December 16, 2021
When I said that I would take a month and write something personal about my history with racism I didn’t have anything particular in mind. I expected to write something about my thoughts and assumptions; I thought that I didn’t have any first hand experiences to relate. But thinking about it recently, I remembered a day when I was a sophomore in college. I was a sociology major and in one class we did “field work”. I was going to the South End Settlement House in Boston to spend some time with children who were there after school with very little programming.
I was assigned two young black children – around 7 or so; a boy and a girl. There were few guidelines about what we were to do. It was December and I thought they would like to see some Christmas decorations. We walked up to Boylston Street – it was just twilight – and all the lights were coming on everywhere. The kids seemed delighted with them.
Next, I decided to take them to see Santa. This was a perfect outing when I was about their age. So we went to Lord & Taylor’s – where I always saw Santa in New York. Looking around, the children were overwhelmed at the array of clothes. I could tell I was giving them a new experience, a wonderful one, I thought. I kept telling them what a wonderful treat was in store for them.
I realized that people were noticing them. At first I thought it was just the side of eye glance adults do when aware of children down there so as not to step on them, barely taking them in. But I began to see that the other shoppers were taking particular notice of them. I think part of me felt proud to be the nice white lady holding two little black hands.
When we got to the escalators, the children were astonished. They were terrified. They stopped and wouldn’t step on. They had no idea what an escalator was. I, of course, urged them to step on telling them that it was perfectly safe and actually fun. After we watched a few shoppers go up it, I nudged them on and held onto them tightly. I can’t remember, but I probably pushed them off at the top, still enticing them with the promise of Santa. They didn’t look at me or react to my words.
We got in line for Santa behind all the white children dressed for the precious Santa picture. I kept pointing out holiday decorations and narrating the experience the kids were having with Santa. When we finally got to the front, Santa tried (not too hard) to get them on his lap. The children backed away into me. I assumed they were shy and tried to coax them.
Eventually, we moved on and I hurried them out into what was now the night. We made our way back to the South End and the children showed me where their apartment was and I delivered them to their mother. I told her that we had gone to see Santa and that the kids were a little shy but that I thought they had a good time. She said, “thank you” and pulled the kids in and closed the door. I don’t know what she thought nor what the children were able to relate to her.
I went back to school probably not feeling triumphant or successful but also not feeling what I do today about that afternoon. It was many, many years before I understood how oblivious I was to their experience. I cringe, even now, telling you this story. It wasn’t that their race meant something negative to me; it was that their race and their life experience meant nothing to me. I suspect that I didn’t have a clue what to do with these children; that I didn’t really believe that we could play like I would have with white children; I didn’t really believe we could communicate the way I would have with white children. In my panic at this unpreparedness I reverted to my own life, my own experience and my own desires.
I hope that for these children this is a distant memory, if a memory at all. I hope that if they do recall it, they amuse their friends with this story about a blundering white girl who was more lost than they were. I would like to apologize and I would like to say thank you for the movie of that afternoon that runs in my head and teaches me a deeper lesson every time I watch it.
Rev. Judy Arnold