My Early Experiences of Race Awareness

An old acquaintance of mine, who runs in highly Obamaphobic circles these days, recently posted an article on line coming from a virtual rag called American Thinker. The particular article focused on what the author saw as the travesty of an American information center in Jamaica being renamed after a Black American Leftist who identified too closely with Communism for the McCarthyists’ taste. To me that was neither here nor there. Of all the problems that we face in our world today, one of the least significant is what we call libraries. The interesting thing to me was to see that this on-line clearing house for right wing propaganda is called American Thinker.  It’s sad to see what counts for capital T Thinking in the US these days.

Skimming through Saturday’s articles there (March 31, 2012) the themes were:

–         Americans need get back to the sort of rugged individualism where they each depend on themselves rather than depending on each other.

–         Skin color needs to be ignored in social policy decisions these days.

–         The government made a huge mistake in supporting an eco-friendly luxury car start-up.

–         Job prospects in the construction industry are far worse than government statistics make them look.

–         Republican candidates for Congress are more aware of the threat of computerized warfare than Obama officials are.

–         Sticking to the letter of the US Constitution is more important than making sure health care is available to all citizens.

–         Liberals have no stomach for the beautiful values that a wild hawk lives by [a blatant rip-off of Nietzsche].

–         The EPA is being entirely unfair in its efforts to keep Shell Oil from drilling the exploratory wells it wants off the coast of Alaska.

And thus it goes at a rate of roughly 60 articles per week over the course of the past year. This is what happens when you have radical freedom of expression and precious little education in civics and social sciences. If only there was something more we could do about it, but anyway…

I must admit though, one of those articles did get me thinking somewhat, albeit not about what the author intended. In the second article mentioned above, pooh-poohing government anti-racist policies, the author begins by claiming that his first conscious awareness of race came from one of his mother’s friends finding it cute that he and his brother were playing with a black boy. From this he draws the conclusion that children don’t see things in terms of race, but in terms of “fun,” and the problems come with the way adults go about introducing the matter of race to children. From there he makes the leap to condemning tolerance initiatives for creating too much us vs. them consciousness among young people. This makes me stop and think, how did my own views on race actually take shape? As I am currently living in post-Apartheid South Africa this is a particularly relevant question. A bit of autobiographical analysis may thus be in order.

Black kids have been around for as long as I can remember, and seeing them as being slightly different was never a problem for me as far as I remember. My family always lived in white bread suburbia during my elementary school years, and black peers were relatively few and far between, but those that I had were cool enough to easily accept from my perspective. In fact, having moved into the area where I went to elementary school at 5 years old –– having had a distinctly different accent and set of mannerisms from all my classmates –– I was far more the “different one” at Pine St. School than any of the black kids.

Searching my memory of those days, over 40 years ago, I really remember just two black kids in particular, both for reasons of their athletic skill. I really only tried at two competitive sports in those days: baseball and track and field. At baseball I sucked worse than any other kid in our school, hands down. The best player among my peers was Teddy, a laid back, smooth talking black kid for whom baseball in particular just seemed to come natural. Teddy was given a place in the older kids’ league because he was just too good for the 7 and 8-year-olds’ farm teams. Needless to say, we weren’t close enough where we got invited to each other’s birthday parties, but Teddy was always decent enough and self-confident enough where whenever I was being bullied he never bothered to join in. Whether or not that had anything to do with principles his parents instilled into him based on their own experiences of having been socially looked down is something I never knew. I hope he went on from there to achieve great things in life, and that race was never a major issue for him, but I frankly have no idea.

In track and field I actually wasn’t half bad. I could easily long jump considerably further than any other boy in my class and when there was any sort of relay race I was always one of the runners, and as I remember it we usually won. But while our class was always a strong competitor in boys’ track events, when it came to the girls’ competitions none of the other classes could touch us. The reason was Francis. She was a new kid that came to the school if fourth grade, head and shoulders taller than any other girl in the class and thinner than a chopstick; but in running and jumping sports she could positively fly. The fact that she happened to be black made her all the more… unreal. Francis was very soft-spoken and reserved, and I don’t know if she had any really close friends. She was just someone the rest of us held in awe on the sports field, and felt a bit awkward with otherwise. I hope that eventually Francis’ special abilities enabled her to gain the sort of respect which also allowed her to feel like a natural part of the group.

In media the whole question of race relations and the legacy of black slavery were presented to us in various censored forms. I remember seeing the Disney movie Song of the South about the “Uncle Remus tales” and somehow instinctively feeling that slave life (or sharecropper life even, though back then I couldn’t see the difference) wasn’t as simple and pleasant as Disney made it look. Even so, looking back on that period, I was painfully naïve regarding black history. Talking about the various biographies of American heroes in the lounge corner of the classroom, that we encouraged to read in our spare time, I remember one time talking with Teddy about our respective favorites and saying that I particularly liked the one on Robert E. Lee, never even stopping to think of the implications of saying that to a black kid in terms of what Lee fought to preserve.

Was it in the school’s interest to keep me naïve like that? I don’t really think so. Actually I think a fair amount has been done since to prevent such embarrassments, which is exactly what “American Thinker” readers have such a problem with.

Anyway, as my childhood took a more religious turn, with my mother finding some much needed post-divorce support from a particularly intense evangelical community, I eventually started going to a private Christian school where black kids were rarer. That is not to say, however, that the school was in any way racist. One of my favorite teachers there was in fact the one black man on the faculty, Bruce Wright, who I had for all of my high school social science subjects. It may or may not be coincidence that years later I ended up teaching that range of subjects at the high school level myself.

Meanwhile my parents, for all their ideological disagreements, shared one conviction: my siblings and I would not be taught to disrespect blacks the way they were. My father did volunteer social work with ex-convicts for a while, and he made a point of showing human respect to black men in front of me in this capacity. My mother, meanwhile, was briefly engaged to a fellow with a combination of white and black ancestry, ironically named Chuck Gray. Considering how close he came to becoming my step-father, Chuck and I were never really that close, but he treated my mother well and I in no way resented him. Eventually he and my mother decided not to get married though, and Chuck ended up marrying a different single mother in our church, who was “visiting” from somewhere in Central America.

How my parents reached this sort of shared conviction of racial tolerance I’m not entirely sure. My father later stated in his memoirs that he discovered later in life that his elementary school teacher’s husband was a local KKK leader in the Michigan farm community where he grew up. On my mother’s side I had occasion to hear her father make some surprisingly racist comments about local black politicians at one point, and when I questioned her about it she confirmed that this was rather in keeping with the attitudes she knew he held. Yet somehow both of my parents came to realize and pass on Reverend King’s dream: not judging people by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Whatever their other failings, in this area I have nothing but the most profound respect for both of my parents.

After high school I became a bicycle mechanic for a while, and in that capacity I had strong technical skills but the slowest hands in the shop when it came to routine assembly and adjustment tasks. The fastest routine worker there was Sam, the one black guy in the shop. As in my earlier experiences of race, he was more of an insider there by reason of his own merits, and I was more the outsider by reason of my own limitations and general clumsiness. I tried at times to ask him about what being black meant to him, and the subject wasn’t off limits, but between my awkwardness and Sam’s simple party guy perspective on life at the time I never really got much insight from him in the matter.

After that I drifted into the restaurant business, and it was during my years there that I came to see more concrete expressions of racism. Some waitresses would curl up their lips in disgust in talking about black customers and brag about their roles in teasing black kids during their school days. Some customers would leave humor papers around, equating blacks in various ways with field animals. Some customers would have particularly nasty things to say about the one black cook I worked with, especially in reference to the white girls he dated. On one occasion I myself was accused of being racist by a black police officer who stopped in on his coffee break, when I rushed his service a bit more than I should have. That actually rather surprised me at the time, but in retrospect, in the context of some of the barely hidden hatred for his skin color that I saw around me on a day to day basis there, his reaction really wasn’t that surprising.

But beyond that I could always appreciate when my limited circle of black friends could take themselves lightly and use humor to disarm the unease that would arise over our differences in appearance and background. The most memorable experience I had along those lines was sitting in a college coffee shop one day while my black friend, Sheldon, and his two under school aged daughters sat together at the next table, when in walked the Swedish visiting student, Peter, with his two very blonde and blue eyed under school aged daughters. For what seemed like hours, though it was probably no more than a minute or two, the four little girls stood there in shock just looking at each other. As the rest of the customers watched, these symmetrical families sized each other up, until Peter’s older daughter summoned all her courage, stepped forward and ran her index finger down Sheldon’s arm. At this point we all burst out laughing as each pair of girls got hugs from their fathers. Sheldon summarized the event with a chuckle, “She just had to make sure it wasn’t paint.”

Ideally it should always work that way, and idealistically I want to believe we’re getting closer to such an ideal all the time, but in practice it’s obvious that the wounds of black slavery and of the colonial abuses inflicted on darker skinned peoples by their European governors remain relevant to day to day life in many places and in many contexts. The solution isn’t to paper over the ugly history, but to encourage younger generations of all ethnicities and skin colors to acknowledge the historical problems involved but, like my parents did, choose not to pass the associated prejudices forward. Where injustices can be remedied, we should be starting a dialog about how to do so. Meanwhile our physical differences should be something that we can appreciate in more playful sorts of ways. Ideally speaking…

Can we, and should we, preserve children's innocence regarding issues of racism?

These days my life is a bit of a contradiction when it comes to questions of race. Race, as defined by skin color combined with various other ethnic markers, is still a very real means by which many people (of all colors) determine the difference between insiders and “others.” I am by the vast majority of markers as much of a WASP male as I could possibly be, and that would theoretically make me an insider in the most elite group. Sometimes I feel like I get an easier ride on that basis, but most of the time not. I’m more accustomed to being a social outsider and a manual laborer whenever necessary. Being white for me is mostly a matter of being at higher risk of sunburn than most people. When I stupidly managed to cut my head open and needed stitches the last time I was splitting firewood I could joke about the popular impression that God never intended white men to do that sort of work, but not everyone finds that funny.

I find that with a little extra effort there are very few communities into which I cannot be taken as an “acceptable outsider” –– including white, Asian and indigenous groups in most parts of the world I’ve traveled in thus far. For many the insider versus outsider issue is a matter of being socialized into the respectable form of religious identification, which their particular family clans tend to follow. Most such folk seem to be of the impression that I don’t look that strange, so if I were to accept their truths as the final ones I could theoretically become completely normal. In this regard traditional Catholics, established Russian Orthodox, moderately conservative Jews, evangelical fundamentalist Christians, secularized Muslims and members of “free thinker” societies have all considered me to not be that bad, in spite of some of my “problematic beliefs.” That doesn’t mean that I’m completely trusted or assimilated into any of them; just that they don’t openly resent me and most of them seem to find my temporary presence enjoyable even.

I get that a close sense of belonging and a closed tribal identity is more important to most people than it is to me. Some might even say that my parents robbed me of such an identity. All in all though, while I respect the richness they find in their tribal experiences, I’m still glad I was raised the way I was in this regard. And the further we get from a culture where people feel justified in killing those who threaten their tribal identity –– as appears to have been the case in the now famous Trayvon Martin shooting, among other recent events –– the better I will consider our world to be. We’ll see how that works.

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Filed under Education, Empathy, Racism

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