Is there a more incredibly stupid thing than disliking or hating someone based on the amount of melanin in their skin? Perhaps there is and it’s just difficult for me to think of it at the moment.
My experience with racism started fairly early, when I was 5 years old at a daycare. I stayed there while my mom went to her college courses. While at the daycare, I was told by another boy that black guys were stronger than white guys. I was very confused by this. I couldn’t understand why a person’s skin color would have anything to do with their strength. After my family moved to another state, my first friend was Brian. He was a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles just like me. We had a good time together playing with action figures and running around. Once we had lived there for a while, I developed a good friendship with a kid named Jonathan. My parents didn’t teach me that those kids were different from me. It was never mentioned, and my parents were always gracious and friendly to their parents. It wasn’t until about ten years later that I thought about the fact that Brian was “”Black” and Jonathan was “Latino” as if those were meaningful terms.
Ten years later, at 17 years old, I was living in a neighborhood where there were folks with a variety of skin colors from ebony to almond to olive to ivory and everything in between. Which for me was not of any significance at first. I made no distinction between my friends. It didn’t matter that some were from China or Vietnam. That some were from the Philippines or Malaysia. That some were from Pakistan and India. That some were from the Ivory Coast or the Congo. That some were from Russia or France. That some were from Iran or Saudi Arabia. That some were from Mexico or Honduras. That many were born here in the United States, and regardless of skin color were from America. I didn’t realize that these differences divided us until I was told that they did. I was informed by people of a wide variety of backgrounds about the discrimination they had faced. And my heart hurt for them, because judging a person’s character based on their skin color is hurtful for that person, I had learned. I was called, “Cracker,” and “White boy,” and “whitey” during my time living there. I knew I had done nothing to them that would warrant such treatment, and yet they did it. It was drilled into me that I was different, separate, apart because of my skin color. It was then that I became a racist, that I began to see racial categories as being meaningful and real. I didn’t suddenly start discriminating against other people based on their skin color. I just carried those categories around in my head, aware of the divisions between myself and others, not really thinking about how those divisions had been generated.
I understand how racism gets passed on. It’s taught in obvious and subtle ways. One person creates an artificial divide between themselves and another person, and that person sees that created divide and acknowledges that it exists. They then live as if that created divide is a part of their reality because it is, and they often pass that on to their children, the knowledge of the divisions between us. Their children need to understand the world, after all.
One of the families in my neighborhood was a family I often played basketball with after school. We often had a lot of fun together and I really enjoyed running around and pulling of crazy hooks and wild jump shots with them. The memories make me smile even to this day. One day, the parents of the family came over and accused my mom of racially discriminating against their children because she had picked up several children on our block to take them to the bus stop since it was pouring rain and she had not picked up the black kids. I can see why that might prompt someone to think racial discrimination was taking place. It’s an obvious pattern. In reality, my mom had only picked up the kids of the parents who had asked her to do so beforehand. So why would none of the parents of black families ask my mom to pick their kids up? Why wouldn’t they trust her as the other parents had? I don’t know. Maybe they were seeing that artificial divide they had become accustomed to and never thought to ask a white woman to pick up their kids. Maybe the racism taught them by their parents was too ingrained. Maybe they had been victims of the same discrimination as their parents. Whatever the cause, the racial divide was very much a reality for them and it was a reality that they had not caused originally. I wasn’t born seeing racial distinctions, and I would hazard a guess that they weren’t either, that like me they had started to learn very early (and probably painfully) how to be racist.
After moving to another state to start a new life as a university student, I learned in my African-American Studies course that I was a participant in White Privilege, that because of my skin color I was a part of institutional discrimination against people of color. I learned about all the power I had over others by virtue of my pale skin, a power I couldn’t recall having when I was threatened by three “people of color” in high school because the only other white guy on the soccer team had flipped them off and they couldn’t tell us apart even though he had straight blonde hair and my hair is dark and curly and coarse. It’s true that because I have pale skin I’m safer when I walk around towns that used to be open Klan strongholds. It’s true that some folks aren’t as quick to feel threatened by me as they are someone with darker skin. Widespread discrimination is a very ugly part of our society. I just can’t figure out exactly how that’s my fault in the same way that I can’t figure out how it’s Brian or Jonathan’s fault. Why do we need to bear the burden of racial division simply because those before us did? Is it necessary that in addition to learning the valuable historical lessons we also participate in racism?
I wish I could still see with the eyes I had as a child, the eyes that didn’t overlay racial categories on a reality that simply doesn’t have them, a reality much more complex and beautiful than our simplistic and ugly classifications would admit. I don’t think my mind will ever give up seeing those divisions because, while merely being a manufactured part of our social reality, they do exist now and I have to deal with them. And yet I will try to avoid imposing them on younger generations in the hope that unlike me, they won’t ever be taught to be racist. I hope that someday racism can end and that if we must be divided, we will be divided over things that actually matter.