Learning to ride, falling down, getting back on
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Growing up in an affluent California suburb, I had limited contact with minorities. I surrounded myself with others just like me, and we created a homogeneous, tightly-knit group from which we excluded all those who didn’t “fit.” When my mother tried to talk with me about global events, I brushed her off, assuring her that what happened halfway around the world didn’t have any connection with my life.
In school I was taught history just like every other American child: tales of great pioneers forging into new and savage territories, fighting off the uncivilized barbarians in order to create the new, “free” world. Lectures about slavery shocked and excited me as I marveled at man’s capacity for brutality and ignorance. But I was too naive to experience any sense of guilt or anguish at the injustices of history.
My first job after college was with an environmental activist organization. We went door-to-door armed with an environmental “scorecard” of the various congressional, senate, and assembly members, registering people to vote and inviting them to join our organization. Our staff members were mostly white, middle-class folks like myself. There was much talk about diversifying, but our attempts were feeble and unproductive.
One night a young black man joined us. As was usual, he was dropped off in a neighborhood with a seasoned canvasser to learn the ropes. At the end of the night I picked them up and found his trainer highly agitated and the young man sitting quietly on the curb. The trainer pulled me aside and told me door after door had been shut in their faces, and someone had called the police to report “suspicious persons” in the neighborhood — something that had never happened to him before.
The young man on the curb was shaken. I went to talk with him, but I had trouble finding the right words. How do you apologize for or explain prejudice and ignorance? His voice broke as he told me how much he wanted to work with us, but that there was no way he could handle that kind of rejection. I said something like, Not all communities are like this, but in my heart I knew this neighborhood was typical. Seeing the slight tremble in his chin as he struggled to hold on to his composure, realizing he was unable to meet my eyes, I felt for a moment what it must be like to wear his shoes — and it hurt.
San Francisco, California
If I don’t sit on the side of the chow hall where all the other brothers sit, they say that I’m a honkie-lover. If I go to the library to get a good book instead of swapping dope-dealer war stories in the day room, they say I’m trying to act white. If I don’t call women bitches and other blacks niggahs, or know the latest hip-hop songs or fashions, they tell me I’m an Uncle Tom.
When I tell them all white people are not my deadly enemies, they wrinkle their noses as if they smell something foul. They call me a traitor whose days are numbered. To belong, all I have to do is give up my individuality; to belong, all I have to be is what they want me to be. I am so lonely.
In 1946 the country was shifting to a peacetime economy, and my wife and I were trying to restart the house-building business World War II had interrupted.
We needed to hire some carpenters, and I placed an ad in the Chicago Tribune. The phone rang a few nights later.
“You have an ad in the paper for carpenters?”
“My brother and me are both carpenters.”
“How much experience do you have?”
“Lots. Our dad was a carpenter.”
“So was mine. When can you start work?”
“I better tell you something first. We’re colored.”
“Do you have a union card?”
“I’m color blind.”
“We can start Monday.”
Nay and Pete were waiting at the job site Monday morning. I introduced them to our superintendent, Roy, who gave them the worst possible assignment, but it was soon apparent that Nay and Pete were the best carpenters on the crew.
After I found Roy in the corner tavern for the second afternoon in a week, I fired him and asked Nay if he wanted to be superintendent.
He said, “There’s going to be repercussions.”
I said, “I’m willing if you are.”
The next morning I called all the men together and said, “Roy doesn’t work for us anymore. Nay is the superintendent. You’re working for him.”
Someone said, “I’m not workin’ for no nigger.”
I said, “You’re fired. Anyone else have anything to say?”
“OK. Let’s go to work.”
The men grew to respect Nay because they had confidence in his ability. Our company prospered, and Nay prospered. He and his wife lived in a flat on Chicago’s West Side. Soon they bought the building. After that they bought an eight-unit apartment building across the street.
Nay and I had many meetings over the next several years about our company and its future and about his aspirations. He was concerned about race relations as blacks moved into white neighborhoods. He said he and his wife were trying to be better landlords to their white tenants than white owners had been, but most whites were mad, scared, and running.
One day, a doctor we knew offered to sell Nay a sixteen-unit building. Nay said he knew the building from the outside and wanted to see more, so I got the keys and we went to inspect it.
In the foyer was a bank of locked mailboxes with the names of the tenants on each one. Nay looked. The name on every mailbox was Latino.
Nay said, “Hell, they ruined this building. They let all these damned Puerto Ricans move in here.”
I said, “Nay, you son of a bitch. You’ve been preaching race relations to me for years and now you talk like that.”
“Yeah,” he said, “but there’s money involved here.”
Don L. Dise
Grand Cayman Island
British West Indies
In 1969, when I was eleven, my cousin Kemo and I got our asses kicked by The Supremes. They weren’t really The Supremes — just three teenage girls with their hair straightened and sprayed — but I was a white boy, and I hadn’t seen a whole lot of black women at the time.
We were sitting in Kemo’s back yard, reading comic books, when we heard someone shouting in the playground behind his house.
Two guys about our age were on the roof of a nearby clubhouse, shouting at three black girls across the park. “Niggers! Jungle bunnies! Go back to Africa, you coooooons!” Kemo and I both knew they were doing something stupid and mean; our sympathies were with the girls. When the guys stopped yelling and went away, we didn’t think about it again.
About an hour later we went over to the playground to sit on the swings.
We turned around. The three black girls stood behind us. They were dressed in cotton blouses and jeans, their skin was very black, like polished chestnut, and their faces were covered with a thin sheen of sweat, as if they’d been running. Their hair was ironed straight and sprayed into place like helmets.
“What you screaming shit at us for?” one of the girls said. “We got every right to be here as much as yourself!”
I wanted to say that it hadn’t been us, that we were on their side, that I’d always wanted to have black friends someday, that I thought it was terrible the way white people treated black people. But all my words tasted stupid and wooden, and I couldn’t say any of them.
The girls spread out and formed a loose ring around us. We didn’t run. They were bigger than we were, but we were only a few steps away from the fence and Kemo’s back yard.
“It wasn’t us!” Kemo said.
“You gonna yell shit like that and not even own it?” One of the girls came right up in my face. Her perfume smelled like lilacs and spice. She put her hand on my chest and pushed me down. “You gonna call us ‘niggers’ and not even admit it?” She kicked me in the ribs with her white sneaker. I saw the fine black hair on her calf.
“It wasn’t us up there!” I shouted, really frightened now, scared they would beat us to death right there on the playground. They jumped into us. One punched Kemo in the stomach and the other tripped him to the ground. We both curled up like hedgehogs while they kicked us again and again.
I see now that they weren’t trying to hurt us too badly; I’d gotten worse in after-school football games. I was crying though, humiliated and furious at the injustice of it. It was an honest mistake on their part, but it was horrible that they would scream at us and kick us like dogs when we weren’t the ones they wanted.
Somehow Kemo got loose and scrambled over the fence. All three set in on me, kicking just hard enough to keep me down and crying in the dirt.
Kemo threw a rock over the fence at one of the girls. He missed, but not by much. I jumped up and climbed over the fence when they dodged his next rock.
We stood on opposite sides of the fence — three black girls with all of their hate and anger on one side, two white boys with all of our rage and humiliation on the other, all five of us panting and sweaty. My face was wet from tears, and itchy blades of grass stuck to my hair and shirt. Kemo didn’t look any better.
“It wasn’t us,” I said.
“You say!” The girls’ eyes blazed.
“You’re not going to catch me now,” I shouted. “Why would I lie? It wasn’t us!”
“Says you, you ofay crybaby.”
I was furious. Why couldn’t she see that I was a nice white person who understood?
“Look at those two lily-white babies, crying for their mommas,” one of them taunted. Suddenly I didn’t want to be understanding anymore. I wanted to hurt them back.
“Niggers!” I screamed. “You nigger bitches! You fat, ugly, hairy niggers!” I lost all control, and the words just streamed out of me. “You black nigger coon jungle-bunny bitches!”
Kemo picked it up, and soon we were both screaming hateful words at them. We were louder than the two guys on the roof had been, nastier because our shame was personal and real. We curled our fingers around the chain links and shook the fence as we screamed. As they turned and walked away, I was vaguely aware that something terrible was happening, that something had come loose inside of me, something I might never get under control if I didn’t stop, but I couldn’t. Watching their backs as they walked away, I thought that maybe they had been right after all, and I shook the fence and screamed like a monkey in a cage.
A gold stud in a brown ear lobe, a red-and-white baseball cap, a nervous grin, a sidelong glance before each sentence. He sits across from me, his posture uncomfortable, as if his limbs are too long. He asks what’s in my guitar case, and before I realize what’s happening, he’s drawing me out of myself on the commuter train. No, I’m not a hippie; I just look like one. Yeah, I agree with the Gulf War protesters, but I don’t march because I don’t like crowds. My favorite music is closer to U2 than Crosby, Stills & Nash. He’s firing off the questions and I’m answering, my small smile choking back that creeping, middle-class unease around persons of color, trying to figure his angle, censoring my answers for any damaging details. I started out at Michigan State, ended up at Berkeley with an English degree. Yeah, it’s a useful degree. No, I’m not just passing through; I live here.
With a wave of his hand, he wishes me a nice life. As the doors hiss open for me at Ashby station, he’s in another part of the car, starting to question someone else. Just trying to be friendly, I guess. For a moment, I feel like everyone is the same color, although I can’t say what color.
Alan K. Lipton
The blacks in my life come to me under cover of darkness, in my dreams. They are usually young men, scary, menacing, in my face. It’s clear to me that they represent parts of me that lie disavowed, forced into exile — much as our white society has disavowed black people, particularly young black men.
One stormy night in 1981, when I was hitchhiking around the country, I took shelter at a bus stop near Washington, D.C. Two white policemen urged me to leave the area, likening it unfavorably to Harlem, telling me I would get sliced up if I stayed. After several hours they were surprised to find me still there and wished me luck. Some time later I heard voices; three young black men surrounded me as I lay in my sleeping bag on the bench, propped up on one elbow. I answered their questions. No, I don’t have any cigarettes or liquor or even money; believe it or not, only traveler’s checks. One man, a large scar across his cheek, shined a flashlight into my face. “Well, get up!” he said. “We’ll take you where you can cash ’em!” I didn’t move and neither did they. It was a long moment. Then the others said, “We just fuckin’ with you, man.” They left, and I have felt ever since that there is a space beyond differences where it is possible to meet each other, where all the ancient hatreds are relinquished.
Several years ago, I set out to trace my ancestry. Both my parents were dead, and I soon realized how little I knew about my father or his lineage.
I had realized, even as a child during the forties, that my family was shunned by relatives on my mother’s side, and I had assumed my father’s illiteracy was the reason. Then I discovered that my father had decided to deny his Indian heritage. Like light-skinned African-Americans, he was able to “pass” because he had a very fair complexion and brilliant blue-gray eyes. His father was of German descent, with blond hair and blue eyes; his mother was a full-blooded Cherokee.
I learned the truth after finding out that he had attended a government-sponsored “Indian School,” where he learned the carpenter’s trade but was denied access to any other form of basic education.
Although claiming one’s racial lineage has become trendy today, when he was a young man there were valid reasons for denying one’s Native American heritage. For instance, every Saturday, when I was two or three years old, Daddy would piggyback me on his shoulders downtown to the local tavern. He would sit me up on the bar and order one beer. But if they had known he was an Indian, even a “half-breed” (a derogatory term for people of mixed race), they could have legally refused to serve him.
Also, without “passing,” he couldn’t have voted for his beloved president, Franklin Roosevelt. Along with other minorities, Indians were often denied the right to vote until the 1960s.
My father died in 1964. I hope he thought he had really pulled one off. Maybe he thought his children would be far enough removed from his mixed lineage — by our mother’s white blood and through ignorance of his — to really enjoy the freedom and opportunities of American life. When I recall the tears that filled those blue-gray eyes as I sat by his bedside that last day, I prefer to think he was silently contemplating his success rather than his compromised honor and dignity.
Virginia Goude Warren
One night in the early seventies, a cross was burned on my family’s front lawn. It had been a long time coming.
Several years earlier, my mother and I had served dinner to the first African-American couple to eat at the only fancy restaurant in our small, central Florida town. She and I both had African-American friends. My husband and I refused to use the white only section of the laundromat, using instead the section marked colored. But the biggest thing in town was that my sister had fallen in love with an African-American senior at the high school. The police watched our house, and Carolyn and Leo were followed everywhere. The police stopped them, threatened them with violence, and called my parents several times, supposedly to make sure they knew where their daughter was.
Tension was building at the high school. The police chief asked my father to come to the station for a talk, but Daddy didn’t back down. He said he had always taught us that people are equal and he couldn’t go back and change it now.
At the time, my husband and I were staying with my family. Remarkably, the whole family slept through the cross-burning and awoke to find its charred remains in the front yard. We lived on a rise along the main road, so I imagine most of the townspeople saw it. We stood in the kitchen drinking coffee and considered what to do. I said that it was an honor — not many families got crosses burned in their yards. My mother went outside, dug up a flowering vine, and planted it at the base of the cross, trailing it up and around. The cross and vine stayed there a long time, until one morning we saw that they had been torn up during the night.
My mother taught us something that day. Maybe she taught the whole town that hate and fear can be met with love, that love is a choice we make in our lives not once, but again and again.
I’m a middle-class, middle-aged white woman with the good fortune of having a Chinese-American and an African-American friend. We three are single, female, and share a healthy skepticism regarding men of all races. We enjoy book discussions, the opera, film festivals, and good Greek restaurants. We talk about our very different childhoods, our children (or lack of), and our jobs. Best of all, we have fun together. The walking on eggs of early acquaintanceship had long been left behind. Or so I thought.
Once, after seeing a particularly ungracious act by a group of white teenagers on a bus, my friends began trashing white people. The things they said were unfortunately often true, and I didn’t take it personally. In fact, I wasn’t paying much attention. But when it got quiet I glanced over and saw both of them looking at me, then at each other. One said, “She’s OK because she’s part Blackfoot.” (While genetically true, this is not culturally accurate or even apparent.) We all laughed.
I was too hurt to speak up, but what I wanted to say was, “I am your friend, not because of or in spite of race, but because I love you. Not being racist means seeing a person for who they are. I deserve that too.”
I am multiethnic. I am simply, truly American — the embodiment of the collective passions and courage of my great- and great-great-grandparents, a narrative of chaotic ethnic history written in bones and blood. Through their eyes and ears, I have hungered for freedom and equality, read “Irish need not apply” on signs posted at job sites and tenements, and been taunted as a “drunken Indian.” I have been born into families of stature and families of shame. I have lived in the hills and in cities, dusted earth from my hands in farmlands, packed bags to board trains bound east and west. I have unfolded maps on two-lane highways, slept under trees. I have married dark-eyed beauties and been betrayed by fair-haired boys. I have sung songs, gathered berries, borne children, and buried them. The history of my family spans miles of dirt roads and blocks of gleaming, metropolitan avenues. I am the child of their children, carrying the dreams and secrets of many races, the future they would never see. I am, on all official documents, “Other.”
Julia Robinson Shimizu
Los Angeles, California
When I was fourteen, Bethel kissed me. His lips were big and soft, marvelously sensuous. Bethel was my new boyfriend until my big brother found out. He informed me that although we certainly weren’t bigoted, we didn’t date “Negroes.” It was 1964.
Bethel swiftly became my ex-boyfriend. In a way I was thankful because he was too old for me. But it was awfully strange to break up with him for the exact same reason that I began seeing him in the first place.
Out of the blue when I was fourteen, my family moved to Florida so my father could work at Cape Canaveral. It was 1958. We had never lived in the South before.
On my first trip downtown, I walked into a department store to find a restroom and found not one men’s room, but two. A sign over one door said Men, a sign over the other said Colored Men. I assumed this meant the rooms were painted differently, that one had white walls and the other had “colored” walls to please the customers. Being curious, I checked them both out, and of course found no difference in the color of the walls. Just as I spotted drinking fountains with the same signs above them, a local man came up and informed me that a proper young white man didn’t behave in the fashion he had just witnessed.
I was ten years old, riding the train to White Plains to visit my cousins. A black woman sat next to me. I was the child of liberal white parents who had taught me to be tolerant and unprejudiced. But there weren’t many blacks in northern Westchester County, and I had never sat next to one before.
She scared me. I didn’t like her sitting there. Something deeper than my parents’ teachings rushed through me: instant rejection and resentment.
I was shocked at my feelings. I knew my prejudice was deeply wrong, and I was ashamed of myself.
At times now, years later, when I see myself truly — without my liberal excuses and explanations — I still am.
New York, New York
Race causes racism. Think of a race. Then label a human as being of that race. Can you see the person without imaginary expectations or limitations? Heritage is false, inevitably based on a past riddled with blame, guilt, or even pride. Is there really any progress in keeping tradition? Support your distinct, individual true self. Next time a form asks for race, write “None.”