I’ll never forget the first time I experienced blatant racism. It was from a parent at West Woods School. This is the same Hamden school that recently made international news after one of its teachers cast a 10-year-old black student as a slave in a play about colonialism.
After living in New Haven and attending private school for three years, my family moved to Hamden, and I was enrolled in West Woods as a fifth-grader. I was also 10 years old.
Despite being one of very few black students in my class, I loved it there. I had many friends. We celebrated birthdays together, spent time together outside of the classroom, and often had funny conversations about my crush and classmate, “Ralph.” He was cool. He was also white.
Ralph and I became part of the same group of friends. We sat together in art class. We also talked on the phone almost every day after school and on snow days.
My crush on Ralph carried over sixth grade. I was now old enough to meet him and our other friends at the movie theater and on Friday nights to ice skate at the Hamden Ice Rink, now called the Louis Astorino Arena.
I never explicitly told Ralph that I liked him. I was 11 years old, and I was shy in that area. I was sure that we would “go out” at some point, but I wouldn’t be the one to initiate it. However, it never happened. Instead, he went out with other girls in my class. While we still talked on the phone, went ice skating and sat together in art class, he called one girl his girlfriend, kissed someone else in the cubbies, and probably talked to another girl on the phone sometimes. His two-week relationships with our classmates did not interfere with the routine of our friendship, but I was disappointed that he never considered asking me out.
At our sixth-grade graduation, I caught a glimpse of his parents, and they caught a glimpse of me. They also learned that there were two girls named Stacy in their son’s class.
The next time I called his house, his dad answered the phone.
“Hi, may I speak to Ralph please?”
“Sure,” his dad said. “Who’s this?”
“Stacy,” I replied.
“Hold on,” his dad said.
Ralph picked up the phone. “Hello?”
“Is that the black Stacy or the white Stacey,” his dad asked loudly in the background.
I didn’t hear Ralph answer his dad.
I pretended that I didn’t hear what his dad said, and we continued our conversation.
The summer after sixth grade, my friend told me that Ralph said he actually liked me a lot, but his parents told him they would “kill” him if he went out with a black girl.
I was speechless and disappointed. It was the first time I felt limited by my brown skin. My maternal grandfather often talked about racism, but I thought it was because he was old and grew up in Mississippi in the 1930s and 1940s. I was shocked to learn that racism was still real.
I wished there had been black boys in my class, then maybe I could have avoided that whole experience with Ralph. But all but one of the black boys in my grade were sent to a segregated special education classroom. I also thought about how the boys in my class ranked the girls in my class. I had an average score and wondered if they would have rated my looks higher if I was white like the other girls.
One of the last times I saw Ralph was during the summer after sixth-grade graduation. He showed up at my doorstep with two of our other classmates one morning. My mom woke me up and told me to go outside and greet my guests. I wonder how Ralph’s father would have reacted if I showed up to his house at 9 a.m. with two other black girls, unannounced.
Stacy Graham-Hunt is the membership director at the Arts Council of Greater New Haven. She can be reached at email@example.com or on social media @stacyreports.
This article was originally published by Hearst Connecticut Media Group in the New Haven Register, the Connecticut Post, the Stamford Advocate and the Greenwich Times.