SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2014       Personal Memory Ethnographies


The Taboos of Segregation

As a child I had no perception that racial prejudice existed, at least not in reality. It was just a concept people spoke of, it didnít affect me. I grew up in Los Angeles County. I started elementary school in 1980. My school was predominantly white but we had a large population of Hispanics bussed in and a small percentage of Blacks from the neighborhood. My age group had 5 Black students in it. As a child I didnít perceive them as different. They had different hair and skin than me and talked with a different kind of slang than me but aside from that they were just my friends. From kindergarten through 9th grade this was my perception. I had no understanding of prejudice and how it affects peopleís day to day lives. When I was 15 my understanding changed.

                        My dad got a job in Alabama and we were excited to experience more of this beautiful country in which we live. Shortly before we moved my Mom warned me that I needed to understand that a lot of black people live in Alabama. It felt as if she was making a derogatory comment and I got frustrated with her and said, ďso?Ē. She expounded that blacks in the south werenít like blacks in California and Iíd soon see the difference. I didnít believe her and wondered when my mother had become prejudiced. I learned that my Mom was right in one aspect; the way people in the south behaved was different from what I had previously known. I had many experiences there to teach me about the injustices of racial prejudice but one experience above all the rest was a defining moment for me.

Itís important to understand the place of the event as it deals directly with prejudice between whites and blacks. Without looking up any statistics and just judging on the feel of it, the people are equal parts white and black. Despite this there is very little blending of these parts. In the 1990ís Alabama was a particularly prejudiced southern state. They still promote school segregation today and have been the last to eliminate some discrimination laws. As a youth I fully believed the students had self segregated but I now understand it was more complicated than that. Black students were not encouraged by school officials to attend honors courses and white students were. This created a situation where a school with a 50/50 black to white ratio could still segregate. White and Black students did not attend the same classes. White parents required that their children take honors classes regardless of skill or desire. I registered for my classes while I still lived in California and I did not register for a single honors course. When I got to school in Alabama I found myself enrolled in all honors courses. The school had made that decision without my permission to segregate me.

The people of the south live a life opposite of the rest of the nation. While everyone else looks forward to a better future they are looking back to a past they canít reconcile. They live as though they are still fighting the Civil War and hoping for a different outcome. This is the crux of their inability to look past racial prejudice.         

I was shocked the first time I walked into the lunchroom of my new school. There were five long tables. The white and black students had chosen to segregate themselves. The two tables on the east side of the room were filled with white students and the two on the west were filled with black students. The center table was filled with white students from the south side of the room to approximately the center and it was filled with black students from the north side of the room to about the center. The students contrived to leave several empty seats between the two races. I learned that this was a neutral zone of sorts and it was taboo to cross that racial boundary.

            I became friends with a white girl who only had black friends. When I requested to sit with her at lunch she warned me that she sat in this neutral zone of seats. I happily sat with her and became close to her black friends. We always sat on the edge of the group so that it appeared we were sitting with the whites. I had not paid attention to this fact until a particular incident occurred. After several weeks of sitting with them I approached the table only to find a white girl sitting in my seat talking to other whites with her back to the blacks. There was an open seat smack in the middle of all of my black friends so of course, not wanting to make waves, I didnít say anything to her and just went to sit in the empty seat. A minimum of five black girls immediately stood up saying ďuh uh, this aint happenin, thet white chick aint taken yo seatĒ. They then proceeded to call her out and demand that she move her Ďbuttí. She was clearly terrified of the girl posse and ran out of the lunch room. I felt disgusted with the white girlís behavior of sitting with her back to the black girls so that no one would mistakenly imagine that she was with them. I completely understood their prejudice against her.

Of course, she had a different perspective: After my awful experience in the lunchroom today I vow I will never eat lunch at school again. I normally eat off campus any way but unfortunately today I needed to talk to Amanda and we donít have any classes together. As I walked into the lunch room I was confronted with a sea of black kids. I take honors classes to avoid this sight. Everyone knows the black kids donít take honors classes. Donít get me wrong. Iím not prejudiced or anything. I get along with black kids just fine, as long as they arenít grouped together. As soon as you get two or more black people together they get all kinds of attitude. They make it obvious they hate us whites and become threatening. I swear the lunch room is the most dangerous place in school.

            I scanned the tables and saw that Amanda was sitting at the table closest to the blacks. Of course she had to make this difficult for me. I decided I would just sit with my back to them, that way I wouldnít make the mistake of making eye contact. I figured that if I didnít look at them they couldnít get mad at me. Or so I thought. I was so wrong.

            It turns out I was sitting in another girlís spot. Those black girls stood up en mass and yelled at me. I couldnít believe it, howíd I get into that mess? No one defended me. I evidently had no support from my friends so I got out of there as fast as I could. I realize now that all my friends were probably scared too. What I still donít understand is that the other girl whose seat I had taken was white too. Why would they get all up in arms over a white girlís seat? And why would she let them attack one of her own like that? Sheís such a traitor.

Moving to Alabama and discovering that prejudice, segregation and discrimination actually existed in our country was a disheartening experience for me. My eyes became open to the damage people can do to each other simply by the way we think of and treat one another. This memory sticks with me for this reason. It was a defining moment in my understanding of what was ďrealĒ.

I grew up with a Father who has a great love for people of other cultures but a Mother who holds in her heart many prejudices. I didnít know that as a child. My experiences in Alabama opened my eyes to the great effort she put in to concealing her prejudices. I began to see how other people also pretended. I learned that you canít judge people by their words alone; you must pay attention to their actions.

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