Excuse me, are you a Negro?

Jean Pierce Morrow,
State College, PA

I grew up in a suburb of West Philadelphia in the 1950s. My town had two elementary schools, and I spent my first four years at the completely white school. Then we moved to another part of town and I started fourth grade in the school with about a 20% black population. I didn’t know anybody, and at lunchtime that first day, looking for a place to sit in the cafeteria, I spotted a table full of girls with one seat left. I asked if I could join them and they said yes. Everyone ate in silence for a few moments, then one girl asked me that question. I thought about it a minute, realizing I didn’t know the answer. I knew race was connected to skin color, but I’d seen so many shades of skin that I wasn’t sure exactly where the dividing line was. I looked down at my own skin, and finally answered “I don’t think so”. After that we had a fine time. My mom later explained that they had asked me because they couldn’t think of any other reason why a white girl would sit at a Negro table. I’ve come to understand that experience as white privilege; I learned by accident at 10 what those girls had, for their own safety, been taught at a much younger age.


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