Finding Karen

by Kathy Davis

“Would you like a knuckle sandwich?” Mr. McNulty asked, shaking his large clenched fist at the boy who had kept talking back.

There was dead silence in our sixth grade classroom as we collectively held our breath waiting to see what would happen. We weren’t used to this kind of threat. Up until that year, we had had only women teachers who tended to send those misbehaving badly to Mr. Kirk, the principal. In fact, we had started sixth grade with an older woman with a soft, monotonous voice, who wore her hair in a tight perm, dressed in sweater sets with pearls, and whose name I can no longer recall. When she had to take a leave of absence due to a health problem, Mr. McNulty had been brought in as a long-term sub.

And we loved him. He was young (in his twenties), high energy, and held us to high standards. I can still remember how expressive and engaging he was when telling a story or walking us through a math problem. Each day, he wore a crisply starched white shirt, a dark tie, black pants and shoes polished to a glossy sheen. His skin was so dark it was almost blue-black.

The year was 1966 and, other than the custodial staff, he was the only African American ever to have worked in our all-white school. He also was the first black man I’d spent time around. The only other black person I really “knew” at the time was the woman who worked for my family as a maid.

And I am puzzled about why the knuckle sandwich incident is my most vivid memory of him. Did it make such an impression because it was a little scary and something that had never happened before or did it awaken some internalized fear of black men, learned from watching my mother hold her pocketbook closer when passing a black man on the street?

Our recalcitrant classmate hung his head in submission, and Mr. McNulty continued on with his lesson. He never lost his cool again. Had there been racist overtones in our classmate’s bad behavior? Did I exhibit any racist behavior while he was my teacher? I don’t know, but it’s possible.


In the mid-1960s, Charlotte, N.C., was not progressive relative to racial issues. Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education that establishing separate schools for black and white students was unconstitutional, the majority of Charlotte schools were either all black or all white. The school board’s desegregation plan was based on geographic attendance zones and a freedom of choice component. Since Charlotte’s neighborhoods were racially segregated, the plan did not have much effect on integrating schools.

All of the students in my elementary school were white, and my middle school had only two black students. I assumed both were there because of the freedom to choose the school you wanted to attend. Karen, one of the two students, and I were in the same chorus class. We sat on cold metal folding chairs arranged on risers in the alto section, exchanging chitchat between songs. She was the most self-possessed girl I had ever met.

Unlike so many of us who walked hunched over our clutch of books, unsure how to handle our developing bodies, Karen carried herself with confidence, shoulders back, chin up. Although not quick to smile, she was friendly and outgoing. She had a great sense of style (something teenage girls always notice) and was on the cheerleading squad. Her deep voice had a soft, husky tremor to it. And she had a very deliberate way of speaking, as if everything she said had been well thought out.


In 1968, when I was in the eighth grade, Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, the case charging that Charlotte must take a more proactive approach to desegregating the schools, began working its way through the courts. A year later, Federal District Court Judge James B. McMillan approved a plan to racially balance the schools through busing. He continued to order refinements to the plan, and in 1970, my historically all-white high school began transitioning to a court-ordered mix of 71 percent white and 29 percent black.

Yet I had no black friends or acquaintances in high school and can’t recall the name of a single black classmate. Karen had disappeared. Classes weren’t fully integrated. My core classes, such as AP English and math, were all white. Elective classes like art or typing had more of a mix, but we tended to self-segregate as we did at lunchtime in the cafeteria.

Occasionally tensions would break out. There would be a “riot.” I never actually saw any of the supposed violence and don’t remember feeling frightened. We would be locked in whatever class we were attending at the time, blinds closed, helicopters beating overhead, police sirens screaming on the way. When we were let out, we would be sent straight home. The authorities would close school for a few days to cool things down—days, unlike snow days, that we never had to make up.

In February 1971, back in school after one of these cooling-off breaks, my high school had a “love-in.” A white student and black student reached out to one another in the cafeteria starting a chain reaction that led to the entire school of 2,300 students gathering on the football field, holding hands in a big circle and singing “Amen.” A photographer from the local paper caught our smiling principal hoisted onto the shoulders of students both black and white as we celebrated a spontaneous coming together. I still have the news clipping.

Did it change anything? There may have been fewer riot days, but other than that we quickly slipped back into our segregated ways.

Student council candidates (black and white) would campaign on promises of working to ease racial tensions, although I don’t remember any outlining how. A mandated two-thirds to one-third mix of white and black students on the student council gave the newcomers representation in student governance. But the white majority was still in control, and we continued many of the school’s traditions without thought to or even awareness of their inherent racial bias.

We had a Sadie Hawkins Dance each year, an idea straight out of Al Capp’s Li’l Abner cartoon about white southern hillbillies. The Latin Club, for its annual fundraiser, would sell club members as “slaves.” The school musicals performed, Hello, Dolly!Mame, and Oklahoma!, had white narratives. Similarly, the themes for the proms were Land of Oz, The Yellow Submarine and Disney World.

My senior year annual highlighted a major snowstorm by noting how many people went sledding on the grounds of an area country club (which was all-white at the time). White juniors and seniors often snuck off campus, against the rules, in someone’s car for lunch. Black students, for the most part, were bused and didn’t have access to cars at school. Even if they had, the neighborhoods surrounding the campus were all white and a carload of black teenagers would have been viewed as suspicious and most likely pulled over by the police.

Whether due to our failure to create an inclusive environment or to most black students having to catch the bus home right after school or a combination of the two, few black students participated in the extracurricular activities of the school. The service clubs, Key Club and Interact for the boys, and Keyettes and Ambassadors for the girls, each had one or two black members during the time I was there, but remained overwhelmingly white. The law club, Latin club, speech club, French club, ecology club and a number of others were all white. And two out of my three years there, the yearbook staff was all white.

Students who played the leads in the annual musical productions were white, and if any cast members were black, they are not pictured in the yearbooks. Cheerleading squads and football, basketball and wrestling teams were somewhat integrated, but the tennis, swimming, soccer and golf teams remained all white.

Awards and superlatives went primarily to white students. One or two black students, each year, were among the girls picked as class beauties, but the Carousel Princess, chosen for the city’s annual Thanksgiving Day Parade, was always white. The multiple pages in the yearbooks highlighting academic honors and college scholarship recipients show several dozen white students, but only one or two black students.

Perhaps most telling of all, the extent to which we alienated black classmates was clear at my class’s 40th reunion where out of several hundred alumni attendees, not a single one was black.

We had been kids accustomed to living in a community of parallel universes based on race. Even if we could have imagined a level of integration more engaged than just sharing the same facility and faculty, we certainly lacked the knowledge and a road map for getting there.

And at home and in the community, the adults around us had their own challenges dealing with the change.


My siblings and I were taught to be polite and respectful to everyone, and I never heard my parents use racial slurs. Still, like the kids in every other white family I knew, we addressed our parents’ friends and other white adults as Mr. or Mrs. yet called the woman who worked for our family as a maid by her first name, never thinking twice about it.

We were told we should be proud of our white Southern heritage because “the Civil War was about states’ rights,” not slavery. Gone With the Wind was one of my mother’s favorite books, and she read it again with me when I was a teenager. I didn’t realize until I picked it up years later how it romanticized slavery, negatively stereotyped blacks and made oblique references to the Ku Klux Klan. My mother read Uncle Remus folktales and Little Black Sambo to me as a child, just as she had been raised on those stories. I was accustomed to seeing black characters portrayed as primitive.

The Civil Rights Movement was never discussed at any length in my family. Controversial topics were considered inappropriate for polite dinner table conversation, and for the most part, we didn’t see it as affecting us.

We lived in an all-white middle class neighborhood where the only black people you saw were the domestic workers walking between the bus stop and the homes where they were employed. My father’s place of work was all white (except for possibly the janitorial or cafeteria staff). The tennis and swim club we belonged to was restricted to people from our neighborhood. My mother’s bridge club and women’s service club were all white, and my father’s Rotary Club chapter did not admit its first black member until 1968. The places we shopped were predominantly white owned and staffed. All of us literally could go through our day and have almost no direct interaction with anyone who was black other than the household maid.


In 1969, Charlotte was forced to come up with a way to further integrate its public schools. At the time, none of us, including my father, would have interpreted his actions as racist when in 1970 he sent President Nixon a telegram protesting court-ordered busing. It wasn’t desegregation he objected to, he said, it was losing the right to choose where his children would go to school.

My parents met in our home with an acquaintance who was organizing a group to start a new private school in response to the threat of desegregation, but when the man said “You don’t want your children to go to school with n_____s,” they asked him to leave. That kind of language wasn’t allowed in our house.

In the end, my parents told my siblings and me that they believed it was important to support the public schools, so we would be attending whatever school we were assigned. But my mother also told me that if I ever tried to date or bring home a black boy, she wouldn’t let him in the house. There were some lines, she indicated, she wasn’t going to cross.

One cold winter night, though, after desegregation was underway, I saw her make a small beginning toward a more accepting attitude.

The bus taking a group of black teenage athletes and their coaches back across town broke down in front of our house. My mother let one of the coaches in to call for help but balked when my father suggested we invite them all in to get warm while they waited. She was afraid of black men.

My siblings and I joined our dad, pressuring her to change her mind, and after a while, she relented, welcoming the group inside and handing out snacks as they gathered in the TV room and played darts with my brother. She seemed relieved when the bus was fixed and they were on their way, but I also remember she seemed proud, as if she had achieved something. To her, it had been a big step.


In 1985, my husband and I decided to adopt after several years of unsuccessful infertility treatments. Adopting a normal, white infant would have required me to quit a job I loved and become a stay-at-home mom. So, we decided to apply for a “special needs” child because, for those children, ironically, the stay-at-home mom requirement was waived.

My husband and I were given a long list of issues a child could have, ranging from being part of a sibling group to having a tendency to kill small animals, and told to indicate what we felt we could embrace and what we could not.

“For the sake of the child,” our social worker said, “you must be brutally honest.”

One of the “issues” with which we felt comfortable was a child of black-white parentage. We were vaguely aware that the National Association of Black Social Workers opposed placement of black-white children with white families, but we didn’t know the specifics and thought we had enough love and resources to conquer any problems these children might face. Less than a year after we walked into the adoption agency, we brought our son Brandon home. And two years later, we adopted our son Mitchell. Both are biracial.

When we told my family there was the possibility we would adopt interracially, my father and siblings were supportive, but I could tell my mother wasn’t comfortable with the idea. While she never openly objected, she tensed up and pressed her lips together whenever the subject arose.

Yet, from the moment she met Brandon, she was a devoted grandmother. One of her friends shared with me years later that she said she fell in love the minute she saw him.

“I don’t want anyone ever to be mean to him,” she once told me tearfully when Brandon was a toddler. She knew first-hand how likely that was to happen.


I was in my late twenties before I had a friend who was black.

My husband and I met Lori in 1984 through his work. She had young children, and after we adopted, the three of us bonded over some of the kids’ shared adventures and our talks about parenting. Later, a corporate move landed us both in Charlotte, where we continued to keep up our friendship.

One day, I found out through a random conversation that Lori knew Karen, the black classmate who sang alto in middle school chorus. They had been friends in college. Lori grew up in a white neighborhood in New Jersey and had gone to a predominantly white Catholic school. College was her first “black experience,” she said, the first place she’d been where she found a community of black students (although small), and she chose to hang out with them exclusively, never getting to know any white students. Lori and Karen bonded because each dated a black football player, and they both came from families that had long histories of advanced degrees.

I shared how sophisticated Karen had seemed in middle school, including the way she dressed. Karen once had shown me photos taken at a gala where she was wearing a long formal dress. My gangly, awkward, braces-on-my-teeth self was in awe. Her tastes tended toward tailored, clean lines, more classic than hippie. She wore her hair in a perfect “That Girl” flip. And she wasn’t shy about offering advice to those of us who lacked her fashion sense.

“Oh she was like that in college, and she’s still that way,” said Lori, adding that Karen didn’t buy her first pair of jeans until the two of them went shopping together in college.

Off and on over the years, I had wondered what happened to Karen after busing started, and she had been on my mind recently as I revisited my own experiences with busing. In 1995, we moved back to Charlotte for a few years. Our children were in elementary school. Racially identifiable schools had re-emerged along with the old issues of inequities in resources and academic performance. My children weren’t bused but were among only a handful of children of color at their school. And the school was affluent enough that the PTA solicited money each year to help an “adopted” inner city (read: poor) school with teacher supplies.

Had desegregation accomplished anything? And if not, what did that mean about the world in which my children were coming of age?

Here was my chance to find out where Karen went after middle school and get her perspective on Charlotte’s efforts.

Would Lori be willing to arrange a chance for us to get together?

“Of course,” Lori said.


Dressler’s Restaurant, where Karen, Lori and I were to meet, was in a slick new development called “Metropolitan” just blocks from uptown Charlotte. The brick, glass and steel mixed-use complex had been built on the site of the old Charlottetown Mall, a popular hangout for my girlfriends and me in middle school during the late sixties. Built in 1959, it was the first enclosed shopping mall in the Southeast and the beginning of retail’s movement away from downtown. Tenants included a five and dime, a locally owned department store called Ivey’s, the S&W Cafeteria, and most important, The Tweed Shop, a popular teen clothing boutique.

We would spend hours there on Saturdays, flipping through the racks of mini-skirts, bell-bottom pants, paisley prints and shocking pink, trying to decide how to spend our baby-sitting earnings, what to put on layaway.

Karen wasn’t in my group of shopping buddies though and, since this was the sixties and she was black, I’m pretty sure she never crossed the threshold of The Tweed Shop.

Forty years had passed since I’d last seen her.

Now I was on unfamiliar terrain, not having been down Kings Drive since the mall was razed and Metropolitan opened. Target, West Elm, Trader Joe’s—I could have been in any upscale shopping district in the country. A storm brewing, I parked in the underground deck and sprinted across the street to Dressler’s, making it through the door just as the deluge began.

The wind shook the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling plate glass and the drumming rain was so loud any effort at conversation was useless.

Lori wasn’t there yet. Karen was waiting by the hostess stand. I recognized her immediately. She looked much the same, dressed and coiffed as stunningly as in our teenage years. But when she made eye contact briefly then looked away, I realized she had no idea who I was, that she probably had agreed to dinner just as a favor to Lori and had no memory of me from middle school.

Karen, I reminded myself, had been one of only two black students who attended our school. Of course I would remember her. Yet to Karen, I had been just one white face out of the several hundred surrounding her.

As the storm quieted, I walked over and introduced myself, and she graciously said “Yes, of course!” We made small talk about the weather until Lori arrived and we were led to our booth.

The waiter recommended we start with the calamari, and we dove into the shared appetizer. Karen and I sought updates on Lori’s children until Lori steered us back to the purpose of the meeting.

“So Kathy, tell Karen why you were interested in getting together.”

I explained what we had experienced with the schools on the move back to Charlotte, how surprised I had been at how little had changed. Families still gathered to watch the televised school board meetings to see where their children would be assigned for the next academic year. The city still was trying to resolve racial and economic imbalances that now were getting worse instead of better. White families still were pushing for freedom of choice and neighborhood schools.

I told her I wanted to know how, looking back, she viewed her experience in the Charlotte system, and asked why her parents had enrolled her at our middle school, which was across town from where they lived. I quickly found out the story started earlier than that. What she shared completely shocked me.

In his book, The Dream Long Deferred, Frye Gaillard describes how in 1957 the superintendent of Charlotte schools, Elmer Garinger, decided in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling on Brown, that “one or more black children, handpicked for their ability and character” would be assigned to integrate Central High School.

In the following years, Karen explained, about 40 children were chosen from the black community to attend a selection of traditionally white schools, most of which were in lower or middle class neighborhoods. However, by 1966, an elementary school in one of the city’s most affluent neighborhoods still had not been integrated.

Karen said she had been happy attending her all-black neighborhood elementary school. Then right before sixth grade (the same year I had Mr. McNulty), the “powers that be” decided she would be a good choice to integrate that particular all-white school. Her parents let her make the decision, but told her they thought it would be a good educational opportunity for her, so she chose to go.

She remembered being very excited the first day of school because her father was taking her. He had walked her to school through the third grade, but after that she had walked herself.

“So him taking me made it a special occasion,” she said.

Everyone gathered in the auditorium to start, each class sitting in a row together. Looking around, she saw the principal from her neighborhood school as well as the principal from the school where her mother taught. She had the sense other “bigwigs” were there too.

At the end of the assembly, they dismissed each class in turn.

“The girl sitting next to me grabbed my hand, and we skipped off to class,” Karen said.

I had been completely unaware of any organized desegregation efforts before busing began. Now Karen was telling me that, at the age of 11, she was asked to be an integration pioneer. At 11, I was focused on reading all of Nancy Drew and the excitement of getting my first training bra. She was being asked to serve on the forefront of a movement to end educational inequities based on race.

Karen said, with a few exceptions, her experiences were good. Soon after the school year began, a classmate’s mother called her mother and invited Karen over for a play date. Karen’s mother said that would be fine if the classmate also would come to their house for a play date. “Great!” the other mother responded and offered to drive them.

Later Karen was invited, along with the other girls in her class, to a spend-the-night party. When one classmate’s mother found out Karen was included, she said her daughter wouldn’t be attending unless Karen was uninvited. The hosting mother solved the dilemma by having Karen’s mother bring her a bit late so she wouldn’t be there when the “offended” mother dropped her daughter off.

Karen said she drew her self-confidence from her grandfather, who always told her she was a beautiful person and who was more interested in equal opportunity than desegregation. He had been very worried when she went to the sleepover in elementary school, constantly asking if she were home yet.


Karen said she and the other black student were the only ones integrating the middle school for their first two years there. A teacher later told her that the school’s faculty and administration were looking out for them, listening closely to what they talked about to make sure things were going smoothly.

In ninth grade, two busloads of black students joined them. She no longer felt so isolated.

“I was in heaven,” she said.

I have no memory of that happening.

I also learned she had never been bused. A white philanthropist who believed private schools should be integrated paid for her to attend high school at a prestigious boarding school.

“It was one of the few times I saw him cry,” Karen said about her father the day he moved her in.

From there, Karen went to a topnotch university.

“I’m going to answer a question you haven’t asked,” Karen said as we prepared to leave. She was disappointed in Charlotte, noting that few to no black students were in advanced classes in the public schools. The problem was the process that had been used, the focus on desegregation rather than integration. And in the end, she did not believe much progress had been made.

I felt compelled to give her some kind of reassurance that what she’d done hadn’t all been in vain and awkwardly blurted: “You made a difference to me.”

She gave me a polite nod. How small, how arrogant, my offering must have seemed.

At one point during our dinner conversation, Lori commented that my parents must have been pretty progressive to accept two biracial grandchildren. I was struggling through my response, trying to be honest and admit my parents did have racial biases, while at the same time wanting to explain they weren’t bad people. I was still stumbling over how to say this when Karen nodded and interjected, “They were of their time.”

How often, I wondered, had she bailed white people out of uncomfortable situations.


A few days after the dinner, Karen sent me an email reiterating that she felt overwhelmingly positive about her experience in the Charlotte schools. She met some nice people and got a good education. Although some people may not have wanted her there, she didn’t see that as her problem.

She ended by saying she thought the pros and cons of the desegregation effort had been 50-50. An important moral issue had been addressed, but with children paying a high price in some cases.

The last phrase reminded me that several times during our dinner conversation Lori had said “Come on, Karen,” as if she were skeptical about Karen’s “mostly good experience.” How selective had Karen been in what she shared?


In 1999, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools abandoned, by court order, racially based assignments to schools, even for purposes of integration. Today the school system struggles with many of the issues that it struggled with before 1970. Almost half of black and Hispanic students attend schools that are predominantly non-white, many of which also have high poverty levels. Such highly segregated schools tend to be underperforming, with greater dropout rates and lower scores on standardized tests.

So was it all for naught? Court-ordered busing did not result in the long-term changes hoped for, and on a personal level, I can’t say that it changed my way of thinking about race. My experiences with Mr. McNulty and Karen made a difference though. I had the opportunity to be a student under a black teacher and to have a black classmate who I experienced as a peer. No one in the older generations of my family had ever known a black person in a position of authority or as an equal.

But my conversation with Karen was the first time I started to get an inkling of what being white means, how it has sheltered me. Karen spent a large part of her childhood breaking barriers, and I had been completely unaware she attended a predominantly white middle school as part of a deliberate citywide integration effort. What else had I missed because I am white?

I found and read the National Association of Black Social Workers’ “Position Statement on Trans-racial Adoptions,” and realized not only the advantage my husband and I had been given, because we are white, in adopting our children, but also that we had experienced some of the challenges in raising our sons that the NABSW predicted white families adopting black-white children would face.

Because most of these children would be seen by society as black, the NABSW felt black families could give them a better understanding of their cultural heritage and the coping techniques needed to survive in a racist society. They also argued that black-white children were being re-classified from black to biracial to emphasize their whiteness and make them an attractive option to middle-class white people who were finding few white infants available for adoption. In addition, they claimed the screening process for prospective parents favored the white middle-class lifestyle, emphasizing high income, educational achievement and residential status, eliminating many black applicants from consideration.


In the late 1980s and early 1990s, when my children were young, most forms requesting information about race required them to check either black or white. My husband and I, like other mixed families across the country, objected, continually pointing out to organizations requesting information on race that they needed to add an “other” category or offer the flexibility to check more than one box. We took the position that forcing our children to check only one box made them deny part of their identity.

Were we also were subconsciously saying: This child is part white, and we want you to treat him as such, even though when you look at him you see a black child? Looking back, given that we also made sure to meet our children’s teachers and coaches so they could see we were white, I have to say yes, it was a big part of what we were doing. On some level, we completely understood the privilege that came with being white, and we were trying to make sure our children had the protection and advantages it provided.


Over the next few years, I continued to read and seek out opportunities to learn more about how white privilege shapes my life. And I thought I was making progress in recognizing racial biases and learning how to be an ally to people of color.

But two years ago, I found out how far I still have to go.

In a local discussion circle on racial justice, the young black professional who was leading the group shared that his parents taught him to be afraid of white people in order to keep him safe.

“I can understand them teaching you to be afraid of the police,” I said, having had driving-while-black discussions with my own children. “But to be afraid of all white people? Even someone like me?”

“I see the police as an agent of you,” he answered.

I was stunned silent. But I’m not like those people, I wanted so badly to say.

Over the next few days, as what he said started to sink in, I began to understand that I can’t separate myself from someone like the policeman who shot Tamir Rice. That Timothy Loehmann and I are part and parcel of the same system of white privilege. That it isn’t enough just to work on my own understanding of what it means to be white and to become an ally to people of color. I must find ways to use my privilege in helping dismantle the system of white supremacy.

What does that mean? I’m still figuring that out, taking action in different ways—facilitating an anti-racism workshop, making copies of a zine for white people explaining Black Lives Matter to hand out at a Showing Up for Racial Justice conversation stand, writing letters to the editor endorsing my alma mater’s removal of the word “Confederate” from its Memorial Hall, supporting a local nonprofit offering programs to reduce prisoner recidivism, a factor related to the mass incarceration of black men.

What I do know is, having lived a life immersed in white privilege, I will probably always have more to learn and do.


KATHY DAVIS is a poet and nonfiction writer whose work has appeared in BlackbirdNashville ReviewNew Orleans ReviewThe Southern Review and numerous other journals. She lives in Richmond, Va., where she works for a nonprofit that helps students find the financial resources needed to continue their education beyond high school.