SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2003        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Bertha Haskin

Breaking the Cycle of Hate

When I was nine years old my stepfather Lawrence told my mother “that I did not understand why he hated White people so much.” He was right. I was not born in the south, like Lawrence and my mother. I have never encountered racial discrimination to the degree that my parents had. I grew up in Los Angeles, California. In the summer of 1976, there was a woman selling encyclopedias in my neighborhood. I still remember the excitement I felt about the encyclopedias. I remember wanting the encyclopedias because I wanted to be smart, like my older brother Robert. I asked my stepfather to buy me a set. He finally agreed. I asked the sales woman to return the next afternoon.

Once Lawrence took a look at the saleswoman he quickly slammed the door and walked away. I stood there totally shocked because I had never seen Lawrence react that way before. My stepfather YELLED at me “Bertha she’s White, I don’t like White people.” I was a child. I had no idea about my stepfather’s likes and dislikes. Needless to say, that I did not get the books that day. Lawrence told my mother, “I know I promised to buy baby Bert those books, but when I saw that White woman I could not do it.” My mother was very quiet and she showed no emotions for or against what my stepfather had done.

Lawrence wanted me to know that there were certain people that we could not do business with. In the south, Blacks and Whites rarely did business together. Apparently Lawrence’s strong hatred toward White people had festered in him throughout his childhood in Arkansas. That specific incident between Lawrence and the White saleswoman opened my eyes to the existence of racial difference and conflict between White people and people of color.

When I lived in California, I had a very diverse group of friends. I still recall that my Black friends were welcomed to come over for dinner, watch television, and could stay the night. All except my White friends were not welcomed inside our home. In high school my best friend was a White girl name Christine. We did almost everything together, including double dating on prom night.

For three years my stepfather had no knowledge about our friendship. My mother helped us to keep it a secret. Of course one day my stepfather came early from work, and at first glance he did not notice Christine. But when he did see her, needless to say all hell broke loose. Lawrence gave me a look as if I had betrayed him. That look cut me like a knife. I felt like I had disappointed Lawrence. However I remained good friends with Christine, until she moved away to attend Boston University.

The incident with Lawrence and the White encyclopedia saleswoman happened in 1976, more than ten years after the Watts riot in California. Watts is a small city outside of Los Angeles. The Watts riot started due to poor race relations. But after White police officers killed a Black man, who fit the description of a robbery suspect. Many people were outraged and took matters into their own hands. However the fires, violence, and the looters found their way into my neighborhood. I was born on the third day of the Watts riot. My biological father Lonnie, had to get special permission from the National Guard on duty to drive my mother to the hospital so, that I could be born. When the Watts riot was over, the few White residents that did live in the community quickly moved out.

After the Watts riot tension between White people and people of color still existed. It was always understood that White people did not venture into our neighborhood by chance, but only when they wanted to sell us something. My stepfather was a strong believer in Black people educating themselves. He was always buying me books about Black culture. Therefore, I knew his decision not to purchase the encyclopedias was based on his racial hatred toward the White race, and was not financial.

When my stepfather slammed the door in the White saleswoman face I was angry at him. I was also angry with my mother for not saying anything to Lawrence about his broken promise. I silently wondered what my mother really thought about White people. I discovered that, I was more concerned about what the White saleswoman felt about her unexpected greeting. I did not consider what caused Lawrence to react the way he did. My mother recently told me, “After years of Lawrence suppressing his intense anger at the White race while living in the Deep South, his emotions were bound to come out.”  

After the death of my stepfather in 1983, my mother finally explained to me what really lead to Lawrence’s long existing hate and distrust toward White people. “In 1953, Lawrence’s family home was fire bombed by the Klu Klux Klan, because his brother Calvin was dating a White woman.”

Soon after that, his family moved to Los Angeles, California. I do understand why my stepfather held those feelings for so long. Yes, I have experienced racism since living in Arizona. I was denied service while waiting for a table in a predominately White restaurant in Phoenix.    

It was that recent experience with racial discrimination that helped me to become empathetic to what my stepfather felt that day upon seeing the White encyclopedia saleswoman. When I was a child all I thought about was Lawrence’s broken promise. I am more understanding since I have experience what it feels like to be treated unfairly.

I can only imagine what my parents and their parents had to endure while growing up in the south, during the Jim Crow era of segregation and the Civil Rights Movement. Years of being treated unjustly simply because of a person’s race and ethnicity, will eventually make any person bitter. My parents and other people of color had to enter through the back of buildings. Their food was given to them on brown paper bags away from the view of the White patrons.

My parents and their parents were treated as inferior and less than human. On the other hand, White people maintained the status of superiority, at the expense of the Black race. My parents and grandparents experienced the worse kind of racial prejudice. I am sure that my stepfather wanted me to share his racist view about White people. But I am unable to adopt my stepfather’s racist way of thinking. I refuse to go through my entire life hating an entire race of people, because of the ignorant actions of a few.

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