Letter: Tracing the Roots of Racism

To the Editor:

The Trayvon Martin shooting gives us all an opportunity to examine the origins of our fears of “the other.”

I’m a white woman who grew up in Maryland under Jim Crow laws. One afternoon when I was 5, my parents found they couldn’t take me to a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe at the Episcopal Church rectory three blocks from our house. My mother, a recently transplanted northerner, asked Deedee and Kermit Weaver, a black couple who worked for us, to take me and use their tickets. The rector met us at the door and told Deedee and Kermit they couldn’t come in. “I’ll find a white family to take care of Miss Sue,” he said. Deedee and Kermit took me home, explaining to my mother how they didn’t feel they could leave me without her permission. I internalized that experience. A person of high authority, a minister of God, told me that black people couldn’t enter a white church. Their skin color had a different value.

It wasn’t until I was well into my 50s that I finally understood what happens to children when they receive messages from “important” people. The children are too young to question them. So they add the message to their set of truths. I’ve worked hard to get back to the pre-judgmental place in my psyche. In time, I felt free enough to co-found a group of black and white women on Martha’s Vineyard who met once a month to be “just friends.” With a white friend, I led workshops for white people on how to recognize the sources of our individual unconscious racism. I helped them identify the people who taught them that white was better than black. I went to Sidwell Friends School in Washington when there were no black students. Malia and Sascha Obama are students at Sidwell Friends today, and I was glad to hear President Obama remark that the next generation is much more relaxed. There is much more that needs to be done to bring black people onto a level playing field with white; deciding to not be afraid is a good place to begin.

Susan Gillotti