Memories of a racist childhood and a search for my new, anti-racist self

We’re in the middle of weeks of protests to end the entrenched racism in America and I can’t stop thinking about Sula. I march and I scream that Black Lives Matter and I never add anything about how the black laundress I grew up with was not someone I could hug — because she was black.

Sula’s grandma was enslaved. And when slavery was outlawed, the grandma’s relationship to her former owner didn’t change. Then when the grandma had a daughter about 30 years later, she basically raised her daughter there at the plantation, as her former owner’s property.

When the daughter was an adult, she finally left the former owner’s plantation. She went north to Chicago and she got a job as a laundress with my great-grandparents. In the 1920s, my great-grandma had a baby girl, who was my grandma, and around the same time, the laundress had a baby girl, Sula.

My grandma and Sula were playmates for six years. Then my grandma went to a private school for girls and Sula learned to do laundry. Eventually, my grandma got married and she took Sula with her to her new home. Then when my grandma’s kids grew up to have their own houses and their own families, I guess it was just assumed that Sula would do their laundry, too.

My parents were an early experiment in dual-income parenting. Which we now know translates to no parenting. My parents left before breakfast and got home after dinner. If I got sick, I waited until Wednesdays to stay home from school because Wednesday was when Sula came to do our laundry. She told me not to get out of bed without socks on, to keep myself warm. She changed my bedsheets if they were sweaty from a fever. She made me chicken soup.

Some days I wasn’t really sick. I was just lonely. Sula taught me how to iron a tablecloth and how to starch a dress shirt. Some days she ironed and I folded, and then she re-folded if my work wasn’t up to her standard.

But there are only so many years a kid can be without parenting before things go to hell. So my grandma raised me at her house. This is why as a teenager I looked like I belonged in the 1950s even though it was the 1970s. We also lived like we were in the 1950s, with metal kitchen cabinets and a dinner bell to call us for chicken kiev. And so did Sula: she always wore a uniform in the house, she didn’t sit at a table to eat, she used white gloves or a white napkin to touch anything we would be touching right after her.

I asked my grandma why Sula wears a uniform and the white housekeeper does not. My grandma said, “Because she’s a negro.” I was pretty sure that wasn’t right but I didn’t have words to say what was wrong.

I learned a lot of the words I was missing when I went to college. In my English classes, I didn’t talk when we read black authors because I was scared I’d say something racist. I was embarrassed that the only black person I knew was Sula.  I was scared to be stupid. Or offensive. I wasn’t sure what was racist. I didn’t know what was okay to say.

Back home from college, I said to Sula, “Just go in the front door. Please. Sula, the back door thing is absurd.”

Sula looked at me and shook her head no. I could tell she was hurt.

I said, “Why not? I don’t get it.”

She said, “I’m just not like that. That’s not my way.”

I think my grandma genuinely loved Sula. My grandma had no patience for me telling her she treated black people poorly. She could not understand the idea of loving Sula and still being racist towards Sula. But my grandma could tell me why I hurt Sula’s feelings: Only servants of poor families went in the front door. Sula identified with a better class of household servants than that.

Someone always had to drive Sula to the train so she could go back to an area where black people lived. One of the last times I saw Sula was in the 1990s. She was too old to take the train home late at night, so her grandson Derek would come to pick her up. Our doorbell was a real chime, echoing throughout the downstairs hallways.

I answered the door. Derek was my age. How did I never notice that before? I invited him inside.

He came inside, just like that, through the front door. A few family members asked him how he’s doing. He said fine.

I wanted to ask him so many questions about his family. About Sula. About what it’s like to come into our house in the front door.

Sula died shortly after that. She saved up a lot of money and she donated it all to a church that is still standing. I always wonder about Derek. What his life is like.

It’s thirty years later. I thought I was writing Sula’s story. But I’m only writing my story, of how deep racism runs through me. My kids were folding laundry with me and they were so slow. They were folding badly and I was folding perfectly and my son said, “Mom, how are you so good at folding? Where did you learn to do this?”

I didn’t tell them I learned from Sula. How many women are still alive who learned to fold laundry from their laundress? I am scared to say anything about my life with Sula. But I’m scared also to not tell the stories of Sula. I think it is really messed up to hear that my grandma believed she loved Sula. So I am so scared to tell you that I loved Sula, too.


31 replies
  1. Natalie
    Natalie says:

    Thank you for this post is honest and very moving. I completely understand why you are scared and think it is right that you should feel uncomfortable about the situation you describe, and also that you should share it during this time of overdue change (hopefully).

  2. Gabriel
    Gabriel says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Penelope. It takes a lot of courage to admit the racism within our own homes. It’s a deeply uncomfortable feeling, as it should be, to realize that your normal day-to-day was oppressive to another human being, directly or indirectly. There’s nothing problematic about growing as a human and doing the internal work necessary to remove your own biases. These are exactly the kinds of conversations that all white people should be having because it helps us see that the layers of racism in the US run much deeper than just the police force.

    I grew up in a Cuban home in Miami and dealt with my grandmother’s old school racism her entire life. Thankfully, I knew it was wrong and chose to confront her every time she was being racist, even if it was something small, but if I hadn’t cultivated that worldview I easily could have become another link in a chain of racism going all the way back to Spain. Talking about it, sharing these stories, sitting with the discomfort, is so very important. Thank you for speaking out.

  3. bob
    bob says:

    Thank you… you always bring a view from a different angel which provokes thought.

    Prejudiced, racism and sexism are such an ingrained part of our society and therefore an ingrained part of each one of us…. the key is if we are aware of it, and what we do with it…..

  4. bob
    bob says:

    Thank you… you always bring a view from a different angel which provokes thought.

    Prejudiced, racism and sexism are such an ingrained part of our society and therefore an ingrained part of each one of us…. the key is if we are aware of it, and what we do with it…..

    (why can’t I repost your stuff on facebook)

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You can’t repost on facebook??? Blah! I want everyone to share on facebook!

      I assume you tried the button at the end of the post. Yes? Sometimes I think this blog is like a car. Something is always broken and never have any idea what it’s going to be. Still, thank you for letting me know you had a problem.


  5. Michael Aumock
    Michael Aumock says:

    I dare to comment because I live in a different country than you… although I’m pretty sure we shared a meal together long ago.
    What you describe above is a person who took tremendous pride in doing a job, did it well, and through the course of her life was able to die an old woman, with children and grand-children of her own, save enough money to leave some to her church and pass on a valuable skill to you as well.
    How she came to do that job, is certainly worthy of discussion, but not worth beating yourself up.
    I love your stuff, and usually agree with you. But saying you need to reconfigure your soul because of things that happened 30 years ago is troubling at best, and deeply problematic, at worst.
    You wouldn’t do that, or be that way now, would you?
    Of course not.
    We as a society have learned and come to accept our differences.
    Yes, there is tremendous discord at the moment… and rightly so.
    But I think the self-flagellation could be kept on ice until something comes up that is actually your responsibility.

    Peace and Sunny Days,

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thank you for commenting, Michael. And showing us a perspective from outside the US.

      Just because I wouldn’t do that now doesn’t mean it’s not still inside me, part of my experience. I think that’s the trouble we have in the US — how deeply ingrained the prejudice is in our society. Racism gets passed down from generation to generation even if we don’t “believe” in racism.

      I am not an expert about racism. But what I read from the experts about racism says that white people in the US have to talk about how we perpetuate racism. I am trying to do that. I want to help this country get to somewhere better.


    • Marie
      Marie says:

      Hey Mikey
      Stop letting yourself and all whyte people off the hook. We are still suffering at the hands of your racism. It is YOU, whyte people, not in us Black people. It’s been so normalized for you that you don’t even see it. It’s debatable that things are better now. If you ask George Floyd as his air is squeezed from his neck in public, on camera if things are better. Oh wait. You can’t. He’s dead.
      Black people have been fighting for our rights and dignity for a long long time. And we will prevail. Stop being an apologist. Or carry on. No one cares

      • Vicky
        Vicky says:

        Marie I fully agree. It is very convenient to sweep it under the carpet but it is crucial to stay with the uncomfortableness and explore it deeply.

      • Markola
        Markola says:

        I just want to say, kudos to Marie for her commentS. I liked how she just said, basically, “Screw all of you. We’re taking charge for ourselves and it doesn’t matter how you guilty white people torture yourselves.” I love the empowerment, which is not something we white people can have any clue how to give and is something people of color just need to take. I am so glad to see that they are, forthrightly, like perhaps never before this moment. – A straight, white, educated male who grew up in rural Georgia where he was marinated in racism that was at least honest enough to recognize itself, unlike the oblivious kind where he now lives in the Twin Cities where 200 buildings were just destroyed.

  6. Kitty Kilian
    Kitty Kilian says:

    As a European, I dare to comment as well.
    Of course you could all love her and still be racist. All these things run trhough all of our lives, life is full of cognitive dissonances.

    I am happy about the uprising after George Ffloyd was killed. It is about time! That poisonous segregation that runs through the US has to stop. Funds have to be reallocated, to put it mildly.

    And then let us address the slavery that is going on right now in Saudi Arabia and Libia etc etc.

  7. Rita
    Rita says:

    What I get from this article is how empathic you were to your surrounding. You knew that something did not add up. In a world where segregation was encouraged, you went about your day per usual. At the same time, your mind was flooded with questions that you were eager to figure out (such as why were there two different doors). You were very brave to question and cared deeply for Sula. I could feel the love she had for life, her profession, and you. I wish we all had Sula energy and presence in our worlds. It would have made a more emotionally safer growth.

  8. Stephanie P.
    Stephanie P. says:

    The only way to end racism is first a change of heart towards all people. We have to realize that even though we are all different in many ways we are still basically the same. Same needs, same desires, same fears, etc…

    The second thing is we have to deliberately and intentionally become a part of the lives of people who do not look like us or act like us. We have to begin to share life and experiences with different people. It is the only way we will learn to see life from another person’s perspective. I’ve always believed that racism comes from Fear. It’s a fear of the unknown. We are all extremely comfortable with those that look and act like we do. I mean it’s natural to feel that way. I’m more comfortable with my own household than I am my neighbor’s, but if I want to get to know my neighbor and become a blessing in their lives i have to leave my home sometimes and seek to become a part of theirs on some level.

    White people nor black people will never truly understand each other as long as they continue to live separate, non interactive lives. The fear of other people will always be there unless something intentional is done to overcome that fear. Shouting from your gated communities about how bad racism is will not cause racism to end. Marching and protesting in the streets will not end racism. How many of us actually have friends of different races and we are extremely close to them? I have found that number to be very few when I ask that. Blacks live mostly among black, white among whites, asians among asians, etc…

    There will never be a change unless we take it upon ourselves to get involved in the lives of those that are different. Loving people is truly what overcomes fear and hatred. You come to love others by spending time with them. There is no other way.

  9. Gayle
    Gayle says:

    I believe that your grandma “loved” Sula as far as a heart-felt emotion goes. And while she may have grown up in a different time, when culturally such things were “the norm,” she was still racist. It can be hard for many white people to believe they are. Especially as many of our racial codes were/are embedded in cultural-class mores and just s**t one does (like black domestics wearing white gloves which seems like just a thing “servants” should do…but at the institutional, separatist “racist level” is about blackness not directly intermingle with whiteness as if we were/are a contaminant or contagion),

    My grandparents were domestics for one of the wealthiest Jewish families in Louisville KY. The kids always called my grandfather to come get them out of whatever “scrapes and tomfoolery” they got themselves into, instead of their parents. One of the older family members came to my grandmother’s funereal when she died. No doubt, they all felt a deep warmth and caring for her and the rest of the family.

    Was it love? For me, the true test is whether that would use “love” when talking among themselves, neighbors, or the other “bigwigs” whose social circles they traveled. Would they be willing to subvert “customs” and do the kinds of things in love that they would do for “their own?”

    Having read your blog and taken a couple of webinars with you through the years, you strike me as someone with a good heart and good intentions. Especially because of your kids, you seem to be doing many things that get you out of your comfort zone (like marching with BLM) as well as a willingness to confront your life (present and past). And tell your story (keep telling it). To put s**t like this one about your relationship with Sula, your laundress (and use the word “negro” in it).

    It can be hard to know what to say to black folks or to white folks about black folks, especially in times like these. There’s always the danger of “appearing woke” but it be a front.

    Hopefully, you won’t let the fear of “getting it wrong” or potentially offending someone (black or white) get in the way of keep telling your story. To keep going deep. I think it’s okay to feel shame and guilt. About our experiences, about the way we treat others (intentionally or not). The personal and institutional racism that is woven into the fabric of this country at such an entrenched level (though I feel anger and action are much better expression…though they all can keep us stuck). It’s part and parcel of getting to our own truths and doing better.

    Honestly, these days I am a very, very angry black woman. I am cynical about this country’s ability to overcome its past and do the right thing. Not with 40% of the country fighting to take us back to the “Sula times.” But I keep on keeping on. As you will too.

    • Marie
      Marie says:

      I am with you. I’m also pissed off. I think whytes want to re-enslave us. They always have. Its extremely profitable for them. Slavery is big business

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Gayle and Marie, I appreciate both your comments. Thank you. Gayle, for saying that white people should keep talking about race even if we get it wrong. I think the times I learn the most about race is when someone takes the time to tell me I’m being racist. It’s a gift when someone takes the time and energy to point out when I’m being entitled or I’m letting myself off the hook. I know, also, that black people are sick of having to explain to me why my words or actions are racist. I know it’s my job to do as much on my own to educate myself. I’m working on it. Your comments help me, and I’m sure they help other people, too.


  10. harris497
    harris497 says:

    Life is until it changes, then there is a new normal.
    Don’t beat yourself up about the past you cannot change, but as you have been doing, use it to guide and influence the future you want to be the case.
    I’ve read you for a long time, and I believe you subscribe to a generally positive paradigm. For others like you, but not so self-aware, it is the fear or the guilt or the anger related to a past that you cannot change that usually is a stumbling block to progress.
    Just continue trying to do good, and make a few dollars, if you can, while doing so. It is the only really sustainable solution to our ongoing situation – altruistic efforts seem to diminish without an economic engine to keep them going. This is why well planned diversity initiatives work for the companies that adopt them.
    Continue stirring the pot:)

  11. Jean N.
    Jean N. says:

    Hi Penelope,

    Although I read all your blogs, I’ve only commented a couple of times. Thank you for sharing this powerful story. My grandparents were racist and I had a paternal grandfather who used the N word liberally. My mother was committed to breaking this legacy including that we regularly received black Barbie and baby dolls at gifts. It’s one of the things I most admire about my mother, how hard she worked to raise us with values of empathy and compassion. Not just for people who looked or lived like we did but for all humans.

    I live in a diverse city where whites are in the minority. My best friend is black and she calls me a reverse Oreo. You get the idea.

    I like to believe that I’m a true egalitarian and truly judge people by their character but this situation has shaken me to my core. It’s made me question my deeply-held assumptions and how I benefit from white privilege. I think that’s the point, that evil perpetuates itself because good people do nothing. We’re all going to have to do even better and give more. Be more sensitive, be more courageous, be more sharing with our truth and having difficult conversations. At least we’re asking those hard questions versus doubling down on denial or worse defending the idea that there isn’t a problem.

  12. Dina Pittman
    Dina Pittman says:

    Thank you for this. We all need to share our stories and open up conversations that make us feel vulnerable. Thank you for going first. I feel your love for Sula in your words.

  13. Chris Yeh
    Chris Yeh says:

    Fascinating story. It’s amazing that we can have known each other for so long, and I’m still learning new things about you. I hope the boys get better at folding !

  14. Denys Davis
    Denys Davis says:

    I am an African American woman. I stumbled upon your site by accident because of the iron. I recently co-curated a room in The Colored Girls Museum in Philadelphia called the Washerwoman Room. The room tells the story of our grandmothers and the hard work they did for white families and the lives they led when they got home. Often they had to do more work when they got home. But on Sunday they got dressed up and went to church. The church served as a safe place and was the only place they got respect; calling each other Mr. and Mrs.or Miss or titles like Deacon, and not by their first names. They saved their money to put their children through college. People come from all over the US to see the museum’s other stories too,but when they get to the washerwoman room, they sometimes cry. The stories they tell are incredible and cathartic. I am glad that white people in this country are confronting racism. What I don’t want is for white people to feel guilty. This system was created 400 years ago. Although it is still in place, acknowledging and confronting it is the first step. If you want to do more: listen, read, watch one of the many documentaries and have a dialogue with a person of color.
    Thanks, Denys Davis

    • Kate
      Kate says:

      What a great response. Thank you. Our culture is great for ‘knowing your place’. Sula knew hers. Penelope and her grandmother did too. But Sula had Sunday! Our culture has an historic cast focus. Easier to move on when you grew up poorer
      In the north. Less to overcome if you never learned cast and cleaned for your family and others. Even if you’re white.

  15. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    As for making changes, it seems to me that we may not learn from history or school, but we can learn from our peers. In that way, we are all “our brother’s keeper.”
    If I can’t be a saintly politically correct leftist, then I can at least express discomfort when my fellow white is being racist, even if I have to be a timid hypocrite and go, “Ya, but I wish you wouldn’t say that.”

    Or I could meet a peer halfway, maintaining my peer credential, by saying, “Bro, I hear you, but come on, that’s in the past, isn’t it? Yaaa, you know it is.”

    Or I could show revulsion, and if the fellow is a true peer, then he will reflect and get the message.

  16. Katarina
    Katarina says:

    I’m genuinely surprised that you didn’t know any black students at New Trier.
    I didn’t think it was an all white school. That is truly terrible to hear. I wonder if that is still true now.

  17. Jean
    Jean says:

    Your story is a reminder to me that some if the most wealthy, privileged people have some of the most messed up, traumatic upbringings

  18. Kim
    Kim says:

    This sounds like a story I read in a memoir a while back about a southern woman’s 1950s household. Isn’t Sula a Toni Morrison book? Most adults are pretty good at folding laundry, too.

  19. Kameel Vohra
    Kameel Vohra says:

    The fact that you’re evening thinking about it, let alone writing about it, demonstrates that you’re not racist. Not everyone grows up in a diverse neighborhood. I didn’t. 40 years ago, I was the only brown kid in my class – and it wasn’t a great experience. So thank you for trying not to say the wrong thing, thinking about what being anti-racist means, and writing about it.

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