In the 1970s, the small town I grew up in consisted of three churches, three taverns and approximately 800 white people.
I take that back. There were approximately 799 white people and one Asian girl. She was adopted.
There was also a woman named Fern who lived with her horse on the edge of town, technically outside city limits. Fern was white. But she had an odd way of speaking and wore plain, Amish-like clothes. People called her “different.”
To be clear: the people in my town were good, church-going, beer-drinking people who watched out for each other. But being “different” – at least back then – was not highly encouraged.
Let me give you an example. Back in grade school, I remember the day when the school principal knocked on our classroom door to say he had important news to share. Vice President Spiro Agnew, he told us, had just resigned his office.
I wasn’t sure what to make of this news. The boy sitting next to me, however, let out a sigh of relief. “I thought he was going to say that a black person moved to town,” he whispered.
My memory isn’t perfect. But I’m pretty sure he used another word for “black person.”
Now, you may be shocked. But the word this boy used wasn’t as shocking in 1973 as you might think. In fact, that particular synonym could be heard regularly on the school playground in a rhyme the boys used when choosing dodge ball teams. If you’re old enough, you may have heard it on your playground, too:
“Eeny, meanie, miney, moe. Catch a tiger by the toe. If he hollers let him go. Eeny, meanie, miney moe.”
Except back then, the boys didn’t say “tiger.” They used that other word. It is shameful. It is mortifying. It is what they knew.
I know what you’re wondering. You’re wondering if the GIRLS said that rhyme. You’re wondering if I said that rhyme. Let’s put it this way: I preferred the “Bubblegum, bubblegum in a dish, how many pieces do you wish” approach to team selection.
However, I don’t recall ever correcting the boys’ version of “Eeny, meanie, miney, moe.” Nor did I ever tell my classmate that having a black family might be a GOOD thing for our town.
It’s easy to see these failings now. But then?
“Do the best you can until you know better,” Maya Angelou once wrote. “Then when you know better, do better.”
My point is, I grew up in a very white world. And if you’re honest – and white – you probably did, too. Maybe you didn’t grow up in a town that was 99.875% white. But you get the point.
Growing up white in that world taught me next-to-nothing about what it is like to grow up black in this one. The crash course today’s world provides still comes up far short.
But I’m learning. We’re all learning.
And that means we now know better. Now it’s time to do better.