Making Connections to Combat Hate

Can simple acts of kindness help build bridges across racial divides?

Posted Aug 23, 2019

My parents were from New England, and every summer during my childhood, we traveled north from our home in Pennsylvania to visit our relatives. In the 1960s, when I was growing up, the trip could take 10 hours, so some years we stopped overnight in Connecticut before driving on to my mother’s family in Vermont.

One year we stayed at a motel with a pool, and my brother and I—then perhaps ages 8 (me) and 10 (my brother)—happily changed into our swimsuits and jumped in while our parents sat by the pool and watched us.

U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brian D. Lehnhardt/Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
Children in a Public Pool in Baghdad, June 2008
Source: U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Brian D. Lehnhardt/Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

It was a beautiful pool, and we had it all to ourselves, which added to our enjoyment after our long car trip. But eventually, we tired of splashing around, got out, and returned to our parents to dry off and sit with them.

Just as we were getting out of the water, an African American couple with a small boy about my age arrived in the pool area and sat down at the opposite end. As my brother and I had done earlier, the boy jumped in and began to swim around.

While I was standing by my mother’s side drying off with a towel, she said in a low voice to my brother and me, “I want you to get back in the pool and swim with that child.”

With the blunt, bewildering logic of childhood, I replied, “But we just got out!”

“I don’t care,” my mother said softly. “Get back in and swim with him.”

I loved to swim, so obeying her command was no real sacrifice, even if I couldn’t begin to fathom her request.

I returned to the water and swam over to the boy, who by now had negotiated the length of the pool and was resting near one of the pool ladders at the shallow end.

I stopped a few feet away, treading water, and said, simply, “Hi.”

I can still remember how he turned his face and shoulders toward my brother and me as we swam up to him. His right arm was crooked around the smooth, metal handrail of the ladder; the rest of his body was invisible under the waterline.

The three of us swam together amicably for a while, and then we must have gotten out and said goodbye as the summer light left the sky, and the evening air cooled. Our farewell was less memorable to me than our hello.

But I distinctly remember glancing at the child’s parents, still seated at the far end of the pool, shortly after I first spoke to their son. His father was watching us, and his mother was looking across the pool to my parents, seemingly acknowledging them wordlessly.

The boy's parents weren’t smiling broadly, but they looked quietly pleased. If my young mind had stopped to ask why, I might have thought merely that they were happy their son did not have to swim alone.  

I completely forgot about this incident until a few years ago, when something I was reading about the 1960s civil rights struggles triggered the memory of that long-ago summer evening.

Suddenly I understood why my mother was so insistent my brother and I—the lucky descendants of English and Irish immigrants—get back in the pool and swim with that child. In the 1960s, swimming pools were yet another place prejudiced white people tried to bar African Americans from, based solely on the color of their skin.

In insisting that my brother and I return to the water and swim with that young boy, my mother was sending a clear message to his parents: Their son had just as much right to the pool as her children did, and everyone would benefit from seeing those three children swim together.       

When I was growing up, and for several decades thereafter, I thought relations among different groups of people in this country would continue to improve. When the U.S. elected Barack Obama, its first African American president, in 2008, I felt certain we had reached a new era of racial harmony.

In the past three years, however, my hopes have been dashed. It seems racism was not on the wane; it had only gone into hiding. And now that it has re-emerged, I feel I must invoke the memory of my mother, who died in 2009, to help me combat it.        

As corny as it sounds, when I am out and about, I try to connect in whatever small way I can with people of different racial or ethnic backgrounds. I smile at strangers in the supermarket. I compliment a woman wearing a beautiful scarf, dress, or shoes. I wave or stop to talk to neighbors in my suburban development, even if we have never met before.

Sometimes this strategy gets awkward. Several years ago, I saw the film The Help in a movie theater. I was appalled by its depiction of the treatment which African American housekeepers in the 1960s received from their white, southern employers.

As I was washing my hands in the ladies' room afterward, three African American women about my age came in. I dried my hands, smiled tentatively at them, and then blurted out earnestly, “May I just say that I am so sorry those things happened?”

To my embarrassment, my eyes filled with tears. Instantly, one of the women stepped forward, patted my arm, and said, in a soothing tone, “Oh, that’s OK.”

She was comforting me, which made me feel even worse. But still it was a connection, and I hoped she and her friends could see I meant well and was sincere.    

I know my small gestures can have only limited success in combating the long, brutal history of racism in this country. But still, I plan to keep reaching out, no matter how awkward and even silly I may seem. I like to think my mother, and the mother of the African American child in the Connecticut pool, would both be pleased.  

Copyright © 2019 by Susan Hooper