Wednesday, March 30, 2011

How childhood lessons on racism accidentally made me racist

When I was a second-grader, we had a substitute teacher who changed my life.  Not in a good way.

My eight-year-old memories are a bit foggy, but as I recall, this substitute teacher was with us for about a week, and determined to impress on our little second-grade brains The History of Racism in America.  I'm not an educator--didn't take a single teaching class in college--but I'm going to go out on a limb and say seven-going-on-eight might be a bit young for that.

On one day, she had us draw slips of paper out of a bag.  Half the slips were black, the other half were white.  If you got a white slip, you could spend the rest of the day treating all the kids with black slips like crap with impunity.  (I got a white slip, and spent the day being relieved I wasn't being tormented.)

But that wasn't really the worst part.  No, the worst part was when she told us that if you're white, you're secretly racist. 

Now, you may not know this, but Kaysville, Utah is not exactly known as a bastion of racial diversity. Add to that the fact that my elementary school was on the small side, and in my particular second grade class there was exactly one Hispanic kid.  (I wonder how he felt about this lesson?)  The rest of us were white.  There may have been a couple Asians, African-Americans, Polynesians or Native Americans in other classes, but there wasn't in mine. 

So at the age of eight, my experiences with people of different races was pretty limited.  Namely, that one Hispanic kid (who was a boy, and therefore icky for totally unrelated reasons) and my dad's Hispanic friend from high school and his daughters, who we hung out with maybe once a year when we visited Arizona or they visited Utah.  

Which is why when the substitute informed us that all of us secretly harbored racist thoughts by virtue of our whiteness, I believed her.  I mean, I had never really met an African-American to feel not-racist, so how did I know that I wouldn't feel racist?

Now, I'm going to assume this wasn't her intention (jeez, I hope so), but my logical eight-year-old brain made this leap: If I'm racist because I'm white, and I can't not be white, then I must be racist no matter what I do. And since I'm so obviously white, anyone who ISN'T white can just look at me and know that I'm racist.  And since racist is the worst thing a person can be--remember the slips of paper! remember that scary picture of the slave ship!--I'm awful and everyone is going to know it!

I think that was the first time my little eight-year-old brain ever thought, "Oh shit."

I spent the rest of my childhood avoiding eye-contact with anyone who wasn't white, lest they stare into my eyes, plumb the depths of my soul, and discover my racist secret.

I'm not sure why I never asked my parents about this whole racism thing.  Probably because they were old, and therefore from a "different time," and therefore even more awfully racist than I was.  Yes, it was best to protect them from the truth since they wouldn't be able to change, either.

I grew out of this phase around junior high, where I started over-compensating for my secret racism by being SUPER NICE to everyone who wasn't white, all the while secretly wondering, "Can they tell I'm being too nice because I'm trying so hard to not let them find out I'm secretly racist?  Is that racist?  Should I go back to avoiding eye-contact?"  This even happened when talking to people I was friends with, but to a  lesser degree.  I imagine if they could have plumbed the depths of my soul at that point, they would have just found a crazy person.   

Around high school I grew out of that phase as well, and now feel confident now in my abilities to be a totally normal white person 99.5% of the time. But every once in awhile -- even at the age of 27 -- I find myself walking by an African-American and having a brain spasm while I internally debate:

No eye-contact?

Yes, eye-contact.

Is that smile too big and fake?  Shit, yes it is.

Friendly nod?  Yes, friendly nod.  PHEW.

A song no one would expect me to love: "Saturday Night's Alright," Nickelback.  Don't hate.


  1. Hahaha I shouldn't be so entertained by your childhood trauma, but it happened.

    One of my professors recently talked about his fear growing up in rural Utah that he was a racist and didn't know it because he hadn't met any black people yet so he couldn't find out. I think it's a totally normal fear, and the way we try to tread the problem makes white kids freak out because they're afraid of accidentally being terrible people.

    I totally do the stuff you were talking about at the end. I actually don't make eye contact with strangers in general because it feels awkward, but then I get worried that someone's going to be offended and take my awkwardness more seriously than it is. It's ridiculous.

    Also, speaking of things that are taught too early or too intensely for kids to handle it: after I learned about the KKK in 3rd grade, I had nightmares for a while. I'm actually still freaked out by them. In a movie? A play? A picture in a book? I'm creeped out and have to look away. My friends tease me because, hello, white girl in Utah in 2011.

  2. I grew up in Southern California and went to a VERY diverse elementary school. I was one of three white kids in my class. (I also have platinum blonde hair, blue eyes, and super pale skin...they don't get much whiter than I am). I didn't really learn the concept of racism until I was in junior high. And when I did, it totally gave me a complex - like I needed to PROVE I wasn't racist, but that it was ultimately an exercise in futility. Oh, and awkwardness.

    I so totally related to this post.

  3. I did that without a substitute teacher with poor judgment designing an inappropriate object lesson. This means that since I do the same thing with no traumatizing childhood catalyst, I am the true secret racist.

  4. Holy Inappropriate Lesson Batman. Wow. And to think it wasn't that long ago - seriously. You aren't much older then my older kids - and had I found out about this little lesson, well, .....

    Honestly I am shaking my head because I have no idea what I would've said to the school if my kids had been subjected to this. It wouldn't have been pretty, that's for sure, but

  5. We had the same lesson, but it lasted for a week. If you were black you were not allowed on the play ground you had to stay on the field, drink out of the gross drinking fountain outside instead of the interior one that chilled the water and eat your lunch at a separate table. We also had to clean up after the white kid's art projects.

    That was messed up.

    Does liking Nickleback mean you have an over abundance of Affliction T-shirts and an Ed Hardy purse? Cause that is the judgment I am making, sorry.

  6. Although you like the Elton John cover by Nickleback so maybe you like knockoff Ed Hardy.

  7. I like Ed Hardy perfume. It is amazing. Before you judge, ask your wife.

    Ed Hardy wear ... not so much.

  8. I just wanted to ask, how was this weird treating supposed to help learn something?? Having said that, I can also relate, I didn't have a traumatic subs teacher, but still - growing up in South Africa, in a rainbow nation and all.... well, it's a whole story.... Good Luck with the challenge :)

  9. I love your site and as I browsed your blog I decided to award you the Creative Blog Award.

    Go to and pick up your award.


  10. Thanks Deirdra, that's sweet of you.

  11. BZ - thank you, you as well. :)

  12. Wow! Yeah, as a teacher, I can say that that lesson was totally inappropriate for 2nd grade! I grew up in a small town that was not racially diverse, so I can completely relate to what you said.