In February of 1968, I donned one of my mother’s bridesmaid dresses and a wig made of surgical cotton to play the role of Martha Washington. I’d been selected for the part by a boy named Jeffrey, who’d been elected George Washington by our third-grade classmates.
It would be our Presidents Day celebration, a short play in which all the students wore cotton wigs and oversized formal wear, guests at an inaugural ball. In my mind’s eye, we all look like Q-tips in baggy clothing – all except one student, whom I’ll call Mac.
Mac is wearing a red coat and white gloves. Mac, whom I recall was the only African American boy in the class, had been cast in the role of the doorman – not elected to a position as Jeffrey was, but assigned by teachers to be the one to welcome parents. I would like to say I was offended on Mac’s behalf, or that I objected to the stereotyped casting. But I was 8 and didn’t know anything about anything. (This, despite being raised by parents who invited dozens of students, black and white, into our homes for music lessons all along.)
In the many years since then, I have sometimes thought about Mac and what school might have been like for him in 1968; how did he and his parents feel about his being cast as the doorman instead of one of the fancy party guests? But I don’t know because we were not friends.
Looking back, I think I passively avoided Mac in the way all third-grade girls avoid all third-grade boys. But I suspect there was also something less benign at play. Maybe I was not friendly to Mac because he was different, and although my slight may not have been overt or intentional (my memory is cloudy and come to think of it, Mac – like the rest of the boys – may not have cared to get to know me, either), it was wrong then, as it would be now.
To excuse micro aggressions as typical of an earlier, less enlightened time is to suggest there wasn’t lasting hurt that resulted. Even my use of the word “typical” affirms much of what the Black Lives Matter protestors are saying now about how racial prejudice and assumptions have been baked into the American pie.
When my daughter was in first grade, she got off the bus one afternoon, chatting excitedly about plans to invite her “new best friend,” a girl I hadn’t met, over for a play date. As we waited for Saturday to come, I pictured how the two of them would spend the day, playing animal charades on the front porch, or maybe I would take them to the playground.
I never pictured the little girl as African American, nor had my daughter mentioned that she was. I’d incorrectly assumed she was white, but why? Because I am white? Because our school was mostly white? And is it also because I, like most people, tend to live inside the familiarity of my own assumptions? I would have welcomed any friend for a playdate, of course, but I hadn’t considered all possibilities. Such was the lens through which I imagined the world.
This new generation is better than we were when we were children, more open to considering all possibilities and less afraid of differences. That’s an assumption and a generalization, too, but it’s heartening to see the diversity of the George Floyd protests. I want to be part of the movement that pushes through this necessary and long-overdue tipping point, but that means I have to continue to challenge my own assumptions, while challenging myself and others to listen – really, quietly listen – to those whose opinions and life experiences are different from our own.
I don’t know where Mac is now. He was in classrooms with me for a year or two and then moved on. But I think of him still, especially now.