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I am a White woman with privilege. My parents preached that all people are created equal, but we lived in White communities. Talk is easy. When I was in high school, my father was transferred and we moved. With many more Black persons in Virginia, Maryland, and D.C., my mother’s true views emerged. It was 1962, and as we drove places, her talk was a stream of stereotyping racism.
Many have lost family and friends to COVID. Lay-offs have affected my black friends more than my white friends. Recent murders of blacks, at the hands of police and civilians, show the continued deadly effects of American racism.
I was in the fourth grade in 1956, when I became one of the first black students in Kansas City, Kansas, to desegregate Abbott Elementary School. That year was filled with learning experiences for everyone involved— teachers, parents, and both black and white children—but by the end of the school year the ugly incidents had been few. I had great expectations when fifth grade rolled around, but nothing could have prepared me for what was to come.
For the first time in my very privileged life, I was forced to lie face down, in the middle of the road, with my hands behind my back. The asphalt was hard and tore into my knees. My shoulders and wrists ached from having my arms pinned behind my back. The muscles in my neck cramped from trying to hold my head off the ground. I could barely get the words “I can’t breathe” out of my mouth. I was there with hundreds of others of all races, ethnicities, and backgrounds who were also forced to lie face down on
Before introducing my eighth-grade students to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, I played for them a song from South Pacific, one of my favorite musicals. I chose this song because the lyrics describe the illness known as racism and how this acquired disease infects so many people: “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late/before you are six or seven or eight/to hate all the people your relatives hate/you’ve got to be carefully taught.”
For years, my students failed to show much reaction to what I considered a creative lesson plan. I attributed their blasé attitude to the demographics of the class—all