I once took an online test, involving faces, words, and reaction times, that returned the result “You have a moderate preference for African-Americans over whites.”

Now, I don’t think that’s accurate. Except for my huge weakness for Asian or Asian American children (because they remind me of my own kids, now all grown up), I don’t think I have a preference for any race or ethnicity. (NOTE: Before you get all up in my face, I am not saying that I am not affected by racism in society.)

In the fall of 1952, I went to kindergarten in Des Moines, Iowa. As was the case in much of my early years, my father was somewhere else, finding construction work where he could, and my mother, my 11-months-younger brother, and I were living where we could find a place. It was during the Korean War, there wasn’t a lot of non-military construction going on, and affordable housing was hard to find. The place we were living this time was a basement apartment, not in the best part of town. I remember the plumbing pipes that ran near our ceiling; my mother told me years later that there were rats.

So off I went to kindergarten. It says something about the way kids lived then that at 5, in a city and not the best part of it, I walked alone several blocks to and from school each day.

In my kindergarten class I had two “best” friends and two “second-best” friends. But one of my best friends was special, because I saw her as being the most like me of any of the girls. Why? When I stood behind Karen in line, I was looking straight at the back of her head–she was as tall as I! That was the first and last time I would ever have that experience in school.

We didn’t live there long. I may never have known Karen’s last name, and I can’t remember even the first names of the other best and second-best friends. But I’ve thought of her thousands of times, I’ll bet, in the more than 60 years since then. She had been like me–a tall girl–the only female classmate I would ever have who was as tall as I.

I think it’s to the credit of my mother, a small-town Midwesterner born in 1922, that it never occurred to me that Karen wasn’t like me…although Karen was black. I may have been aware at the time that she was “Negro,” as was politely said then, but I had no awareness, none at all, that she was therefore “not like me.” Lots of girls in my class had my color skin, my color hair, my color eyes, and others had Karen’s. But among them all, only Karen and I could look each other straight in the eye when we held hands to play “London Bridges.”

That was two years before Brown v. Board of Education. So probably I had those two years before I found out (and find out I would, as I was a precocious child given to reading the newspaper) that in many places in the land of the free not only could Karen and I not have been friends, we couldn’t have gone to the same school.

What I know came from that experience is that never in my life have I looked at the color of another person’s skin and automatically thought “not like me.” It’s one of the greatest gifts life has given me.

{Parts of this appeared previously in my LiveJournal.]

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