When I Was “Society’s Child”
Growing up, I thought a racist was someone like my dad
My father was overtly racist, a lifelong NRA member who yelled epithets at the TV whenever Black people were portrayed as anything other than minstrels or servants or the comfortably laughable characters in Amos ‘N Andy. A show like Julia, as sanitized as it was, could provoke him to mouth-foaming rages, so we only watched it when he was out of town.
There wasn’t a racial or ethnic group who escaped his ire. When a recent immigrant from Hungary bought the empty lot across the street from us and built a house there, my father complained about the “goddam hunky” who’d moved into the neighborhood. From this I learned that, in my dad’s worldview, it wasn’t enough to be white: you had to be the right kind of white.
By the time I was in high school, I recognized his fervent rages toward the Other was a symptom: of his limitations, of his frustrated attempts to find purchase in the world; of his drinking. He was also a hopeless hypocrite: he hated all Black people, except for the ones he knew and was friends with. How they tolerated him mystifies me to this day.
My mother did not approve of my father’s vehemence; it was unpleasant and impolite, which led me to mistakenly assume she repudiated his views. It took me a long time to understand that she merely held them in a milder, less forthright version.
So, if I wasn’t like Dad, I figured I was by definition anti-racist
In the late ’60s, I listened to Janis Ian’s “Society’s Child” over and over again. At the time, my (white) friends and I thought of it as an anthem of rebellion, a strike back at the forces of bigotry.
For those of you who aren’t familiar, the song’s lyrics (written when Ian was 13 years old!) express the feelings of a young white girl in love with a Black boy — and her pain at the humiliation he suffers at the hands of her family, as well as the ostracism she experiences from her peers at school.
I kind of missed the point that at the end of the song, the girl gives in to the intense social pressure and sadly bids goodbye to her boyfriend. She’s not, as it turns out, a rebel, she’s “only society’s child.”
It’s an intensely emotional song, and it was a huge hit, and it made me feel sad and angry and romantic and resentful of the suffocating white-bread society represented by my parents’ generation. My generation, I blithely assumed, was going to change all that once we were in charge. Meanwhile, I was busy with things like school and growing up.
And then that song played out in my real life
In my junior year of high school, the county I lived in began busing students from other, socio-economically disadvantaged districts to the high school I attended. Up until that time, my school was almost entirely white, with the exception of a few Asian and Hispanic students (and back then, we didn’t use those terms: those kids were labeled as Chinese or Mexican). The only Black kid at school was in the special ed classroom.
But that year the busses from Ravenswood (I am not making that name up) arrived, and with them came a young man I’ll call Howard. Intelligent, handsome, with a rollicking sense of humor and a warm, generous nature, Howard was instantly adopted by the group of students I hung out with — the theater kids. I was drawn to him not only because he was so attractive and fun to be with, but because he seemed much more in command of himself than the other boys I knew. For lack of a better term at the time, I felt that Howard had class.
So when he asked me to the junior prom, I was thrilled.
It still fills me with pain to think about what happened next
My friends advised me to lie to my parents and simply sneak out to the prom. I knew that wasn’t going to work and I was too scared to try anyway, a fear I hid from myself by dressing it as idealism. Boldly, I announced my upcoming date — to my mother, not my father.
She instantly went into defensive mode, panicked that Dad would find out, desperate to explain to me that even if this was “a nice boy,” I was risking the good opinion of Other People — not just of me, but of my family. And if my father did catch on that I was contemplating going out with a Negro (as she put it) . . . well, there was no telling.
Recall that Dad was a card-carrying NRA member. Our house was studded with loaded weapons. Other than my father, I grew up with my mother and sisters, a house full of women surrounded by the constant, silent, tangible threat of violence.
And so, at school, I told Howard I couldn’t go to prom with him. I told him why, somehow thinking that the fact of my parents’ bigotry would lessen the sting. I said I was really, really, sorry. To this day, 50 years later, I can see the look on his face as I broke his heart.
What wounded him so deeply wasn’t my turning him down for a date, I’m sure: it was the brutal intrusion of racism into what he’d thought of as a better world we were growing up into. I’d thought the same thing, and I too was saddened and discouraged to have been so wrong.
But for Howard, the stakes were higher. So much higher, in a way that I had no frame to properly understand.
Here’s the ugly thing: I went to the prom anyway
One of the drama kids, a friend-boy of mine and a mutual friend of Howard’s, asked me. He was white, of course, and we were buddies, and it never occurred to either of us — not for years, anyway — that our going to the dance together would add hurt to the damage I’d already caused Howard.
I got my hair done at a salon and wore the powder-blue satin dress my mother sewed for me. My father took stiffly posed pictures. My date and I had a nice time. I was home before midnight.
Howard did not attend.
In our senior year, Howard took a different name
He became a Black Muslim and wore a beret and often an armband to school. He hung out less with the drama kids and more with the Black students who were coalescing into a campus Black Power movement.
When our paths did cross, he was still friendly, still kind to me. Once, when we were at a small party at a friend’s house, he and I danced together. The song was soft and slow, and as it concluded he kissed me, once, a kiss so sad and gentle that it makes my heart squeeze a half-century later.
And then we said goodnight, and I let him go
Because that was the safest thing to do. Enshrouded in my whiteness, it was also the easiest thing to do. I drifted off and into the rest of my life, sheltered and oblivious to the privilege that allowed me to leave Howard and his pain and all that awkwardness behind.
But the shame still lives, lodged in an inner chamber of my heart. These days, it’s festering, rising to the surface. I am so disappointed in myself.
Is it any help? Or is it simply contemptible? I don’t know, but it’s there.