The Lived Experience of a White Girl (circa 1966 – 1976)

I have lived a mostly segregated life. It’s not that I wanted that for myself. At least I didn’t consciously make choices that would separate me from people of color, but it has worked out that way.

I have always been interested in the lives of other people. From a single trailer seen in passing from my car window as we drove through a desolate part of Wyoming to looking at the tenements from the elevated LL passing the New Lots Avenue station in Brooklyn, I have wondered what life was like for the people living in those places. That curiosity led me to books, but it didn’t lead me to friendships.

I think I would have had to make conscious decisions to seek out relationships with African-Americans or other people of color in order to reach across the barriers. When I thought about making that effort I wondered if it would come across as disingenuous, like George Costanza in the “Seinfeld” episode where he decides to find a black friend.

I think back to my experiences in elementary school in Canarsie. Classes were grouped ostensibly by academic ability. There was only one or, at most, two black students in my class in any given year, and they were boys. Curtis (not his real name) who was in my fourth, fifth and sixth grade class was very smart but was frequently getting into trouble for talking too much and he was regularly accused of instigating other kids to misbehave. In frustration, one day our fourth grade teacher asked for a volunteer to sit next to Curtis. I raised my hand eagerly, and I was selected. I don’t remember what I was thinking at the time. Did I think I could befriend him? Did I think I could rescue him (as if he needed rescuing)? I honestly don’t recall how it turned out – whatever happened, it wasn’t dramatic enough to make a lasting impression. I can only imagine his humiliation. This was not a strategy used with any other misbehaving student and it certainly didn’t help to bridge the divide.

In 1972 the New York City Board of Education adopted a plan to bus black students into the two predominantly white junior high schools in Canarsie. My mother supported busing and I did, too. How else would we achieve integration? The plan, though, was received with tremendous hostility by white parents in Canarsie. It resulted in a boycott. Parents kept their children home from Bildersee (my junior high school) and John Wilson (the other junior high school in Canarsie) in protest.

 

This went on for a couple of weeks. I was literally alone in my 9th grade classes, just my teacher and me. I remember enjoying the one-on-one time with Mrs. Cohen, my English teacher. I also remember walking in the main entrance through a path laid out by the police and their sawhorses. Adults stood behind the barriers, yelling epithets at the few of us who went to school. (The picture above is actually of John Wilson JHS, but this scene was repeated at Bildersee. I don’t recall the policeman blowing his nose quite so ostentatiously.)

My dad was the administrative dean of Canarsie High School in those years so he was in charge of discipline. He was aware of the troublemakers in the neighborhood and had connections with the police. On one particular day Dad got wind of a planned confrontation between a group of Italian and African-American kids, so he found my brothers in their classes and sent them home. When there were threats of violence during the boycott, I stayed home from Bildersee, too.

The upshot of the boycott was that the busing plan was implemented and my relationship with one of my closest friends, Pia, was irreparably damaged.

Like many who lived in Canarsie, Pia’s family had recently moved from East New York to benefit from the better schools and escape the violence that plagued that neighborhood. The plan to bus black students signaled the beginning of the end to them, they believed white flight would certainly follow. I was more hopeful. While nothing was ever said directly, Pia never invited me to hangout at her house again and she was distinctly cool to me at school.

By the time I got to high school in 1973 racial tensions were at a fever pitch. The way the education system was structured there were very limited opportunities to interact across racial lines. Phys Ed, Health and some elective classes brought us together, though that was all pretty superficial in the scheme of high school life. The thing we could really bond over was rooting for our basketball and football teams. Fortunately Canarsie High School was very competitive. My senior year thousands of us went to the PSAL (Public School Athletic League, New York’s city-wide) basketball championship game between Canarsie and Lincoln High School at St. John’s Alumni Hall. That victory provided a moment of transcendence. While there were other moments, mostly connected to sports, it seemed to me that most of us lived our lives amongst our own.

It is ironic that my children, who grew up in an upper middle class suburb of Albany, New York, had genuine friendships with people of color and more opportunity for interaction than I did growing up in Brooklyn.

12 thoughts on “The Lived Experience of a White Girl (circa 1966 – 1976)

  1. Excellent description of the racial divide of that era. While the racial divide has evolved, it surely has not disappeared. Still, I agree, it feels like our children are more able to have real friendships across that divide and more able to see each person as an individual and not be as stuck on race as we are. Thank you.

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  2. You know, we read about this time in school growing up, but never from first hand experiences – just from text books. Young Court and any number of other students would have benefited from first hand accounts.

    Thank you for sharing!

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  3. Another wonderful story. My father grew up in East New York, Pia’s old neighborhood, and credited the black on white violence he encountered there as the source of his extreme prejudice against African-Americans. How sad for him that he was never able to overcome these feelings. On a more pleasant note, Happy Birthday Linda. I hope you are enjoying your special day.

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  4. What a sad time but so wonderfully describe d. Do you remember the mothers taking pictures as you walked into school? How horrible and frightening it was

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  5. What I like best about the subjects you choose to blog about (besides learning about your personal experience with said subjects) is relating to them so much on a personal level. Because we are the same age, many of your experiences resonate. Especially when it comes to relationships with other races and cultures. Aside from the Nigerian exchange students who came to our family parties in the early 60s, my only exposure to seeing black children was on a family trip to Philadelphia by train in 1967. My brother and I at 8 and 6 were fascinated by their hair, clothes and language. There were very few black students in our city elementary schools, but junior high and high school were more of a melting pot. Like city schools, if you were an athlete, you had a much greater chance of being popular and blending in.
    Like NY, the forced busing issue in Boston was a virtual hotbed of racial tension and violence around the same time it happened in your school. South Boston was the poor white trash section of the city and desegregation was like putting a match to a powder keg. The book based on three families dealing with all that happened, called Common Ground, won a Pulitzer Prize. Your experience was much more personal. That you crossed the lines and went to school given the danger involved is impressive! And that your Dad had the presence of mind to keep others out of harm’s way is as well.
    Because everything about the black experience fascinated me, I minored in African Studies at Salem State for a year. I gave a slide presentation as part of my final on “Blacks in America: from Slavery to Present Day.”
    Sorry to have gone off on a tangent, but isn’t that the hallmark of good writing, giving your readers something to think about? Thanks for another interesting piece.

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    1. Mary, that’s so interesting. I had no idea you had studied the subject. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I so appreciate hearing other people’s perspectives. This has been a great process/conversation for me. 🙂

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      1. Mary – when I was going from Brooklyn to upstate ny to attend college my father counseled me” mark you will be in a predominately white community. It will be different than your h.s. Experience. Give white people a chance you will be fine.” So, my h.s. Experience, to say the least was different than lindas.

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  6. I was a senior at Canarsie High during the time of the protests at the Junior High schools. The High School was already integrated so I don’t believe the protesters assembled there. I vividly to this day remember Dad coming into my class barely taking notice of the teacher and pointing to me, telling me to get by books and get over here. Whatever was going on in the class stopped. All the students knew who I was and who Dad was. As you know when Dad walked into a class room he had this authoritarian command and look, all eyes were on him, dead silence in the class, even the teacher was quiet, all I could think of was what bad thing did I do. As soon as I got into the hallway he gave me the car keys and told me to get your brother and go home. I knew something bad was about to happen but what? I don’t have clarity on how I succeeded in getting Mark from his class but I did. We went home but not before Mark objected and saying maybe we should help Dad. I must have said something along the lines Dad Said…. Anyway we learned later that evening that there was a strong rumor that there was going to be a riot at the school between the warring factions of two drug related gangs. The riot thankful did not occur. However ABC TV’s reporter Jim Johnson was on the scene and tried to interview Dad, who refused to be interviewed. There were also police helicopters flying over the school that day as well. 43 years later I still remember it as if it happened yesterday.

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    1. I thought you might be able to shed light on what went on at the high school – thanks for writing about it. It was a strange time, so much was changing and there were so many conflicting things – the fear of violence but the belief in civil rights, too. Anyway, I’m glad you shared what happened that day.

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  7. Another interesting read, Linda. I’d like to share with you a few of my memories of the upheavals at that
    time. We deliberately enrolled Ahri and Ilana in public school in our neighborhood (Upper West Side
    of Manhattan) because we felt (before the overt hostilities began) that it offered an excellent opportunity
    for a natural, integrative interracial experience, given that a very diverse population lived in our neighbor-
    hood. However, as interracial tensions began to escalate rapidly even in the lowere elementary
    grades, we experienced an episode with Ahri that clinched our decision to take the kids out of public
    school; he was afraid to go to the playground!! At that time, he also commented that all Blacks should
    go to one school, all Puerto Ricans to another school, and all Whites to another – he was getting
    quite an education…..

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    1. It was quite a difficult time. Safety comes first, so while it may have been a difficult decision in one sense, in another, you had no choice. I think in that respect things have improved, though we have certainly not moved beyond racism. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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