went to school in another town where most people didn't know our families, so I wondered if they knew his father. He said "no" that they probably learned that he was mixed race from the appearance of his fingernails. This was very puzzling to me and I felt really bad for my friend.

As a teenager, we moved to the New York City suburbs where, though the neighborhoods were fairly segregated, the schools were quite integrated and diverse. In ~1969, there was a song by Janis Joplin, "Society's Child" that told the story of a young white woman who fell in love with a young African American man and her mother wouldn't let her see him. That's exactly what happened to a friend of mine. She was devastated and wouldn't come out of her house for quite a while.

Not long afterward, we moved to another suburb that was much more segregated. Though I had a friend who was Native American, I didn't know anyone who was African American. Certainly I knew of towns that were majority African American on Long Island and would go to integrated shopping malls, movie theatres, and public parks. Only within the last decade did I learn that housing was intentionally segregated on Long Island.

As a young adult I worked in integrated settings and later moved to a much more integrated area. Though I never had a "friend" who was African American, I was friendly with many. I remember one conversation with a man who I perceived as having a very different background than my own. He was from the south - South Carolina, I believe, and by the age of 24, he had had eight children.

Later, after I was married, I became a home child care provider and cared for children from many backgrounds, first on a college campus and later in an aparment complex in Prince George's County, Maryland, which has been touted as "the most affluent county with an African-American majority in the United States".

When my husband and I first moved into the DC area, we were advised by his co-workers and acquaintances that we'd better move into Northern Virginia or Montgomery County. Most didn't outwardly cite race as the reason; they referred to the schools and violence. There were many newspaper articles about racism, though, and on further examination, it didn't appear there was that much of a difference in the public schools or crime statistics. Since we perceived racism as the reason, we decided we had to exclude those reasons in our decision about where we moved and ultimately we moved to Prince George's County.

I write about experiences after this time in my life in other essays listed from the links below.

Copyright (c) 2007 Joyce Dowling. Do not copy and/or distribute this document without permission. You may link to or refer to this page, but please email me if you do.

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