“What’s it like,” she asked me, peering through the strands of beaded cornrows that came down over her eyes, “over there where you live?”
“Over where?” I asked.
“Over—you know…,” she said with another bit of awkwardness and hesitation in her eyes.
I asked her, “Do you mean in Massachusetts?”
She looked at me with more determination and a bit impatiently, I thought, but maybe also recognized that I was feeling slightly awkward too.
“You know…,” she said.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“Over there—where other people are,” she finally said.
Pineapple was usually very blunt and clear—she sometimes inadvertently hurt other children’s feelings but her tendency to make unsparingly direct remarks—so her use of that ambiguous and imprecise expression “other people” didn’t seem like her at all.
I asked her if she could explain which “other people” she was thinking of. At that point a wall went up. “You know,” was all she said—“where you live… where the other people are…”
I didn’t try to press her further about who she meant by “other people” after that. I think she felt it would be rude to say “white people,” which is what I was convinced she meant, and I have no memory of whether, or how, I tried to answer her. She and I have since had many talks in which she posed the racial question more explicitly. Pineapple is a shrewd teenager now and she has seen a good deal of the world beyond the Bronx and doesn’t feel she has to mince her words in talking to a grown-up friend whom she has known now for so many years.
—Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of a Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America