I was nine years old and my brother two years younger when we met Tina and Tony in our neighborhood. We quickly became good friends with them. Tina and Tony spent a lot of time at our house and we spent the rest of the time at their house.
When our church encouraged us to bring our friends with us for vacation bible school, we knew immediately that we would invite our best friends Tina and Tony.
On the first day of vacation bible school, the church bus arrived at our house to take the four of us to the Southern Baptist church that we had attended since we moved into town. We arrived at the church and everyone piled out of the bus and into the church for the beginning of bible school. My brother and I noticed right away that we didn’t see Tina and Tony and wondered where they had gone. No one would tell us anything when we asked about them.
When we got home at the end of the day, we told Mom that Tina and Tony came with us to church but we didn’t see them all day and they weren’t on the bus when we came home. Mom went over to speak with Tina and Tony’s mother and when she returned, we could see that she was livid.
Tina and Tony’s mother told Mom what happened after our bus arrived at the church. All of the children left the bus – except Tina and Tony. They were not allowed to leave the bus and join us in church. Tina and Tony were driven to and left at another church in the area – a black church. Tony was so upset that he ran crying in shame to his grandmother’s nearby house because he was not allowed to go to our church.
Mom can be outspoken – this is an understatement. She has been known to use strong and socially unacceptable language when she’s angry – and she won’t deny that. Mom called our minister to “discuss” the incident. The minister calmly questioned my Mom to determine whether she understood why my brother and I should not associate with Tina and Tony. Mom decided that she had heard enough when the minister asked, “would you allow your children to sleep with Tina and Tony?” My brother and I, of course, were too young to understand what “sleeping” with someone meant. We were also fortunate that mom sent us outside when she called the minister. Otherwise, our ears would still be burning to this day.
Needless to say, we never again attended that church. We never saw Tina and Tony after the incident and their family soon moved away. I never forgot what happened though and wrote this story for an English Composition class in college. I find that I can write much more candidly about the incident now more than 30 years later. As I write it, I cry as I think of Tony running to his grandmother’s house in tears.
I’ve learned that we are not born seeing differences in people, we are taught these things by our families, friends and society. The enlightenment we had as children when we learned that Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny aren’t real can’t compare to the awful truth we faced when we were told that Tina and Tony shouldn’t be our friends because of their skin color.
Should anyone think that teaching of bias is confined to the South, I’ll share a conversation that occurred in more recent years in the Northeast. Richard and I went to visit his friend and co-worker whose children thought of us as their uncle and auntie. When we arrived, young J. was sitting on the stoop with her friend.
J.’s friend: Who is that man?
J.: That’s my uncle Rick
J.s friend: He’s not your uncle, he’s white.
J. learned the “awful truth” on that day from her young friend who was no longer colorblind. J. was suddenly aware of the social differences implied by our difference in skin color.
When I became an adult, I learned that my family had experienced bias because Dad and my brother had brown skin that turned almost black after just a few hours in the sun. We were perceived to be an interracial family. My brother and I have Native American blood from both parents but I inherited white skin from my mother. Our Native blood was a family secret that had been kept for many years because Native Americans are marginalized as non-white people in the part of the country where my parents were born. I usually do not share information about my Native ancestry as I am aware of bias against Native Americans. Since I have white skin, I can keep my secret except from those who recognize my non-white facial features.
I’ve wondered about Tina and Tony over the years and hoped that their lives turned out well. I’m sure they faced hostility because of their race after the church incident but that doesn’t lessen the impact of the incident that took place over 30 years ago. If I were to meet Tina and Tony again, I can only say, “I’m sorry.” Then I’d say, “I’m sorry that you had to learn the awful truth that day.”