“I Didn’t Know Any Black People”
Looking at Our Lives Through the Lens of Race project
This story is by Aimee Sands, a Boston-based documentary filmmaker: her most recent film is ”What Makes Me White”?
When I was growing up in Westchester County, my grandparents used to drive out from New York City in their gold Impala, pick us up, and drive my sister and me back to the city. It was a thrilling ride, as they had electric windows, which we never tired of zooming up and down.
However, when we entered Harlem, my grandfather took charge. The windows slid up and sucked shut. The automatic locks clicked down. The dark people of Harlem were sealed out. We were sealed in.
Sometimes I find myself saying that I didn’t know any black people growing up. But that’s not true. I knew Susie, who cooked for my grandmother. So why do I say I didn’t know any black people? Do I mean I didn’t know any black kids my age?
But that’s not true either. Deborah P., a black girl from Harlem, visited our family for two summers, sponsored by the Fresh Air Fund.
Maybe it’s the word “people.” By “people” I mean the kids I played with in my neighborhood. “People” were my mother’s friends and my father’s tennis partners. “People” were the bus driver, the custodian, the teachers. “People” were white.
Every black person I knew was a guest in our world, an outsider who left at the end of the day, or at the end of a Fresh Air Fund visit. Weren’t they people to me?
There are other questions I never thought to as. Why was i allowed to call Susie by her first name, but always used “Mrs.” or Mr.” when addressing white grownups? What was Susie’s last name?
What did it do to me to grow up in a segregated white suburb of the North? Not long ago, a black colleague told me he had gone to Radcliffe College, a more prestigious school than the one I had attended. I barely prevented myself from blurting out, “You went to Radcliffe?” That was the day I understood that in spite of my professed beliefs, I had always assumed that I was better than black people.
Nor one every taught me this. On the contrary, my mother and her friends were passionate liberals who worked for fair housing in our town, hardly a popular issue then or now. It wasn’t what was said that taught me to feel superior. It was the way we lived our lives, the unspoken grammar of our segregated reality. It was important to be “nice” to black people. It was important to share “our” lovely town and find schools with “them.” But I was a given that the power to be nice and the power to share — or not — belonged to us.
It was also a given that everything we had was better than anything they had. No one ever suggested that I visit Deborah P’s family in Harlem, that there might be anything for me to learn there.
But there was a great deal for me to learn — and unlearn — after I left the suburbs. As I began meeting people of color, I had to face the fact that I’d never really looked at them before, that sometimes I even mixed them up with each other. I started to talk with black colleagues, who were matter-of-fact about the routine racial slights in their lives. I realized I’d never really listened to people of color before. Deep down, I’d believed that their accounts of racial harassment were exaggerated.
Most of all, though, I’ve had to learn how to talk about race as a shaping force in my own life. Being around white people all the time, I didn’t know that I was having a distinct racial experience, as distinct as that of being black in Roxbury (which , in fact, is a far more diverse community than most suburbs). There was a kind of embarrassed silence about who and what we were as white people that for me still defines the suburbs.
In my new film, “What Makes Me White?” diversity consultant Manuel Fernanedez, who is black, describes a visit to a supermarket in a Boston suburb. A 4-year-old white boy looked at him with great interest, and then announced to his mother, “Mommy, he’s black!” “Ssh!” replied his mother. “Maybe she thought that I’d be in shock to find out I was black” Fernandez says, dryly.
Talking about race I shard for a lot of white people. We feel awkward and tongue-tied. We are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Segregation has made us this way. We did not create the separate and unequal world of the suburbs – the federal government is largely responsible for that. But if we do nothing about it, we and our children will remain as sealed off as I was in my grandfather’s car.