Young children are fascinated by physical differences, but they move easily among friends of various races.
Not until the middle-school years, when conformity becomes a priority, do many American children begin looking at skin color and making assumptions.
I remember the progression of events in adolescence that caused me to stop hanging out with African-American friends and pushed me closer to white ones.
It started with busing.
My neighborhood grade school was almost completely white. In seventh grade, the city began a busing plan to desegregate the public schools. Many white parents moved to the suburbs or put their kids in private school. But many, like mine, stayed.
Growing up, I had two close black friends, one who attended my school and the other whose family went to my church.
Petra lived with her mother and several siblings in a "white" neighborhood, was an excellent student, and had her sights set on a scholarship to a private girls' high school. Delveda lived with seven brothers and sisters in a house in the "black" part of the city. Petra and I went swimming in her family's backyard pool; Delveda and I danced to Stevie Wonder and the Jackson 5 in her living room.
With busing, my school became more integrated - at least on the surface. At first, we had trouble understanding one another's speech and habits. The black kids left promptly by bus every day, and we never invited them to our homes after school.
Petra transferred to Emma Willard School in Troy, N.Y. Delveda and I drifted apart during junior high, and I heard later that she had become pregnant.
While the busing plan may have worked on an educational level, it was an abysmal failure on a social one. (Several years later, an African-American boy confided to me that if he hadn't been bused to my school in seventh grade, he wouldn't have learned a thing.) But friendships did not blossom from this enforced togetherness.
When I went to high school, the white-black divide became a chasm that few of us bridged. In our big-city high school, whites were the minority. The school grounds were effectively segregated: Parts of the school were known as off-limits to whites. No one challenged this code, nor was race openly discussed.
Looking back, I can recall being one of the few whites in a drawing class, and seeing my white friends heading down the hall to chorus. The next semester, I switched to chorus. When I sat with blacks at lunch, I could feel a certain level of polite ostracism from my white friends. My teenage desire to belong to a group outweighed my judgment.
I can't imagine how a student of mixed race would have fit into my high school's pecking order. The idea that someone could belong to two or more racial groups (see lead story) would have shattered the status quo.
And that would have been a good thing.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor