My Journey Through Race and Racism (Part I)
When I was a kid, everyone in my neighborhood was divided into categories along three dimensions. There were color differences (light vs. dark hair and skin), there was the Catholic vs. Protestant divide, and there was the binary distinction of whether or not your dad served in World War II. In fourth grade and again in seventh, I attended a new school and each time encountered a greater diversity of kids and teachers and learned about new kinds of people. At the same time, I would often visit my father at work, and during the summer he and I would have breakfast downtown at the Dewitt Clinton. Then we’d go our separate ways to our respective jobs (he had a real job…I had one of those urban make-work jobs designed to get the kids off the streets), and in these contexts, I met some adults that were different from the ones in my neighborhood.
So, over time, I learned about people who were different from me, and like anyone else, I formed opinions not just of these people, but opinions of the kinds of people I was beginning to learn about. Most of this ended up having to do with “ethnicity” and that, in turn, was shaped mainly by complexion, hair, and other physical features, and to a lesser degree, religion, cuisine, and other cultural traits. I was getting my identity ducks in a row.
Some of these people tended to be friendly, some scary. Some of them were “safe” and others not (including those that seemed more likely to beat me up or mug me to take my stuff). And some of these different kinds of people seemed to be smarter than others.
When I was growing up, being “smart” was one of those things that was on the table as a matter of discussion and observation. My parents were smart, as were my siblings and I. My mother had a high school degree and my father had a B.A. and some, but not much, graduate work (but he would later teach graduate classes). Among my siblings, we were eventually to hold numerous B.A.s, M.A.s and Ph.D.s. Only a few dads in the neighborhood had jobs you needed to be smart to do, and my father was one of them. All of the moms seemed smart–it was just a question of how much smarter each mom seemed to be than each dad, with variance among the dads being the key determining factor. For my family, they were pretty equal, for the Zs down the street, Mrs. Z was clearly at least double-smart over Mr. Z. For the Across The Street Ks, it was hard to tell…Mr. K was one of the dads with a smart job, but both of them were constantly distracted with their many kids and with making ends meet. Everybody in the neighborhood was distracted with making ends meet.
There were many indicators that my siblings and I were smart. We were the go-to kids for others of our age who needed something figured out or some kind of information. We were always getting recognition in school. None of us knew what a B or a C was. I might have seemed smarter than all my siblings because I was the first kid in my family to be taken out of regular school and put in “smart kid” school. But I’m not. We’re all smart in different ways, except my sister Bunny, who is clearly smarter than all of us. (My sister Elizabeth hates it when I say that.) Anyway, smartness or lack thereof was part of the trope of the neighborhood (along with the other dimensions I mentioned above and will discuss below), especially for preteen kids. Mostly, though, it was an issue that annoyed others in the neighborhood. Like these conversations with my friend Joey, recorded here exactly as they happened (there are some things one does not forget):
Joey: “Hey, Greg. You’re a regular Walking Encyclopedia!”
Greg: “Thanks, Joey. I like to learn lots of stuff.”
(Mugrphhhmmmft is the sound Joey’s fist makes giving Greg a bloody nose.)
Joey: “Hey, Greg. What do you think that is up there?” (Pointing to the moon.)
Greg: “That’s the moon, Joey.”
Joey: “It can’t be the moon because it’s not night time. I know something you don’t know!”
Greg: “It’s the moon, Joey. You can also see it during the day.”
Joey: “My brother says it’s the other side of the Earth. You can only see the moon at night. You’re so stupid. You’re a stupid face!”
Greg: “I don’t know, Joey. Yeah, I guess if your bro…”
Joey: “Hey, Greg. You go to AP school. You must be really smart.”
Greg: “Well, not really. You could go there too, you know. I mean, yeah, it’s for smart kids, and you should go there too because you’re…”
And so on. I couldn’t win with Joey.
Joey was my “friend,” but he was also the guy who gave me the most bloody lips and bloody noses. I now realize that it may have been an abusive relationship. Alas, there was no concept of such things back then. And the reason I mention Joey is because he was pretty typical of a lot of kids like him.
Joey had a lot of friends who were like him, who looked like him and acted like him, and and it was kind of obvious that he and his friends formed a kind of racial group with similar characteristics, some physical and some behavioral. I could not possibly help but notice this because these kids–the ones like Joey–were the ones who were most likely to stop me on the street, threaten me or simply attack me, and take my spare change. I formed thoughts along these lines back then, and I look back at it and realize that these were racist thoughts. But to me, as a kid, they were about real differences. They became part of my way of defending and protecting myself. I saw kids that look like Joey, and I crossed the street. Later on in my life, I had to train myself to not do that and to avoid those thoughts.
The group Joey was a member of had a lot of families with only one parent (the mom) and a lot of kids. They all seemed to go to the same church, the kids were all pretty tough, and with only one exception, every time I got mugged or my bike got taken from me it was one of those Joey-kids that did it.
The adults also had traits that allowed them to be divided into different groups. The dads that had “smart jobs” mostly fell into one category, and those families, including the kids, were nicer, the kids would not beat me up and the families were always polite and thoughtful, and so on.
I also met a few of the people my father worked with and this, I’m now very ashamed to admit, contributed to me forming opinions of people in a categorical, and I now realize, racist, sense. As I mentioned, my father and I would have breakfast downtown at the DeWitt Clinton. There were a number of people we met up with most mornings there, and I particularly remember this one guy we would run into a lot, a kind of a “street character” that people called “the mayor” (I guess that was funny) who was in the same “racial” group as Joey (“you can only see the moon at night”) and this individual stood out as, to be honest, not all too smart. He conformed to my expectations.
The place my dad worked had a board of directors, so even though my dad was the director, he answered to the board. We would run into them at the DeWitt Clinton and other places. They seemed not only smart but also were always well dressed, were leaders and powerful individuals, and so on. The board of directors was one style person, one skin color, one way of acting, in total contrast to the “race” that included “the mayor” and “Joey.” We would also run into dad’s main assistant, Brenda, who was in the same “race” as the board of directors, and she was really smart and could easily run the place on her own and was widely respected.
So the contrast between the Joeys and the Brendas was pretty strong. The Joeys were not too smart. They were poor. The families lacked dads. The kids and many of the adults were trouble, prone to violence, always stared at you hard. Their houses were rundown and their lawns covered with junk. The Brendas were well-dressed had more money, were smarter, nicer, better-educated, lived in nicer houses, and had nice yards. I remember as a kid thinking that the Joeys were dangerous and mean, and the Brendas were warm and welcoming. It may have helped that Brenda herself was rather hot, as I recall. And most of my dad’s bosses were of the Brenda group (race, ethnicity, whatever).
And yes, I admit it, I had race-based thoughts. I had a tendency to see someone and look at certain traits…the color of their skin and shape of their hair mainly…and assume certain things, to make certain judgments. As an adult I know that these judgments are both ethically and morally questionable and scientifically indefensible. But for me, back then, they were the reality that I lived in.
One of the strangest things about all of this was this: I could see that the Brendas were in so many ways “better” than the Joeys, but my father, my mother, my siblings, me…we were all Joeys. I was a member of the inferior race.
You see, I was an Irish kid. I lived in an “all white” neighborhood, but all of my neighbors but one (Billy R.) were either Irish or some form of Mediterranean or Eastern European, mainly Polish or Italian. The swarthy Polish and Italian people had stable families (mom and dad at home), the kids were generally well behaved, and it was among these folks that I saw fathers with professions and mothers who were housewives, often with a part time job. Among the pasty-white and freckled, red- and blond-haired Irish I saw, almost without exception, kids who were mean and not very smart, and families like Joey’s and the Ds around the block, where the kids were running especially wild and there was no father in the household. I think Joey’s mom got welfare.
“The mayor” at the DeWitt Clinton was also Irish, and his silly behavior, his forgetfulness, almost clown like demeanor was in stark contrast to the demure, professional behavior of my father’s bosses–the board of directors–80% of whom were African-American. Brenda was also African-American.
Then we moved to a new neighborhood. And everything changed.
(to be continued)
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