Pretty white and wholly ignorant, isn’t it?
Here’s the back story: I grew up in the ’50s and 60s in northern New Jersey in a town where all the black families lived on one road. There were three black students in a graduating class of 250 students, two of whom I knew from music and both of whom signed my yearbook.
My family’s attitude toward equal rights for “Negros” (not coloreds or worse) and race relations was classically liberal and tolerant. I had started reading memoirs like Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promise Land and histories such as Lerone Bennett’s Before the Mayflower in high school. But I had no illusions about my “understanding” what it was to be a Negro in America.
The tiny college I went to in Illinois had 350 students, of which two were roommates and classmates. One showed me the “soul brother” handshake, proved to be worse at basketball than I was, and had fun with me and our tutor in an English class. The other was bi-racial and almost deaf. He and I had to concentrate on watching the other’s face when talking and enjoyed the exchanges. (He later earned a PhD in Math.)
After my first year of college, I got a job driving for a take-out fried chicken place. Yes, breaded chicken and French fries. Phone-in orders sent me everywhere within about a 10-mile radius of the store. One night I saw that I had an order for the road in my home town that I recognized as the black section. As I drove there, I didn’t think about the fried chicken stereotype or anything other than I had NO idea what kind of house I’d be delivering to.
I parked in front and knocked on the door or rang the door bell (don’t remember which). A resident (male or female, I don’t remember) let me in and had me stand in the entryway as they went off to get the payment. As I waited, I glanced at the small, tidy living room.
And then the thought hit me: “Their house smells like anyone else’s”. That comment stayed in my mind’s front-and-center section all the way back to the chicken store. What had I meant by it? Had I really carried that
Don’t think of it as an epiphany, think of it as a reorientation, a tug on preconceptions I didn’t know I had. It would be years before I studied with or worked with or even commuted with persons of all colors. Still later before I formed friendships. But it may have been that night delivering chicken that started expanding the spectrum of my awareness beyond the “white-light” band I typically lived in.