I Learned About White Privilege at the Public Swimming Pool

Did that attempt to change things make a difference?

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Collage from iStock and 123RF images by Ellen Shapiro

was 1967, in Los Angeles, California. After graduating from Inglewood High School, I landed a coveted summer job, working at the pool complex in Centinela Park, a 55-acre public park in Inglewood near the edge of South-Central L.A.

I didn’t have lifeguard certification, but I passed a written test and a physical that let me join the elite group of pool attendants. It sounds laughable now, but the job was coveted because we got paid for spending most of the day in the sun, working on our tans — wearing our smart red one-piece swimsuits with navy-striped trim — watching the little ones in the wading pool, chatting with the moms, supervising the locker rooms, hosing off the pool decks at closing time.

One day during my second summer there—after my conscious-raising freshman year at UCLA—the person who usually manned the cash register didn’t come to work. I was given that job. The boss, the head Inglewood High football coach, sat me down inside the ticket window, leaned over my shoulder, and explained what to do. Outside, kids in bathing suits were lined up, towels over their shoulders, hands clutching sticky dimes.

“First,” the coach said, “ask each child, ‘Do you live in Inglewood?’ Then, ‘Show me your your residence card.’”

Kids started shoving resident cards and dimes at me. The white kids. Other kids didn’t have resident cards. The Black kids. They were directed to read the sign posted outside the window, above my head. To the best of my memory, it looked like this:

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No stock photograph I could find comes near capturing the looks on the black and brown faces as they watched the other kids scamper into the pool: surprise, anger, hurt, sadness.

Back then, 40 cents was a significant sum for a nine-year-old. But it was more about the outrage than the money. You got in and I didn’t.

Why hadn’t I noticed this before? Probably because I spent most of my time “supervising” the wading pool, which was free, and there were lots of Black families with preschoolers there, and I got to chat with hip moms with big afros and football-player and musician dads. (Okay, I exaggerate, but that’s one reason it was a cool job.) Those families lived on the other side of Prairie Avenue or near Crenshaw, way closer to the park than the Manchester/ La Cienega/ Arbor Vitae neighborhood I grew up in.

How did I know those families didn’t live in Inglewood? I was co-editor of the Inglewood High School yearbook. There was not one Black or brown face among the 2000 faces in that book. (Our class had one Asian student and several with surnames like Enriquez and Rodriguez, who did their best to blend in.)

So what did I do? I called a meeting of the lifeguards and attendants.

One of the lifeguards, a bearded guy who went to Long Beach State, was just as concerned about the inequity as I, and we spread the word. After work, all of us lifeguards and attendants met in his apartment. I spoke as eloquently as my 19-year-old self could about what was then a new topic, a new buzzword: Institutionalized Racism. “We can’t let this go on,” I told my co-workers. “We have to do something.”

Various ideas and arguments ensued. I don’t remember them in detail, but they must have included:

  • Let’s go to City Hall and talk to the mayor about this.
  • It’s true that Los Angeles residents don’t pay Inglewood taxes (the stated reason for charging them more), but what if we could get Inglewood to work out a deal with L.A. and get some income from them?
  • Let’s let everyone know about this. We’ve got to write a letter to the editor of the Inglewood Daily News. (I remember being super-surprised that my parents, who considered themselves liberals, vetoed that idea so vehemently.)
  • We could take up a collection and give dimes to the kids who don’t have resident cards.

We never got that far.

A day or two later, the boss called all of us to the pool deck. We stood there in our swimsuits and flip-flops — and in marched a portly man in a dark business suit, looking like he stepped out of a Mafia movie. He was introduced as the Commissioner of Recreation for the City of Inglewood. “I heard you had a meeting the other night,” he barked. “It’s not your job to question our policies. Your job is to perform the duties you were assigned.”

Several of us spoke up: “The non-resident prices are way out of line.” “It’s not fair.” “All kids need a place to swim.” The man rattled off a few bullshit answers. Someone said, “We think you’re trying to keep Black kids out.” The man said, “Don’t think! You’re not paid to think, just to do your job.” Just as he turned to walk away, one of us (maybe me?) yelled, “Why do you have a policy that’s so blatantly discriminatory? Tell us!”

It took him a while to speak the truth, but this is exactly what he said:

“The citizens of Inglewood do not want their children to swim in a pool with Negroes.”

All of us lost our jobs. The next year, with a summer job at a crummy agency doing paste-ups, I drove to the park to see what was going on. They’d hired the youngest, whitest, straightest looking recent graduates they could find.

Time sped forward, via blockbusting.

Inglewood, according to the statistics its own website, is now 50.6% Hispanic or Latino, 43.9% Black, and 23.3% White, with a smattering of other ethnicities. (I don’t understand why the numbers add up to way more than 100%. But you get the idea.) The current mayor, James T. Butts, Jr., is African-American.

It happened quickly, beginning after the 1965 Watts Rebellion and gathering momentum. The real estate industry licked its collective chops and papered Inglewood with alarming ads and notices that forecasted higher crime and lower property values. The whites fled. Judging by the addresses in my high school reunion journals, most of my classmates moved to Orange County, the San Fernando Valley, rural Northern California, and parts of Colorado and Arizona. Immigrants from Mexico moved into the areas of Inglewood closest to the airport. Blacks moved into the areas away from the din caused by a plane landing at LAX every 55 seconds.

It was a painful transition, especially to kids in high school at the time, like my two younger brothers. (I wonder if, in the 70s and 80s, the attitude at the pool was more like, “White honkies keep out.”) Ultimately, the demographics changed. Inglewood is a rising sports and entertainment capital. In 1997, Centinela Park was renamed in honor of Edward Vincent Jr., Inglewood’s first African-American mayor, who, after four terms was elected to the California State Senate, where he represented Compton, Gardena, Hawthorne, Lawndale, Lynwood, Long Beach, San Pedro, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, parts of L.A.—and Inglewood. Could his children have been among those who stood in that line? And who knew instinctively—no one had to tell them—that “the citizens of Inglewood did not want their children to swim with Negroes?” And who went home and told Mom and Dad all about it? Perhaps Dad was the one who had the sign removed.

The day after Trump’s inauguration I went to Washington to participate in the Women’s March. The next day I visited the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture, where I photographed the various signs, including the one below, which painfully reminded me of my experience at the pool under a sign that was not as blatant but essentially signified the same thing:

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After viewing four floors of museum exhibits—from the slave ship packed with bodies like forks in a silverware drawer to a triumphant photographic mural of Barack Obama’s inauguration—I made my way to the café, where, while munching my BBQ sandwich I watched white people approach African-Americans and ask if they could sit and eat with them. Everyone was cordial. The white people smiled and made conversation, as if to apologize and say, “It wasn’t my fault! I wouldn’t have enslaved you. I wouldn’t have made you attend segregated schools! You could have my seat on the bus and at the lunch counter.”

The museum has helped start dialogue, but nothing like the dialogue we’ve been seeing now. For days, my feeds have been filled with black squares and reading lists and pledges and apologies and ‘Black Lives Matter’ and ‘What Can I Do?’

I must admit that I don’t love ‘Black Lives Matter’ as a rallying cry for the movement. Matter? Just matter? Being allowed to stay alive isn’t good enough. Black lives enrich. Black lives enliven. Black lives lead. Black lives enlighten. Black lives influence. Black lives inspire.

At least it seems serious this time. Institutions and advertisers and people are working on it, working on changing attitudes and behaviors. Even the largest corporations, whose CEOs signed a full-page New York Times ad pledging a commitment to diversity in their boards, leadership, and workforces. Newspapers and magazines and websites are ramping up the number of Black people featured in stories and shown in ads. It’s about time.

Is we really entering a different season?

About halfway through his eulogy for George Floyd, Rev. Al Sharpton said this, quoting Ecclesiastes:

“There is a time and a season, and when I looked this time, I saw marches where in some cases young whites outnumbered the Blacks marching. I know that it’s a different time and a different season.”

Whoa! And he went on to praise a young white girl who stopped him in the airport to say, “No justice, no peace!”

So many people have been waiting so long for a different season. Is it really here? Will the ‘working on it’ and pledges last? Will police attitudes and tactics change? Or is it too early to sing Hallelu-Ya because once again we have to wait and see.

Written by

My career is designing and writing about design. Here, I can write about lots of things. My short fiction attempts to capture and evoke past moments in time.

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