• How I learned I was a nigger

    How I learned Jesus loved kids

    Every summer, my mom would sign us up for vacation bible school (VBS) programs at a local church so we could experience Jesus. The summer I was seven, my sister and I attended VBS at an all-white church located near our elementary school. One afternoon during recess, my friend and I were so engrossed in “playing army” that we didn’t hear the teacher calling us to return to the class.

    Exasperated, she yelled at the top of her lungs, “Get in here, you little niggers!!” Being seven I had no idea what the word nigger meant; I just knew that I had heard it used once by some old white men down at the VFW near our house and that it was negative. I ducked my head in embarrassment and ran back to class. The teacher’s words cruelly contradicted the VBS theme: “Jesus loves all the children in the world” and made me question whether Jesus’ love was meant for me too.

    White people taught me at age seven that Jesus’ love is only for white kids.

    How I learned that all blacks excel at sports

    Many people remember junior high as a positive point in the evolution of their identities. However, as one of roughly 25 or 30 black kids in my junior high, I stumbled clumsily into the task of figuring out who I was and where I belonged while surrounded by a sea of white classmates who interacted with me only long enough to ask to touch my hair.

    Feeling different and left out, I tried junior varsity (JV) football, hoping to find a place. And without even having to show up for the tryouts, the coach made me a fullback (I found out later it was with an almost total opposition from the white team members), saying, “Look, I’m counting on you. All you niggers run like hell, and you can too, right?” Nope, a Jesse Owens type track and field star, I was not.

    In my first game with the JV team, I was sitting on the sidelines beside another white team member when the kid turned to me and said: “Hey, you need to move seats – I just saw my dad in the stands, and if he sees me sitting next to a nigger, he’ll beat the shit out of me.”

    So since I couldn’t not fit in with the team, and desperate to prove that I belonged to the right social group – namely, all black people — I went along with all this and was awarded the distinction of being the JV “Nigger Tackle Dummy” for the 1968 Ridley South Football team.

    White people taught me that I belong nowhere – sometimes not even in the stereotypical box that they wanted to stuff me into.

    When I learned that racism was not sensitive

    In 1975, I was an Airman First Class in the Air Force and newly assigned to a unit in Florida. I walked into my new First Sergeant’s office and was immediately assaulted by a 4’ by 4’ confederate battle flag hanging on the wall.

    I swallowed hard before I spoke and asked him why he had a confederate flag and not the US flag hanging in his office. With disarming matter-of-factness, he told me that he was “doing it for the cultural impact” and that it went well with the hangman’s noose he kept dangling in the corner behind the door to his office.

    I choked on the meaning of his message because I knew I was in the Deep South, where the images of black men swinging from trees were not ancient history, but RECENT history.

    After reading me the riot act, he eventually threw me out of his office, and reminded me that I could forget about being treated like his “regular troops,” and that I had “better watch your ass around here, watermelon.” That incident, and the flag it epitomized, remains burned in my memory forty plus years later.

    White people taught me that my perspective is invalid and that the pain of my people, past or present, is unimportant.

    When I learned that racism is hilarious

    Years later as a junior NCO, I volunteered for overseas duty and was posted to the United Kingdom. Every year at the unit Christmas party, the NCOs were responsible for setting up the entertainment. In 1980, two white staff sergeants who worked in another shop dressed up as “bro’s from the ‘hood’” and performed a thoroughly degrading and unamusing skit that exploited virtually every negative black male stereotype I knew of for well over twenty minutes. Just for laughs.

    I also remember getting super pissed that the predominantly white group of airmen (some of whom were allegedly friends) were especially delighted at one staff sergeant’s impersonation of a black guy doing an detestable imitation of animal-like sexual behavior with a blow-up sex doll. I remember looking around the room full of my white colleagues, seeing the tears flow from their eyes as they laughed deafeningly at the racist skit.

    When I told our maintenance officer (and the staff sergeant’s boss) I didn’t get what was so funny about the skit, he agreed that it was “mildly offensive.” But he failed to confront either the issue or his NCOs; explaining that a variation of the same skit had been performed every year for the last five years. And that “no other coloreds here ever complained about it before, so what makes you special?”

    White people taught me that racism is acceptable as long as it’s “just for laughs.”

    When I learned that racism is a figment of my imagination

    As a field service engineer, I spent a year working for a world-respected and well-known Japanese electronics manufacturing firm on the East Coast. On an individual basis, my majority white colleagues were pleasant, for the most part. However, in an intangible way, the organizational culture marginalized and silently held back the numerous ethnic minorities and women in the global services division I worked in.

    The evaluation processes, promotion opportunities, social configurations, and just the way they talked about people of color and women worked to support mainly those from the majority white male culture and alienate everyone who wasn’t. As a result, I often found myself working my assigned tasks in isolation.

    When I finally summoned the courage and brought my concerns about what I felt was an evident absence of promotion opportunity to the director of the global services division, I was shocked at how immediately aggressive he became. He instantly accused me of playing the race card and hotly denied that any racism or sexism whatsoever was at work anywhere in “his corporate sphere.”

    Indeed, one person of color who worked there eventually filed an EEOC suit claiming she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, a diagnosis that she was able to prove was directly linked to the way that the organization marginalized its minority female employees. I moved on after another six months.

    White people taught me that my experience of racism is only real if the majority culture says it is.

    These stories are just a fraction of the many stories I could tell about my personal experiences of racism in the workplace and frankly, they bring up painful memories that I would prefer to keep dormant. But I share them to:

    a) Affirm the voices and stories of those of us who have been on the receiving end of racism in life and in the workplace. You are not crazy and it is not a figment of your imagination!

    b) Assault your consciousness with this reminder that everyday white privilege and color blindness continues to be the most powerful agent of racism in our world.

    Those of us who are aware of individual and structural cases of racism in American society must continue to point it out, facilitate discussions, speak the truth and call out our leaders to work for justice.



    • WOW. Keep writing and sharing your truth. We need this.


      • Maya Spier Stiles North

      • August 15, 2018 at 10:09 pm
      • Reply

      If humans were as they should be, the very existence of racism should be enough to make it stop. No education should be necessary and you sure don’t owe anyone your story. But I am convinced if those of us marginalized for whatever reason — race, size, orientation, religion — need to speak out about how it feels to be us. Those innately without empathy will not change, but I’ve reached a surprising number of people just by showing them my human face. Which makes your beautiful column a powerful weapon in this war humans have been waging against themselves for far, far too long. <3


      • Terri Connett

      • October 8, 2018 at 4:51 pm
      • Reply

      Beautifully written and heartbreaking. I was on the edge of my seat from your powerful headline all the way to the end. I had hoped racism would die with my grandfather’s generation, but you only have to look at the Mother Emmanuel Church or Charlottsville to see that was naive of me. Keep writing!


      • Harold

      • October 9, 2018 at 6:39 am
      • Reply

      WHY I NEVER BECAME A NIGGER

      After reading a submission by Greg Harrison entitled How I learned I was a nigger, I promised to write a response. It’s not in any way written to diminish his excellent reminisces of his youth but to offer a contrasting view of the times, locales, pressures and the consequences on the psyches of black children, past and current.
      It appears that I’m a generation older than Greg. Although born in Denver, I was raised in Atlantic City, NJ. I lived there my entire childhood from age 4 ½ to 18. It was a time that America was reflecting upon itself and its successful contributions to making the world safe for democracy. (From 1946 to 1960)
      Atlantic City was already a fairly liberal city, Republican dominated (before Kennedy and LBJ changed all that), crime controlled (still in Nucky’s hands), and about as independent as any small community in America. There was even then, two cities. The 90 Day tourist city comprised of vacationers and workers from the south that caused the city to swell to proportions five or six times its normal population of about 16,000 people. And then there was the local year-round inhabitants that spent the bulk of the year, digesting the summer fat in their wallets and the others who scraped by any way they could for nine months. The bulk of these were African-Americans who were the regular hotel, restaurant and service industry workers. Surprising enough though, there was a core of black citizens who were college educated professionals, doctors, lawyers, teachers and small business owners. In addition, there was a steady, well educated civil servant class who made up an essential stable core of year-round workers that made the seasonal transitions smooth and predictable. These were primarily whites and blacks, Protestants, Catholics and Jews. It was a simple time. There was a strong emphasis on education and the schools had some of the best teachers in the country.
      That’s a fairly long introduction to the picture I want to paint for comparison to Greg’s but I consider it important to make the point I alluded to in my opening paragraph. I never attended an all-black school or even a predominantly black school. If I had not attended Massachusetts Avenue elementary school, it would have been an all-white school though. I was the first to integrate it. To my knowledge, there was never an issue about it. I lived almost exactly equidistant from Mass. Ave. and New Jersey Ave. schools. My mother who grew up in Denver didn’t want any parts of segregation, forced or otherwise. My neighborhood and particularly close to the school had a heavily Jewish population. Since WWII had just ended and the horror stories of Jews being singled out for maltreatment may have played into the calm of my entry and later, my siblings and a few others.
      For me, I never ever recall a racial incident in all those years in the school. In fact, I was very popular with teachers and students. I still recall one of the most brilliant questions my mother ever shaped her mouth to ask. At the time, not only did I not understand its intent, but I thought it was stupid. She asked me this. “Harold, do the people at your school know that you’re colored?” I looked at her bewildered and just said, “No”. It took me years of juggling that question in my head to grasp the reason for her asking. Still, it was the awakening of my knowledge that I might just be different.
      That was school. For better or worse, when classes ended, the school yard emptied too. Not so, the school around the corner at NJ Ave. It filled with black kids, including many of my neighbors. There I learned sports and standard street smarts. There were no white kids there. I was popular there too, and I began to learn cultural differences. The variations of language and humor. The mode of dress. It was there too that over the years I began to hear about racial things that I personally had no first-hand knowledge of. The “N” word was a commonly used word, but without any true negative impact. I didn’t pick it up for use in my vocabulary. After-all, I was from the “better” colored people and my grandfather was a prominent doctor and two of my neighbors were esteemed school teachers and my great uncle was Duke Ellington and we belonged to one of the first Colored “High” society groups in the country. Things changed for me but gradually and comfortably because I fit easily into any and all of the groups. I never developed a fear of white folks and dealt with them as the peers they were. I partied with both groups but was generally the only colored one at white parties. This was normal as most parties were thrown by classmates. Things for me began to change around 1954. It was subtle and yet I started opening my eyes. Atlantic City celebrated its centennial that year. The Pledge of Allegiance added four more words and the words McCarthy and communism seemed to be floating in the air. Then there was the Emmitt Till lynching and no one seemed to be able to escape the reality of the cocoon we were living in. I was aware but unaffected. All the white folks (kids) that I knew never spoke of it or said it was a terrible thing that happened down south. It never came between us. It wasn’t overlooked in the “Colored” community. In fact, colored as a racial description began to fade in usage and Negro began to be favored. Junior high and high school were uneventful years in the schools and although race and other national issues were in the news, our (my) unique existence went pretty much as I wanted. I joined the army days out of high school and took basic training at Ft Dix. It was there that I realized that I’d grown up in a bubble. I would attempt to interact with everyone just like I did in AC but quickly realized that even those guys who were from Jersey and NY and PA had vastly different experiences than I did. A few did seem to get it. By that I mean they seemed to understand the idea of being together as a single unit. A group of idealistic and patriotic men come together to live up to the textbook images of our country. We were volunteers and draftees. We were innocents and damned fools. We were not the lynchpins of our society as we were raised to believe but instead were the initial group of truly integrated soldiers in training for a military about to embark on an experiment where army green, air force blue and navy white were to supersede white, black and brown. In all honesty, it worked better than any civilian efforts, especially on military facilities. Initially I felt comfortable with my fellow soldiers. It was easy for me to interact with all of them as equals. I didn’t have to learn how to get along with people of other races or ethnic groups. I was unique but didn’t realize it. My first slap in the face came in Charlotte NC when, after my first flight on an airplane required a few of us to lay over for a bus to Ft Bragg. My being turned away at a nightclub because of my color was the rude awakening that stunned me and my white northern buddies. It grew worse as we came face to face with segregated everything. They even had separate USOs. But then the hardest realities hit me. There were few northern blacks in the units. Instead there were mostly acculturated, poorly educated, black men who knew their places and how to get along. I couldn’t take them or the unalterably racist cadre that were remnants from WWII whose service histories were beyond reproach. American heroes whose hearts and minds were chiseled with the idea that they’d saved the world for the status quo. That meant a white dominated one. They abused their stripes as only the cover of their rank and legacy allowed. The new “fully” integrated army had little standing with them. I was lost. I tried to socialize with the black troops but was considered a troublemaker who was going to get myself and them in a jam because of my confrontational “northern” attitude. The southern white boys had no use for me. My few regular buddies were from up north or out west. I didn’t stay in that airborne unit for long, especially after my first sergeant addressed me as nigger in his office. I left a few months later for Korea. I could tell it was a relief for everyone.
      A few years later, while on Okinawa, I saw many of them loaded on cattle cars (trucks) heading for Kadena Air base on their way to Vietnam. They’d become the 173rd Airborne Infantry after reorganization. I wondered how they fared. The society was deep into the anti-war movement and the sexual revolution. I wondered how they’d handled the racial issues within their units.
      This isn’t the comparative essay I’d intended and it may be too long for this site but it should serve at least to show that African-Americans are not all cut from the same cloth, share the same childhood experiences or come to the same conclusions about their world or themselves.



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