Some of my best friends were black – and some of my worst enemies too. And it took me a long time to wake up to my complicity in racism. I went to school in affluent middle class suburban environments in Minnesota. I don't remember any black students in my elementary school, but I do remember learning about slavery and racism while I was still young, and being horrified. I also remember before going on a family trip to Chicago to visit my brother in school, a friend told me “be careful if you go to south Chicago. There are a lot of black people there.” -Well, so what? I asked, incensed at his insinuation. Though the only black people I met personally in my childhood were those in Chicago – or in Columbia, Missouri, where my other brother was in school – I did watch movies with black characters, like Ghostbusters, and I watched the Cosby Show, and I thought that black people were cool. How could anyone hate them, I wondered, when they were so cool?
[Someone needs to make a meme with Danny Glover's character in Silverado saying "Son, you've got a lot to learn about people."]
In eighth grade I became friends with the only black student in my junior high school except for a girl from Africa. He was an amateur rapper with the stage name “MC Carpet,” adopted in reference to his flat-topped hairdo in the style of the time (this was in 1990). Being one of two black kids in a white school where the cool kids listened to gangster rap and everyone listened to MC Hammer, I think he felt like he had to emphasize his racial traits to make him stand out from his white classmates who idolized Eazy-E. My friend wasn't into gangster rap, but he had a bombastic persona and some of his lyrics were quite sexual. All this shielded an awkward and sensitive character that made him as much a social outcast as me. To make matters worse, he wore some kind of orthopedic brace, which in junior high never helps. I still remember him in the locker room after those humiliating gym classes, in his metal and plastic frame, cold and white against his bare brown buttocks – fragile flesh in that concrete cave. “Watch out for the black moon, y'all!” he would shout before disrobing.
Being the only black guy in school, you'd think all the white kids who listened to rap would look up to him as the real deal, but I repeat: he was one of the outcasts like me. His posturing was dismissed by those of the higher strata. He was not strong: I once saw him get beat up by our lunch table (none of the rest of us dared to intervene). Once he shaved “WORD UP” into the hair on the back of his head and it backfired about as spectacularly as my covering my jean jacket with buttons, i.e. it drew nothing but gleeful derision. But I wasn't aware of that derision having a racial aspect: I thought he was picked on for being a nerd and a wimp, not for being black. Maybe his loud flaunting of his blackness helped shield him from overt racial malice? At the time, Steve Urkel was making us all laugh on TV and getting white audiences used to the idea of black nerds. Or maybe I just failed to see a powerful racial undercurrent. Maybe everybody had to pick on the only black kid in the school, to prove that they wouldn't discriminate in their cruelty. There was plenty of cruelty to spare, so maybe they felt that it would be reverse discrimination (which as every good white person knows is twice as bad, right?) to spare a target because of his color.
I lost touch with my junior high friends when we moved to the Cities, and I started 9th grade in a huge but affluent school with many more black students. Many more in absolute numbers, but relatively they were still a small number. It's true that a lot of them sat together at lunch, and of course some of us white students sometimes commented on that, but the classrooms were inescapably integrated. The black guys in choir made me laugh and left me alone. I got along pretty well with the studious and religious guys who put Bible quotes in their lockers: with one of them by my side I actually had the nerve to debate theology with an agnostic in one of my classes. But there was also a big bully in Social Studies, who provoked me to one of my immature attempts at violence and then had the nerve to ask me if I was racist. “I'm not!” I sobbed. “The last thing I am is racist!” In American Government I got along just fine with one black girl, but another one teamed up with her blonde friend to make my life miserable.
It didn't help that I was one of those adolescent boys that teachers like to complain about: I mean I was still lax in my personal hygiene. I figured that since I wasn't growing yet, I still hadn't hit puberty yet, so why should I waste time on deodorant? Especially since I was already missing too much sleep by having to get up early for the weekday religious instruction that we Mormons get as teenagers.
My classmate and her friend were not shy about expressing their disgust at my smell, or how long I went between washing my clothes. Once she grabbed a ball-point pen and wrote on my knee with it: “there! I'm writing 'Friday' on your jeans, so you can wash them over the weekend, and if you don't I'll know it the next time you wear them because this will still be here.”
It may have occurred to me to protest this invasion of my personal space, but I didn't stop her. It could have been resignation to the fact that I just didn't have what it took to resist what everybody dished out without making a big scene, or it could have been some kind of masochistic pleasure at getting this kind of intimate attention from a girl. I think it was more the latter.
I didn't like these girls. Besides being mean to me, they were raunchy and obnoxious. But I wanted to like them and for them to like me, and if I couldn't have that, then at least I was getting attention from them. I wasn't aware enough of my feelings or feelings in general to recognize that sadomasochistic attachment lurking under the surface of our interactions, and there was no encouragement or time to develop a conscious understanding of it, what with classes, homework and report card angst demanding so much of my time and attention. Role-playing scenarios in Social Studies only scratched the surface, and an awkward boy who got a C in the class didn't look likely to have interest or aptitude for psychology. Even our kind-hearted teacher could not have taken the kind of time and attention with me that might have called out my interest and native empathy to develop beyond the immature behavior that marked me as a prime target for harassment. Teachers in a school of 2000 students simply cannot afford to give that much attention, even if it is a “school of excellence.” In fact, the school's excellence accentuated my poor performance, casting it all the clearer as sinful rebellion against a benevolent authority that “really wants to see you succeed.”
I was better served by Neil Peart, who deserves some kind of honorary education degree for all the learning he has fostered in nerdy Anglophone teenagers fed up with school over the last 38 years. As I sat glued to the radio one night in 1993 for a special program in honor of the release of Counterparts, I heard him mention Carl Jung and Camille Paglia. While it took me almost 20 years to follow up with my own investigation into these visionary voices, the song they inspired, “Animate,” became one of my all-time Rush favorites and remains for me one of the best songs in an album that suffers at times from a heavy-handed didactic tone.
One of those socially virtuous songs, “Alien Shore,” resonated with my experiences at the time: “You and me, we are thrust into these solitudes: color and culture, language and Race. Just variations on a theme, islands in a much larger stream . . . for you and me race is not a definition.” Race was not a definition for my black classmates in high school from my viewpoint, and I didn't think it should be. Our shared social class was a commonality that made comfortable inter-racial mingling the order of the day – at least that was how I saw it. So when the students at my school put on a cultural awareness program my sophomore year I saw it as divisive, making a big deal out of differences I felt that I had accepted and learned to ignore. It happened during my sophomore year, when I was at my most reactionary. That was also the year that I had a black study hall supervisor. He professed a reverence for Truman Capote, but I don't think he would have known what to do with a student like him. Catherine Woods he was not. Confronting me once about something I didn't do, he refused to allow me a word in edgewise and seemed compelled to remind me who was boss: “if you give me any more nonsense, I'll come down on you like a ton of bricks.” In a silent bout of l'esprit d'escalier which I would never have dared to voice, I imagined asking him “Is this because I'm white?” I remain grateful that in that case my fear saved me from saying something so stupid.
Of course I not only had something to prove, but a limited frame of reference to work with. I could have benefited from some sustained, well-informed and calm discussion of not only race but economic class, and their interrelationship. What if the cultural awareness presentation had dealt squarely with economic class as well as race and ethnicity?
I keep wondering: what might have my experience been in a mostly working-class, or inner-city high school? I had some working-class friends, thank God, even in my privileged upbringing; but they were all white. There may have been apartment complexes in my school's area, maybe even trailer parks, but no black ghetto. Students of all colors wore skewed baseball caps and saggy baggy pants as well as neat sweaters. “Cross colors” was a hot new clothing brand that did just that.
Some of the things I remember from that cultural awareness presentation: “why do black people change songs so much when they sing them?” A blonde cheerleader dancing enthusiastically to hip-hop and then saying “I'm glad they brought over your ancestors as slaves!” A monologue portraying the life of one of the first successful black women entrepreneurs.
Aha! Being a dutifully aspiring young Republican I worshiped entrepreneurs, and so I came out of my defensive conservative shell to rejoice at this shining light of good example (I remember also admiring how the presenter kept her poise when confronted by mild heckling). See, I wanted to say, this is what I'm talking about!
Looking back, I don't recall any discussion of systemic racism in relation to politics and economics: the students' grievances centered around “the way they are treated because of their differences.” Because I felt that I didn't treat them any differently (I, who didn't have many friends anyway), I didn't think anyone else did either, and so these provocateurs weren't acknowledging my generosity. How dare they be so ungrateful!
Year later, in Pittsburgh, I worked with a black woman, an attorney who had two sons named Thurgood and Langston. It taxed her patience to talk to people on the phone who “can't speak the king's English,” and she often disparagingly talked about the attitude that “The Man is keeping you down” as “complete bullshit.” I have wondered what she would have thought of that presentation if she could have gone back in time and visited my school. Would she have told them to quit whining about The Man keeping them down and just get on with it? Would she have thought they had a better deal in the suburbs of Minneapolis than in Pittsburgh? I really have no idea. I don't know what her experiences were like living in Pittsburgh, which, though it has its problems with racism, also has a much, much higher black population than Minneapolis. It may be full of bigots, but the objects of their bigotry aren't as exotic as they were where I grew up. Still problems, but different kinds.
The part of the presentation that got me the most steamed was where the white students were saying how grateful they felt thinking about all the settlers who came over on the Mayflower and so on, and then the black students started bursting their bubbles: “People! Open your eyes! Not everyone came over on the Mayflower! Our ancestors were packed into the hull like sardines!” And the white students covered their ears, so the black students had to come closer and speak louder.
On a human level of course I couldn't help but recoil at the horror of the slave trade, so why did it get me so angry that the descendents of slaves were expressing their own horror at it? The guilty take the truth to be hard, and that reminder of the historical injustice underpinning my privileges cut me to the quick. You see it every day: people try to excuse themselves by taking offense. So few have learned how to debate responsibly that it works too often: the moment someone takes offense at what you say, you have to give up the moral high ground? (Seems to me a dark-skinned prophet had something to say on that subject on a city wall a few hundred years ago.) I thought there must be some malice in their bringing this up to manipulate our emotions and make us uncomfortable. I had been taught to believe that whenever black people brought up the past in that way that there was some Hidden Agenda at work, or at least rudeness: couldn't they see that it wasn't nice to make us polite white folks uncomfortable? Didn't they want to put the past behind them and be friends?
There must have been some mention of Columbus in the presentation too, because I wrote in my yearbook, and I quote: “if 1 more fyag bashes Columbus I will drop out of school & egg their house!”
I can't pinpoint the exact moment when I woke up about this, but it was really always there, the human recognition of injustice. I didn't want to admit it because it went against the doctrine I had submitted my mind to at the time. Despite learning of the evils of mass conformity in my Great Wars class and reading A Raisin in the Sun in English, I didn't yet have the nerve or the strength to apply the lesson with consistency. The anger with which I smothered my conscience speaks to the same stunted psychic growth that locked me in sadomasochistic relationships – and which does the same for too many people. After all, that's what school really teaches.
It also has taught the descendants of 19th-century Scandinavian, German, Italian, Irish, Slavic, etc. immigrants to ignore their own family histories in favor of Mayflower mythology, which is another problem. Some southeast Asian immigrants took part in that awareness presentation 20 years ago, and I imagine that if they're still doing them, that recent ones will include Latin American immigrants as well. Those two groups come of their own free will, but aren't able to blend in just by learning the language either, as most Europeans could. An education which truly encouraged, or at least allowed each young person to own and explore their individual ancestry and its culture (partly by not crowding their time with schedules, assignments and tests) would give a better environment for the kind of empathy; or patient, respectful admission of its limits; that these students were right to wish for in their peers – that every citizen is right to demand in a society with any kind of pretensions or aspirations to freedom.