Biographical Non-Fiction posted June 14, 2020


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Dialogue between mom and son with few speech tags

White Bread

by Mrs. KT

Story of the Month Contest Winner 
The author has placed a warning on this post for language.

Hey, Morgan. What’s up? You look upset!

All these protests and demonstrations are messed up, Mom. But they've got me thinking about discrimination and racism and everything that's been happening… I don’t even know what all of this rioting is about.

Okay. That’s good. The thinking about the racism part… As for the protests, demonstrations, and rioting, well, my take is that people have a lot of concerns about the meaning of equality in our society. Not just getting along with one another but experiencing life on equal terms. A level playing field. Many folks feel the police, the government, and society at large, don't treat them with the respect they deserve.

Heck, I can understand those feelings to an extent. But I don't think I've ever been personally discriminated against. Were you?… Have you ever been discriminated against, Mom?

Honestly? Sure. More than a few times. Mostly because of my gender. A lot of women from my generation had to put up with a great deal of status quo nonsense when we were starting our careers… Having to prove ourselves, time and again, that we were as intelligent and capable as our male counterparts... And I don't talk about it very often, but when I was a junior in college, I did experience an incident of racial discrimination.

Racial discrimination at Alma College? You've got to be kidding! Were you scared?

Maybe. But not in the way you might think. It was the first time in my life someone didn't like me because I was... me.

What happened?

Well, back in the 70s, most of the students that attended Alma were from rather well-to-do, middle-class white families. Very few minority students. The year I was a junior, there was a grand total of seven African American students on campus. I don’t know where most grew up, but two of the girls, Charlene and Bonita, were from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and they were both enrolled in my sociology class.

So, what happened?

Well, the class was called “Minorities in American Society.” The class had been in session for about three weeks. We had had some pretty volatile and interesting conversations about historical and present-day race relations and the lack of equality in America. I voiced my opinions, just like everyone else. One day, I arrived early and was sitting where I always sat, in the middle of the classroom, waiting for the professor, Dr. Linder, to arrive. Charlene and Bonita walked in together. As they walked by me, Charlene loudly said to Bonita, “Of course, 'White Bread' would be the first to class."

"‘White Bread?’"  What the heck? What did she mean?

Think about it, Morgan. White bread is processed bread. Pretty much dull and tasteless. Lacking substance. Bland. Very white.

So what?  Pretty good with peanut butter and strawberry jelly. I still like it.

Yeah. Not the point. Stay with me, okay?  ‘White Bread’ was Charlene’s derogatory term for my being a privileged white girl… at least in her worldview.

What did you say?

I didn’t say anything.

Well, what did the other students say?

Nobody else was in the classroom except the three of us girls.

Did you tell the professor?

Morgan, this was 1974.  College. We’re talking the decade of Vietnam, Watergate, President Nixon's resignation from the Presidency, Women’s Rights. My "narking" on a fellow student to a professor seemed pretty trivial in that context.

So what did you do?

I just ignored both of them and pretended I didn’t hear what Charlene had said. But two days later, things changed.

As in?

Well, I was once again early for class. Sat in the same seat. Charlene and Bonita came in together, but as Charlene walked by, she leaned over, grabbed the long, green-beaded wooden necklace I was wearing, yanked it, twisted it in her hands and flipped it upwards so that it hit my upper lip and nose, and said, “Hey, Bonita, Get a load of 'White Bread’s' necklace. It even matches her goddam shoes.”

What the heck?  Mom! That would be considered assault these days!  She could have been arrested!  She should have been charged with assault.

It happened so fast. I remember that I adjusted the necklace, made sure I wasn't bleeding, turned in my seat, took a deep breath and ventured, “What’s your problem, Charlene? You’ve never seen a green wooden necklace before?”

Damn! You go, Mom! What did she say?

I didn’t give her a chance to say anything.  Instead, I added, "If you’d like it, Charlene, you can have it. It would match your eyes." And I took it off to give it to her.

Mom, I don’t think many Black people have green eyes.

That’s what Charlene said. She told me that she wouldn't be caught dead wearing that necklace, that I didn’t know shit about African Americans, that I never would, and that she was just ‘playin.’  So, "Get over it." To which I replied that my not knowing shit about minorities was precisely why I was taking the class. But then I added that I did know about negative and preconceived attitudes, and that rudeness and envy weren’t particularly becoming on anyone, Black or White or any color of the rainbow.

Then what happened?

Charlene snickered and then turned away from me to talk to Bonita. I turned back in my seat. Class began. And I tried to keep my right knee from shaking.

Yeah, when that knee of yours shakes, it's always a sign that you’re nervous or pissed. Did that Charlene girl give you any more trouble?

Nope.

How about Bonita?

No. If anything, she acted embarrassed by her friend's behavior. Never said a word.

Well, that’s good. Damn! Way to go, Mom!

But the next time our class met, when Charlene and Bonita came to class, and Charlene walked down the aisle to sit behind me, there was a loaf of white bread waiting on the desk.

No!

Charlene sat down, tapped me on the shoulder and whispered, “You think you’re being funny, 'White Bread?'"

I turned around to directly face her and replied, "Heck no. Just playin’, Charlene. Get over it."

God, Mom! I could never be that quick.

And the next thing I knew, our eyes locked, and we both started to laugh. But this time the laughter felt good. We were laughing with one another.

And the two of you lived happily ever after, right?

Well, I wouldn't say that. It took a little while, but we eventually gave one another room to get to know one another. We did become friends… In fact, we kept in touch for years after we graduated... She died from cancer about five years ago…

Why do you think Charlene did what she did with the name-calling and the necklace thing? I mean, that was pretty darn bold!

She was scared, Morgan. She wanted to fit in, but she was scared. People do a lot of foolish things when they're scared.

But she scared you, Mom.

 At the time I was more confused than I was scared because I hadn't done anything to make her dislike me. Or so I thought... Just my being white set her off.
  
But what about the protests today, and "Black Lives Matter," and all the looting and violence?  Is that because those involved are scared, too?

Could be. I think a lot of folks are angry and frustrated and they want to be heard. And their anger has reached a tipping point. Make no mistake, some have political agendas. Some have personal biases.  Some are just destroying property because they are part of some sort of herd mentality. But sooner or later folks have to learn to get along with one another and respect each other's uniqueness... even if it's "white bread" or a green wooden necklace. If we don't, America is going to implode...

I've really never given much thought to race issues until now. I mean it's not something chemistry majors spend a whole lot of time studying. I guess I've led a pretty sheltered life. How come you and I have never talked about things like this before now?

There wasn't a reason until now. Sometimes, you have to find out things for yourself. And then proceed from there. Was I of any help today? Or are you just as confused as ever?

Still confused about a lot of things. But I'm going to work on becoming more informed and educated in what is going on in the world.  Right now, though, I'm hungry. And what I really want is a peanut butter and strawberry jelly sandwich... even if we don't have any white bread around here... And Mom? 

What?

Thanks.

Thanks for what?

Thanks for, you, know... talking with me and sharing what happened to you... and especially for not wearing green wooden necklaces that match your shoes anymore...

You got it, Morgan. I promise...





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2020
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