When I was in Kenya, the question I was most often asked by the people living there was about prejudice. “What is the prejudice like in America?” they’d wonder. And each time the question caught me off guard, and grasping for a proper answer. For how could I, a middle-class white man, possibly speak for black Americans who faced the ugly truth of prejudice each day of their lives? I couldn’t, and so eventually I stopped trying.
Which is not to say that being white automatically excuses a person from at least being aware of the prejudice around him. We might not experience it first hand, but at least we can make an effort to notice it. I’m long enough in the tooth to have lived during a time when drinking fountains, at least in some parts of the country, were labelled “white” and “colored,” and when black actors rarely were permitted to portray anything more than maids and butlers.
Some people claim that prejudice has all but disappeared from the United States. After all, we have a black president. (And look how respectfully he is treated.) My gut feeling is that things may have improved over the last hundred years or so, but I would temper that opinion with the gnawing concern that I can never be sure how much of that prejudice has disappeared, and how much has been driven underground. And again, as a white man, how could I possibly know?
During my recent stay in Florida I started each day with a two-mile walk. It was a mile to the grocery store on Tampa Road, so that became my usual early-morning destination, allowing me to purchase the day’s food while at the same time getting a bit of exercise.
I followed this routine throughout the hellishly hot days of August, and then well into September. It was after Labor Day that I began to notice something. Suddenly, on the walk home from the store, I was passing a lot of school-age children. Some were on bikes and some were walking. The reason for their presence was no mystery, as it was obvious that the dreaded day had come for these kids, and school was back in session.
The kids were of elementary school age, freshly scrubbed and loaded down with their new school supplies. I smiled at some of them, as was befitting the friendly old man I apparently have become, and occasionally got out of the way as an oncoming caravan of three, four, five bicycles approached me on the sidewalk. It was about mid-September, when I had been observing these kids for about two weeks, that I began to notice something curious.
Not all of the children smiled back at me, or said hello—not by a long shot. But I became aware that those who did were almost always white. They appeared happy, carefree and with hardly a care in the world. They smiled and looked me right in the eye. Conversely, when a black child walked or rode by they invariably averted my gaze and looked the other way. When I did happen to catch their eye, more often than not I saw worry, and sometimes even fear.
Although barely nine or ten years old, it was obvious that these kids had already discovered, or been taught, something. They had been warned by someone, and were self-aware enough to know that they were perceived by many as being somehow “different.” At the very least each black child was cautious, and, in one so young, it was a heart-breaking thing to see.
So was what I saw, or thought I saw, in their eyes actually there, or was I simply projecting in some manner? And were a few dozen kids a large enough sample for me to come to the conclusions that I automatically reached? If so, and these kids are already victims of even a mild form of prejudice, then I know this is something that many of them will now be carrying with them until the turn of the next century, and even beyond. Or maybe it really was all in my imagination. Maybe I hadn’t seen anything in their eyes at all.