Black and White
For the first eight years of my teaching career, the only white face in my classroom was mine. I was aware of that fact, of course, but only peripherally. My students were just that, my students. Don’t misunderstand. I’m not saying I was colorblind. I just didn’t relate to my students at Westinghouse High School on a racial level, anymore than I did with the kids when I student-taught at Herron Hill Junior High, another Pittsburgh school with an all-black student population.
Like just about everyone else in this country, my attitudes concerning people of other races were formed early in my life. I had two great advantages: good parents and positive experiences. My mother was one of the kindest, most generous people I’ve ever known. I never saw her display animosity toward any individual, let alone toward a whole group of people. As for my father, in 1962, he coached my younger brother’s little league baseball team, and that spring, for the first time, a black kid came to the tryouts. There were five teams in the league. The coaches of the other four teams told my father they weren’t going to pick the black kid, Jerry Williams, even though he was clearly the best player on the field. My dad used his first pick to make Jerry the newest Giants player.
One of my best friends growing up was Dennis Wilcox, a black kid who lived a few blocks from me. Denny and I attended the same school and played on the same Cub Scout baseball team. We lost touch after my family moved, but I have nothing but good memories of Denny and our time together.
My wife Cynthia grew up in Kutztown, Pa. She never had a black classmate from kindergarten through 12th grade. Her first real exposure to racial injustice came, as it did for many white people, through TV reports of the battle against segregation in the South in the early sixties. She was appalled at what she saw. Like me, she had good role models in her parents, but she had no contact with black people until she enrolled in college in 1967, and even then, there were very few African-American students on Penn State’s main campus.
What she did have going for her was her intelligence and, more importantly, an innate sense of decency that made her incapable of overlooking discrimination. Once she joined me in the city school system, our experiences quickly aligned. Hers was the only white face in her classrooms the first 17 years of her career. Her relationship with some of her kids went so far beyond race that one of her kindergarten students once actually asked Mrs. Germaux if she was white.
Once you get involved with someone, whether it’s in a classroom or on an athletic field or just hanging out together, the focus becomes the relationship, not race. For those who say we’re living in a post-racial America, well, we know better, right? Not long ago, a guy I know told me he wouldn’t be letting his son play high school football anymore because, as he put it, football is a black man’s sport. I could see having concerns about, say, concussions, but race?
Cynthia and I live about 15 miles east of Pittsburgh, but in terms of demographics, we might as well be on the moon. Our local school district is 99 percent white, so the kids in our neighborhood have virtually no day-to-day interactions with anyone who isn’t pretty much just like them. And, of course, the same is true of kids attending school in the all-black neighborhoods in many of this country’s large urban areas.
So what do we do? Is busing the answer? As much as I believe we have to get the kids together, and the younger the better, I just don’t think busing’s the way to go. You’re almost always, and immediately, alienating people. For example, I know many of my neighbors bought homes in this area specifically so their children could attend the local schools, which have an excellent reputation. I completely get it that those parents don’t want their kids taking a long bus ride every day as part of what is often referred to as a social experiment.
On the other hand, we have to do something about race in this country. Way too many people, both black and white, are distrustful of those whom they perceive as being “others.” I was lucky in that I never had the opportunity to define any “others” when I was growing up. Thanks to my parents and my early friendships with kids like Dennis Wilcox, the concept of “others” just never worked for me.
But what about the kids who live on my street? Or the kids who live in the still predominantly black neighborhoods around Westinghouse High School? I wish I could say that I have the answer. We have to try harder to get to know each other, especially the kids. I know some schools partner with other schools from areas with different demographics. They arrange joint field trips or even overnight stays at camps in the woods.
That’s great, because once you’ve had just one positive experience with someone of a different race, it’s really hard to buy into the idea that skin color alone somehow acts as a predictor of character or sense of humor or anything else. And while eliminating the concept of “others” certainly won’t solve all the problems we have with race in this country, it might be a good place to start.