As my friends can attest, my skin color is definitely white (or red if I’ve been in the sun too long). I really don’t have any other options. Frankly, I’ve never thought very much about my skin color other than to complain that I can’t ever tan. But watching and reading the news surrounding the issues of race and equality and prejudice and economic opportunities and social justice, I’ve been trying to imagine how my life would have been different if my skin were black or brown or my parents were recent immigrants.
To begin with, I grew up in the ‘50s and ‘60s so just being a female was hard enough. I went to a tiny high school and wanted to take woodshop or drafting. The powers that be said girls couldn’t take woodshop or drafting and wanted me to take home economics. Well, I showed them. I refused to take home ec, saying my mom could teach me how to cook. Instead I took physics and was the only girl in the class. Not sure I changed anybody’s mind or proved any points, but at least I was trying to show girls should be able to take any class they wanted.
I had a great friendship with my tennis buddy that started when we were old enough to ride our bikes to the public courts for lessons. Her Mexican-American family adopted me and over the years I grew to call one of her relatives Aunt Sally. As a teenager I worked at the local drug store on Saturdays, and one afternoon this friendly woman came in. I immediately broke into a smile, walked over and called out, “Hi, Aunt Sally.” The three other customers stopped talking, looked at her, looked at me, and she was very uncomfortable. She later explained that maybe, in public, I should not call her Aunt Sally. At first, I didn’t get it, and then I got mad.
In my tiny hometown of Lindsay, there were Mexican Americans and Japanese Americans but no Black Americans until one family moved to town around 1965. Everyone at the high school was excited because the son was thought to be a good basketball player. I think the family lived in Lindsay about a year before moving on. As the three teenagers were older than I was, I really didn’t know them very well but often wondered if dating was a problem for them. Lindsay was not known for being open to mixed anything except for sports but, as the songs said, times were a changing.
Trying to imagine how my life would be different if I were Black is challenging. The only time I’ve had issues with service in an upscale mall was when Robinson’s was the premier department store in La Cumbre Plaza and I was a student at UCSB. (Think bell bottom pants, long hair and loose blouses.) The only way a clerk would help me, even if I wanted to pay, was if no one else was around. That was irritating enough, but at least no one thought I was a shop lifter or the cleaning service.
When I was teaching in Oxnard, we had quite an ethnic mix, especially due to students that came from Navy families on the base. We had Filipino, Black, Japanese, Chinese, Hawaiian, Samoan, Vietnamese, Mexican, and Korean Americans—and probably more that I can’t remember. It certainly was a melting pot—great food, shared stories and a variety of celebrations. My students probably taught me more than I taught them, but I never felt that my skin color was an issue. Being a woman, on the other hand, could be at times.
One year, a Black student was moved to my class because he had hit a male teacher. I did not want this student, not because of his skin color but because of his problems with his previous teacher. Also, this student’s mother was known to be pushy and hard to deal with. Yet, for some reason, this student was always respectful in my class, did his work, but spoke up when and if he wanted to expand on an idea or make a point. Slowly we both relaxed and made it through the year without a problem, and his mother and I only had productive conversations. One of these revolved around capital punishment, don’t ask me how we got on that subject. I said I was on the fence about this issue, and she set me straight explaining how many more Blacks were convicted of crimes due to lack of good representation and resources. It was the first time I looked at the issue through her eyes, a Black woman’s eyes, and this is one of the main reasons I do not support capital punishment.
When my sons were young, I gave them the lecture on not driving if they had been drinking, but I never even thought about giving them the lecture on staying safe if the police stopped them and gave them a rough time. Robert Horry who is Black and a former NBA star, told on TV of how he explained to his son that if the police stopped him, his son’s job was to come home to his father. If that meant curling up while the police hit you, then do it, but come home!
I can’t live in someone else’s skin, but I can be open to what issues are important to people of different backgrounds and ethnicities. I can push for civil rights and the end of racial discrimination. I can vote for people who press for changes that will bring us together rather than drive us apart. And maybe, if I keep trying, I might finally get just a little bit tan.