Talking Race With the Emeritus Professor in the Days of Malcolm and Martin

This comes from a very interesting thread including a conversation on race and racism with Human. I realized that what I could have continued to say in the comments thread merited a post of its own. Now I am writing notes toward that post. I am too tired after four hours of faculty meetings to meet the normal standard of lyrical prose that this post merits.

The Emeritus Professor is my father and he taught me a few things about race when I was a toddler. My mother taught me several things as well but they were by example and I have discussed them in the original comments thread. The point is that we knew and had as friends various Hispanic and Asian personages but that we did not have Black friends, only Black associates and playmates, and that this was because of the large Hispanic and Asian presence in our town, and the small Black presence.

The focus of this post is TALKING ABOUT RACE WITH TODDLERS AND PRIMARY SCHOOL STUDENTS. This is primarily a post for WHITE PEOPLE. I am exhausted and it is 11:12 PM CST so as I say, the post will not be written in the lyrical prose it merits.


The first Black person I became aware of was Martin Luther King, who was alive and whom we studied in the first grade. I then realized there were other Black people: the ones on the records the Emeritus Professor played, and the seven children who lived in our Open Housing neighborhood and who were allowed to play at our house and at some other houses, but not at all houses. There were also Black people who lived on Sixth Street, where the Happy Soul Shine Parlor existed. We were impressed that they had made it to California but we did not really know them. Additional Black people were janitors at the university. Some of them came from Louisiana. They could not afford houses in our town and commuted in, so only the Emeritus Professor knew them directly. Their accents resembled the accents on the Emeritus Professor’s 78 rpm phonograph records, and also the accents of many people I know now.

Although my mother taught me various important things about race I tended to ask QUESTIONS of the Emeritus Professor because he was a professor. Consider now that I studied Martin Luther King and Malcolm X with a very conscious teacher, I should actually call her a professor, in the first grade. Consider that I did not hear a racist word at home but that I had nevertheless absorbed a number of prejudices from reading and from observing the culture. In this context consider some interactions I had with the Emeritus Professor on the matter of race. Consider how shocked I was. Then consider that I had a very privileged upbringing.


Toddler Zero: Chinese people speak Cantonese and read Mandarin, and they have special foods. Hispanic people speak Spanish if I have understood correctly, Nahuatl, and they also have special foods. Black people look different but they do not speak another language or have special food. What do they bring here?

Emeritus Professor: They come from a continent which has many languages, but we eradicated these languages from them in the seventeenth century. They do in fact have special foods, but those foods are not served in restaurants here. They have created American music, which is world famous. They have made significant improvements to the Constitution of the United States, an important document, and they are working to make further improvements to this document now.


One day a television arrived, sent to us by the EP’s aunt. On it we saw Cassius Clay say “I’m so pretty.” Eventually we saw Muhammad Ali, live, enter a Federal prison for draft evasion. In the meantime we saw Martin Luther King speak, and we observed many music programs. We saw Odetta sing, and then we saw Leslie Uggams.

When Leslie Uggams came on screen, the EP trembled. “My God, she is so beautiful.”

Toddler Zero: She is not beautiful, just as I am not beautiful. In all the Fairy Books, which YOU have given me, only the princesses are beautiful. They are blonde and blue-eyed.
EP: Well … yes. But Petrarch is very limited. Your mother is neither blonde nor blue-eyed, and I am in love with her. Leslie Uggams is beautiful as well.
Toddler Zero: All right, I will think about it [for several years].


One day the Emeritus Professor took me swimming at the university swimming pool. At the pool we met one of the first Black people I had seen in person, who was also a professor.

Emeritus Professor: Hello, [Walter], this is my daughter, Grammar School Student Zero!
[Walter]: Hello, Grammar School Student Zero!
GSS0: Hello!
EP: [W], did you go to Academic Senate Wednesday? I was absent, I had another meeting, but I heard from a colleague that…. So, what do you think? Will the Chancellor actually approve this program?
GSS0 [aside]: My God. We have studied race in school and everything, but I did not know that I would ever see an INTEGRATED SWIMMING POOL in person. And then look at the EP. He acts as though all of this were normal. And the National Guard is not here. The EP does not appear to feel that he needs to discuss the speech by Martin Luther King we all heard on television last night. He acts as though all of this were over, and he moves right on to discuss work! What is going on? Is he avoiding the obvious issue at hand, or has he moved beyond it?
EP: Let’s all go swimming, it is Saturday, after all.


I had a very privileged upbringing. If I love my parents it is in part because of the things I relate here, which have stood me in good stead. All of the things related here took place in a university town in California, at the time more segregated than anywhere I have been in South Louisiana, where I have now been for almost twenty years. But the events here recounted barely began to get me to question the various forms of racism I absorbed living in this culture. I have since had many adventures around these. Some adventures are discussed in my 2006 memoir.


I get tired sometimes of people who want to educate me about race because I am an American and now also a Southerner. I am usually patient but sometimes I want to write a rebuttal in the form of an avant-garde manifesto. It might say:

Talk to me, white Yankee mothafucka. Tell me something my Southern, I-10 driving ass needs to know. I am a sculpted skull on a stela, remember, and I am not from the United States but from Greater Mexico.

Me cago en la pinche corrección política, que aquí estamos estudiando y nadie predica.

I speak foreign languages and you should try learning one if you would like a close encounter with otherness.

I am directly descended from Roger Williams, Henry Ward Beecher, and Harriet Beecher Stowe, and also from the owners of Frederick Douglass. I incorporate every fortunate and unfortunate strain of American whiteness, and I am not better than you.

Come on down. Y’heah? Read Clio Bluestocking‘s related manifesto.


14 thoughts on “Talking Race With the Emeritus Professor in the Days of Malcolm and Martin

  1. Gracias, companieras … so is my childhood experience unusual / weird, or normal … I think of it as normal, but I am starting to suspect it is not.

  2. So, was it so obvious that you saw the errors instantly, or did it lead to a long, slow realization …

    Human said her parents specifically wanted to be and wanted her to be non racist, but this ended up giving her blocks.

  3. I had a high school boyfriend whose parents were openly racist; they used the n-word to a group of strangers who upset them while we were at a parade. Andy was non racist as I was (which is to say we tried, even if we weren’t always successful). I don’t know how he picked it up. I was never sure how that worked.

  4. Your parents did a good job with you on the race question.
    My parents were ambivalent about race. Both of them had some southern European and native American ancestry and had experienced low-level discrimination when compared to people with lighter skin. I get teased a lot in Hawaii for looking like a “Portagee.”
    When it comes to race, I always see things from a personal, rather than an official, point of view. I think about the blacks I have known over the years, such as the nurses I worked with who taught me some things about proper behavior and how to stop being so silly, or the friend who lived in the apartment who had a baby the same age as mine who was my “running buddy” then. (Her kids are grown and gone now, like mine.)
    Sure my parents were leftists, but there was always something constructed about their attitudes toward race. I don’t see things that way. I can get indignant about racism, but I always feel a little bit like I’m putting on an act when I do that.
    Of course my all-time number one hero is Martin Luther King, but that whole political thing, while essential, seems less compelling to me than my personal relationships with black people.

  5. My parents didn’t seem to have an attitude about race when I was in Zimbabwe, or if they did, it was dissolved under the umbrella of “class” and muted. It was when they had been in Australia for a long while, that the more virulent discriminatory attitudes came out, especially in my mother. My father, however, has always been a dyed in the wool misogynist, which was also exacerbated upon migrating (probably in correlation with his unhappiness.)

    When the schools in Zim became desegregated and I took my new black friend horseriding me with, my parents did not mind it at all.

  6. Sometime I should write down some stories about the adventures of Johnny, the only Black child in our school. They include

    my mother not understanding what he meant by having “ashy” skin, and getting all embarrassed

    the time he got suspended for throwing my brother’s lunch onto the roof – at my brother’s request, as it turned out upon investigation

    The post title would be something like confused / well meaning white liberals. They are in fact stories the family tells on itself now, and laughs.


  7. Never had that kind of experience. I remember when the first black child appeared in my baby brother’s nursery school class. His name was Terence, but because of his accent, my brother used to pronounce his name like Teerehnce. He didn’t do this with any of the other names (Africanise them), so I guess he just thought it was the guy’s name.

  8. P.S. Sorry – I’m in an evil mood. A Dutchman e-mailed to announce that Americans may not realize it, but Obama is mixed and we should be calling him a mulatto … and earlier someone wrote in to say I should not be thinking about what I was thinking about. So I am not letting anyone say “that kind of experience” today without explaining themselves.

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