I was born and raised in New Orleans. The first 10 years of my life coincided with the last days of segregation. Half a century later, certain scenes from childhood remain as vivid as if they just happened: shopping with my mother at the A&P grocery store, and being cautioned to use the “white” water fountain; restroom facilities marked “white” and “colored;” whites sitting in the front half of the bus and blacks in the back half; separate seating areas at the movie theaters. Restaurants, hotels, schools and recreational facilities didn’t have such designations because the entire facilities themselves were segregated and separate.
Segregation could be personal, too. My mother had a maid who ironed and cleaned; my mother kept a separate drinking glass just for her. It was called “Edith’s Glass.”
In the 1960s, under the force of federal court decisions and laws, integration of the schools began. Our television screens were filled with images of protests, shouting and screaming outside the public high schools in the city. About three years later, desegregation arrived the high schools in the suburbs, including the one my older brother had graduated from – the same one I was due to attend beginning the following year. The upheaval at our high school was so bad that federal marshals were stationed there every day for the entire school year to prevent racial attacks, fights and violence.
My distraught parents were nearly beside themselves with worry. They faced either sending me to a private high school, which the family couldn’t afford, or a parochial high school, which meant I could be brainwashed by Catholic priests, brothers or lay teachers. They decided brainwashing was preferable to poverty. My father made the contacts to enroll me in a Catholic high school not far from our home.
My parent’s anguished discussion swirled about me and above me. It was odd being the object of so much talk but not actually being part of it. One night at the dinner table, as the discussion turned inexorably to high school, I unexpectedly joined the conversation. I told my parents I was going to the public high school – the one with the federal marshals, fights, protests and violence. A stunned silence followed my announcement. When my father asked why, I shrugged. “I don’t know, but that’s where I’m going.”
My first day at the high school, I can remember being far more worried about upperclassmen hazing me than I was about a racial confrontation. There were no fights, no protests, no violence. After a few days, the federal marshals left. Some 60 black students attended a high school of 2,000; our suburb was about 95 percent white. But the troubles of the year before had given way to understanding and acceptance by the students and teachers. Over time, it wasn’t unusual to see blacks and whites becoming friends, and then no one noticed at all.
No problems occurred the entire time I was in high school. And it was toward the end of my junior year that Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and racial tensions ran high all over. But nothing happened at my school. Some previously unbridgeable chasm had been bridged.
As Ellen Langer might say in her book Mindfulness, the global “characteristic” of race disappeared into the individual characteristic of people and who they were.
We’ve been discussing Mindfulness at The High Calling. This chapter, “Decreasing Prejudice by Increasing Discrimination,” is one only an academic could love – rather dense language, a narrative difficult to follow, and citing lots of studies involving college students. (I’m always suspicious of studies of college students by college professors; I don’t know how applicable these studies are to the general population.)
Yet Langer raises an intriguing question – can you reduce prejudice by increasing discrimination? She says this: “A mindful outlook recognizes that we are all deviant from the majority with respect to some of our attributes, and also that each attribute or skill lies on a continuum. Such an awareness leads to more categorizing and consequently fewer global stereotypes, or …increasing discrimination can reduce prejudice.”
Of course, she doesn’t explain what she means by “the majority” or if it is even possible for a “majority” to exist if we are all “deviant” in some regard.
If she means reduce the “global” label by increasing the “individual” understanding, then – her studies of college students aside – there is something that rings true.
And Edith doesn’t need a separate glass; Edith simply needs a glass.
To see more posts in our discussion led by Laura Boggess, please visit The High Calling.