My Journey from Racism

And how we can best end it

To get a job is like that haystack needle,
‘Cause where we live, they don’t use colored people
— Stevie Wonder, “Livin’ for the City”

I was raised in a racist family, in a racist neighborhood and a racist world, in the 1940s and ’50s. In those days everyone around me was white, almost always and almost everywhere I went in Tacoma, Washington. The man who swept our street with a push broom was white. The cop who walked the beat which included my neighborhood was white. All of the delivery people– the milk man, the ice man, and all of the tradesmen.

One reason for this is that people of color couldn’t get a decent job. They often found work such as assistant to a plumber– the person who dug the ditches to replace broken sewer lines, and the like. Mine was a white working class neighborhood, and less than a mile away began the “colored” section, as it was called. We were all in roughly the same economic class, but might as well have lived on separate planets for all the contact we made.

White people who were of modest means, such as we, were placed by zoning to be a buffer between the comfortable middle class and those of color. Most American cities were gerrymandered that way, and remnants of it exist to this day (see New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, etc.).

The racism which surrounded me extended to Native Americans, Asians, Southern Europeans such as Italians and Greeks, anyone who spoke with a foreign accent (including British, who were called “Limeys”). Poles were Polacks, Mexicans were wetbacks.  There was a derogatory name for everyone.

In that environment of ignorance, one never has a conversation with certain other groups. I can’t remember ever having a conversation with a person of color in my childhood, nor being exposed to any conversation about mixing with those who were different racially.

I was the only person in my neighborhood who spoke with a German family because they were hated “Krauts,” with World War II being impactful in our lives, even for a decade following it. I was too ignorant to know that I should hate my best friend, a boy from that family called Ronnie, because he was a Kraut.

My family moved around a lot and in my 16th year I found myself in very white Rapid City, South Dakota, where I had the most shocking exposure to racism– an incident which transformed me and influenced me toward the belief system I have had for over fifty years since.

It was a bitterly cold day, with a temperature well below freezing, a strong wind, and snow so thick in the air that I couldn’t see more than a foot in front of me. It wasn’t actually snowing, the snow was being blown into the air by a wind so powerful you had to lean into it to keep from falling down. I was accordingly bracing myself, when a voice called out “Would you like to go inside for a cup of coffee?”

I could see nothing, but responded to the voice, “I have to catch the bus.”

The voice replied, “The bus is delayed and we will have to catch the next one in a little over an hour, so how about that coffee?”

I replied that I only had bus fare, and not an extra dime for coffee.

The voice said he would pay.

Then the wind let up for a few seconds and I could see his black face. Shaking with cold, I decided I would go with him and take up his offer.

We seated ourselves in a booth at the restaurant across the street, ordered the coffees and they were served. We carried on a conversation that strangers are wont to chatter, damning the weather, that sort of thing, when I noticed a woman staring at us wide eyed as if in horror.

Her husband walked up to the manager at the cash register and threatened loudly, “If you’re going to serve niggers we’re leaving,” and the two walked out the front door.

I remember feeling embarrassed for my companion, who was an Air Force lieutenant in his sharp blue uniform. I thought it best to ignore the comment and quickly jumped back into the conversation, when another couple got up and blustered the same insult, “If you’re gonna serve niggers, we’re leaving,” and they did.

The manager walked over to our booth and asked us to leave, saying that we were creating a disturbance.

For the first time in my life I performed an act of civil disobedience, knowing I could be arrested for it. The law was clear in those days that an owner could serve any of their choice, and I had no legal right to say it, but I said “After we finish our coffee.” The manager, who I took to be the owner, glared a look of hatred in my direction and went back to his cash register.

Two more couples walked out, snarling the same remark, leaving only the lieutenant and myself as customers. Having finished the coffee, we got up to leave, and the manager followed us out the door, shouting at me, “Don’t ever come back here.”

I was behind the lieutenant as we walked into the blizzard, and I remember the tears flowing down my cheeks, from the suddenness of the understanding I’d experienced. I’d have died of shame at age 16 if anyone had seen the teardrops, the pressure to be macho being what it was, but the snow hid it well.

I had dramatically learned that so much of what I believed about the world was wrong. I had no idea that such overt racism occurred north of Dixie. If someone had told me people could be that insensitive, I wouldn’t have believed them. It had the impact of my being hit on the head with an iron skillet. It was like the line in Amazing Grace, “blind but now I see.”

I never saw the lieutenant again, and assume he had been passing through town.

I didn’t tell my friends why I never had the daily coffee with them at the restaurant before school after that. My friends were all white in white Rapid City, and racist enough to not understand why I allowed myself to be eternally banned.

A year later I found myself in Chicago with an acquaintance who was a Black Panther. I have no idea why we got along so well, but I remember staying up all night and drinking wine with him, talking about racism in the Land of the Free. He’d been adopted and raised by a white couple who protected him from knowing about racism, and he despised them for that, because when confronted with racism in his teens he was unprepared and it hurt more deeply. The shock moved him to the extreme of leaving the only family he’d known and joining the Panthers.

A year later I was on a bus going through Mississippi with a black soldier seated next to me, engrossed in conversation, when the bus stopped for maintenance and we were advised to get a bite to eat. As I walked toward the diner the soldier walked in a different direction and I asked him why. He pointed to a sign WHITE ONLY. So I said “I will eat with you,” and walked toward the segregated lunch counter, where I was told to go back, I could not eat there, white people were not allowed. I was so upset at this experience that I got back on the bus and skipped the meal, feeling helpless to do anything about it.

I was now on the other side, opposing racism. I went on to have many friends of color over my lifetime, some very close although most are now deceased.

My closest Black friend was a very dark-skinned woman named Norma who taught me a great many things before she died. She and her husband invited me to every Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner at their house for over a dozen years, and I was the only white person invited, among about 20 or 30 guests. At one of these affairs a racist Black man I’d never seen before shouted out several times “What’s the white man doing here?” while pointing a finger at me, and nobody replied until Norma, who’d been in another room, came to see what the disturbance was, and noticing that she had a racist guest, pushed through the crowd, put her arm around me, and said defiantly, “He’s here because he’s my brother.” From my roots, I understood how racism spreads to all groups.

Norma lived in Hampton, a city of nearly half people of color, where I live today. Hampton bills itself as the oldest continually-inhabited English-speaking city in the USA, founded in 1610 (Jamestown, down the road, is the oldest).

The first African slaves in England’s American colonies arrived at Hampton in 1619.

Although Confederate troops burned Hampton to the ground to deny it to the Yankees, Fort Monroe, at the southern tip of Hampton, welcomed freed slaves throughout the Civil War.

In the 1950’s Hampton’s leaders participated in what was called Massive Resistance, to prevent the integration of the schools. Establishment racism had always extended to the children, a particularly bitter and evil legacy.

Hampton is an appropriate place to see the transitions from the deep racism of the past to the modern era.

I thought, in the sixties, with things moving as fast as they were under Martin Luther King as our leader, that racism would be ended soon. How wrong I was to think that, even as I watched American apartheid fall during that decade.

I am, however, convinced that the solution to ending racism is found in education. Children must learn as young as possible to oppose racism until we have completely rid ourselves of it. The Black Lives Matter movement is only the latest in a long string of protests to shine a light on racism, but in the long run it is the influence of the beliefs of children that will transform us to a more just and caring society.

I am thankful for the many lessons to shine rays of enlightenment my way, but I would hope that no youngster has to be put through traumatic events such as what happened to me, and it doesn’t have to happen if children can be exposed early to facts, rather than superstition and ignorance.

I know education can do the job, because it worked in my situation, and I was steeped in racism throughout my childhood as much as any person.

Jack Balkwill is an activist in Virginia. He can be reached at Read other articles by Jack.