I remember my first time.
My maiden voyage from segregation to an integrated life began with a notice on the bulletin board at my neighborhood recreation center in Jacksonville, FL, asking for teenage volunteers for a Black voter registration drive. I was 16 and hoping to meet college boys.
The twelve of us, mostly Whites and a few Blacks who looked a little older than me, boarded a van and I squeezed into a seat between two White girls who chatted with each other past my head. I needed more space but I was afraid to shift around too much because I didn’t want them to sense my feelings. The discomfort was there, all right, but there was also the exciting sensation of being within breathing space of something so alien, so forbidden, yet so accessible.
Once in awhile one of them paused and looked down at me as if waiting for me to say something. I had no idea what. I pretended to look at the unfamiliar scenery going by. The van rolled down the highway, then rocked along unpaved roads to a rural Black area outside the city limits.
Shyly I set out with them, shoving leaflets into reluctant hands and smiling, feeling like an idiot.
The first time I felt the warm hand of one of the girls on my back I flinched from the surprise of the tender touch. “Good job,” she said casually, as we continued on in the midday heat.
Perhaps the experience would have been the same with any group of older people taking an interest in an impressionable teenager. But these were combative times. Life was cruel, we were told, and we had to be tough to survive in the White world we would enter. The battle lessons began, first among ourselves, as early as elementary school.
But, I had been unprepared. In my first face-to-face encounter with White people my guard slowly eased down.
That was my story.
What stories can you tell about encounters and situations involving race and ethnicity that made you aware of differences – at least in society’s eyes?
Most likely it was someone close like a relative, or teacher, or friend, who made the message clear, but strangers are eager to provide instructions as well. Either way, the incident must have had a lasting effect on your attitudes. That’s why you still remember it after all this time. You made a decision, consciously or unconsciously, about how you would deal with differences from then on, and odds are you learned the lesson well.
That’s a great way to begin writing – and thinking – about differences at a more meaningful level.
Today, there’s more than a 50% chance that any two people you meet will be from different racial and ethnic groups. Toss in factors such as religion, economic status, and gender and we can find plenty of reasons to clash.
The real work of learning to live together goes on in our everyday lives in moments often too small and ordinary for the media to capture. But, those are the moments where change occurs. And, like society, we have all have changed in some way by choice or circumstance.
So, I search for the ways those changes have happened in books about my personal experiences with race such as the voting registration incident above (from Multicolored Memories of a Black Southern Girl) and the experiences of over 100 others from a variety of cultures; in university classes helping cross-cultural students span generations of racial history; in Lift Every Voice workshops where writers are encouraged to explore questions about race that we are rarely asked to reflect upon in a personal way.
Racial memories can be hopeful , too.
Those two college women ended up being the foremothers of the handful of White sister-friends who have become so important in my life today.
We are fellow travelers who still must navigate around some deep divisions, who still must heal. As girlfriends we stumble along, learning how to share as openly about our race relations experiences as our sexual rites of passage.
Do you remember your first time? How about some writing tips to help?