At our last family gathering, my aunt asked me how life was going in Austin. I told her that traffic & increasing cost of living are pain points for me, but it’s still the lack of diversity that always bothers me most and keeps me from feeling totally at home here. Even though I grew up in a suburb, it was near Houston, which is the most ethnically diverse city in the U.S. So as a white, middle-class kid, I was probably exposed to different races, religions, and perspectives more than my counterparts in other American cities. It was a stark contrast when I came to Austin. And it’s only getting worse.
My aunt, who is my dad’s sister, reminded me that they (my dad, my aunt, their younger sister, and my grandparents), all lived in Austin in the 1960s. (Actually just two streets away from where I live now.) She said she remembers having a good friend from the neighborhood who was black, and they would walk a few blocks to a burger place nearby sometimes to grab sodas from the takeout window. One day, my aunt suggested they go inside for food instead and her friend shook her head and pointed to the door.
“That’s when I noticed the ‘Whites Only’ sign for the first time.”
She said she read it and then her mind started putting together all these instances that had felt weird to her over the years- times when her dad didn’t want her friend to come in their house, or when neighbors stared at them playing. She said she was sure there were other things, but they never really registered to her. She ate on the back porch with her friend that day, and then always ate on the back porch after that, until the signs came down and restaurants integrated a few years later.
It’s not a coincidence that my aunt now stands out in my family as a vocal supporter of equality and human rights. At ten years old she chose the right side when other adults around her did not. And if her choices had only been guided by what she saw in her own home, she would not have.
All the people that lived here back then: What did they pass down? What did they teach? Did they eat on the back porch, or did they go inside and leave their fellow citizens outside? Did they even think about it? Do they care? This is where we are now: Yesterday, Nazis rallied in Charlottesville and murdered and assaulted Americans. Changing a sign and changing a society are two very different things, and the work to stay aware, make the right choices, and be compassionate is constant.
Photo credit: Behind the Tower