Common Bullying….. or Something Worse?

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.





6 thoughts on “Common Bullying….. or Something Worse?

  1. Wow, Jill. What you experienced was certainly very frightening, and indeed appears to be beyond bullying due to the racial context. Isn’t it interesting how like seeks like and groups can often do things that individuals would never consider doing. Power usually pivots around majority status, and it sounds as if you were in the minority, and thus somewhat powerless to change things. You had several dramatic demonstrations of the power of 1 person to change outcomes, though, for better or worse. I’m so glad the world seems to be changing from the way it was in the 60s, although we still have so far to go, don’t we!

  2. Definitely racism goes both ways….I believe that everyone holds some kind of biased thoughts about particular groups of people–myself included. Its something I struggle with and I try very hard to not make generalizations, but it happens. This becomes even more wrong when these feelings are verbalized, acted out, used to isolate or to bully or harm. Thanks for the reminder Jill.

  3. Definitely bullying and reverse racism, which by the way, many still don’t acknowledge exists. Being mean, humiliating someone, hurting , with words, or hands, is wrong! It doesn’t matter who is doing what to whom! There is never a reason for justification. Period! I am sorry you had to live through that…… It happens all the time….still….today. I have watched as my little grand daughter, (whom would never hurt a soul) was covertly bullied. The teachers didn’t “see” it…no one could do anything about it. Guess what? She doesn’t go to that school any longer. I wish ALL parents taught their children LOVE and not HATE! Maybe someday…..

  4. Definitely bullying and racism….and it surely seemed rampant in Michigan during those years. I was on a council at my high school to try and set ground rules for behavior…and when we would drive to Saginaw from Ann Arbor we were always told NOT to stop in Flint. To this day I don’t like to have to stop in Flint…
    So sorry you had to go through that, but it is so freeing to be able to forgive and move on without harboring any anger or bitterness. Christ is a wonderful balm for our souls.

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