These are short stories that illustrate racist OR anti-racist actions. They should ideally be no longer than 100 words, but this is not an ironclad rule.
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A member of Meeting was hesitant to submit a story, not sure that it fit the billing – to be about racism. When we read it, it was emphatically about both racism and being a strong anti-racist. We suspect that every person in Meeting has stories they can tell, once they give themselves permission to speak. It is in the naming that we will understand what we are faced with and figure out how to proceed. It is in sharing our Light that we can begin to see clearly.
Recently I went to the coast on vacation, the first trip my family had taken in fourteen months. Since not everyone was old enough to be vaccinated, we packed plenty of masks and planned to avoid indoor activities.
One outdoor activity our children were especially excited about was our visit to a sea turtle sanctuary and hospital. It was packed with humans, maybe 15% of whom were wearing masks. It was amazing to me to see so many unmasked faces, but what really stood out to me was how most of the faces were white, and how very, very many of these white people were wearing freedon-themed t-shirts, like “Freedom Ain’t Free,” “BBQ, Beer, and Freedom,” “Defending Freedom,” “Freedom Warrior,” or simply “FREEDOM!!”
I didn’t see a single freedom-garbed person wearing a face mask, and I didn’t expect to. There was a lot of subtext about being both maskless and free. Still, as I stepped back to make room for yet another group of proudly free white people, I caught sight of a tall black woman calmly reading an exhibit sign. She was wearing a mask, and it occurred to me, not for the first time: Who has the truest claim on the theme of freedom in this country? People descended from slaves.
So why are so many white people obsessed with it? Former prisoners of war, I can certainly understand. But this goes way past that.
The Quaker House was built in 1929, when having a maid/cook who came in daily was common. In this house, the kitchen and wood porch (for a wood stove) were under the same roof but had no direct access to the rest of the house. The servant walked around the left side of the house and came to this small porch, where the wood for the stove was kept. Once you were standing on this porch, the kitchen door (with a large window) was directly ahead, the door to the dining room on the right and the door to the back porch of the house to the left. The “servant quarters” were well and truly hidden from public view.
The key to this kitchen door was different from the rest of the house - but only from the outside. The same lock, from the kitchen side, matched all the other house locks. The servant could not lock themselves in. I have no idea how you key such a lock! But it was a real thing - we had two keys for that door. One on the frig to lock/unlock it from the inside and another for doing the same from the outside.
The point? The servant could arrive early to start cooking, but they could not enter the house until allowed in by the family.
So the Quaker House house plan included a toilet just for the servant. (This was an innovation - so what did servants do before this time? A bucket in the kitchen? The backyard?) This toilet was in the basement. Quaker House is on a steep hill, so the back 17 feet or so is a walk-in basement. In the original, it was bricked in on each side for maybe 10 feet and open in the center. That center has a brick floor. The left “wing” had a wide outside door, the right ‘wing’ was just brick. The toilet was in the left “wing”. A wall was built to block it off from the center bricked area, so it had three walls, the fourth was open to the crawl space under the rest of the house, same as the rest of the walk-in basement.
The toilet was set directly over the sewer line which ran from the front of the house, back to this toilet room and then did a u-turn to run back to the street and the city sewer line which had just been put in - one of the first in the city to be laid. The floor of this room was sandy dirt - not brick. The wood wall is open studs - only the other side was finished. And it had no water line. The water heater was only 6 feet away, but this toilet was never plumbed. You had to carry a bucket of water with you to flush the toilet. And it likely had no electric light. Did the servant hang a blanket on the fourth wall for privacy? There is no one living to tell us.
This was deliberate and planned. Not an accident. It was a casual viciousness, likely never thought out, just done because that was how you treated your black servants. I was angry the first time I realized it wasn’t plumbed. I get angry every time I remember it. Why do this? What is the root of this behavior?
I was 25, a young teacher at Wm. Cullen Bryant High School, Queens, New York. I had lunchroom duty. It was my job to keep students in the lunchroom. One black student wanted to leave and nudged me aside as he did so. I reported the incident to an assistant principal. I was carefully counselled about what lies to tell at the hearing in the Bd of Ed offices in Brooklyn. in order to have the student suspended. I didn’t tell the lies, but I gained some unpleasant understanding about our “justice” system.
I wish I could tell you what happened with that student, but I can’t. I was a young and very busy teacher at a big, impersonal school. I went on with my life.
Just after graduation, back in the 60’s I worked as a chemist for Mobil Oil, in Brooklyn. One summer a man started there as an intern, and worked there for about a year. Dave and I became good friends, I later found out that his grandfather, and uncles were all top executives at Mobil Oil and they expected that he would follow suit. He didn’t continue at Mobil but we remained friends for many years. I was invited to his home, met his family, and spent time with them on their yacht.
Dave moved to Michigan but we stayed in touch. A few years later when he was engaged, he asked me to be his best man and I agreed that I would. The wedding was to take place in Gross Point Michigan, the hometown of his fiancee. We made all the plans by phone for my tuxedo, flight arrangements from New York etc. He had told her family all about me and they couldn’t wait to meet me. That is, until the bride’s father found out that I was Black, just a few days before the wedding.
All hell broke loose… Dave’s future father in law said that there would be no wedding if the best man was Black. Dave called, he was distraught about the situation. He was devastated because he had fought so hard to change the father in law’s mind but there was nothing he could do. I had to console him, and convince him that I would be OK. I was OK because this is the way I must live my life. I cannot afford not to be OK.
When I was twenty I left home to travel. First stop was my Uncle Barry’s house in Oakland. I stepped out to go touring San Francisco and found myself opposite a neighbor across the street. And I was instantly, deeply terrified. He was black.
I grew up literally 200 miles from the nearest African American male. He was my first encounter.
I was instantly mortified. My mother had explained that many people had an automatic fear of black people and that it was unrelated to anything real. Today we would say it is a meme, with a life of its own.
I had not known until that moment that I had it in me. I was ashamed. I had been taught the Testimonies, not as religious tenets but as truths that we live by; my mother never mentioned Friends. I knew this meme violated several truths – that of God in everyone, we are all equal; people are fundamentally good, integrity, being truthful.
And it clearly had nothing to do with this actual, small 10-year old boy standing in front of me.
I turned on that meme and killed it. I did not realize that I had done this until I moved to North Carolina, because my life continued to be entirely among white people until then. When I got here and encountered the fears of other people, I realized that I did not have that fear. For which I am grateful. It has allowed me to go places and do things I might not have done otherwise. It has allowed me to be friendly to young black men I happen to encounter in parking lots late at night (true story for another time).
My favorite story to tell White people who say “Blacks take money from the system and never give back” is about a client of mine with 8 children: First, she gave me some Avon products (which she sold to keep her family going). Then she invited me to stay for dinner, an offer I initially refused. But she and the kids begged me to stay—she said she wanted me to know how much she appreciated my help, and she was a great cook, and please would I stay? The kids pushed me as well, so I did. She served us all and was still carrying things to the table when I told her to join us.
Suddenly I realized I was eating her pork chop! She had served me the food originally intended for her own plate. I was upset, but she stopped me. “No one had ever gone so out of their way” for her and her kids before, she told me. She needed to let me know how big that was, how much it meant to her.
I told this story one time to a Texas contingent on our boat cruise. They said nothing in reply, but avoided me for the rest of the trip. However, a number of other people got wind of the story and asked if they could sit at my table.
Years ago, I saw a Black mom with her very young son. He was busy, active, and adorable, as preschoolers typically are. We were in the hallway of an office building with a short flight of stairs. As he lifted his little foot to go up the first step, it started to slip out of the shoe. His mother laughed, pausing to help him get it back on.
The stairs had a handrail, and as I passed them, I saw the little boy reach up to grab the bar with both hands. Suddenly I heard a loud slap and the sobbing of a child. I jerked around: The mother had her son by the shoulders, telling him fiercely she’d better never see him do that again. He gasped and sobbed, tears spilling down his cheeks like little shards of glass.
I was shocked and alarmed; his mom was clearly furious with him. But he was so tiny, and all he did was pull up on a handrail–how could such an innocent act merit that much anger?
I went into the office I’d been headed for, sat down, and began to pray for them. His mom clearly loved him–it was obvious from the way she’d been holding his hand, the way she laughed, and the way she’d helped him get his shoe back on. Maybe she was exhausted, I reasoned, and had overreacted.
It wasn’t until years later that I came to a different conclusion: His mom not only loved him, she knew from her own experience that Black kids and White kids don’t have the same latitude for what’s seen as innocent behavior. Everywhere they go, White preschoolers have the luxury of being seen silly, impulsive, and adorable. This is only true in certain places for Black preschoolers. The freedom of being seen as an innocent child can’t be taken for granted–and thinking so can get you hurt.
Because I worked with children professionally, I understood normal “kid” behavior and saw his action as an innocent one. But his mom had no way of knowing this; she only knew that I was White. For all she knew, I could have complained that her child was somehow damaging the building. I now believe she acted the way she did because she knew what I didn’t: The rules were different for her son and mine.
So a friend who is African American told this story –
“The first time a police officer pulled me over in Chapel Hill, I was terrified. I had never been in the South before; I didn’t know what would happen.”
I have never been terrified of a policeman or woman. Annoyed, frustrated, angry, attentive, respectful, questioning, hoping they didn’t notice the dumb thing I just did–but never terrified. Never. I am white.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. I was 24 years old. I hadn’t been to the club since the previous sailing season, or maybe longer. My family owned and raced a 21’ sloop (Lightning) on a large lake in the Poconos (Pennsylvania). My parents, brothers, and I always enjoyed ourselves at the club where our friends went to socialize, especially after races.
John G., a friend and fellow “racer”, was now the Commodore of the club. It would be nice to say hello to John and see who else might be there I knew. And I wanted my friend and social work colleague, Atkins, who accompanied me up from NYC for the weekend, to see my old haunting ground, the Lake Wallenpaupack Yacht Club. It was his first visit to the area. I had thought of Atkins as my best friend for the past two years.
It was about 9 p.m. Not too many cars in the parking lot. We walked up onto the porch and through the windows saw a number of people inside, but not very many. As I put my hand on the door knob, it suddenly swung open. John came partially out, standing in the doorway. I don’t remember if he said hello to me. But what I’ll never forget is that he told us that we couldn’t come in. “Why?” I asked.
I guess that I was so upset that I can’t remember his answer. What I do remember is that he made it clear that Atkins, my friend, was not welcome there. I said something back, not very assertively. I felt so surprised and so unprepared to say what, for the last 48 years, I wish I had said.
I told Atkins how sorry I was. Without any apparent emotion, Atkins calmly said, “Don’t worry. I’m used to it.”
When Bonnie and I were married, at our wedding reception I introduced my friend and social work colleague, Atkins, to another close friend, David. We’d sung together with the University of Pennsylvania Glee Club 5 years earlier. I told them both that I was so glad that “my two close friends” now had a chance to meet each other on this joyous occasion. I made sure that they would sit together at the same table.
An angry letter from David was waiting for me when we got back from the honeymoon. He made it clear that I couldn’t have disrespected him and his fiancé any worse than by the wedding reception seating plan. I can’t remember what I wrote back. That was the last contact I had with David.
My friend and social work colleague, Atkins, and I found ourselves working near each other in Coney Island, Brooklyn. He was the director of a new anti-poverty agency. I had just been hired as a community organizer with the local hospital doing community mental health work. I told him that I would love to be of help to him and his agency in some way.
Atkins, as the head of, and role model for, his agency’s young Black and Latinex staff and clients, said that I should not have asked him this. If I wanted to be of help, he told me, I should concentrate on doing something about the people in my own community. I now think that my offer may have made Atkins feel like I was being the “White Savior,” something he knew he did not need. I wish I had been more aware of this at the time.
Then he said he’d love to be invited back up to the Poconos sometime. I didn’t think at the time that he was being sarcastic; I’m thinking differently as I write this now.
Atkins and I saw each other and spoke, in passing, for the next couple of years. Then I moved on to a community mental health job in New Jersey. We never saw or spoke to each other again.
Post college, I worked as a cottage parent for acting-out and/or delinquent girls at a residential school. The girls were difficult, often defiant, routinely poor students with below or just passing grades and no academic motivation. The girls were 13-18; Black, Puerto Rician; mixed racial. The institution had a “systematic, negative pre judgement” of these girls.
During the time I was there I was granted money for a graduate course in experimental psychology at Columbia U. The girls wanted to be my subjects—couldn’t wait, in fact.
I had already instituted “discussion” time during showers (2 showers, 2 girls at a time) till all showers were done. In the meantime the rest of us sat on the floor and handled all serious questions that came up (including sex, love, etc). I also routinely stopped by each girls’ bed at night to handle any issues that seemed difficult or just believe it or not, to tuck them in. At the end of the semester my boss called me into his office: every girl in the cottage had not only passed every subject but raised their grade by a full one to two grades. The school was in shock! My boss was thrilled. I was excited, but not surprised.
The girls were learning and curious. They wanted to know things, how things worked, to participate “in the world”. They would lay on the living room floor to do their homework with me on the couch, our “Bird” and dog on the floor as well. And when questions came up, they’d often listen to each others’ questions and answers.
Ours was a happy house, and the kids were all rewarded with blue ribbons for the most improved students by their school. So much for prejudging capacity!
According to the News and Observer (4/29/2021) In 2013, Omar Abdullah was named Raleigh Police Department’s “Officer of the Year.” By 2019, Abdullah had recruited a homeless Durham, NC man to work with him as an informant. This informant was code-named “Aspirin” because in late 2018, he was accused of crushing aspirin into powder and selling it as cocaine.
Allegedly, Abdullah routinely met with Aspirin. Aspirin would “buy drugs” from someone before giving the “drugs” to the officer and naming the seller. The drug samples were either tested and found to be brown sugar, or not tested at all. The people–eleven of them over time–would be arrested. Charges on all of them have now been dropped by Wake County prosecutors.
According to the lawsuit filed by the law firm Tin Fulton Walker and Owen, these people spent months in jail. Some of them paid thousands of dollars to post bail. Some lost their jobs. One was jailed amid cancer treatments, and another was put behind bars just days after the birth of his daughter. One man was arrested the day after New Year’s, while driving his two young children. Despite crime-lab testing showing in mid-February that the supposed heroin was merely brown sugar, he was kept in jail for three and a half more months.
At least one officer tried to raise the alarm, followed by consistent office crime labs results of fake drugs associated with these particular arrests. Yet the lawsuit contends the police continued to arrest people based on Asprin’s claims as late as May.
In February 2020, a defense attorney raised concerns about false evidence. By this time, five people had already been arrested. One more was arrested on February 28, 2020, and an additional five people were arrested in the following three months–despite documented concerns about false evidence.
Abdullah and Aspirin appear to have not acted alone: Five other officers and two supervisors are also named in the lawsuit. According to the suit, a total of sixteen people were framed for dealing drugs.
Every single falsely accused and jailed person was Black.
Sourced from Will Doran’s article “Lawsuit claims Raleigh police officer informant framed people with fake heroin sales” (The News & Observer, Raleigh, NC, 4/29/2021)
Today at Costco, I noticed an employee a few registers away. She was a tall, pretty, Black woman, probably in her early 20’s. What caught my eye, though, was her t-shirt. The word “Nah” was boldly emblazoned in 5,000 point white font followed by the words “–Rosa Parks, 1955.”
My first reaction was to laugh. Everything I’ve read about Rosa Parks paints her as quite possibly the most proper human alive at the time. My second reaction was to think “This is a conservative area–she’s going to get some ugly reactions. Good for Costco for letting her wear it to work.”
I knew the right thing to do was to go tell her I liked her shirt, offering positive feedback to help offset any hostile glares or eye rolls she’d received. But I’m shy. Like, really shy, and eleven months of social distancing has rusted the rudimentary social skills I’ve spent a lifetime developing. Go talk to her, I scolded myself. Get a grip. Surely you remember how to talk to people you’ve never met?
I pushed my cart towards her and took a deep breath, denting my double-mask. “Excuse me.”
She turned, gazing at me levelly.
“I really like your t-shirt,” I tried to speak like a normal human talking to another normal human. Her face broke out into a beautiful, dazzling smile. She was wearing a mask, but in that moment it hid nothing. “Thank you for telling me,” she said. “Have a wonderful day.”
“You, too,” I breathed. And I was so glad I’d spoken to her. Glad I came out of myself enough to connect. As I was driving away, it occurred to me that I could do something more. When I got home, I called, asking to speak with the manager. I told him I was glad to be a customer of a business that was willing to empower its Black employees. He thanked me for calling. It really is important to acknowledge not only people, but also companies who are doing the right thing.
I went to lunch with an African American friend of mine at a restaurant close to the university where we both worked. When we finished eating, we both put our credit cards on the table. The waiter picked up my card without comment, but he asked to see my friend’s ID.
I asked him why he asked to see only her ID and not mine and he became very flustered. Then he stammered out that it was policy to randomly check ID’s. I told him I didn’t believe him and I thought it was because she was African American and I was White. He denied it. He took both credit cards. My friend did not pursue it. Understandably, she wanted to leave, and did so.
I insisted on talking to the manager. I told him about the incident and asked if it was a policy of his restaurant to require ID’s from African American and not White customers. He denied it, but he was clearly flustered.
I told him I would not patronize his restaurant again–and that I would tell my friends and colleagues at work about the incident. When I got back to work, I wrote a note to an in-house newspaper that circulated among all university employees describing the incident and asking people to stop patronizing that restaurant. I also asked them to write to the manager explaining why they were doing this. I think it is not sufficient for White people to simply not behave in racist ways personally. We must stand up when we see others acting in a racist manner.
A young black man was killed by the police as he sat holding a gun downtown. His uncle had begged to be allowed to speak to him, but they turned him away. The man was grieving that he had lost his children due to a breakup with their mother. My neighbor went to his funeral, because she knew the family. She said that he was a good, thoughtful, hard working young man and loved his children.
I imagined over and over how I might have stepped in, helped that man and prevented the police from killing him. It was how I processed my grief.
Months later, in the parking lot of a store, I saw a man walking and talking to himself: an angry black man. As he came near, I invited him to come talk to me. I listened mostly, commiserated some, validated his feelings. After some time, his distress eased. Talking to another person had helped. He said thanks. We each went on our way.
I am so grateful I was allowed to help.
Decades ago, a co-worker and I went out for lunch.
Valerie’s first child was due in a few weeks, the first grandchild in the family. A benign parent/in-law rivalry had manifested in a steady stream of baby gifts and babysitting offers. After she’d reduced me to helpless, eye-wiping giggles with her mother-in-law impression, we waited in line to pay. The cashier gave us our change. On the short ride back to the office, Valerie was uncharacteristically silent. Back at our desks, I looked at her and saw a single tear glittering in the corner of her eye. “Valerie, what’s wrong?” I asked.
She turned away from me, silently. When she finally spoke, it was in a taut voice I’d never heard. “That cashier—she didn’t touch my hand.”
“Didn’t touch your hand?” I echoed.
She swiveled back to me. A second tear had joined the first and, viciously, she wiped it away. “She put the change in your hand—she touched you. But she just dropped the money in my hand. She didn’t want to touch me.”
I hadn’t noticed.
I grabbed my phone, dialing from the receipt. The cashier answered. “My friend and I were in your restaurant about fifteen minutes ago,” I told her. “I’m White and she’s Black. When you gave us our change, why did you place it in my hand and only drop it in hers?”
The woman’s voice was indignant. “I didn’t do that! I would never do that,” she exclaimed. But…she had.
I can only try to imagine how conflicted Valerie felt about the world her baby would come into. In the past half hour, we had both shed tears. Mine, countless and borne of helpless laughter, and hers—only two—of centuries-old pain.
When I had my second Covid shot, there were about two dozen people waiting, one was of color. When I was in recovery, there was again only one POC present, having come in after me.
Our city has a large Black population; Blacks hold elected offices; there are Black families which are affluent. That day the weather was good and parking plentiful.
I am no medical/epidemiological expert. I have no basis to point fingers. Yet actual reporting by state and local authorities is “poor” and very “patchy.”
So clearly something (or many things) important are not happening. I appreciate all the attention and efforts to fix the deficits & injustices. We need more.
My friend, standing on the CHFM porch watched a White member of Meeting talking to a Black man from OCC as she touched his hair. Telling me about it, her shame and her fierce response taught me it was wrong. “How do we teach our Meeting to see how wrong it is to touch someone like permission is not required?” she asked without knowing the answer or even having hope that there was an answer. I have never forgotten that conversation or her despair.
When I was in kindergarten, a White friend I had made on the school bus excitedly told me about her new guinea pig. I asked if I could come to her house to see it one day. The next day, she informed me that I could not come over because her mother did not like Black people. She then avoided me on the bus.
I was hurt and after a few days, I told my mother about it. She took me to a pet store to see and hold a guinea pig. I honestly did not like it much. It seemed too small and fragile and did not seem interested in playing with me. I thought it was boring. I eventually made other friends on the bus and forgot the girl’s name.
What I learned that day was that sometimes what people will try to keep me away from is not all that great, but they simply like the power to discriminate. If I wanted the experience or object, I had to find another way to get it.
A White co-worker recently told me about the times she was surprised to find Confederate flags on her friends’ beautiful boats here in lower Delaware. All I could think about is how glad I was that I was not invited and how much fun I have had on boats with other types of people.
In 1981 my nine year old daughter was told by her teacher that slavery was a good system for many Black people. When confronting the principal and teacher, I learned that the teacher had been saying this for thirty years to a 100% White audience.
This was the first time her class in this northern NJ town had been integrated. The first time she had been exposed for her racist rhetoric. The principal promised to put an end to her career if it ever happened again.
I wondered then and now, where are all those nine year olds from other classrooms, towns, and states who heard similar or worse? Are they Proud Boys now?
During the Capitol attack on 1/6/21, a Democrat thought he could foil the invaders by suggesting that his Democrat associates move with him over to the Republican side and blend in, to avoid the wrath of the rioters, who were after Democrats. OOPS… When he saw the puzzled faces of his Black associates It occurred to him that THEY could not blend in.
At his age, a member of the House of Representatives who had lived in the USA all his life, he had an embarrassing revelation. He too was protected by the cloak of “White Privilege” and never even realized it, and all of its ramifications.