The One About the Time I Uttered a Racist Comment in Second Grade

“Look at that chocolate melting in the sun.”

I uttered those words when I was eight years old.

Looking back after more than 40 years, deconstructing that sentence has become an interesting exercise in East Coast, wine-sipping, Volvo-driving, self-loathing, liberal flagellation.

It was a warm California day with the sun shining and beating down on us in the playground of Our Lady of Everything that is Pure and Kind School. [1] The playground itself was also used as a parking lot for parishioners who attended the church attached to our school. No grass. Nothing soft about our playing surface. All hard with 90-degree angles. About an acre of asphalt with yellow lines demarcating parking spaces and white lines creating basketball and kickball and foursquare courts. On Sunday morning before and after Mass, my father would have to navigate the family Oldsmobile around the basketball standards. Our playground contained a peaceful coexistence between cars and kids threatened only by mid-week funerals celebrated during the school day.

Well, you know how hot asphalt can get in the sun. Even on a cool day. But this day was not cool. It was a warm California day, most likely in the high 80’s. So it is safe to say that chocolate probably would have melted in our playground that day.

However, the “chocolate” in my remark was not a direct reference to a Hershey bar or M&M’s or any foodstuff. Instead, the “chocolate” referred to Michael S., the only Negro boy [2] in our school. Michael had two older sisters who also went to our school. The three of them enrolled when Michael was in second grade.

I am sure that Michael did not hear my remark. I said it to another boy, probably Dominic D., who was of Italian descent, and we were standing halfway across the playground from where Michael sat by himself. This was a familiar scene during recess, this isolation. He was the new boy. He had not been through the crucible of first grade with us, when we were all new. However, by second grade, I had settled in and established my position in the second-grade hierarchy. I was the smart boy. That did not make me popular, but I had my place and my role and classmates talked to me. Michael was the new boy. No one talked to him.

Because we lived in California and attended a Roman Catholic school, your assumption that there were Hispanic students in our school would be correct. Two boy cousins in my class were dark-skinned, though not as dark as Michael. I never considered either of the cousins to be “chocolate.”  Luis F. was something of a playground rival, but Jose F. and I were pretty good friends. I did not see the Hispanic students differently than the white students. Hispanic culture surrounded and enveloped everyone in California. In school, we learned about Mexico, the Spanish conquistadors, and the missions settled by Junipero Serra.[3]. We learned Spanish language in class. The ethnic lines kind of blurred.

But the Negro kids were different. They were just as foreign to California soil as us white kids. But there were more white kids. A lot more. And in 1965, the news about Negroes filtered to us by our parents? The Civil Rights struggle, to our parents, represented something more than a political movement. It also represented a very personal threat. As if our humble suburb were being invaded by aliens intent on something short of killing us. But maybe it was something worse than killing us. [4]

So Michael was doubly isolated by his status as the new kid and our ignorance. He sat by himself during recess and I casually referred to him as “chocolate melting in the sun.”

The funny thing is that as soon as the words left my mouth, I regretted ever saying them.

And those words still haunt me.

Eventually, Michael joined us in our playground games and he stopped being the new boy. He and his sisters left after that year. I feel certain Michael was called worse names by people who forgot about it. I hope it’s better in the playground for his kids.

*******”

Footnotes:

 
[1] This is not the school’s real name, jackass. I changed it so you could not hunt me down. However I attended this very nice Catholic school for eight years and never bothered to inquire about the background of its real and mysterious name. I assumed it had something to do with St. Mary, the mother of Jesus, and a piece of geography thousands of miles away.

[2] In 1965, most everyone I knew used the term “Negro.” Later on, I learned that some people employed the pronunciation “nigra,” which indicated a plausibly deniable racist perspective. If called out as being a racist, the person who said “nigra” could claim that he or she had not said “nigger” and that it was only their colloquial pronunciation of “Negro” and ask the accuser how to pronounce the word correctly.  Of course, some people did use the word “nigger,” but I did not hear it in my house or in school. The only word that I heard in school with racist connotations was “chocolate” and it was uttered by me in second grade.

[3] I had wanted badly to go to Serra High School, less than 10 miles from our home. However, my parents insisted on another Catholic school, 30 miles away. Tom Brady went to Serra. Yeah, that Tom Brady.

[4] But not as bad as eternal damnation.

 
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About Stephen Dedalus, Jr.

I am trying to awaken from the history of my ancestor's nightmare to comment on my Holy Trinity of Interests: art, literature, and music. Oh, and thoughts on dysfunctional families, which is to say families.
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