I am a biracial person, half black and half white, who was young five decades ago. Especially back then, the social and moral things I had to get through and get beyond were monumental. I now believe that it was the little things—the subtle, warm, convincing moments and messages of peace and love that helped me survive and grow into a self-respecting person. Yes, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s speeches did much for me and for the rest of the country, but in my own small town life, it was the little things that counted most. I remember a small example of this truth that occurred on the way to a Girl Scout outing. I was the only child of color packed into a station wagon with other troop members. Our driver was a lady who volunteered to take us on the field trip. One particularly boastful girl, obviously undone by my presence next to her in the car, felt a need to tout what she believed was her white superiority. For no apparent reason and in a dramatic voice she provided the details of her heritage going back to her great grandparents, and enumerated and underscored the various Caucasian nationalities of her cousins and other relatives. During this recitation she stared intently at me. My brain froze while the girl kept going on about her white relatives, winding into a fever pitch, and intending to pounce on me. I couldn’t remember any of the advice my parents had given me on how to deal with bullies and racists. I felt helpless and as uncomfortable as the girl wanted me to be. The chattering girl then posed a question only to me—in fact, it was the inquiry that had already become the vital question of my livelong days: “What are you?” she asked. The nice lady driving the car knew exactly what was going on and before I could answer, she cut off the squawking girl by saying, “You know, if we all went back into our families as far as you did, you’d find out we’re all cousins.” The lady’s comment not only stopped the racist questioning that was headed my way, there was a clear charm and sweetness to it. I felt saved. This was among my earliest recollections that racism is often meted out in small bites and it can just as easily be nipped with everyday grace.
In my hometown newspaper, I recently read the obituary of the lady who rescued me so many years ago from that moment of social discomfort. I thank her posthumously for the grace she showed and for teaching me that you can change someone’s life by simply sharing tidbits of wisdom and kindness.
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