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Blind to Racism

Blind to Racism is a series that tells 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.
Black Girl

Blind to Racism is a series of personal stories that depict real life experiences of racism. Sometimes these experiences are microaggressions, a term coined by Harvard University professor Chester M. Pierce in 1970 to describe insults and dismissals regularly inflicted on Black Americans by non-blacks. You won't read these kinds of stories in your history books -- rarely are they covered in the media but they represent, arguably, the most frequent form racism experienced in a Black Americas life. These experiences of microaggressions are what some have called "death by a thousand cuts".

Here is one such experience. . . .

When we were in grade school, my sister was selected 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 -- her big sister-- was just as proud and excited for her. My mother, on the other hand, wasn't feeling it.

Forty years have passed but I still remember my mother's outright anger and disappointment. Initially, she didn't explain why she was so angry. We could just sense it.

Nevertheless, my sister didn't let my mother's sour mood 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 memorizing her lines, 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 was an understudy and wouldn't likely get a chance to be 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. Surely my parents 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 to see the play and the time they returned home that would so enrage my mother?

Well, as she ranted, the pieces of the story began to come together.

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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 hadn't memorized 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 of 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?", Mom asked. The teacher's response was that she didn't think my sister knew the lines!

So, that was it. That was what set my mother off. During all of those weeks of study and preparation, the teacher never once 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.

As I was preparing to write this piece, I talked to my sister to make sure I'd gotten the details right. She reminded me that when she returned to school the following day, the teacher asked if she knew the lines. When she replied in the affirmative, the teacher made her recite the entire play in front of the class. My sister did just that -- to the teacher's surprise. After that there wasn't another word of the matter. Not even an acknowledgment of a job well done.

Although I can't say this incident had a measurable affect on the way my sister felt about herself, clearly, a healthy dose of these kinds of slights, over time, take a toll. I would argue that the toll taken is on all of us.

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. The only time they become slightly entertaining is 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 lead character of the play being read by a child had to be pretty bad. Of course this ruined the play. 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. In time, however, after encountering similar incidents on a fairly frequent basis, we began to understand our mom.

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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 so many of our lives.

by Sharon Kyle

Sharon Kyle is the Publisher of the LA Progressive. With her husband Dick, she publishes and writes pieces on social justice and organizes events and trainings several times a year.