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Years of unlearning black and white

When I was fifteen years old, white and dumb, I landed my first job that paid hourly wages. Two summers caddying at a snooty country club was about enough for me. It was four miles from home. I had to walk that eight-mile round trip to earn $5 for a round. Since I wasn’t working for professionals, a loop on the course might take four hours. Some days I toted two bags for $10. Other days I carried two rounds.

In all, we’re talking about 12 miles of walking for five bucks, ten if I was lucky or had the energy.

So, working in a restaurant for minimum wage, $2.30 an hour, seemed a whole lot more lucrative than walking seven or eight hours a day for five stinking clams. Besides, the restaurant, Gates and Sons Barbeque was less than a half mile away. The walk only took ten minutes.

When I started at Gates, I was usually the only white kid working my shift. I didn’t think very much, if anything, about race relations at the time. Since I was just a kid, I didn’t know much about the work world. I bumbled in, did what I was told, and tried to be a good employee. Four-hour shifts filled my evenings after school. Weekends saw me working six and eight hours. I remember being very proud of my first paycheck.

My education in race and race relations commenced when I clocked in for my first shift. I came from a white suburban and decidedly lower middle-class family. My parents paid for Catholic schools. The people worked with were almost all public-school kids. All of them lived outside my neighborhood. Many took the bus to work.

I never once felt ill-at-ease at Gates. People treated me with respect. The job was clear. I was to make sure the place was clean for customers. As long as I did that, filled the sauce containers, and wiped down the counters, no one said a thing to me about the job.

It was almost like I was the first of a number of white kids Gates took on. Soon, my sister joined me. She worked the counter taking orders and serving food. One of my friends, a ne’er-do-well guy by the name of Joe started working at the restaurant shortly after I started. A couple of girls from my high school started working the counter.

But overall, the place was a Black restaurant. There was one white guy, Larry, who worked the (chopping) block, working the meat slicer, making sandwiches, and chopping ribs. Other than that, everyone who worked in the back was Black—the managers, the pit bosses, and the guys who worked the block.

After a year or more, I graduated from bussing tables and wiping counters to working the block. The transition was momentous. Out on the floor, I more or less worked by myself. But in the back, I met everyone. It was then that I began to learn what Black Americans on the lower end of the social stick had to go through.

Since Gates was a felon-friendly employer, I worked with men and women who had been to prison. Many were taking their first steps to a new life, new opportunities. Some had been around the block a few times. It was a professional place and the Gates management did everything they could to provide a safe place to work and earn a living.

There were conflicts. People got frustrated with their jobs, with the management. Some felt shorted or put upon when the days grew long and the crowds deep. Tempers flared. But I remember these instances because there were so few.

When I walked into Gates, I had prejudices. I had been taught Blacks were different than whites, had a different culture, did things differently. But surrounded by people who knew what they were about and what they were doing, I was soon disabused of the notions I’d caught when I was younger that Blacks were somehow less intelligent and more creature-like than white people. I soon found out that my coworkers had the same aspirations I had. They wanted to go to school. They wanted to make a living. They wanted to be independent and self-standing.

Besides, I had my eyes wide open. Outside of my petty and misplaced assumptions, I made no judgements of my coworkers and they made none of me—that they made known to me. No one ever called me a peckerwood or cracker. Some of the older men, took me under their wings and taught me how to deal with Black Americans in a sensitive and open way. I sometimes made it clear in my naïve and backwards way that I was from White America and had been privileged. Certainly, I didn’t have great social skills. But under the tutelage of well-meaning and good-hearted men and women, I gained an education in race that few whites ever get in racially divided America.

I can’t remember what happened after I left the restaurant, what my next job was. But I learned that the lessons of my childhood about Black Americans, the kinds of prejudices and hatreds that went against my very being, were misguided and wrong, even evil.

Moreover, I had been right all along. When I was in grade school, I had played with the Black kids in school and at the public pool, despite the forces arrayed against me and them. I endured the excoriation of the other white kids when it became clear I had black friends. Somewhere along the way, under guidance of parents, family, and friends, I lost contact with Black kids. Due to the circumstances of school and society, there were none around.

In that absence, the pernicious fungus of racial animus grew. It seemed benign enough—jokes and epithets thrown around between white friends. It wasn’t until I started at Gates, was given the opportunities my coworkers had, and found myself in comfortable surroundings that I realized that even the most soft-spoken words of prejudice grated against my being.

After a while at Gates, I felt almost like I had come home. And I had a secret I carried with me back home every night. Black people were not all criminals, junkies, and drug dealers. They were flesh-and-blood people with the same kinds of tendernesses and hard bumps I had. It’s not that I liked all my coworkers. Some were not nice. But no matter who they were, no one ever treated me like I was below or above them.

My experience at Gates did not make me racially enlightened. It would take years of unlearning to undo the tangles of prejudice I’d gained from my upbringing. And still, I am learning, trying to become pure at heart. I have a way to go. But due to the lessons Gates taught me, I know what offends my own soul.  

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