My first lesson in the long and torturous history of race in this country came in the lap of someone I loved, but only later I realized that this moment signified something much larger than either of us.
Our family had a black cleaning lady who came to us by bus twice a week, and she worked for my parents until a bad hip forced her retirement. The household was very quiet and ordered--on the surface--and I found her routines comforting, the hum of the vaccuum cleaner, the lemony furniture polish, the damp kitchen floor that signaled the end of her day. I even sort of liked the way she'd scold us for trying to sneak across the wet floor to grab a snack.
E. herself had a nice smell, not sweet, impossible to describe, a smell that I thought of as 'like wood' and that I associated with the dark wood furniture in our house. One of my brother's first memories is of E. and my mother, side by side on their knees with arms outstretched toward him, calling him to take new, toddling steps.
Skin color. What could be more neutral? I must have been about three years old when I was shocked into a rudimentary understanding that in America, skin color is anything but simple. One afternoon, E. held me in her lap in the living room. Circled and safe, seeing her arm laced with mine, I had a revelation. "Your arm is brown!" I cried, "And mine is pink!" Her reaction was completely unexpected. She gave me a little cuff on the cheek. "Don't be fresh!" she said, setting me on the floor. Stung but not physically hurt, I cried. She had erupted in a shocking way.
A couple of years later, my friend Mary and I worked in a coloring book out in the hall while E. cleaned my room. "I'm going to make this kid a Negro," Mary said, matter-of-factly. We lived in West Mount Airy in Philadelphia, and Mary went to the racially integrated public school down the street. I wouldn't let Mary color anyone's skin brown. "Shh!" I hissed. "She'll hear you."
If I consciously thought about race, it was with a vague sense of shame, as of something too loaded to mention. We were Philadelphia Quakers, pretty much a guarantee that we were also political liberals. My father contributed to the United Negro College Fund, Planned Parenthood, and the ACLU. But we thrived in the longstanding structure of white privilege, and not looking at race was a way of reconciling these realities.
When I was in junior high in a private Quaker school, black kids started showing up: Community Scholars, part of a new and ultimately successful program to integrate the school, but I was never sure who was a
Community Scholar and who wasn't. They were just there. I envied their cohesiveness as a group, their easy mutual friendships, and and in high school, I actually believed that I possessed no ethnicity, no color at all. I lacked a rich presence the black kids had.
E had an ability that I admired. She could drink a glass of water without making a sound. I didn't realize then that perhaps instinctively, she avoided extending herself in any way that would create ripples on the calm surface of our household. When she cuffed me for mentioning our relative skin tones, perhaps she was concerned that my mother, always floating around the house, might overhear. Maybe she thought I would start asking difficult questions.
It was a mark of privilege that many years passed before I started asking myself questions about race. Even then, I didn't have to. I could have gone on ignoring questions of race, as I had been raised to do.