My family moved to Oakland when I was eight. I attended the Oakland public schools from third grade through high school graduation. I never thought it was odd to grow up white in Oakland, CA until I went to college and people began to comment on it.
I didn’t appreciate the diversity of my growing up years until my daughter, looking at my high school yearbook, commented with surprise at the ethnic mix not only on the cheer leading squad, but on the homecoming court and among elected student leaders. She said her high school experience was much more segregated with students self-selecting to stay within their own ethnic groups. It was my turn for surprise.
Like most children and teens, I was pretty self-centered, and I never thought twice about the color of my friends’ skin. All I was concerned about was where I fit on the popularity scale. I was not popular which is why I distinctly remember how happy I was when two pretty and popular girls – one a cheerleader and the other a song girl – were friendly to me in high school. I couldn’t believe how nice Denise and Phyllis were to me! I couldn’t have cared less about the color of their skin. Did I mention they were popular?
My naivete extended into a college internship I had one summer in San Francisco. I boarded a bus to the Civic Center on which I might have been the only white person – I don’t really remember. I thought nothing of it until my fellow intern, who was a person of color, told me someone spit at me when we disembarked.
In a recent Time magazine article, Victor Luckerson writes that being color-blind about race is a problem. “Thinking of yourself as color-blind can make it harder to see that America is a country riddled with systemic racial inequalities and that many are becoming more pronounced, not less,” he says. He’s talking to millennials, but I think every generation can take heed of his words.
I remember a story my mother told about riding the train as a child. Her parents had made her scared of African Americans, so when the conductor came to collect the family’s tickets, she hid in fear. She was so ashamed of her reaction she vowed to not only change her attitude, but to become proactive.
She was a dedicated volunteer in the Oakland Unified School District as well as a certified teacher. As such, she wrote the Women in America curriculum for Oakland school teachers outlining the accomplishments of African American women in 1776, 1876 and 1976 (I’m guessing this curriculum was inspired by America’s Bi-Centennial.) I’m sure she would have continued with her volunteer work, but she died in 1977.
When I was writing my first novel, a fellow writer mentioned the need for diversity in novels. Her comment resonated with me. I’ve made sure all my novels, including my upcoming one, portray ethnically diverse characters as lawyers, teachers, judges, marine biologists, restaurant owners or mountain guides.
I recently read a book – The Other Wes Moore – about two African American men growing up in similar Baltimore neighborhoods with similar family situations. One, the author, became a Rhodes Scholar; the other ended up in prison for murder. The author doesn’t offer solutions, but raises many questions.
I don’t know what the solutions are to racial inequality in our systems, but, like my mother, I do want to be part of the conversation and help forge a better path forward. I want to be more than naively color-blind.