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What if the ribbons were also white?

Authored by Gary Moore, Co-chair of the Commission on Racial Justice & Reconciliation

If ever asked my most important school subject, I quickly respond: “my 10th-grade typing class." And just as often, I receive puzzled looks.

Desegregation finally arrived at Linden High School (Marengo County, AL) during my 10th-grade year. To say it was resisted would be an understatement. We white-skinned kids were taught to resist and be unaccepting; more importantly, we were also socialized by most teachers, clergy, parents, and classmates that we were superior in every way to our dark-skinned counterparts.

But then came Mrs. Thelma Higgins who was to be my typing teacher. The first dark-skinned woman I’d ever encountered who wasn’t a domestic worker. I responded predictably, even poking fun—“where is the ‘r-rah’ key?” A real micro-aggressive smart aleck.

During the semester-long class, Mrs. Higgins led me on a journey of discovery. Using manual typewriters with aluminum caps over each key, the noise we emitted from that little classroom was deafening; but in the middle of that noise, I witnessed a teacher who was well qualified, who cared for us and our progress, and who could turn the other cheek when she was demeaned and discouraged by her white-skinned colleagues. And she displayed grace upon grace when young smart alecks like me were resisting.

When my keyboard was finally memorized and I wasn’t bothered by the little caps on top of the keys, I felt like more conversation with Mrs. Higgins. She was always encouraging her students. My intentions were not always pure when I asked her why she was teaching a 95% white-skinned group of students.

She asked me if I knew why the typing paper was white? I didn’t know, "Just is." She then asked me how our communications would be if the typewriter ribbons were also white? I’m sure my laughter could be heard over the symphony of tickity-tick-tick. What a joke! But she gently pressed on, “the words appear in darker colors (black) so we could communicate against a sea of white; otherwise, no one could communicate in print.” I leaned in —we needed both colors to make any sense of things. The paper and the letters being typed were equally important. She even stretched me to consider different color typing paper. Long before inkjet or laser printers, she quizzed about different color ink? We needed all colors. She was visionary.

In that typing class, I began my journey from an amateur racist and white supremacist to an advocate for the oppressed. By college, I was campaigning for the first African American person to become Student Government Association President (my fraternity rush abruptly ended). By law school, I volunteered as the Minority Recruitment Coordinator (I was chided). I retired from the US Department of Justice as a Civil Rights Enforcement Educator/Coordinator (during which I received threats).

Along with others from your diocesan Commission on Racial Justice and Reconciliation, we invite people into courageous conversations. Much like those high school chats with Jesus, who was cleverly disguised as my typing teacher, Mrs. Thelma Higgins.


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