Considering My Own Racism: My High School Years

As I continue the series of blog posts in which I explore my racism, I’m focusing on my high school years.

I don’t have a lot of actual high school memories that touch on race.

The first has to do with riding the bus to school. My guess is that this was during ninth or tenth grade.

The route of our school bus was to the homes of white kids. There were no black kids’  homes on our route.

But after we dropped off the elementary school kids, our bus went to the high school. So black kids from another bus route would board our bus.

Well, some of the mouthy white kids who sat at the back of the bus (which is where you sat if you wanted to be far from the bus driver, who was the disciplinarian) did not like having the black kids on “our” bus. They’d talk real big about how they hated “n—rs” and what they’d do if a “n—–r” bothered them.

There were three black girls who picked up on the racism. And they had a campaign for confronting it.

Each day they would choose a white person to sit with.

Two of the girls would force the white person to slide over, and they’d both sit on the seat with the white person. Three to a seat was really tight, especially for high school kids. You were squeezed together, touching the person next to you from your hips to your shoulder.

I was amused when the girls sat with the loudest proclaimers, because these big-talking, obviously-racist white kids didn’t say a word to the girls the whole trip to the high school.  The white kid would be squeezed against the window with two black girls on the small seat with him. For the whole trip. And say nary a word.

These white kids who rode quietly all the way to the high school with two black seat mates had plenty to say that afternoon after all of the black kids got off to go to “their” bus – or the next day before the black kids got on.

But nothing when these girls would sit with them.

It was pretty amusing. Until they decided to sit with me.

You see, the bus was never even close to full on our drive to the high school. Typically, each person had his or her own seat. No one needed to share. I didn’t want to sit squeezed next to another teenager – no matter who it was or what color she was.

When two of the black girls told me to slide over, I got mad.

I didn’t care that they were black. I just didn’t want to share a seat when there were plenty open. No one needed to share a seat. And I preferred to sit by myself.

So I told them exactly that.

I can’t remember if the girls sat with me that day or not.

But they never “targeted” me again. And from then on, throughout my high school years, when I saw one of them or one of their family members, we’d nod our hellos to each other. And smile just a tiny bit.

I guess it’s best that the racist white kids on the bus didn’t cause a confrontation. I don’t know that the black girls changed any minds, but I respect their small activism now. I guess I did then, as well.

Another time I remember seeing racism was in a conversation with some friends. We were talking about a television show. And one of these white friends said, “Can you believe they showed two n——s kissing?? That was so gross!”

I think it truly was the first time I’d seen black people kiss on a television show. But it didn’t bother me. Though I did notice.

In the 1970s, most television shows featured white people. Yes, there were black characters who appeared every now and then on “All in the Family.” Those characters even got a spin-off, “The Jeffersons.” And there was “Good Times” and later “The Cosby Show.” Those few shows had mostly black casts.

We all, black and white teenagers, watched pretty much the same shows.

And we all, black and white teenagers, watched the miniseries “Roots” when it was on (in fact, I wonder if this was the show where I first saw two black people kiss).

The vast majority of shows during my high school years had white casts. The vast majority of commercials had white casts. The vast majority of newscasts – white anchors and reporters. You get my drift.

So a black couple kissing on television was new to us. And one of my white friends was grossed out by it.

Even though I didn’t agree with this friend (and I cannot remember who it was, not even if it was a boy or girl), I didn’t say anything.

I do remember that.

I didn’t say anything.

That has happened too many times in my life. I’ve heard racist comments – and just let them go.

That’s where I’m complicit in racism. In not pointing it out when I hear or see it.

I’m trying to do better. And I actually do better at times. I’ll get to one of those stories later – a situation where I happened on the perfect response to a racist remark.

But this time I said nothing.

And there was more nothing from me throughout my high school years regarding the elephant in the room in this post – concerning my high school and racial bias . . .

You see, we were the Rebels.

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High school yearbook my freshman year

Not the Highland Scot Rebels like a school near us, but C.S.A. Rebels. Our school fight song was “Dixie.”

It never crossed my mind that this mascot and this fight song would be offensive to my black classmates.

It never crossed my mind to wonder whether it bothered my black teammates to play basketball with a huge rebel flag painted on the wall, one that read “This is Rebel Country.”

It never crossed my mind to wonder if my black band classmates were bothered by the band uniforms with the stars and bars in a X across our chests.

None of this crossed my mind.

And you know what? The mascot of my high school is still the Rebels.

Those who argue for keeping that mascot say that the mascot doesn’t represent racism.

I guess that was true for me. I didn’t see “Rebels” as a comment on race. It was just a mascot. And the rebel flag just went along with that. And our fight song “Dixie” was just a part of that.

But not long after I graduated from high school, I did start to wonder.

If I’d been a black kid at my high school, would it have bothered me to be a Confederate Rebel? Would it have bothered me to play basketball under a giant rebel flag painted on the wall? Would it have bothered me to march in a uniform with the Southern cross across my chest?

I’m sure it would have.

If I were black, I wouldn’t want to have a mascot and play under a flag that, for me, stood for a time and place during which black people like me were enslaved, owned as property by people like my white classmates.

That would have bothered me.

It bothers me now as a white person.

Are there plenty of my old high school white alumni who disagree with me?

Yes, there sure are.

They see things as I did when I was in high school.

How do I know they do? Well, a few years ago, right after Dylann Roof murdered nine black people who had welcomed him to a Bible study at Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, the NAACP tried to get my high school to change its mascot.

The school board refused. At the public hearing, white alumni were incensed that the NAACP dared try to change the mascot. On Facebook, there were many, many comments by white alumni against changing it. Too many of those comments conveyed deep anger.

Why is this such a volatile issue?

I’m not exactly sure. Lots of reasons – not just one.

But I do think it says a lot about who we are.

Because of the volatility, I’m even hesitant today to write about it. I know my remarks will make some white people mad.

But I also know that if I were black, I would not want to go to a school that had a Confederate Rebel as a mascot.

In my mind and heart, I keep going back to this:

Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

And I keep trying to apply it to my life.

If I were black, I’d like for a white person to point it out when she hears racist remarks.

If I were black, I’d like for a white person to acknowledge that my experiences aren’t the same as his, that I have different challenges.

If I were black, I’d like for white people to realize that a time period of the 1700s and early 1800s of their ancestors that they idealize was hardly an ideal time for my ancestors.

And I’d like for white people to explore just where and when they are racist.

That’s why I’m doing this blog series.

Because I feel a responsibility to my black friends and acquaintances – and former high school classmates – to explore my racism. Not to push it down or excuse it. But to acknowledge it and explore it.

I feel a responsibility to my best self to look at my prejudices, to see where I have knee-jerk reactions.

And to try to change them.

That’s why I’ll continue this series.

I do it for my best self, the one I want to become before I die.

My years are dwindling, so I can’t put it off any longer.

    *     *     *

Next: My college years.

From our 1973 high school yearbook. – “and love will steer the stars” is from “The Age of Aquarius.”

 

From another page in our 1973 high school yearbook.

 

 

 

6 thoughts on “Considering My Own Racism: My High School Years

  1. And on the other hand, MY school was also the Rebels. 80% white students, 20% black students. And my junior year (’69-’70) there WAS uprising…and riots in the halls…and a curfew on the city…and band drills in case we were attacked while we DID play Dixie….and teaches with tears down their cheeks as they attempted to teach with police patrolling the halls…and confused young people, including myself, who had NOT been raised to be racist, and had to find the courage to agree with and support those students who felt their rights were being ignored.

    and now that school’s mascot is the Panthers. yes, black ones. And the school is 100% black students.

    and in some ways, I feel it is a reverse situation. interesting…..

    • I wonder if the difference was a city school versus a country one. It would be interesting to do a longitudinal study of your school and the changes. They’re pretty extreme – but my guess is that they’re pretty typical for a Southern city school over that same time period.

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