How I Learned to be a Racist by Lois Biener


By Lois Biener

I parked my car with my dog inside in the small lot behind Peet’s Coffee to run in for some beans.  Leaving the car, I noticed three black men hanging out, probably on a smoke break from their work in the attached building.  I double-checked to make sure my car was locked.  As I walked around to the front door, I chastised myself for my automatic response.  I rarely lock my car.  Why did I do that?

Lessons in racism started early.  I grew up in a neighborhood that was not only racially segregated, it was 60 to 70% Jewish.  I could tell my mother was much happier when I played with the Jewish kids than with the few non-Jews.  No explicit reason was given, but the subtle message of invidious group distinctions was delivered.

The only black person I knew in my early years was Willie Mae who cleaned our house and took care of me after school.  I was very fond of her, as she was of me.  My parents referred to her as “the schvartze,” but not in her presence.  Her daughter, Gweny, was my age, and Willie Mae brought her to our house now and then.  Being invited to Gweny’s 5th birthday party caused my parents great consternation.  I really wanted to go, although I can’t remember if I actually did.  They told me that her home was in a dirty and dangerous neighborhood and that I wouldn’t be comfortable there.  I recall Willie Mae expressing resentment to me about the attitudes white people had toward her.  I felt torn in my loyalties to her and to my parents.

My father, a small-time criminal lawyer, dealt primarily with “colored” people who got in trouble for numbers running and other petty crimes.  Although he was proud to have their respect and appreciation, I had many opportunities to hear about their terrible living conditions and people referred to as “dumb shines,” but at least not “niggers.”

Until high school, I had few opportunities to see or relate to black people.  My high-school was about 50% black and 50% Jewish.  Most of the black kids were tracked into vocational courses, so I didn’t become friendly with many of them.  The one area where race seemed irrelevant was choir.  This was a 3-day a week commitment with frequent concerts in and out of school, often at churches during Christmas, much to my parents’ dismay.  I loved being in the choir, and I had the experience of participating with excellent African-American singers.  I remember anticipating with pleasure the place in the program where a wonderful soprano would perform a solo aria from Handel’s Messiah.

I can’t remember when I first started to actively reject the notion that black people were inherently “less than.”  The civil rights movement of the 60’s occurred when I was an undergraduate, and all the media attention to the injustice in the south was certainly an important factor.  Graduate school in the late 60’s and 70’s and all the political movements of that time led me to intellectually reject racism.   Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, and other writers of the black experience were important contributors to my growing understanding and empathy.  The more recent sickening repetition of the killing of black men by white policeman has been a tipping point in sparking my motivation to be more proactive.

Now I’m trying to deal with the unconscious reactions that led me to go back and lock my car door in the Peet’s parking lot or the avoidance of eye-contact when passing black men on the street.   Rooting out this behavior takes conscious effort.  It is important to bring into awareness the subtle perceptual biases that many of us white people have internalized over our lifetimes so that the source of those biases can be examined.

Riding the train from NYC last week, friends and I were looking for facing seats.  I found one six-seater occupied by a young black man.  I looked at him, smiled, and sat down.  I’m trying.  We all must do much more.

BOLLI Member Lois Biener

A social scientist by “trade,” Lois enjoys her time at BOLLI, sings with two different groups, throws pots,  spends quality time with her daughter and grandson, and  relishes planning the next trip with her husband.

10 thoughts on “How I Learned to be a Racist by Lois Biener”

  1. Lois, your piece is a great reminder of what we all learned by living in the 50’s. Life was simpler, or so we thought. A very thoughtful and appropriate piece, thank you.

    1. Thanks, Lydia. I’ve been wondering about how younger people are introduced to racial differences. It might be a good idea to interview our kids on this topic.

  2. I am so glad you wrote this piece. I think about this issue a lot and find myself struggling with it. It’s hard to totally run ones up bringing. There are an increasing number of books and YouTube presentations on white privilege and covert prejudice.

    1. Hi Cindy,
      Thanks for your comment. It is hard. But worth working on, no?
      I think writing about helps. I think it might be a good idea to have a blog devoted to people’s experiences and ideas on this topic.


  3. Lois: I enjoyed your piece, and though I grew up in a very different neighborhood, I share many of the same perceptions. I’d love to talk to you about the topic.

    1. Thanks, Dennis. I’d love to talk to you about your experiences. Let’s get together when the fall classes start.

  4. Hi Lois, Thank you for this piece. My husband’s (and my) Senior Moment blog this month relate. If you can, give it a read.
    Although I was not brought up in a household where racism was expressed, as you describe your experience in the parking lot, I too seem to have a “knee jerk” response in certain circumstances and am purposefully examining my responses.
    My daughter-in-law’s family and 3 granddaughters are of Indian heritage. Believe it or not, I never thought of them as “brown” until the 15 year old responded to her first week of high school as “everyone looks the same”;meaning “white”. She is not the only brown student yet her initial experience going from the Lincoln school system to Lincoln/Sudbury High School was stressful at first. She has fully adjusted but her experience gave me plenty of food for thought.
    Liz David

  5. Lois, I found myself relating to your experience growing up in the 50’s (in my case beginnning in the early 40’s) with the same parental/grandparent parallel attitudes toward race, the “svartzah,” a live-in black maid, my father helping the black man who had a drinking problem at his factory etc. Then, of course, came society’s civil rights awakening. All well and good as a concept. But fear of blacks, especially in small groups on a sidewalk still made us nervous. Then the years pass. A black President is elected! Elation for many.

    How wonderful it is to see how my adult child’s values, (learned, observed, passed on, inhaled) evidenced itself in friends of all different cultures, races, multi-sexes. His live-in girlfriend of 7 years is black. I consider her the daughter I never had. My only regret is she isn’t Jewish. She will always be family no matter their future together or not.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Joan. I asked my daughter what she learned as a child about black people. I was relieved to hear that she learned that everyone is equal and that black people were often not treated fairly. I really don’t know if she has a fear response in certain situations. I need to ask her about that.

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