I stumbled across an article today online that featured my high school. It was written several years ago while I was on my mission. The article was shocking for many reasons (the first being that it featured the tiny school at all). Mostly, I was surprised by what the article revealed about myself.
I went to a small all-white private school in the rural south. It was founded in the late sixties when the public school system integrated. I always knew that the school (and several others scattered about the area) was founded because white parents didn’t want their kids going to school with the black kids who were in the majority. Part of me always thought that, while the school may have been started based on racist fears: that was a long time ago. There were several at the school, of course, which still went there because of racist motivations, but most everyone went there to get a higher quality of education than the public school provided. If a black family wanted to send there kids to my school, they were welcome to, but they just didn’t want to. Like the churches in the area, the two groups fundamentally didn’t want to mix, so they didn’t.
Most of the racist rhetoric from my youth I’ve since rejected, but one thing I always thought until today was that if a black family did come to our school, they would have been enrolled – their money was just as good as anyone else’s, after all. It didn’t happen because, like the white parents, the black parents didn’t feel comfortable with their kids being the minority in school.
The article interviewed a man who had served on the board of our school. I knew him. At the time of the article, the school had been closed down for about a year due to lack of enrollment. The man sadly talked about the broken windows and vandalism that had befallen the school since it closed its doors. I saw a picture of a room that I had passed every day that I went to school there, from kindergarten to the 12th grade. Once a break room, I had helped to turn it into a computer lab using (of course) outdated equipment. The interviewer asked the man about race at the school and pointed out that if the school had encourage black families to enroll their kids, then the school might still be open. The man admitted that it was probably true, but there were several on the board that were dead set against it. I don’t know if any black families tried to enroll their kids at my school, but I realized that if there had been, they would likely have been turned away. I was genuinely shocked.
I was naïve. I always assumed that if it came down to it, people would have done the right thing and allowed black kids to enroll. It was a shock to realize that people would have rather seen the school closed due to lack of numbers than open its doors to black families.
I often say that I hated high school and well, I mostly did. Growing up gay in the rural south can really, really suck. Crap, growing up in the rural south can really suck. I acknowledge that there were a lot of people at my school that were really good people. But a lot of those really good people were upholding a racist society because they were afraid to change. Including me. I didn’t clamor to be sent to a public school. To this day I’ve never had a close friend who was black or even talked at length with a black person that wasn’t a coworker or college professor (In America. Strangely enough I served my mission in a country with a large black population without any hesitation whatsoever). This is coming from someone who has lived in the south (where white people are generally in the minority) his whole life. Lack of familiarity has caused me to not be completely comfortable around black people. I am, in effect, a racist.
But I want to change.
There was a time that I was very uncomfortable around gay people. If a guy was effeminate, it was even worse. But I don’t anymore. The change happened when I became friends with several actively gay men. I realized that, just like any other group of people, you have gay guys that are shady, untrustworthy, and cruel, but you also have gay guys that are genuine, honest, and extremely kind. Now, simply being gay, itself, is no longer a factor for me in choosing people to be around. I want it to be the same for me with black people.
By admitting that I am a racist, I don’t want anyone to think that I look negatively on black people or wish anyone harm, nor do I go out of my way to avoid black people. I took African American literature courses in college and watched black-directed films in an effort to understand African-American culture. I know that black people are the same as other people – I simply don’t have enough personal experience to make me 100% comfortable. In order for that to happen, I have to leave my comfort zone and make an effort to get to know black people on a personal level.
I have a strong knee-jerk reaction against a lot of the anti-gay rhetoric out there. A lot of it I find offensive because, well, I am gay and I my personal experience screams to the contrary of much of it. But a lot of the propaganda I have heard before while growing up. But instead of “gay person” being the subject, I heard “black person”. For example, I heard in my youth that black people weakened society because they had weak families and were inherently promiscuous.
Hmm…that one sounds familiar.
There were parts about high school that I loved. A couple of years ago, I was visiting my parents and drove past the site where my school stood. It had been torn down and I felt a pang of nostalgia for the friends and experiences I had there. (It’s not like we were marching around with torches and white robes.) But even as I type this and even as I feel that same nostalgia, I am glad that the school no longer exists. It was fundamentally a holdout in a racist system that really needs to be abolished. True, the students that went there just migrated to the neighboring all-white private schools in the area. No change really happened and the rural south will continue to die culturally unless we realize that we are strengthened by our differences, not weakened by them. I can’t change other people, but I can change me.
I want to be kind to everyone,
For that is right, you see.
So I say to myself,
Kindness begins with me.”
“Kindness Begins With Me” Children’s Songbook, 145.