I did not know she was Black. To distinguish a person based on skin color fell well below the goals of recess fun and meeting new friends. What more do you expect from a five year old?
We moved to within half a block of the Crestwood Addition around 1966. The Crestwood Addition was built along the west-northwest boundary of Oklahoma City, now Villa Avenue. Speculative home building in the OKC Metro began in the Crestwood Addition primarily from 1924-1930.
What difference does it make?
The area, in its initial buildout, would have been a white neighborhood. By the early 1970’s every step toward integration in the OKC Metro area was followed by a move, what we call white flight, to the north, northwest and west, if you were a North Sider. For others it meant a move to nearby rural areas that over time morphed into suburbs and ex-rural enclaves. More on that in a future post.
Schools with a predominantly black student population were located east, northeast and southeast of downtown OKC. Keep in mind this references a much less sprawling Oklahoma City limits.
My elementary school, Hawthorne Elementary, sat just southwest of the official Crestwood Addition, only blocks away. Once old enough I walked to school without any worries. Our student population was white. All white. My world, outside of those who worked for my Grandpa Littleton and my uncles Stan and Dick, did not include others of any color.
I Did Not Know Mrs. Booker Was Black
I was born just six months before President Kennedy was assassinated. The year I entered Kindergarten – 1968 has been termed The Turbulent Year. The Vietnam War’s Tet Offensive. The assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy. The curious death of outspoken Catholic Priest and activists Thomas Merton. And more.
The list is long.
For me it was Kindergarten. I viewed the year as an adventure, nothing turbulent for me. My social interests meant school would provide more opportunities for more friends and more fun. My Mom tells the story that I had no idea my Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Booker, was black. Despite the cultural furor and the aftermath of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, my chief concerns in life did not entail skin color.
My parents did not make it an issue of concern. Maybe it reflected the cultural divide. Could be my experience of the lack of diversity meant little need for a conversation about what to do and how to respond to people of a different skin tone. A few years later my world would change. But, for my first school experience it was as if I was colorblind.
Isn’t Colorblindness the Goal?
Some would expect if a Kindergartner could hold on to that sense of colorblindness he or she might get along well in a diverse world. Wouldn’t it reduce conflict if we did not fixate on skin color? Wasn’t it Martin Luther King Jr who longed for the day when children would not be judged by the color of their skin but the content of their hearts?
Colorblindness may seem like an admirable goal. But, it subtly entrenches racism rather than roots it out.
Larry was colorblind. He needed someone to help him know when traffic lights changed colors. In a moment of orneriness, or just plain adolescent meanness, I shouted to Larry from the back of the bus he was driving that the color of the light was different from what it really was. Almost immediately I felt terrible. That feeling worsened when my parents found out.
Colorblindness robs a person of differentiation. There are different meanings between red and green lights. Colorblindness pitches everyone into the same category. The goal it seems is no see no difference. Some think this solves the problem of race. If we could just not see color.
Human beings are different. Colorblindness robs humanity of its incredible tapestry. Only those with something to lose hope for colorblindness. My friend Adam helped me to think through this dead end road. Only those who want to protect a position would want to ignore color. Those already entrenched in a particular cultural norm may then insist all others simply get on board with things as they are. It would be like allowing someone of color on the bus, but on the back of the bus. We were here first.
Colorblindness means the optimal lens through which life is experiences and advanced is the singular experience of dominant culture. It denies difference, individuality, cultural distinctions and worse. Colorblindness ignores history, particularly the history of how the dominant culture treated people of color, those different.
Colorblindness is not the answer.
Many of us learned the little song that includes, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in his sight.” You may not like the lyrics, but the lesson was clear. It should still be clear.
One more lesson from (my) black history.