I still remember the clear blue skies and the sun glinting off the snow as I walked home that cold winter day.
I gradually became aware of the sound of voices behind me. I turned my head to see a group of older girls close behind me. They were 9th graders while I was a lowly 7th grader. I felt a flash of anxiety, and fear quickened my steps.
“That’s right. You better run, you honky bitch.” Seconds later a chunk of ice hit me hard in the back of the head. My world momentarily went black and in that darkness I saw stars. My vision cleared as I stumbled forward several steps. I heard raucous laughter behind me and my anxiety was now a full-blown fear. I was getting close to home, but I could never hope to outrun my tormentors. I felt a shove on my back. I was trying not to cry as I did not want to show fear. It was with an overwhelming sense of relief that I saw a white station wagon pull to the curb. My mom’s best friend rolled down her window and ordered me to get in. Jeers followed me as I climbed into the car.
With the slamming of the car door my memory of that event stops. It is a tiny snapshot in my life and yet I still remember it 45 years later. I had no doubt why I was targeted. My sin? The color of my skin. I am white.
Racial tensions were high in Flint, Michigan in the years following Martin Luther King’s assassination. I entered Holmes Junior High School in 1969, a year after his assassination. The main memory of my three years at Holmes, followed by one year at Flint Northwestern, was that of fear. Every year on the date of the anniversary of his death there were riots. Even at that time I thought how odd it was that people would choose to ‘honor’ him with riots when he himself engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience.
There was a math teacher at Holmes, Mr. Bourcier, who once brought up in class the subject of racism. He accused the white kids of being racist because they waited outside the locked front doors of the school rather than go in the unlocked main entrance where the black kids entered. I burned with indignation at the injustice of this remark. Did he not see that this racism went two ways? I felt betrayed at his refusal to listen to contrary viewpoints. He was a teacher! Shouldn’t he be more fair than this? I don’t know why I did it, some perverseness in me that wanted to prove something to Mr. Bourcier I suppose, but I made up my mind to try the side entrance. It was a winter day and I wore a coat with a hood. I was standing in the crowded lobby, the only white kid in sight, when I was suddenly pulled backwards by the hood dangling on my back. My books fell to the ground, my arms flailing as I tried to keep my footing. I was gasping for air as the pressure against my neck tightened. It was suddenly released and I stumbled backwards several steps. All around me I heard the laughter of kids who had witnessed my humiliation. Uhh right, Mr. Bourcier. Take that.
I was a cheerleader at Holmes in the 8th and 9th grade and I had friends, both black and white, who were fellow cheerleaders and basketball players. One day after school I went down the hall that led to the gym and locker rooms. I suddenly found myself surrounded by a group of six black girls who formed a tight circle and began to push me back and forth between them. I was truly bewildered as I had never even seen these girls. “Why are you doing this to me?” I cried out. One of them mimicked me in response, but just before she spoke I saw a look of confusion cross her face. Why was she doing this? She knew she was supposed to hate white people but hadn’t figured out why. Just then a friend of mine, who happened to be black, came down the hall. “Leave her alone. She’s okay” and the circle around me magically melted away.
People, both then and now, decry white flight, but really, did my parents have a choice? After school, fear kept me within a block of home. There was always the danger of getting ‘jumped’ on the way to or from school. It was unsafe to use the bathrooms at school, and forget about actually learning anything. Education itself took a remote backseat to other more pressing concerns.
My family moved to Flushing the summer before I entered 11th grade. I felt no sadness, only glorious relief when we finally moved. I attempted to make up some ground in academics those last two years of high school, but there was really no way to replace the lost years of science and math.
I can honestly say that I bear no ill will to those people who caused me such grief during those years. I imagine that like me they have grown and changed; I like to think they regret the foolishness of their younger years.
I became a Christian just before we moved to Flushing and being a follower of Christ has had immeasurably more impact on me than those few hard years in the Flint school system. In no way do I compare what happened to me with institutional racism against minorities, but nonetheless, it would still be good to hear someone acknowledge that what I experienced was indeed racism and it was wrong.