My Journey Through Race and Racism (Part II)
We were unusual, my family. Looking back at it, I now realize that this may have been why Joey was always beating me up. I was being “uppity.” When my father started to earn more money with his smart-person job, we moved to a nice house in a nicer, newer neighborhood and suddenly were surrounded by people different from us…by a “race” who typically had better than average jobs, had more money, were known to be smarter, than my kind. Suddenly I was going to a school with a lot more of this new kind of kid than I ever imagined existed. Eventually, as a matter of fact, I even married one of these folk (for a while). So just as my old neighborhood was structured in such a way that I came to accept races and ethnicities as real, meaningful entities, my new neighborhood taught me more of the same.
I later experienced additional transformations that refined my growing race-based thinking. At some point I started working in a very active ghetto, doing archaeology. Here, I found out that most African Americans were actually not well-dressed and seemingly well-off (or at least middle class) but were actually living in really crappy housing. The people I worked with were afraid of the African Americans, and they did steal some of my stuff. I remember feeling more comfortable on days that I worked with my friend Fred, who was an African American, because he knew everybody and was relatively famous, being the brother of an NFL pro. I found out, around the age of 13 from direct experience working every day in the ‘hood, that there was a strong correlation between poverty and skin color in my hometown, and that the Joeys were actually somewhat better off than the African Americans living on Arbor Hill or in the South End.
Another transformation had to do with school. I started out at an all-white, all-Catholic school. Then they took me out of that school and put me in a smart-kid school. There, I met my first African American fellow students and my first non-Catholic fellow students. In fact, there were exactly two of us Irish Catholics in this class, and everyone else was either a non-Catholic Christian or a Jew, and among the non-Catholic Christians were African Americans.
If I drew conclusions at that time, or experienced a refinement of my race-based thinking, I would have to say that black people filled the range from most functional, smartest, most powerful, and most respectable in behavior to least in all these same areas, with whites distributed along the in-between areas, with Jews at the higher end and Irish Catholics at the lowest end.
The move my family made reinforced this transformation. We moved from an all-white but also all-Christian neighborhood to another all-white but mainly Jewish neighborhood. This reinforced the idea of Jewish superiority, because my neighbors were pretty well off, some spoke wisely in exotic foreign accents, many were university professors, and when I went to a new school at about the same time, it was another smart-kid school with piles of Jews and a handful of black students.
Indeed, my first real conversations with a peer about race and biology were at this new school, with my friend Miles. He was very smart and he was Jewish. He used to tell me that Jews would always be smarter than Catholics. Here’s why. Catholics scour the community to find the smartest men to be their leaders and make them the priests. The priests are then not allowed to reproduce. At the same time, Jews scour the community to find the smartest men to be their leaders and make them the rabbis. Not only can the rabbis reproduce, but they are virtually bred…everyone in the community supplies them with resources to maximize their reproductive output.
According to Miles, since this had been going on for 5,000 years for the Jews and 2,000 years for the Catholics, the difference should be immense.
You know what, though? This conversation happened in eight grade, and I promise you that there was never a moment when either Miles or I believed it. We found it hysterically funny. There was never a moment when even one neuron in our brains considered this comparison to be valid. We knew intuitively that it was wrong because by that time we both had a pretty good understanding of the bankruptcy of theories about racial superiority or inferiority.
No, we did not learn this from our parents…our parents had no idea. Our parents had typical white, middle class, 1970s racist ideas, though my father not so much. (Well, I can’t speak for Miles’ mother. I don’t recall her ever uttering a racist word, but we did not have a lot of conversations.) We were not really learning this from school either. We were just two smart guys who had seen enough of the world at an early age (though with different experiences from each other) that conflicted with what society was trying to make us believe to rebel against being assimilated into the Racist Thinking Borg. It probably helped that we happened to be living in a society…in a particular city, at a particular time…that had been undergoing social and structural transformation.
I’m lucky to have had this model rather than the usual race-based model in which whites are superior in every way and blacks are inferior in every way (music, rhythm, sports, excepted), which is the model that most whites and probably many blacks grow up with. I also had the opportunity to see with my own eyes the direct correlation between circumstances and these other traits, as well as to see some pretty overt and nasty racist acts that made me realize the severity of racism as a social modality. I saw and heard things that made me cringe when I was little, and I remember that cringing…even at a very young age the racist model was there for me to absorb, but my actual experiences were telling me that it did not fit.
When I was a kid, we played war. Since we were in denial of our involvement at that time in Viet Nam, and Korea was the “forgotten war,” the war we modeled in our play was World War II. This is the reason for the importance of each dad’s involvement in The Big One. Our status as kids was usually determined in part by this fact.
My dad was in the war. He was in London and he was bombed, and he received a medal from the King of England as well as from the US Army, and it was actually possible for me to sneak kids into the house and show them the medals, which my father kept hidden away in his desk. My status could only have been improved had my father been wounded. Oh, well.
The good guys in the war were the Americans, and the bad guys were the Germans and the Japanese. But then one day I found out that I was half German. Holy crap, that made me half bad guy. This is probably why I had more than a little empathy for Billy R.
Billy R. was the one kid who had no dad but who was not Irish, or at least, as far as I know he was not Irish. His mother was Japanese and his father a Caucasian American who was in the occupation forces after World World II in Japan. Billy’s dad died right around the time he was born, so he never knew him.
Billy’s mom was different because she was Japanese and because she was a single mom. She worked, naturally, as a server and matron in a Chinese restaurant. When the first Japanese restaurant in town opened up, naturally, Billy’s mom worked there. Also, Billy’s mom maintained a garden in her back yard that was the envy of all of the moms. Especially my mom, because Billy’s back yard was over the fence from ours…we were over-the-fence neighbors with the R’s, which made for a special relationship.
Billy was my friend, and whenever any of the kids insisted that Billy be the bad guy in the P.O.W. camp because he was Japanese, I would stick up for him right up until the moment that Joey and his friends would beat both of us up. In truth, Billy mostly avoided playing with the other kids, but he and I would play together in my yard now and then (we could not play in his yard for fear of messing up the nice garden, but in my yard we had some good options).
One day, years later, when I was attending the aforementioned smart-kid school with many Jewish students, I saw Billy again. He had grown huge. He was at my school to play in a wrestling match. He had become the top high school wrestler citywide (and beyond, if memory serves). I wonder if there was a point in time where Joey started to cross the street when he saw Billy R., rather than the other way around?
There was a candy called Nigger Babies, and a kind of nut called nigger toes. I remember the day I realized what “nigger” meant. I had been using the word but not knowing what it meant. I found out what it meant while I was standing on the steps leading up to the front porch of my house. I remember sort of holding on to the black metal railing and moving it back and forth a little because it was getting loose (from me sliding down it and swinging from below it, most likely). I can viscerally feel these things right now as I remember this conversation. One of my sisters was there, my mother was there, and the neighbor from next door was there. We were eating Nigger Babies. I asked what a nigger was, found out, then I asked, wasn’t that a bad thing to say, and I was somewhat sheepishly told yes, it was. It was kind of embarrassing. My memory of this is that we didn’t get Nigger Babies any more as a snack and we started calling nigger toes by their other name: Brazil nuts. We also stopped catching niggers by the toe and started catching tigers by the toe instead (while eeny-meeny-minie-moe-ing).
The Jewish shopkeepers on Central Avenue kept vicious dogs behind the counters for protection. If black kids walked into the store, the swinging door allowing access through the counter was unlatched and the dog would chase the kids out. Usually the shopkeeper only needed to threaten the kids and they would leave.
We would always assemble at car accidents to watch the blood and gore. (I lived near a couple of pretty bad corners, and this was the days before seatbelts and other safety features). One day there was a bad accident in which a black man was ejected from his car and splattered on the pavement, blood spewing everywhere. There was no ambulance called for him. Instead, the police took him away in a “Paddy Wagon.” I later learned that it was called a “Paddy Wagon” because it is the vehicle used to take drunk Irishmen off to jail on Saturday Nights.
Anyway, while they were taking this African American man who had not done anything wrong away in the Paddy Wagon, the conversation included things like the color of his blood (shockingly, it was the same as found in white people similarly spattered on the same pavement in earlier accidents) and his facial features (“his lips are so big…”). These were the conversations among the adults. My memory is that the kids were awestruck by the blood and guts and were mostly standing there quietly, ashen, horrified. I asked an adult…I think it was the guy who ran the dry cleaners in front of which this accident happened…why they were taking him away in a Paddy Wagon. “I don’t know. I guess because he’s a Nigger,” was the answer.
My personal experiences and what society was constantly trying to teach me were almost always at odds. I was lucky to have had contradictory experiences as a kid. This helped prepare me for what I was to encounter years later when I went to Africa for the first time. During the mid-1980s, there were several years where I spent more time each year in Africa than I did in the US. It was almost like I was living there and visiting Cambridge once a year for a truncated semester of coursework. Then, over the next several years, I spent varying amounts of time each year, most years, in Africa. The frequency of my visits has fallen off to once every few years. Overall, I’ve spent several person-years living there, in a number of different settings.
If there was a race-based model of intelligence (and there is not), it would have to be somewhat like the model I saw developing with Irish, Black and Jewish people when I was a kid. Pygmies, for instance, not only have very large brains relative to body size, but they are also all very smart. I could argue this on the basis of four years of research with Pygmies. In contrast, the best evidence suggests that the white trash that I live among in my current neighborhood and the white trash I grew up with are of below-average intelligence. Among the African villages, the farmers, there would seem to be a full range of people who really don’t seem to be very sharp at all to people who are veritable geniuses. Among the blacks I knew as I grew up, and among whom I’ve lived since moving out of my hometown and living mainly in “diverse” neighborhoods, I see a similar range of variation. My own experience supports the idea that almost all Jews are smart, just like almost all Pygmies are smart. Maybe the Jews and the Pygmies are closely related.
So there is a full range of black people and a full range of white people, and both groups have their own little special elite groups here and there. This would be the model that my experience suggests, if you absolutely must insist on a race-based model of intelligence.
This is, of course, not what I believe to be true. It is just what I would have to believe were I to force my observations into traditional race-based biological thinking. The details as to why the traditional race-based biological thinking is wrong is a subject to cover at another time.
I will end with one simple observation. There are a lot of people having a conversation about whether or not the color of one’s skin can tell you that a person is likely to be smart or not…or more precisely, if we took 20 black-skinned people and put them in a room with 20 white-skinned people, the whites would on average be smarter than the blacks right there, in that room. If we went into that room and asked for everyone’s opinion on something, we might want to give the blacks’ opinion some consideration because everyone is entitled to their opinion, but we could also know that if this opinion was about anything complex or difficult to understand, and if there was a difference of opinion between the blacks and whites, the whites’ opinion would be more likely correct.
That is what this conversation is about, right?
What strikes me is this: I don’t see any black people signing on, reading through this conversation, and going, “Hey, WTF?” Perhaps this does not happen because this is a conversation among whites who pretty much have been having this conversation among whites their whole lives.
True humanity can only form on a foundation of real experience, and reality is diverse. I feel very badly for those who have not experienced that diversity.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, October 14th, 2009 at 6:31 am and is filed under Greg Laden. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.