Sunday, April 24, 2016

Perceptions of a Pretentious Past

Our neighbour places artificial flowers in her window boxes and planters in the summer. Not just a few flowers, but lots of dollar store blooms. There is no need to water or dead-head them and their perfect shapes do not wilt in a heat wave. 

My Canadian parents went to South Africa as lay missionaries two years after they were married and I was born in Pretoria. The country was part of the British Commonwealth and colonial, idealistic attitudes prevailed. Missionary story books of that era referred to native people as “savages” who needed salvation. The Enid Blyton books I loved as a child also had racist overtones and current editions are edited significantly. Apartheid policies created a segregated society but our family was in the elite class even though we were far from wealthy. Our black servant lived in a separate small one room structure behind our house. I remember going on the “non-european” bus with her occasionally when she was running an errand. This was the way things were and there was nothing wrong with race relations in my world. South Africa was going through social upheaval at the time but my white life was as beautiful as my neighbour’s window boxes and planters. 

Our family returned to Canada when I was in Grade 3 and we lived in the Toronto area for the next eight years. We attended a church in the city that was even more conservative than society in general. The congregation had a number of black members from Jamaica. They sat together on the left side of the church and the white members clustered together because that was the way everyone liked it. The Jamaicans were lively, friendly people but they socialized and married within their own group and I never remember visiting their homes.

I became friends with Carol, a Jamaican girl my age. We were in the same Sunday School class and sometimes we sat together during church. I remember asking Carol to come to our house after church for dinner as my guest. She was surprised at the invitation and said her father would not allow it. For the first time in my 12 years I realized that there was an unjust divide between black and white people. The civil rights movement was in full swing at the time, but I was oblivious to what was going on south of the border. 

I began reading library books about slavery, the underground railway and the inhuman treatment of Africans who were brought to the Americas. I remember writing my thoughts about racism on pages of foolscap in passionate paragraphs that flowed from my troubled mind. In talking to my parents about my discoveries, I was shocked to find out that my own grandmother was born in Jamaica to a white mother and black father. We visited her often and she was fair-skinned in my opinion, not black, especially when compared to the Africans I knew. But I learned that she was the first woman “of colour” to live in the small town north of Toronto. To this day my father has never liked to talk about his mother’s heritage and I wondered what words he heard growing up as a child. Would Grandma have been allowed to live in our neighbourhood in South Africa? Probably not. 

Snapchat -a silly filter that hides the real me!
Thus began my awareness that things are not always as they appear and injustice is real. I persisted with my invitation and Carol eventually did come to our home for a visit. My parents were kind and well-intentioned, but they created a facade that hid more secrets than the racial background of my grandmother. While some people tend to over-share their personal lives now, I wish I had known and learned from the imperfections of people I was close to as a child and young adult. Things like mental illness, poverty, family discord, marital unfaithfulness, divorce, religious animosity were problems other people had, not us. 

And that is as true as the flowers in my neighbour’s flower boxes and planters. 


9 comments:

  1. How beautifully written, Ruth. I think many from our generation can relate to this so much. It was unspoken in our home, as I never heard anything overtly negative, but it was understood that there was a difference in how different races were viewed. I never went to school with an African American student until I was in high school, as the elementary school I attended was "private" and could quietly discriminate. My husband grew up in the deeper South, and was cared for growing up by a wonderful black woman named Ada, who was "given" to his grandparents when she was only 5. When Ada died back in the late '90's, her service/burial was not in the family cemetery, but in the "black" cemetery as that was what their small town required. Here's hoping that all of this dies with our generation.

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  2. Interesting comment, Jayne. Hard to image a 5 year old being given to a white family in America. While laws have changed, "racism" is barely under the surface and bubbles up far too often whether people are black, Mexican, Muslim, gay, or different in any way. Most people are inclusive but the ones that aren't dominate the headlines.

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  3. Ruth, when I first began reading your blog and you mine, we discovered the mutualties of our childhoods. Yours in South Africa, mine in S. Rhodesia. Although Rhodesia never had as developed an apartheid, I did see the rigid separation of black and white. It was my first encounter with overt racism. I recall being in Haddon & Sly, the main department store in Bulawayo. I stepped up to the counter to make a purchase, behind an African already waiting. The clerk rudely ignored that customer and started to serve me. The clerk very pointedly said--that's a kaffir (the word is like the N word here). I was so stunned. I don't recall what I did. But I never forgot that awful prejudice.

    It is a testament to your deep personal ethos that you have overcome the effects of such a childhood.

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  4. Ruth, I join you and Donna in the regrets about the ways in which people were treated around us in the worlds in which we grew up as mission kids. I grew up with an amah always working for us (and living in the back room, most of those years). We loved our amahs. It was a shock, when I was in college, to learn that my context was looked down on, along with colonialism.

    I also noticed, growing up, that the locals had a great desire for lighter skin, and would cover up whenever they were out in the sun. I always thought that was strange. My parents didn't talk about skin color...except when it came to American blacks, and later on, Mexicans. I cringed every time. One time when my mom was commenting negatively (I still remember that we were on our way to church and she had noticed a couple of tourists walking along the road) about interracial marriage, I busted out with, "The sooner we all intermarry, the better." I can't say she liked that comment much.

    And it's still there. Last year one of my chairs (now retired) commented negatively that so many people applying for our faculty opening were black, and "you have to be alert, because they often have an attitude." Oh boy. I chose not to take her on, but I think the department suffered, because they lost a good prospect along the way.

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  5. Ruth I have so missed the depth that you put into your posts--this is beautiful. Have you read any of the books by Alexandra Fuller? She grew up in Rhodesia and writes thoughtfully of the way that she was raised. Thank you for writing this and I am so happy to be able to listen to your thoughts again.

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  6. Great post, Ruth. We were a poor family living in Montreal, but there were coloured folk at our church, and as a young kid, I certainly got the impression that my mother thought we were better than them. I went out with an Italian girl at our church in Toronto in my teenage years for a while, and that was traumatic for her. How odd that a poorer, not very educated white woman could feel her 'race' so superior is an odd thing. But she was a product of her times and never got beyond it. Lest I give the wrong impression, there was no overt mendacity, just a feeling of smug superiority from what I can tell.

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  7. I want to echo Beth's comment above about how wonderful it is to hear your words again, Ruth! I too have missed the depth that you so casually reach.

    Prejudice is something we all have to battle everyday and I think the first step in that is to be willing and courageous enough to examine it in ourselves.

    Ive had the new-to-me experience here in Atlanta of often being the only white person in a room, or among my coworkers, and learning to navigate that in a thoughtful way has been eye-opening.

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  8. I loved the interesting comments above. Thanks for adding to the post and sharing your personal experiences.

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