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More on Race Consciouness


So yesterday was guest post day for the 2010 Blogathon which I’m participating in. Thirty-one days of straight postings. I swapped posts with the awesome blogger Dylan over at discordianZen and Dylan graciously opined about race consciousness. Then Sue from I Breath Therefore I Write offered to write about her first experience with race consciousness. I loved it so much that I’m posting one of her experiences on my blog. What about you? When did you first become aware of race?

When I Discovered People Are Different
by Sue Poremba
I grew up in a small coal town in Pennsylvania. Drive a few miles
outside of town and you hit farm country — not quite an Amish area at
the time, but certainly plenty of folks with Pennsylvania Dutch
heritage. Once you scrubbed the coal dust and farm sod off our skin,
we were all white as snow. When I was a child, a “person of color”
was someone who got a nice tan in the summer.

When I was 7 or 8 years old, my family was on its annual vacation to
South Jersey to spend a week with relatives. On one of those days, we
went to a nearby park and playground. My siblings, cousins, and I
were the only ones on the playground for some time when a group of
African American children showed up. They asked if they could join in
our game. I said yes, not even thinking about it. But I recall my
cousins pulling me aside and saying we can’t play with them. My
brother and sister froze because I’m the oldest and they were going to
follow my lead. But my cousins insisted. We could not play with
these other kids, and the oldest cousin had us move to another part of
the playground. I thought it was because these other kids were
strangers and it wasn’t a good idea to play with strangers.

It was my very first encounter with someone who was a different color
than I. With 20-20 hindsight, it was the first time I realized that I
didn’t see the world the same way my family did. I remember
questioning extensively why we couldn’t play with those kids. It
never dawned on me it was because they were black — not until I was a
teenager and remembered the event on another visit and similar
avoidance tactics were taken by my cousins.

Dawn Doll

Regular Dawn Doll

Our town was poor, but there were some standards we lived by. One of
those was celebrating Christmas with gift exchanges. The one year I
was in Brownies, we had a gift exchange. And we had them in school,
as well. When I was in Brownies, a toy called a Dawn Doll was very
popular. She (and her friends) were miniature Barbie-like dolls and
what made them great was they were easier to carry around than
Barbies. Various Dawn Dolls were popular gifts for the Brownie
Christmas exchange. I got a regular Dawn doll. Another girl got the
black Dawn Doll friend. The room got very quiet. The girl who gave
the doll mumbled something about it being on sale and that’s why her
mom bought it. The girl who got it asked, loudly, if anyone wanted to
trade. Well, I thought, I already have Dawn and she’s boring —
another blonde, blue-eyed doll.
Black Dawn Doll

Black Dawn Doll

The black doll had dark hair and the
prettiest colored skin. I offered to trade. My aunt, one of the
Brownie leaders, tried to get me to change my mind, but I was
determined. I was pleased. My mother was none too happy about it
herself. I couldn’t understand the fuss. See, I’m a brunette who
grew up with a blonde sister and blonde cousins and the not-too-subtle
vibe that blonde is better than brown. Anything that wasn’t blonde
was good for me.

A couple of years later, I got several Flower Power dolls, bendable
hippie dolls, and again was a black doll, and again it was a gift from
someone who sheepishly admitted that it was a lot cheaper than the
other dolls. I didn’t care. To me, it was just another doll that
wasn’t blonde.

There was one other incident that stands out from my childhood. Our
neighbor’s son was in the military and stationed in Japan. While
there, he married a Japanese woman and they had three children, and
eventually they moved back to our neighborhood. We were allowed to
play with the kids, who were the ages of the kids on the block, but
none of us was allowed into their home — yet we could go into the
home of any other neighbor. Nor were they ever invited to our home,
not even to play outside. Everybody in the neighborhood behaved the
same way.

It wasn’t until I was in college, living in the dorm, and for the
first time meeting people of other races and cultures and backgrounds,
that I began to realize what had happened in those experiences of my
childhood. In our pure white community, people were uncomfortable
about anyone who looked different — even if it was a doll. Even
outside our community, the people in my life saw a world in black and
white and in their eyes, black wasn’t good. And for reasons I never
understood — still don’t understand — that attitude didn’t sit well
with me. Well, let me explain that. My upbringing should have made
me prejudiced, but it didn’t, at least not against people of different
colors. I was always kind of skeptical of blondes. 🙂 I think a
lot about what made me different from the people who shaped my life,
but I have no answer. The best I could do was raise my children to be
more open minded and I did that.

One final incident that shaped my views of race. As a freshman in
college, there was an Hispanic guy who had a serious crush on me. But
I couldn’t stand him. Again, I had paid no attention to his race. I
didn’t even realize he was Hispanic until someone told me because I
had never been around a Hispanic person until then. His personality
was awful. He was rude, overbearing, an ass. I didn’t like him as a
person. But he spread the rumor that I was racist. I was crushed
because I couldn’t understand why anyone would bring race into the way
I felt. Some people believed him and branded me. Most knew the guy
was a jerk. But it was the first time I saw how race and racism is a
two-way street.

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