Sometimes a little life experience sticks in our memory and we don’t know why we still remember it after six or seven decades. I think it might be because the experience is a lesson, like a little parable from God. It stays with us because we are meant to learn something from it, something important. I learned about the abuse of power when I was twelve. Its importance was unrecognized at the time, of course, but six decades later, I understand why the experience stayed with me so vividly that I can still recall the smallest detail.
I was, at that time and place (not in other times and places), the most popular girl in my seventh-grade class. There was a little clique of girls, Runell, Joan, Frieda, and Margaret, who were my friends. Margaret was my best friend. Schools in Georgia at that time were divided into elementary and high schools; the middle-school concept had not yet arrived. Elementary schools taught grades one through seven. Our school principal decided we could learn about government by forming a student council. As seventh graders, our representative to the council would be its president. I was nominated and so was David Mink, my opponent. I was sure I would win. We campaigned, the election was held, and I lost. During recess, my friends and I waited in the classroom to see who the winner would be, and Mrs. Cox came into the room and wrote the names on the chalkboard. I was stunned. We immediately chattered in protest, and then Margaret said she had voted for David, because she believed he would be the better president.
I don’t know what lesson Margaret learned here, if any, but I fled to the girls’ room and locked myself in a stall, too shocked even to be angry. Margaret and my friends followed, and Margaret repeated through the locked door, “Dena, I love you as my friend, but David would be a better president. Come out!” I didn’t come out until the bell rang.
Thereafter, and for most of the rest of the school year, Margaret was a pariah. She was shunned. I didn’t speak to her, and my friends didn’t speak to her. She was an outcast, canceled. Even though I fully sanctioned my friends’ conduct toward her, I was vaguely troubled without understanding why. During all this time, it was never reported to me (and it would have been) that Margaret said anything negative about me. I kept wanting to hear negative reports and kept confusing my bad feelings with my disappointment in her vote for my rival.
One day toward the end of the year, my friend Frieda said something positive about Margaret. My friends immediately attacked her. Frieda responded—and I remember her words to this day—“Well, I think Margaret’s right nice.” It was like a hammer descending. Yes. Yes, she was indeed “right nice,” and she’d been my best friend. My friends argued with Frieda, but I was silent. Somehow, I thought less highly of my friends after that, but it would take more experience to learn that too was just as wrong.
I had learned about side-taking, about so-called loyalty, about denying truth for the sake of inclusion in a clique, about punishing someone who was innocent just because they hadn’t taken your part, though I didn’t know what I’d learned.
Much later, as a young adult having learned the horror of the Holocaust, I told my rabbi friend, “People blame Hitler, but it was the German people who were responsible!” He responded, “Well, what would you have them do? It might surprise you to know that many did object. They were sent to the camps along with the Jews.” He had been down the blame road I was on, and long since reached its destination: Hate is never a solution to the problem of hate. Real tolerance always tolerates intolerance. I learned from him never to be anti anyone, plural or singular. Like Christ, another rabbi, he accepted everyone, even his betrayer.
So, now I’m told that not being racist isn’t enough. I must be anti-racist. I can’t. I know too many really good people, past and present, black and white, who carry some degree of racism, including those who are unconscious of it. It’s part of their culture—like being in a clique from which they can’t risk expulsion, and black or white, they’re moved along by whatever is required for inclusion.
These may seem to be isolated experiences but they are connected, just as the parables are connected. I still remember Margaret. She was my best friend for a reason: she was good. As Frieda said, she was “right nice.” And I wish I could tell her I’m sorry.