Our White Class

During this period of intense focus on race in America, I am thinking back to my school days in Mahopac.

We were nearly 100% white, with only rare exceptions. For a while, there was one black girl in our high school, and I used to think about how much courage it took for her to walk the halls alone.

And that she was fortunate to be female and hence not likely to be the victim of racial violence.

I want to say that I write these memories of my Mahopac years, not because it was a period of Disney-style bliss, nor was it a period of great difficulty, at least not for me.

I write these little stories because from nursery school to 12th grade graduation, Mahopac schools were my life, and a very deep part of who I am.

I don’t think that Mahopac was more racist than any other town around; I think it was typical, but that is not a compliment.

My own memory is, in those days, when the word “Negro” was in use, I heard it only rarely, and only in the classroom.

What I remember is that virtually every reference to “Negro” people, by the boys that I was around, was using the N-word.

My sense was that hatred for and fear of black people was privately held by the majority of people and students, although it was known not to express it out loud in public.

Again, I don’t single out Mahopac: I think it was true nationwide.

(Of course, my view of this may be amplified by being Jewish in a Christian town: hatred of Jews was not rare, and generally hatred of black people and Jews go hand-in-hand.)

Lots has changed since 1967, when I graduated with my all-white classmates.

We have had a black president for two terms, and lots of popular black artists and athletes.

But I think the current backlash of violence toward people of color is in some part a reaction of anger against having had a black president. I have sat in diners and heard people – in the North  – refer to him as the N-word President and express out loud the hope that he would be shot soon.

But I have heard sports talk show guys that one year ago spoke with hatred about Colin Kaepernick, just today talk about how he was right and should be given a quarterback job.

Also on sports radio, I heard a young guy tell how he hated Kaepernick for kneeling during the anthem until he talked to his elder relatives who had fought in wars who told him that they fought so Kaepernick could kneel.

So progress is taking place, in fits and starts.

But I still think it takes great courage for a black teen to walk down a street, going to work, through a white neighborhood, like mine.

And the fear of the police? A daily grind for people of color.

And would I be welcome as a black student today, walking down the halls of any white suburban school? 

In Mahopac? I have not been in touch with my home town in decades, so I don’t know.

But in the white suburb I live in now, north of Boston, in deep blue Massachusetts, I heard black graduates of my local high school, now in college, speak to the public, in tears, about being called the N-word in the town I live in right now.

We have a very, very long way to go.

4 Responses

  1. Thank you Jon for saying what I had been thinking but not brave enough to put it in print.

    1. No! My late husband was born in Yorktown Heights. Not related to Alfred, not related to Hitchcock chairs either. Lost out all around. Damn. I was a Laoretti and an Italian, related to the Laoretti’s that started the Italian-American club in Mahopac and related to Larry Laoretti, the golfer. I’m just a nobody livin’ the life in Florida.

  2. Jon I didn’t get to Mahopac till I was about 10 years old. Before that we lived in Ithaca and my dad worked at Cornell . We regularly saw and interacted with people of color from all over the world. Most were graduate students, many had decidedly English accents. I first heard the N word the summer we moved to Mahopac and did not immediately understand.. I think I was confused, how could someone my own age , who I was pretty sure knew no black people, feel so superior.

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