Sunday, March 14, 2010


We had a housekeeper, and I loved her.  I'll call her Julia.  She grew up on a farm in Virginia, but she didn't like country life.  Philadelphia became her home, white families her employers.  She worked for my parents from my early childhood until arthritis forced her retirement, and we used to visit the senior citizen high-rise where she ended her days.  I think my mother was the only one of her employers who religiously paid her Social Security taxes.  Julia never married, and she used to joke that my brother and I were "her children."

She was part of the atmosphere of blessed, surface order in our home. Twice a week she came by bus, changing into her white uniform in our basement bathroom.  We'd come home from school and half-welcome the scolding we got if we walked on the newly washed kitchen floor. One of my brother's earliest memories is of toddling toward Julia and my mother, both on their knees before him in the living room, arms outstretched, calling him to walk.  Now I wonder which one he went toward?

I loved to sit in Julia's lap when she could spare me a minute. Her smell was so different than my mother's, both earthy and warm, unlike anything in our house.  I imagined she carried it with her from the vaguely envisioned home she told me of, where she kept a cat called Smudge.  When I was about three, Julia was holding me in a chair, and I happened to notice my small arm resting on hers.  I was amazed at what I saw.  "My arm is pink!" I cried.  "And yours is brown."

Julia gave me a little cuff on the cheek and said, "Don't be fresh!"  She added that she had to get back to work.  I slid to the floor.  I wasn't hurt. I knew she loved me.  But I started to cry, shocked and confused.  Later, I realize how I must have taken her by surprise. It was 1959 or 1960, and in a subsequent year, she might have felt it was okay to be low-key about the whole thing.  I think of how she was continually aware of my mother's presence in the house, and how Julia had the skill of drinking a glass of water without making a sound, as if she had taught herself a kind of invisibility.  And, though I doubt she ever heard my father make one of his infrequent racist comments, she had surely learned how close these remarks can be to the tongues of white people.

This was the only direct exchange I can remember having in my childhood household on the issue of race.  The conclusions I grew up with were a slurry of observation, confusion, and experience, all steeped in what I've come to think of as an atmosphere charged, as if with unseen electricity, by the agonized legacy of slavery and the Jim Crow era.

Much of what I learned supported what Julia taught me: That here in America, skin, in its varieties of pigmentation, is like the outer layer of a dangerous, sleeping animal.  To avoid hurting anyone, I learned it was expedient to pretend that skin color didn't exist. But that awareness never went away.


Rich Sidney said...

As a teenager, I learned that I have racist thoughts. I choose not to give in to them, but they are definitely there.

I grew up in an upper middle class suburb of Boston, possibly one of the most racist cities in the country.

When I was a junior in High School, a friend of mine lost his mother. In order for him to stay in the Wellesley school system, he had to live in Wellesley, and his father was moving away. I invited him to live with us.

Having a black brother and living across the street from the president of the local John Birch chapter was an education in how subtle racism can be, and how I was raised into that and embody it.

I learned just how racist I am. I also learned to be open with myself about it, and to behave otherwise.

I am white. I am a racist. That's redundant in our society, even today.

I am, however, proud to say that, when I have a racist impulse, I can recognize it and I can behave otherwise.

HelenQP said...

Rich, thanks for being so honest. It's a hard thing to see in oneself, but I think the only way change can happen. Simple but not easy.

Gail said...

Helen: particularly those lines where you so keenly identify that "slurry of observation, confusion, and experience, all steeped in what I've come to think of as an atmosphere charged, as if with unseen electricity, by the agonized legacy..." you've got, more accurately than whole tomes, exactly what if FEELS like we first become conscious of the place race plays in our blinkered, privileged white world....

thank you.

HelenQP said...

Thank you! I'm honored by your's a familiar feeling but not often spoken out loud.

Jeanne said...


I have a few comments.

First, nice thoughtful post.

Second, I read an article recently posted on facebook (I couldn't find it or would have posted it) that said studies recently show that NOT talking about race with kids raises racist kids, and that even mild attempts to make race visible can make big differences. Your piece reminded me of that article.

Third, I'm learning a lot about social class when I read about race. Including your essay.

Liz, who grew up very privileged, makes a lot of noises when she eats and drinks and I find it annoying. This is because my mother grew up rural poor and I grew up working class and was taught not to have my class show through how I eat and drink.

Interesting stuff!


Anonymous said...

Hi Helen. As an African-American, I understand the desire of some to be "colorblind", I'm sure not wanting to make a difference between themselves and others. However, the reality is that we're not all the same. Yes, we are all God's creation, but we're also each unique and part of my uniqueness comes from my ethnicity and culture, among other things. So at times it can feel as though I'm being disregarded rather than appreciated for my particular uniqueness. But thank you for posting this and being honest about your experience.

HelenQP said...

Jeanne, I didn't know about the article you mentioned...that is fascinating. I think often white people don't address race out of fear of being offensive, but as Pat says, that can make folks feel invisible. It took me a while to get the courage up to write about race on the blog, but it's such an important issue--and racism can be so subtle and pervasive--that it felt necessary.

Pat, you'll appreciate this story. I think of a black friend of my daughter's, as a group of girl friends sat around the table on our deck. Somehow the issue of race came up, and my daughter's black friend looked around the group with a big grin and celebrated, "I'm the only one here! YAY!!!!" and pumped her arms.

Anonymous said...


LOL! Good for your daughter's friend!

Anonymous said...


LOL! Good for your daughter's friend!