The First Time I Saw A Black Person

randomlychad  —  April 10, 2012 — 16 Comments

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My mom has held many jobs throughout her life: elementary school teacher, juvenile detention officer, youth diversion coordinator. Perhaps one of the most interesting was her tenure at Opportunities Industrialization Centers. OIC was started by the late Reverend Leon Sullivan to provide job skills and employment opportunities for African Americans.

We’ve never really talked about what she did there, but I’m guessing it was some type of employment counseling. In any case this was forty-some years ago, and other than being told about it after the fact, I have no recollection. (I’ll come back to this in a minute).

Let me add that, as a child, race was never discussed–people were people. That I know of, my parents never displayed any latent, or overt, racism. Of the things from my childhood I can be thankful for, this is near the top of the list.

That said, I can’t say that they went out of their way either to expose my brother and I to other cultures. Mine was by-and-large a sheltered, white, suburban, middle-class upbringing.

As one of our core values, despite a similar middle-class setting, my wife and I are trying to instill in our kids the notion that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female–for all are one in Christ Jesus.” That we all stand equal before God, and equal in our need of Jesus.

People are people.

Back to OIC:

As I said, I have no recollection of this time–I was two, or three–but my mom tells me that she brought me with her to work.

Once.

The reason is perhaps lost in the mists of time; maybe it was to expose me to different people (one day I’ll write of eating pizza with her clients at a halfway house), or maybe she just couldn’t get a sitter that day? I don’t know. What I do know is:

As (she tells it) we were walking down the slate gray steps–my chubby hand in hers–I started to point, and said–over and over:

“Sanford! Sanford! Sanford!”

Because I was so young, and didn’t have the words, I used the one I knew:

“Sanford.”

The only African Americans that were real to me were the ones I’d seen on T.V.

Thus they were all “Sanford.”

Good Times!

(Okay, that was a joke–for the five of you old enough to get it).

The way my mom tells it, she clutched my little paw all the harder, and walked probably faster than my stubby legs could carry me.

All the way to her office.

I never again visited OIC.

But, despite our issues over the years, and the lack of a common faith, I can say this: I’m proud of my mom for trying to make a difference.

How about you? How old were you when you first became aware that race was a thing? How has T.V. shaped your reality?

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randomlychad

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Christ-follower, husband, dad, blogger, reader, writer, movie buff, introvert, desert-dweller, omnivore, gym rat. May, or may not, have a burgeoning collection of Darth Vader t-shirts. Can usually be found drinking protein shakes, playing with daughter, working out with his son, or hanging out with his wife. Makes a living playing with computers.Subscribe to RandomlyChad by Email
  • That’s funny, Chad. I was a young teen when Sanford and Son, Good Times and the Jeffersons were initially on the air, so yes, I’m one of the five old enough to get that.

    I would say that I became more aware of race being a ‘thing’ when Martin Luther King was assassinated. I was home from school that day (I was sick a lot) and remember them showing the news clips over and over again. MLK Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated within a couple months of each other during the spring while I was in 2nd grade…. they were the first big news stories that really stuck in my mind. (I was only 3 when JFK was killed, don’t remember that one. I don’t think we had a working TV at the time.)

    We do have a funny family story similar to your “Sanford!” incident. My cousin, who was 8 years older than me (cancer already took him) grew up in the San Fernando Valley in the mid to late 50’s. When he was real young (3?) he was out somewhere with his parents and he came across a young black kid about his age. He and the other kids looked at each other funny, then my cousin reached out his finger and touched the kid’s cheek, then licked his finger… apparently, he was expecting chocolate? There was no malice intended, but boy were my aunt/uncle embarrassed and apologetic. (This would’ve been around 1955 or 1956; he didn’t have TV to give him any exposure.)

    I would say that although the TV shows when I was a kid reinforced a lot of stereotypes, they also showed whites/blacks/etc. together in ways that I didn’t see growing up in suburbia…. I Spy (Bill Cosby’s 1st lead role), the Mod Squad, Room 222, etc. started to show an integrated world to a pretty non-integrated kid.

    • 🙂

      I know of those via the historical narrative, as both assassinations occurred before my birth. I mean the first president I really remember is Carter…

      Because I didn’t live through it, I have a hard time wrapping my mind around the tensions that existed. (Of course, I was 32 when 9/11 happened--so I imagine the emotional climate in ’68 was akin to that).
      It boggles my mind that prejudice is (unfortunately) alive and “well” today…

      Oh, my! Your cousin story!

      What’s interesting to me is that TV is much more diverse now, but people of faith like us are now the stereotypes…

    • Dan,

      I’m thinking that part about becoming aware of race would make a great post. Would you like to share something here?

  • I’m too young. Clearly, the awesomeness of this post is lost on me. Sorry! =)

    I do have a story like this, though…

    When I was in Sierra Leone the summer after I graduated high school, we were 3 of about 20 black people (probably an exaggeration) in the country. White people weren’t around much, and if they were, they were rich Christians. Anyway, we taught kids most of the time we were there. Except this one infant. He hated us. Every time he saw us, he cried. We finally figured out that he had never seen a white person, and we scared the crap out of the poor child. Which also reminds me -- whenever older kids would see us on the streets, they would want to touch our skin, because they had never seen a white person and wanted to see if it was “real” or not.

    And, for what it’s worth, this post reminds me of some posts on the issue of race that Kristen Howerton @ Rage Against the Minivan recently wrote.

    • Don’t remind me, man! That I’m old enough to be your dad…

      😉

      Interesting--it’s human nature, I guess, that makes us distrust, or disbelieve, the unfamiliar. Your presence both scared the baby, and intrigued the older kids.

      I have a theory that God allows these “unfamiliarities” to force us to work it out.

      Have to check out those posts.

  • A mentor of mine was leading a discussion on race, ethnicity, and culture, and used me and my friends as an example.

    “Ben and Dan (both white guys) probably think that Nathan (Hawaiian) is just like them. Just one of the guys.”

    Dan and I both nodded. Because this was what we “should” think right?

    “But Nathan is probably extremely aware of all the ways he is different than them. He experiences is every day”

    Nathan nodded with this look on his face that said, “yep. And they have no idea.”

    I was floored. That wasn’t the first time I had noticed race, but it was the first time I realized how my friends of different ethnicities had vastly different experiences than I did. I will probably never forget it.

    I will say one thing, people are people. That is true. But people have different experiences because of their race. We need to be able to see it and notice when that treatment is unfair or unhelpful.

    • Amen, Ben! Well said!

      Looking back, I’m convicted by how much my mom did to improve conditions for other folks, while I as a Christian have so little.

      Everyone’s worldview is markedly colored by life experiences. And sympathy is relatively easy to muster in comparison to empathy--climbing inside those other pints of view, putting them on.

      My world is so small…

    • Ben,

      How would you feel about expanding this into a guest post?

  • Hahaha. I’m coming Elizabeth!

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