Blind to Racism is a series that depicts real life experiences of racial exclusion that, while minor in the eyes of many, continue to drive a wedge between the races in this country. These stories tell of incidents you won’t hear about in the media or history books. These are the types of incidents, frequently experienced by people of color, that inform them of the progress the country is or isn’t making on the racial divide.
Here is one such experience. . . .
When we were in grade school, the teacher chose my sister to understudy for the main character in the annual class play. This was a big production for our school and a really big deal to us kids. I remember my sister being excited about possibly filling in for the lead. She felt so proud and I was just as proud and excited for her.
My mother, on the other hand, was not pleased. It’s been forty years but I still remember my mother’s outright anger and disappointment. Mom didn’t explain why she was so angry. We could just sense it. Nevertheless, my sister wouldn’t let that put a dampener on her zeal.
In the months and weeks leading up to the performance, her excitement didn’t wane. My sister studied for several hours a day, reading aloud, rehearsing and memorizing. It got to be a bit much for the rest of the family who was always within earshot of her constant reciting but she successfully memorized all of her lines way in advance of the performance date.
After that, she went on to memorize every other character’s part. We were amazed, as we listened to her recite the entire script, again, in advance of the performance date. Looking back, I now see that the determination and dedication she showed was pretty remarkable for someone who wasn’t even given an onstage role in the play.
When the big night came, my parents went to the school. They had to take my sister who was there to sit on the sidelines and be available – “just in case”. This was the evening performance, held exclusively for adults, so I couldn’t go. But I didn’t need to. I saw enough of a performance when my parents got home that night. When they walked in the door, my mom was fuming!! I don’t remember her being more outraged. She was yelling – not really at us or my father – she was just ranting at the unfairness of it all. My father didn’t say much but he was clearly upset too.
At first, I couldn’t understand what all the hoopla was about. Over the weeks my mom seemed to accept that my sister was the understudy and wouldn’t have an onstage role. Surely they both knew that she wasn’t likely to be onstage when they went to see the performance that night. What could have happened between the time they left and the time they returned home to so enrage my mother?
Well, as she ranted, the pieces of the story began to come together.
For weeks, the teacher worked with the cast. Never-the-less, on opening night, the student playing the lead was unprepared. Given that they had worked on this for several weeks, the teacher couldn’t possibly have been unaware of the student’s unpreparedness. Yet, on opening night, the student who’d “earned” the lead didn’t know a single word of the script!
And how did the teacher solve this problem? One would have expected her to use the understudy. Isn’t that why she had chosen an understudy? Well apparently not. This teacher decided to permit the lead character’s part to be READ from the script, on stage during the performance – the entire performance! Keep in mind this is happening while my sister, who had painstakingly memorized every word of the script, is sitting on the sidelines waiting to be called – “just in case”. In case what? In case the lead forgets how to read? Yes, my mom was justifiably p*ssed off.
When it was over, my mother went to the teacher and asked why she hadn’t used the understudy, surely she knew– well in advance of the performance — that the star didn’t know her lines and that the understudy did. She’d had ample time to put the understudy in the role. What happened? The teacher’s response was that she didn’t think my sister knew the lines either!
So, that was it. That was what set my mother off. During all of those weeks of study and preparation, the teacher never asked my sister to recite the lines. She simply assumed that my sister didn’t know the lines and made her decisions accordingly. And on what basis did she make this assumption? We’ll probably never know. What we do know is that this happened in the 60s. The teacher and the young star were white. My sister was (is) black.
I talked to my sister recently about this incident as I was preparing to publish this piece. She reminded me that when she returned to school the following day, the teacher asked if she knew the lines. When she told the teacher that she had memorized the whole play, the teacher made her recite it, in its entirety. She complied. After that there wasn’t another word of the matter. Not even an acknowledgment of a job well done.
Although this single incident didn’t have a measurable affect on the way my sister felt about her teacher or herself, over time, as we began to live out similar experiences on a fairly regular basis I think I can say with a fair degree of confidence that these things changed us and how we view the world. I don’t know that it would be possible for it to be otherwise and there are volumes written on this topic. But what is less frequently discussed is the damaging effects these seemingly minor incidents have on society as a whole.
The teacher’s flawed reasoning lead her to arrive at a solution that didn’t serve anyone. There are no winners in this story. Any parent who’s been to a fair share of elementary school performances knows how grueling they can be. Be they concerts, plays, debates, whatever, to be honest, they’re all barely tolerable. They only become slightly entertaining when your own kid is on stage. Imagine how tedious this performance must have been for my parents and, frankly, everyone else. To have to sit and listen to the bulk of the play being read by a child had to be pretty bad. Of course this ruined the play and, yes, I am making light of it. But what’s unfortunate is that this scenario is played out everyday in schools and workplaces across the country.
The ranks of the underemployed are replete with unnoticed or unacknowledged talent. Underutilized human resources abound in industry, academia and in government. I began this piece by noting that my sister and I could not understand my mother’s anger. We had little or perhaps no awareness of racial discrimination. We didn’t see through the lens my mother saw through. But, in time, after encountering similar incidents at what seems to be an unusually frequent basis, we began to understand our mom. I hope, in writing and publishing these pieces, that others who haven’t had similar experiences, will gain a deeper understanding of the subtle forms of racism that continue to have a prevailing presence in many of our lives.
Sharon Kyle is the Publisher of the LA Progressive. With her husband Dick, she publishes several other print and online newsletters on political and social justice issues.
Recent articles by Sharon