What I Did For An “A”
1980. It’s my first year at a small all-girls (what was I thinking?) college just outside of Boston—quaint, with dorms refashioned from large Victorian homes. It was just a short ride on the T into the city, yet the school setting seemed worlds away from Boston’s intense racial tensions I had read about in the newspaper, and seen on television back then. There was a major rift, and there had been riots between the all-white, Irish Catholic neighborhood of South Boston whose residents strongly protested the busing of black students from the all-black neighborhood of Roxbury. Rodney King hadn’t happened yet, but still at eighteen, I wondered, “Couldn’t we all just get along?”
When we were assigned to write an essay in my freshman English class, I decided I’d take a stand and write about race relations. I wrote about growing up in Waterbury, Connecticut and how in my very integrated high school, everyone pretty much got along. I asked how come that couldn’t happen in Boston, too. Shortly after my essay was turned in, I sat alone after class one day with my professor to discuss it.
“Wendy, I think you did a good job on your essay. You speak up on behalf of race relations between blacks and whites, and note examples of the friendships you had in high school with students who were black.” The professor, in his brown, preppy, corduroy jacket, looked serious, thoughtful, as he continued. “However, I want to ask you to answer the question of whether you ever have, or ever would date a black person, and explore that as part of your desire to speak up on race relations, ” he challenged me.
I left class wondering what the professor’s motives were. I was just eighteen years old, and not so sophisticated. My mind started racing, and I worried about what I should do. I did have a boyfriend back home in Connecticut who was black.
I thought to myself, well, maybe my white, Bostonian English professor is prejudiced against black people. If I wrote that I would date a black person, then maybe I would get a bad grade. Or, even worse I thought, was that he would take my dating a black person as the reason why I was so pro-black. I would be a “N” lover, a white girl who only goes out with black guys, whose intellect and whole belief system wouldn’t be worth two cents. This is what went through my head, and I copped out.
I edited my essay, and wrote that although I didn’t think there was anything wrong with interracial dating, I thought I probably wouldn’t date a black person because of the difficult societal pressures that we would probably experience. I went on to name the imagined, though I really did experience them, scenarios of people staring and making derogatory comments on the street or in restaurants: “Salt and pepper don’t mix.” Of white girlfriends asking, “How could you go out with a black person, you’re too good for that!” Only they didn’t say “black person,” they used the “N” word. Of my white guy friends half-teasing, half-serious warnings, “Once you go black, you never go back.” Of black girls looking at me with narrow eyes, and letting my boyfriend know he was no good for having to go outside his race to date a white girl. No, not me, I couldn’t deal with that, and it was best I didn’t date a black person, even though I personally saw nothing wrong with it.
I turned in my revised essay. I’m pretty sure I got a good grade on it. The teacher even commented in another of those after-class discussions that it was probably a wise decision I was making to not date a person outside of my race, because of the difficulty society has with it. I wondered whether he really meant it, or if he knew I had wimped out, and could see through my lies on the page. I alternately wondered if he was glad; relieved that I would stick with my own race.
My boyfriend came to visit me in school soon after this, and I proudly gave him the essay to read when we were in my dorm room. Once it was in his hands I remembered about the revisions, and tried to tear the paper away from him before he would get to the page where I erased our relationship from my life, but it was too late. He wouldn’t let go of the paper, and kept on reading.
When he finished, he paused, then looked up at me from the bed, and said with a big grin on his face, “I’m glad you had the good sense to never date a black guy.”
I was no longer proud of taking a stand on weakened knees.
We didn’t break up over that—our break-up had more to do with his being conflicted about his religion—he was a Jehovah’s Witness-I was a Jewish girl. He wanted to marry a good, Jehovah Witness girl, not someone like me, who at the time, smoked cigarettes and drank too much.
But, that’s beside the point. Today, while I can forgive myself for being young, naive, and impressionable, I still wish I had told the truth in that essay. I wonder what my grade would have been.
I now know that the grade wouldn’t have mattered.