How old were you when you first experienced racism and how did it affect you?

I grew up outside of my country (USA), and was always immersed in other cultures so I had little exposure to the common forms of rascism until an incident when I was about 7 or 8. I was living in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and a friend (Canadian, and white like me) and I went to the open air market near our houses, which was against the rules, but we wanted the sno-cone things and raw sugar cane you could get there. As we were walking around, a group of men started taunting us and one of them drew his machete and waved it at us. We were scared to death and ran all the way home crying. It was my first real awareness that people will judge you entirely based upon your skin color.

It is odd that at the same time, there were horrible, bloody riots (I saw people hung from trees in the city) between the Malaysians and the Chinese, but I never understood that it was racial in nature.

Although I grew up in a small southern town during the 60’s and 70’s, I wasn’t aware of racism very early. My family was anti-racist, and I guess I was sheltered from it. But there was one incedent that confused me at the time.
When I was about 4, I stayed with a babysitter while my parents worked. One day, she was sick so I stayed with a friend of hers. Friend was an elderly lady that lived in a big Victorian house. It was the first and only time I’d been in a house with servants. I was running around, and somebody told me to go outside and play, so I ran out the back door and fell down the very steep back steps. I was lying on the steps, kind of up-side down and crying. The maid was in the yard getting sheets off the line. She put the sheets in the basket, and went into the house without even looking at me. Somebody else came and took care of me. The old lady was yelling at the maid, and the maid told her it wasn’t her job to take care of white kids, (that’s how I found out that color matters to some people). Then they called my dad from work, to come get me. I wasn’t hurt, so I thought they called him because I was causing trouble. He talked with the elderly lady for a long time, and on the way home he was livid. Again I thought because of me. Actually he had been called so he could “take care” of the maid situation as he saw fit. He was able to talk her out of firing the maid.

I grew up in a section of Detroit with many, many Polish people, generally Poles whose families had been in the neighborhood since the 1910s (mine included).
When I was ten or eleven, I had taken my bike to a neighborhood not far away that had a high populations of blacks, and I vividly recall someone shouting “Get out of here, this isn’t your place, you damn polack.” You can bet I took my ass out of there as fast as I could go. I remember being scared out of my wits.

When I went home and told my mom, she said to me “Some stupid people want to look at how white your skin is. Some people want to look at where your grandparents came from. You should look at who they are.” Advice I’ve carried with me my whole life.

I’m not sure, but I think my first exposure to racism was, “If she can’t use my comb, don’t bring her home.” Fortunately, my mother (and sister, incidentally) got over that particular attitude.

I got harassed by some black kids in the gym locker room a few times. They kept calling me “white boy” and stuff like that, and stole towels and stuff. A bit of a twist, but black-on-white racism happens too.

Going to school in Mexico I had two teachers, fourth and fifth grade, who detested me. I could do the exact same work as my friend Xochitl and get a lower grade. For the longest time I didn’t get why they never called on me, gave me dirty looks, and treated me so harshly, because I was quite well-behaved. Finally another girl told me she hated me just like our teacher because I was messing up the school by being white. It finally clicked and I was devastated since I was just a little kid who admired her teachers and simply wanted people to like me. It was good to have friends who let me know the people who wanted me gone were in the extreme minority. Most people thought having students from the US was a status symbol.

Though it wasn’t directed toward me, I was with an African American girl, my sister’s roomate, when she was trailed around a JcPenney’s by a clerk. It was so obvious that only the black girl in our trio was the object of the clerk’s attention. It was an eye-opener since I thought that sort of thing was quite rare and didn’t happen to people who looked like they’d stepped out of an LL Bean catalog and were so obviously not planning to steal.

I grew up in an area which was very suburban, white and everyone was fairly similar, similar finances, similar jobs, similar goals, similar problems, etc.

The first time I experienced racism was reading the book “To Kill A Mockingbird”. I got it for my ninth or tenth birthday, and read it immediately. I missed a lot of it, simply because I lacked the knowledge of race relations in America, slavery, the South, etc. I was more interested in frogs and swimming at that age.

I finally questioned my mum on the book, asking why did this happen and what was that about, and the whole topic of racism came up.

I couldn’t understand it. I could not get a satisfying answer from my mum as to why something as silly as skin colour mattered at all to all those people. I knew very well at that age that people could be cruel, (I was facially scarred at the age of 7) but I couldn’t understand why skin colour was an issue. If they smelled or were nasty or had something wrong with them (like my scar) I could’ve understood it, but my mind couldn’t wrap itself around the skin colour thing. I cried over that book several times then left it alone. I have read it since, and I still hear my little child’s voice saying “But why? It doesn’t make sense” at some parts of the story.

My father’s family has been in Texas for several generations, and reflected the racism of their times. My dad escaped as soon as he could, shed his Southern accent and racist attitudes (I’ve never been quite sure why, except that perhaps he associated anything Southern, including racism, with his mother, so wanted nothing to do with any of it), and so my sister and I were brought up believing that skin color really didn’t matter.

I can clearly remember when I was about 9 years old, my sister and I were spending a month with our grandparents in Fort Worth. Three incidents in particular stuck out:

  1. My sister drank out of the BROWN drinking fountain at the department store. My grandmother just about had a heart attack. (She had to explain to my sister, in hushed tones of horror, just what an evil sin she had committed. My sister was just thirsty!)

  2. My grandfather spent about half an hour explaining to me how when he used the term “nigger,” he didn’t mean anything derogatory by it. Even at that tender age, I smelled a rat.

  3. One day coming home from somewhere, we stopped so my grandfather could collect some rents for his brother-in-law (his sister’s husband) the slumlord, my late detested Uncle Walter. It was just plain crreepy seeing the horrible slums and realizing that a member of my family was profiting by it.

The interesting thing was that in spite of his apparently racist attitudes, my grandfather was widely castigated in the white community because he owned a feed store and long before the civil rights era would insist on serving his customers in the order they came up to the counter, whatever their skin color. I never have seen either of my grandparents be openly rude to a person of any color, either.

And detested Uncle Walter’s money these days enabled his now-65-year-old mentally retarded daughter, my favorite cousin Bobbie Helen, to live in comfort and independence and enjoy her life. So at least some good came out of it.

And I will admit that a few years ago, when she was 95 and in the hospital, and the middle-aged black ward nurse sent a young black male nurse’s aide to give my grandmother her bath, she was very offended at my insisting that she send a woman instead. Grandmother would have DIED to have a black man giving her a bath. The nurse got all huffy with me about it, but frankly, I didn’t think upsetting an elderly, very ill woman needlessly with something that had been a taboo for her for 95 years was really worth the effort. Even if I agreed with the nurse that it was silly. But she’s not the one who would have had to answer to my grandmother for it!

I’ve mentioned some of my personal experiences of racism before, in this thread and this thread, so won’t bother repeating myself.

To answer the two specific questions in the thread title - “How old were you when you first experienced racism and how did it affect you?”:

Young. Maybe about 3 or so.

You know that “Hate begets hate” line? It’s true.

The first time I experienced racism was whrn Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. I was almost 10 years old, living in Knoxville, Tn. My dad was attending UT & we lived in student housing. I remember a friend of my parents came running into our apartment, literally jumping up & down with joy, saying,“He’s dead! Somebody finally shot that nigger.” I was confused. I knew that somebody dying shouldn’t cause someone to be so gleeful. And my mom just looked embarrassed. I still remember it like it happened yesterday. Until then, I didn’t know that a person’s skin color was an issue with some people.
Even at 10 years old, it made me kinda sad.

I first experienced racism directed at me and my friends when we were about 15 and were in England with the school choir. We were walking down the road and a group of English boys heard our Irish accents and crossed the road holding their noses. It made me angry at the time but I forgot about it fairly quickly.

Another time was when my aunt who is Kenyan visited us. I heard from a neighbour that another neighbour had been heard to comment ‘Did you see that thing that just went into the O’Guess’s house?’

A couple of years ago my cousin who is half Irish and half Kenyan stayed with us for the summer. She’s the same age as my younger sister and they both got jobs in a local pub as lounge staff. They needed bank accounts to get paid so they went in to set up an account for my cousin (who holds an Irish passport) in the bank next door to where they worked. The bank clerk seemed very suspicious and wouldn’t let my cousin open an account even though my sister had an account there and even though my cousin had her passport with her. Apparently they were afraid she might be working illegally/ that she was an illegal immigrant (because she is half-black presumably). My mother rang the bank to complain and told them that was her niece but the bank just kept making stupid excuses and the manager was almost defending the clerk’s ‘misunderstanding’. They went to a different bank and my sister closed her account as well.

Another time an American girl came into my place of work and was in a queue for cancellations for a concert. she wanted to leave the queue to go and get a drink but I told her that staff were not allowed to keep places for people in the queue as it caused misunderstandings and difficulty with other customers who were content to wait. She went nuts saying ‘You Irish and your freakin’ policies. This country is a f*ckin’ joke!’ - Nice attitude :rolleyes:

This is not about “racism, the attitude” so much as “racism, the structural legacy”. (Can’t be helped – my earliest memories about race and attitude are mainly about very emphatic teachings from parents and teachers about how races are equals and racism is a Bad Thing. What follows is the early stuff that hit me below the belt).

When I was 7, we moved from New Mexico to Georgia, and lived just outside the city limits of Valdosta in Lowndes County, so I took the bus every morning to the county elementary school (Pine Grove, outside of Bemis GA, in case anyone is from around those parts).

It was a long long wandering bus ride, and I had to catch it early. At a certain point on the route, we went for a pretty long time without seeing any paved roads, and the houses got smaller and more ramshackle-looking, the cars in front of people’s houses older and more decrepitated, and the kids who got on & off there wore clothing that was worn-out looking. Also, I don’t know how to put it, but the kids seemed more often unhappy, and sometimes angry, and after awhile of seeing enough parents and other family in the yards or coming out to meet them, etc., so did the parents & etc. Also many of the kids did not seem to be in very good health, some kind of gum problems I think? Their teeth and gums didn’t look so good. Some of the houses were smaller than our garage, and wood not brick, and paint peeling or unpainted, and falling apart to the point you could see it, like pieces of the roof sagging in.

And all the kids who lived in and got on or off in this stretch of bus route were black. All of them. For a long time (whatever a “long time” was to me at 7, maybe 45 minutes’ worth of bus route?) you just wouldn’t see any white people.

I can remember having some interrelated fears: I would get on the wrong homebound bus by accident one day (they had dozens of buses with different county routes, looked identical except for the numbers and to an extent the region of the parking lot where they’d pull up) and I wouldn’t realize it until we were out in one of those areas and the bus would get to the end of the line and I’d have to get off there in a place like that where I didn’t know anyone and the bus driver wouldn’t care. Or it would be the right bus but I’d fall asleep and go past my own stop and the same thing would happen. And maybe no one would let me use their phone, or they wouldn’t have phones, or when I asked people would be mad and would hurt me somehow, and I’d never get out of there.

What I saw was scary and I didn’t want to be there even temporarily by accident. Like it could reach out and pull you into a world of poor and miserable. The kids who lived there, well even at 7, I could figure that they probably felt the same way about it except it was real life for them and they were trapped in this world that looked scary and sad to me, and everyone was saying it was Bad to say thay weren’t as good as white people or call them Names and stuff, but this was still how they were living. And I was glad to be white because it seemed safer, only black kids had to get off here, but it was still scary anyhow.

When I was four.

My mother had gotten serious with my father (stepfather, if you want to pick nits. My biological father will always have the qualifier of biological, but that’s another rant for another day) and brought him to meet her parents. He’s African American, my mother white and Jewish.

Nothing overt was said while he was there, but once he left… my grandfather liked him while my grandmother found him to be a personal attack. :rolleyes: She even said “When will you find a nice Jewish man?” to my mother. (My mother’s previous husbands were Hispanic and Cherokee) Things have evolved since then - of course - and my grandmother loves my father, but I will always remember that.

It’s one of the things that I love about my father - his strength. Back in the early seventies, especially in small town Illinois, interracial relationships were difficult. Add to the mix that he fell for a twice divorced woman with two daughters (one per marriage) and things could not have been easy for them. He always handled the assholes and the stares with grace.

I was born and raised in Birmingham Alabama in a predominantly white suburb. Racism never really entered into my world until 3rd grade, when the schools stopped bussing inner city children (black) to the subarbs (white) for a “better education”. I now realize that it was inhuman to bus children for several hours a day and not let them go to school in their own neighborhood schools. But all it meant to me at the time was that my best friend didn’t go to my school anymore. I remember asking my teacher, who was black, and her really trying to explain it to me, that this was better, and money for busses would help make city schools better, and the kids were happier. And that my friend was never coming back. And I just cried and cried.

Then we moved to a very small rural town, with a very small school. Racism was a luxury that they could not afford. 50/50 split, you couldn’t ostrasize anyone, not enough people (only 30 in my graduating class). Unfairness would raise it’s head from time to time. Some of the larger schools actually had seperate white and black homecoming courts. But our school, on the whole, was pretty comingled and everyone was friends. Much MUCH different from Birmingham.

I thought of another time that I was shocked…it was reverse racism though.

I had started 7th grade at the new junior high school and it was probably sometime during the first week of school. My best friend was black and we were so glad that we were scheduled for lunch at the same time.

We went through the line, got our food and were walking around trying to see if we knew anybody or could find a table to sit down. We wanted to sit down quickly, as 7th graders were a lot of times teased for being the new kids on the block.

My friend saw a table with a few people she knew so we went there to sit. In our lunchroom white people and black people did not sit together. It wasn’t any kind of school rule. It was just what people chose to do.

Anyway, we go to sit at my friend’s table which was all black. I put my tray down and a black girl from farther up the table walked up and said, “Why are you going to sit here? I think you need to find a different table, whitey.”

I was completely dumbfounded and I couldn’t figure out why in the world she cared where I sat.

I asked her why and she told me I better get up and find a new table unless I wanted to make a lot of enemies. That “my people” had kept “her people” down too long and there was no way I was going to sit with them at lunch. My friend started to stand up and walk away with me and the girl told her it was okay if she stayed because she was black.

I sat back down and told the girl, “I don’t need to find a new table. I have already found where I would like to sit with my friend.”

She stood there for a few seconds then walked back to her table but for the rest of my time at that school whenever I saw her she was rude to me.

I had never met her before then and I couldn’t figure out why in the world she hated me so much.

When I was about 6 I was visiting my grandmother/aunts/uncles/cousins for the summer as I always did.

There was a little water park by her house - a paddling pool and some swings and slides and tetertotters and what not. All the cousins headed down there, including my one cousin who is black. We were having fun and playing and some boys started taunting my cousin and yelling “Yuck - nigger in the pool! Gross, etc. etc.”

Well, we all left, and my cousin was crying and felt really bad. I remember being so mad at the boys that I wanted to go back and hit them or kick them or anything else to make them feel as bad as my cousin did.

The resounding opinion I had of them was that they were the stupidest people I had ever met.

My most recent exposure was when I started my latest cosmetics job. Where I live there is a very small black population - about 13,000 in a city of 1,000,000 - however, the store that I work at has some black clientelle - about 10%. We carry the “Black Opal” line of cosmetics which feature foundation colors for persons who’s skin is anything other than “Fishbelly White.” :rolleyes:

I remember when I started there my former manager said “There’s the Black Opal. The black women come in for it, know what they want and get it and leave. You can just ignore them.” Huh. Well, I thought that was odd, but didn’t want to seem too pushy or anything, so when a black lady would inquire I would show her where the products were and leave it at that.

But then I got to thinking, why on earth would black women automatically know what color foundation to get, or what color lipstick looks nice on them, just because they’re black? Well, of course they don’t any more than white women do. So now I get right in there - same as with all my customers - and help out and help choose colors, and recommend products, etc. etc. The sales have increased markedly.

Imagine - my money hungry ex-manager, who’s only motivation is making more $$, ignored an entire segment of her customer base because they were black. Now THAT is stupid.