Growing up in NYC, I was used to being around people of all colors, races, and nationalities. It never occurred to me that a thing such as racism existed, until my second grade class was planning a trip to the Hayden Planetarium. There we were, 40 some odd little kids, nearly jumping out of our seats in our eagerness to get ready for our big trip. The teacher, Mrs. Millette, had asked us to pick partners to buddy with for the trip. As I understood it, partners were to line up together, sit together on the bus, and hold hands as we walked around and looked at all the exhibits. So naturally, we all wanted to be paired with a friend. I’m not sure who chose who, but Tina and I soon found ourselves excitedly planning all the fun things we were going to do for the trip. I volunteered to bring cookies for our snack and Tina was sure her sister would lend us matching hair bows so we’d look alike. All day we plotted and planned, daydreamed and talked incessantly about the big day. I had no way of knowing that that trip was about to cause chaos in my life and cause me to see the world in a new and far less trusting way. I didn’t know that my parents, especially my mother, were racists. And I hadn’t ever noticed that Tina was black.
When I went home that day after school, I was so excited I could barely contain myself. I remember waving the permission slip and jumping up and down as I asked my mother to sign it. Well. she didn’t. I don’t remember exactly how it came about, but once she realized who my partner was she wouldn’t sign it. She said I had to go to school and ask the teacher to give me a new partner. I remember crying that Tina was my friend and asking why she couln’t be my partner. I know I didn’t get an answer that satisfied me because I was still crying when my father got home. I can still see his face as he tried to explain that Tina was black and my mother didn’t want me to hold hands with her. I remember thinking that maybe something was wrong with Tina. But that didn’t make sense. Was she going to give me something that could make me sick? I didn’t think so; we sat next to each other all the time and even shared lunches. Slowly, I began to understand that the only problem was her skin color. That’s when I had my first big fight with my mother. And in the end, my father sided with me and got my mother to agree to let me be partners with Tina. But there was one condition. I had to promise to wear my white cotton gloves all day. So I promised, knowing I would never keep that promise. Suddenly, I knew that it would be wrong to wear the gloves and maybe I even recognized that it would hurt and insult Tina.
I never saw my parents quite the same way after that. I knew that they were kind loving people; I never doubted that for a moment. But I also knew they were wrong, that they had preconceived ideas that were without merit. I knew that somehow, I had to stick up for what I believed. And over the years, I did. It wasn’t always easy. It wasn’t pleasant or even comfortable. But it was right.
I’ve told this story to my own children and now to my grandson and his friends. To them, it is weird. They don’t see skin color. Thank God.