I’ve been thinking about how old I was when I first became aware of the idea of racism. I grew up in a small Mennonite Canadian town where almost everyone was white. Take a look at my elementary and junior high school class pictures and that’s clearly evident.
Three things stand out in my mind when I think of racism awareness in my childhood and teen years.
In grade five I had a very innovative teacher, Mr Helmut Klassen. I loved him because we did all sorts of hands-on projects. He taught us how to have a debate. We learned the rules and format of debating, and the best way to prepare and present our case.
The topic of one of the debates we had in our class was whether black and white people should be treated equally. I argued for the affirmative and the research and planning I did for that debate was probably my first introduction to racism. I can still see myself up on the stage at the old Southwood School in Steinbach drawing an illustration on a portable chalk blackboard to illustrate one of my points.
Now, of course, the very fact that we had a DEBATE over whether there should be racial equality seems hard to believe. I memorized a poem to recite during that debate called Incident. It was by a black American writer Countee Cullen and it brought me to tears every time I read it. I can still recite it by heart. You can read it here.
I will never forget that around the same time I heard an elderly relative of mine use the N-word. And I remember how horrified I was. I knew enough about racism to be shocked. My mother explained that the woman had grown up in the American south and it was a word she used out of habit. I knew her as the sweetest and kindest of souls but it got me thinking about how even ‘good people’ could be racist and how I might be racist too. Then in high school, I read a book called Five Smooth Stones by Ann Fairbairn. It was published the year I was thirteen but I was a bit older when I read it. I don’t remember where I got it. I was a voracious reader growing up in a town without a library so I was always gathering books like a packrat, from a whole variety of sources.
The novel was the life story of a young man named David, a civil rights activist from Mississippi. The title alluded to the Biblical hero David who challenged the giant Goliath with only five smooth stones as his weapons. Part of the attraction of the novel for me was David’s turbulent romantic relationship with a white woman named Sara. It faced insurmountable obstacles because of the laws against interracial marriage, but the 900-page saga also introduced me, a sheltered white teenager, to the horrors of the Jim Crow laws, legal discrimination and the legacy of slavery.
I read and re-read it many times until the book was literally falling apart. I just looked it up on Good Reads and was surprised how many people said that growing up in the 1960s this book was what shook their world of white privilege. I haven’t read it in decades and I am sure it would seem dated were I to read it now, and certainly would seem less than authentic because it was penned by a white author, but at the time it was such an eye-opener.
If you are white and of a generation similar to mine how did you become aware of the idea of racism?