White and Privileged
Early Growing Pains
I grew up in rural areas of the western United States in the 1970’s and 80’s. I’m obviously white. We moved around Oregon and California during my adolescent years. One of our moves landed us in an apartment complex where a group of kids threw rocks at us if we came outside. The harassment was so bad at one point my mother called the police. One day we were sitting on the small patio off our apartment and rocks started coming over the fence. These same kids convinced me that they wanted to be friends and asked me if I wanted to be in their club. They then lured me and my little brother into the basement of an abandoned house and tried to lock us in. I got us out by going up the outside basement steps, there were mice in that basement and I could hear them scurry around as I held my brother's hand and climbed the stairs. I was very happy when we moved from that neighborhood.
A later move was to a town of about 15,000 people in Northern California. Our neighborhood was a melting pot. In grade school I had friends of every race, we played as kids do and outside of some normal teasing nothing was racial. We were in a bilingual class where Spanish was taught as a second language. We reenacted the battle between the French and Mexico and had amazing Cinco de Mayo celebrations. I loved Mexican food and culture. In class we had two boys who didn’t speak English. Our teacher sat me next to them to help them with their school work. It was one of the best times of my life when the problems of the world were far from my reality and the worst thing I had to deal with was my street light curfew. Often other kids would tease me about a space in between my front teeth. It was a hereditary gap from one of my eye teeth never developing. We weren't poor at that point but didn't have the money for braces either. We lived in a 70’s tract home neighborhood, ate dinner at 5pm every night (I should mention this was true of all the families in our neighborhood).
As in most communities children started middle school in sixth grade. I was excited about going into this new school. The school was a few miles from our house. I had a secondhand ten speed bicycle that only had front brakes which I rode to school. The first part of sixth grade was pretty normal. I was a tiny person in weight and size. Going into sixth grade I was tan from the summer and my hair still had a lot of blonde in it, obviously I’ve always had blue eyes. I still watched the Muppet show every Friday, still woke up with my little brother on Saturday mornings to watch cartoons.
At first middle school was okay. I had problems opening my locker, I was always barely making it into a class before the second bell. I road my bike back and forth day after day. Half of my elementary school friends were sent to the other middle school in our town. My remaining elementary school friends were split up in classes in my new school. I made new friends and again this group was somewhat diverse.
Halfway through that year my abusive father ended up in the hospital on life support. This changed our lives forever. My mother took a night job to support us, although she barely made rent. We had little supervision in the afternoons and no one but my older sister home in the mornings. Our home life was chaotic. My mother was trying to hold together our finances with a fourth of the income my father had made. We were constantly under threat of being evicted.
It was during this time that something horrible started to happen at my middle school. I started to notice at lunch that although, we were the lowest grade in the school and my friends were diverse in background, kids had started forming groups on their own. Some of those groups were because of interests. There was a group of kids in charge of lunch time music that hung out by our multipurpose room stage. Other groups had obvious racial similarities. This was the first time I remember knowing that there was a popular group of kids. Of course they were the girls whose parents sent them to dance or gymnastics, they were cheerleaders. We were a poor family so none of these things were an option for me.
I was painfully aware that we were poor. My shoes often had holes, as did my clothes. My mom taught me to hand sew. I would try to cover up my poverty by sewing random heart fabric patches onto my clothes. For a long time I didn't have a coat so I wore my fathers old corduroy coat that I had sewn paisley fabric from a bandana onto the pockets to try to make it cool. I kinda still wish I had that coat. My brother didn't have the blessing of hand me downs he spent a lot of time in cut off jeans wearing shirts that didn't fit.
Moments That Define Us
By seventh grade I had the lay of the land. My group of friends changed again as classes were reshuffled for the new year. Still on life support, my father was transferred to Stanford medical center in San Francisco. I had out outgrown most of my clothes over the summer. We didn’t have money for new clothes so I had to make do with clothes from a second hand store, none of which were in style, most of which didn’t exactly fit. I was an awkward kid. I had always played sports with the boys in our neighborhood. Now those relationships were changing as kids around me paired up as “boyfriend/girlfriend”.
My second to the last class also, my favorite class, was physical education (PE). Our PE teacher had randomly grouped kids into teams to play softball for a few weeks. My team was comprised of my best friend (she was Mexican) and somehow most of the rest of our team was a group of girls who hung out together and were all Mexican. I did not notice this at first and it really didn’t matter to me because I was super excited about softball and basically oblivious of race in general. We spent most of that first day grouping teams so there wasn’t a lot of time to play. I was very naïve. During those years I watched Hands across America, Live Aid and I believed that we were all one people. It never occurred to me that race was an issue. It was by random occurrence that I would find out that the world can be a horrific place.
As we gathered as a team people chose the positions we were to play and I was told by the oldest girl in the group to play first base. After I got the second out at first base the girl closest to me said “Why don’t you let the rest of us play, stupid white girl”. One of her friends chimed in and said “yeah weta, let everyone play”. I was confused. We were on the same team, why were they mad, we were one out away from batting. The third hit happened and the girl throwing to home plate threw the ball at the runner instead of to me. Then everyone on my team with the exception of my best friend started yelling at me “Stupid weta can’t catch”, “weta can’t play baseball”. I stood near first base feeling like walls were closing in on me. In my head I just kept thinking, we are on the same team don’t they know that. Then they all sat down in their respective positions staring at me, saying things like “play by yourself, weta”. I looked around for our PE teacher who was all the way on another field too far to go tattle to or to see what was going on. The pitcher was the only person still standing when the next batter hit the ball directly back at the pitcher and she got the third out. The bell rang and I headed into the locker room without looking back.
The locker room was always chaos, people changing, people talking, doors slamming. The girl with the locker next to mine had been in grade school with me but, that was two year ago. She was now friends with the group of Mexican girls who were on my softball team. The Mexican girls started yelling back and forth in the locker room “Stupid weta can’t play baseball” (it seemed like a moot point to correct them and mention the ball is bigger in softball).
I was getting dressed quickly, feeling the tension in the room. I grabbed my purse and shut my locker then walked the long way around to friend’s locker to avoid having to pass by any of them. I was leaning against the locker when a girl came up from behind me and shoved me saying “what you going to do stupid weta”. I should mention that I don’t recall a lot of people in that community speaking Spanish in conversations. At that point I didn’t know what weta meant. Now I can tell you that it is a derogatory term for “white girl”.
By this time I was raging, I turned around and shoved the girl back, which resulted in her trying to push me again at which point I backed her against the locker room wall and started punching her. Her friends yelled at me and her, I remember hearing one girl telling the girl I was hitting to punch me back. If she did hit me back I don’t remember feeling it. The bell rang for our next class and I was stunned. As the crowd walked away the oldest of the Mexican girls looked at me and said “we are gonna kill you”. I walked directly into my PE teacher’s office and told her the entire story through tears. I was late to that next class. My purse disappeared during the fight. Fortunately for me, my best friend had picked it up, she gave it back to me in the next class.
As I went to unlock my bike that afternoon, the same group of girls came up to me and said “We are going to get you in the park weta”. Our science teacher told them all to go where they were going. My mom was asleep when I got home that day, there wasn’t anyone to tell. Obviously my PE teacher switched my team. For six months these girls taunted me, they would shove me in the hall. Make comments in class. One of them tried to switch lockers with the boy who had the locker next to mine so they would have a reason to be close enough to torment me. They waited for me in the park every day, dropped threatening notes in my locker, and punctured my bike tires. I alternated my route to get home on a daily basis to avoid them. I found an alternate route to school that required me to shove my bike under a chain link fence and walk it across a train track. I did this always aware that any minute a group of them could show up. Finally my father got out of the hospital and we moved to southern California.
In This Together
Although, I had avoided another head on altercation with these girls, the daily fear and torment was horrendous. I would like to say we moved and life got better but it would be years of poverty after that due to my fathers illness. My brother and I would not have bedrooms in a house again until we were adults. Several times we lived in cold travel trailers, or shared add on rooms meant to be a patios. All this seems like a lifetime ago. Mexican food is still my favorite food, half my house is decorated with Mexican Talavera (which I love). I bear no malice toward the girls who chased me and taunted me. In fact for a long time I didn’t even see that situation as being racially motivated. I chalked it up to kids being kids. Thinking back, those girls would not have started that fight with one of their friends on first base. Now, 35 years later I can say that my life is different for the better.
Every person in this world lives a life only they know. Every person survives things that they shouldn’t have to survive. Some will say that I only endured this for eight months while others endure it for a lifetime. That is true; I can only be a good person to others. Racism in all its forms is painful. We can strive to be better. We can work together to teach our children to appreciate the differences between our cultures. We can love each other and realize that everyone can be the victim of racism. Every person can find themselves a minority in a place. My experience was a glimpse of what many endure. Now I am thankful for that experience. It has helped shape my understanding. Like most people I would never intentionally be racist to anyone. We have a mixed race family now for which I am also very grateful. We truly are in this together and that is a privilege.