Desperate for Diversity: Why White Kids Need People of Color

The words “Martin Luther King Jr.” and “trouble-maker” flew across our dining table in rapid succession.

I felt as though I’d been slapped in the face.  I’d read about Dr. King  in the paper, seen him on TV. Wasn’t the civil rights conversation supposed to be important?

Well, there would no more conversation at my house, anyway.

Between kindergarten and college graduation, I had only two black teachers.  The first was Mrs. Hall, in fourth grade.

I wasn’t used to sharing my thoughts with adults, but Mrs. Hall created an atmosphere of safety in her classroom. One day I walked up to her desk and took a chance. “It seems like people remember the good things that happen to them in life and forget most of the bad,” I said.

She looked at me, head askance. I don’t think she quite knew what to say. A while later she approached me. “It does seem to be true,” she said, affirming my small thought.  “People do remember the good, don’t they?”

Her comment fed my soul. For a Christmas gift, I gave her a wide-brimmed hat with an attached scarf. That spring she told me she wore it while riding in her friend’s convertible. My pride soared.

I grew up in a white crayon world: White boys in crisp chino pants and plaid shirts. White girls in knee socks, cardigan sweaters and penny loafers. My only memory of our elementary school’s single black child is of a huge boy everyone called Bosco, after the chocolate syrup my mom never bought.

Only fifteen-minutes up the road, an entire community of black children functioned in a parallel, if not equal, universe. Coming face-to-face with them in junior high school caused my first-ever culture shock.

For seventh grade English, I had Mrs. Tyler. One day a giggly girl with hair like Glinda the Good Witch asked if she could get a drink of water. Only Sherry pronounced it, “wooder.”

Mrs. Tyler drew her head back. A smile played on her lips. “What did you say?”

Sherry repeated her request.  “Can I please get a drink of wooder?”

A tall, broad-hipped woman, Mrs. Tyler paced the floor in her belted dress; a piece of chalk or maybe a pencil clasped in her hands, her arms bent at the elbows. “Boys and girls,” she sighed. “The word is ‘wah-ter.’ Not ‘wooder.’ You need to speak Standard English.”

A hush fell over the room.  She explained that our whiney inflection could impact our chances at successful careers.

No teacher had ever corrected our speech, and mine was hardly the worst. But I made sure to say “wah-ter” and  “dah-ter”  from that day on.

When I saw my first TV commercial featuring a black person, chills shot down my arms. This was way before Bill Cosby. Even before Coke launched its “I’d like teach the world to sing” campaign. Seeing people of color on television seemed so normal ; but at the same time, so out of the ordinary.

By mid-term of my college sophomore year, I had a one-way ticket to New Mexico.

I finished school and married there, and for some time my husband and I lived in a rural area populated primarily by Hispanic families. Their adobe homes dotted land that had been in their families for generations.  Several Indian pueblos – the home of Tewa-speaking peoples – sat off the main highways, hidden from public view, within a few miles of our house.

Our sons were the only gringos on their little league team. They sat in the dugout with boys as brown as berries, spitting out sunflower hulls and kicking the mud out of their cleats. I listened as the other moms chatted in folding chairs, or clustered on the tailgates of pickup trucks. I couldn’t understand a word.  One Native American mother shouted something that sounded like, “Ponay! Ponay!”

I figured it meant, “Get a hit,” or “Good eye.”

I tried to fit in, make friends. People were nice, but I always felt like an outsider. In New Jersey, nobody cares; but in New Mexico, the first thing they ask is, “Are you from here?”

When is a person ever good enough, I wondered; white, black or brown?

Still, the confluence of  cultures in New Mexico warmed my heart. How different it was from the world I grew up in. As a child, the people I saw were all white.  The firemen, police, bank tellers, doctors and dentists, even the shoppers at the neighborhood grocery store.

In my highschool graduating class of about 230, fewer than a dozen black students took advanced classes.  Only a handful played in band and orchestra. We were a motley crew at our lunch table – a Jew, a Pentecostal Christian, a native Estonian, a black girl named Karen, and me, by then a lapsed Presbyterian. Karen was tall, conservative, and an only child. She wanted to be a nurse, like her mother.

But not once did Karen and I visit one another’s homes, go to a movie, or talk on the phone. I craved diversity in my life. Why couldn’t I have a black friend?

My children understand ethnic diversity because they lived it. They learned to judge people by their character, as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once dreamed, and not by the color of their skin.

Without the many colors and textures of diverse relationships, we short-change ourselves and our children. People who are different broaden our minds, stretch us and teach us that the world is safe. No parent wants to place a child at risk. But in a white crayon world, kids won’t be able to recognize a beautiful design when they see one. FFG

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