When I was young, I didn’t play with black kids. I also didn’t play with white kids. I just played with kids. Until I was about 8 years old, I honestly don’t remember noticing any difference, whether it was on TV or at school. I was more appalled that my Jewish friend didn’t get Christmas presents than by anything I remember about any black kids I went to school with.
Then I moved to a small town in the middle of Wisconsin and racism was really easy. It was easy because there weren’t any people within 100 miles who weren’t white. There weren’t KKK rallies or burning crosses, because who would the target have been? What we did have was an awful lot of “ambient” racism. It wasn’t outwardly malicious, just insidious in its normality. It was usually seen in the racist jokes making the rounds at school or work, but there was seemingly no more harm to the jokes than there was to the steady stream of “Polack” jokes we all told.
Maybe that made it worse, because we never had to face anyone affected by our words. After all, no one really wished anyone else harm, it was just “for fun,” so how could it be wrong? And through that, walls formed. In a place where you never even saw a black person, where there was no reason whatsoever to create any kind of a barrier, it formed anyway.
A few years later, I went to college and began the process of “Liberal Indoctrination™.” While it was still pretty damned white in Madison, it was a politically active city and campus, so it quickly became apparent that the way we had acted was far from okay.
At the end of our first year, some friends and I decided to rent a five bedroom house for the following year. There were only four of us, so we decided to invite along a guy who lived on our floor in the dorms. He was from Milwaukee – the same age as us, big guy, quiet, soft-spoken but still friendly and cheerful and…black. Thirty years later, I really don’t remember what led us to asking him to be our fifth, but we did.
We all moved in together the following school year. Jay had the big room in the attic, up its own staircase and closed off to the rest of the house. Unfortunately, that’s the way our group dynamic worked, too. We never really did much together. The rest of us went to parties, drank beer in the living room or on the patio and he spent most of his time locked up in his room upstairs.
There’s no doubt that there were barriers other than race. He was a city kid, while we were all from a little town nestled in the middle of farm country. The rest of us had known each other for more than a decade. But I’d be lying if I said we wouldn’t have been closer if he had been white. We would have done a lot more to drag him along with us when we went out. He would have felt more comfortable going with us. As far as I remember, skin color was never once an issue that came up between us, but it was still a barrier, even if we didn’t recognize it.
Thoughts and actions aren’t the same. I believe in treating all people with equal respect and, as far as I know, I’ve acted that way throughout my adult life, but even now I have thoughts that make me look hard at myself and ask “where the fuck did that come from?” It even happened while I was writing this. Out of curiosity, I looked up Jay on Facebook to see if I could find out what happened to him. There was no sign there, so I gave Google a try. What I found was his obituary. He died in Milwaukee in 2011 at the age of 45. My first thought was that he died violently somehow.
If someone told me that a white classmate of mine had died, my instinct would be that it was cancer or a car accident. So yeah, the remnants of those walls stick around a lot longer than they should. I’m disgusted and ashamed when it happens, then push to improve my thoughts while ensuring my actions don’t stray along the way. Actions matter. Words matter. Thoughts matter, too, but they’re more difficult to control. All I can do is recognize when those unwelcome thoughts occur and keep working to be better.
Collectively, there aren’t a lot of easy answers to the underlying issues. Laws can change to protect people, but deeper, systemic and cultural issues can take generations to change.
Some of it is built into our biology – not because of skin color, but in how our brains deal with other people. There’s a psychological principle related to Dunbar’s Number – essentially we’re limited to forming relationships with a circle of about 150 people. Beyond that, our brains shove others into groups to organize how they fit into our lives – which turns them into faceless masses, sometimes positive and often negative. It’s why people think “Muslim = Terrorism” despite never knowing a single one of more than 1 billion Islamic people. It’s why people think that having a “black friend” means they aren’t racist. They can keep that one guy in a slot in their circle while the “others” still fit into a box.
Where does change start? For me, it’s at a personal level. When I have negative thoughts, I remind myself that each person is a unique individual with a life of his or her own, and not just some meaningless part of some shapeless horde. That’s true whether we’re talking about race or nationality or gender or sexuality or if someone has a star on their belly.
Michael Brown was an 18 year old kid who was killed. He had friends who cared for him and family who loved him. How about we remind people to start there before everything else gets piled on?
and RIP, Jay, I’m sorry we never got to know each other better.