Minorities & Me
a brief history
I mentioned yesterday that I used to subscribe to the meritocracy I was told was the way of the US. Along the way, my encounters with minorities were few. Here they are.
As a young boy in Ohio, I was friends with the only black man I had met, a garbage man I saw once a week. In the minute or so (a long time at that age) he had to talk to the little kid who tagged along as he worked his way down the block, he happily chatted about this and that, and once gave me a rubber alligator that I cherished.
While attending day care in the evening at a large military base, we were served ice cream cups with the little infinity-esque wooden spoons. My friend, a black kid from my class, told me, as he enjoyed his chocolate ice cream, that he loved it. I told him he ought to, he was made out of it. I laughed. I honestly don't remember if he did. When I got home, my sister told my mother about it, and my mother tanned my hide. I didn't get it. I later used one of those spoons to help me draw a naked woman. My mother found that drawing in the laundry. But the expected hide tanning was set aside as she asked my why I hadn't drawn her arms. My mother is an artist. And I was unfamiliar with Venus de Milo at the time, so I didn't have a suitably smartass response.
A few years later, I returned to Georgia in the summer, embedded in a neighborhood filled with god fearing Baptists. As good Christians, they let me know how niggers were inferior to whites. I fought them tooth and nail. But then school started, and for the first time, I was thrown together with a mixed population. While I spent time every day for a couple weeks teaching a challenged white kid, a bully to some, to read a wristwatch, I was increasingly hassled by a black kid. I had never been one to back down from a fight, so when he knocked my books off my desk when we came back from lunch, I jumped up, put him in a headlock, and began bashing his head into the wall. He bit my hand, I let him go, and then I broke my hand, punching him in the head. I got a cast and a hatred of niggers. I had been converted. I was a fifth grader.
The next year, I insisted on going to private school because I wasn't going to go to that school another year.
Eighth grade put me in high school (for some reason, there was no middle school at the time). A new program (M to M Transfers) was in place to bus inner city kids to the suburban schools. I was once again in a mixed population. I had, by this time, largely shaken off my fifth grade experience, and was now great friends with a black kid name Tony Dorsey. We had gym class together, and he and I, and Jeff Puckett, the other member of our triumvirate, always horsed around before coach Flannigan started class. While we horsed around, a group of black kids would almost daily grab a white kid, drag him into the showers, and beat him up a bit. One day, this same group decided that Tony shouldn't be hanging around with white kids. And just like that, one of my best friends joined that group and the first kid they dragged into the showers was that third member of our triumvirate. And my hatred of niggers was rekindled. I got in a scrap or two after that, namely with Gino Baker, who hassled me in art class.
And just like after 5th grade, I refused to return to that school. My parents moved me to the all white Parkview HS, where I finished my high school years in racial purity.
Once, in my senior year, some friends and I were rolling back from the mall, when we passed a black guy in a nice leather jacket. Fully entrenched in the racist, tobacco chewing subset of my school, at this point, and the most accurate tosser of things from moving cars around, I nailed this guy in the back with a cup full of tobacco spit. Even then, as my friends laughed and congratulated me, I felt sick. And whenever I think about it, I feel sick. I feel sick now.
That same year found me rolling burritos at Del Taco. After I'd been there a few months, we got a new manager who was a lot of fun and amazingly fast on the line. He taught me some new techniques and soon I was faster than he was, rolling burritos one handed faster than my crewmates could with two hands. And then one day he hugged me. I was completely flustered. I was pretty much unaware of homosexuals outside of me and my friends calling each other gay for this or that reason. So, out of ignorance and discomfort, I pushed him away and called him a fag. Even as I felt bad for doing so, I never let him know I felt bad, and I never treated him as a friend, again.
The next year took me to downtown Atlanta, on the corner of Techwood Homes, the first federally funded public housing project in the US. I would often walk down Techwood Drive with friends on our way to see the $1 movie at the CNN Center, nee Omni. We were regularly accosted by drug dealers, but to no ill result. Once again, I had cast off my hatred and made friends with a couple of black guys from my dorm.
The night before my first quarter History final, we were watching tv when we heard a banging on the entry doors. We rushed out to find two white guys with bullet wounds bleeding outside. We brought them inside and were told how a couple of black guys had accosted them on their way back from the laundry. Since they didn't have any money, one of the black guys made them strip down and tried to make them have sex. Then he shot them. As easily as it would have been to revert to the race hatred that I had embraced twice before, it didn't happen this time. It wasn't their blackness. It was that they were assholes. As horrible as this was, I seemed finally free of the racism that had owned me off and on for half my life.
My prejudice toward homosexuals took longer to fade, hopefully because I was rarely exposed to it.
Even as I hated or at least undervalued the other, I felt I was a good person. And in many respects, I was. So too are many bigots. But that is no excuse. But it does offer hope. People can change. I did.
These experiences, while giving support to the claims of guilt that some use as a bludgeon to lessen my support of some issues, are not the experiences that gave me insight. Those experiences came from personal relationships with minorities, both racial and sexual. I turned my back on my prejudices, but it was friends and strangers that gave me a glimpse of what it's like on the other side.