My mother was incapable of using the word Negro. Until the word black entered the vernacular, she was unable to talk about them — any of them — for fear that at some point she would have to account for their difference, the fact that they were black instead of white. Even then, she had to sort of work up a head of steam. A teacher at the school where she taught was a very well-dressed, highly educated, very pleasant, articulate black person. She had a range of innocuous descriptors that could be strung together this way and that, always ending in either black person or black teacher who did or said such and such. And yet, only one story ever had anything to do with race. The same held true for Mexicans. They weren't Chicanos or Latinos yet, or even people, God forbid, so every Mexican started out as well-dressed or polite and worked his way up the ladder to Mexican. About a third of her students were well-dressed. It was frustrating because nothing she allowed herself to say had anything whatsoever to do with race, color, national origin, or religion unless maybe a recipe was involved. So, why was it necessary to be so damned specific, or so completely evasive? When I'd asker her this, as I did many times, she'd eye me nervously, sometimes horror-struck. As if I had to ask.

I've written about this elsewhere but my mother came from a Tennessee family. Her father used the N word, a euphemism for nigger. I was horrified, of course, as was my mother, both of us growing up in California. The word meant black to him. People look at me when I say this as if asking, "How stupid can you be?" But, my grandfather was really proud that his cardiologist was the best nigger cardiologist in Memphis, which puts a strain on prejudice. He trusted him with his life. Black people and white people were different, which is why some were niggers and some weren't. I think my mother inherited the need to make this distinction without quite inheriting the need to rank people as being superior or inferior.

The one story that did involve race was a coffee break discussion in the teachers room. One of the more outspoken members of the faculty was upset that the Personnel Office was giving preferential treatment to minorities in hiring. She felt that everyone should be treated the same. My mother was horrified, because a certain well-dressed, highly educated, articulate teacher was sitting right next to her at the time. In fact, she just sat there sipping coffee, listening. My mother attributed this politeness to education and upbringing, and was amazed that she handled things as well as she did. What she never caught on to was that the complaining teacher treated the well-dressed teacher like everyone else. And, if you must know, I don't think she dressed all that well. She dressed like they all did back then.