Saturday, September 6, 2008

abuse their children

I think we all will agree that probably the most damaging effect of segregation has been what it has done to the soul of the segregated as well as the segregator.

When I was about eight years old, I lived with my parents and sister in a small house that we “owned” instead of rented. The house was located in a city, but actually on the outskirts of a part of town that we always called “the inner city.” Our own neighborhood was racially mixed, and the most distinguishing feature of the inner city for me was that it was less mixed—the inner city was where “black people” lived. That part of town was also different from “downtown,” which was where my Dad worked, at a job that was good enough so that Mom didn’t have to work at all. We did not think of all the effort she put into our home as “work,” because it didn’t bring money into the house.

When I look back at that time, I realize that I had an awful lot of freedom for an eight year old. I remember wandering wherever I wanted to, often far away from home, and sometimes for an entire day. I once returned and provoked oddly startled looks on my parents’ faces, by telling them about the man who’d invited me into a bar and told me all sorts of interesting stories, while I drank the many sodas that he’d so very nicely paid for.

Usually, my only time and space obligations were to be at school, and to be home at 5:30 for dinner, and then in bed by some reasonable time at night. My favorite place was a “creek,” which was actually an extensive series of concrete channels and tunnels that city planners had built for storm runoff. I think it took me until the age of nine to work up the guts to go far enough into the tunnels to emerge on the other side. When I finally did, I discovered that the field full of abandoned houses my older friends always raved about really did exist. Most of the houses still had broken doors and a few windows left, with decaying furniture, torn-up clothes, cigarette butts and empty beer bottles inside. My friends and I felt a little nervous about getting caught as we poked around in them, but we never encountered any adults there.

In school, though, adults were everywhere, telling us exactly where to go and precisely when to be there. Even gym class offered little real room to move. The playground was better, since the one teacher out there mostly left us alone. On the hottest days, my friends and I would put our feet together, raise the inside edges of our shoes, and then push the outer edges down into the softened tar. I don’t remember any adults blaming us for the long rows of paired divots we made.

All the friends I had at that time were white, except for one black kid named Dwayne. He and I were only friends for a short time, and I don’t remember going to his house, nor him coming to mine.

When I was in fourth grade, groups of black kids came to our elementary school in buses. We’d been told that their school was in bad shape, and since ours had some free space, our principal had offered it to them. These groups were, if I’m remembering right, completely black. At our school they stayed that way too; they had their own classroom, and they all sat together in the cafeteria (it didn’t occur to me that us white kids were sitting “together” too). When the black kids arrived, the adults who monitored the halls and lunchroom became more serious. They crossed their arms and moved around more watchfully, and they smiled a lot less. I felt no opening or inclination to cross over to the black kids’ side of things.

Then one day I was walking around on the playground, and I had a bunch of stickers in my back pocket. Like most of my friends, I collected plastic, name-brand stickers, which all advertised car-related products. Cars were important to boys, and we were obsessive about those colorful stickers. We checked in every day after school at the car parts store, where we pestered the clerk for samples from the latest batch. He always gave us a few stickers, and for some reason, the most prized ones were those for STP oil. They came in many different sizes—some were huge—and they seemed thicker, and softer, than those for other products.

I remember being happy that day on the playground because I had several of the medium-sized STP stickers in my back pocket. They probably made my friends jealous. As I wandered around, in the sort of dazed daydream that I sometimes fell into, I felt someone pull the stickers out of my pocket. When I spun around, a black girl was in front of me, and as soon as I realized that, I saw that her hand was raised. She slapped me across the face. Hard.

I was too stunned to get mad, or cry, or do much of anything but stand there with my mouth open. Nobody I knew ever slapped anyone like that. She smiled at me, with her hands on her hips, like she was waiting to see what I would do. When I didn’t do anything, she looked at the stickers in her hand, then plucked out the biggest and best STP, and then peeled the paper away from the back of it. As the paper fluttered to the ground, she held my eyes in a dare, and her smile grew wider as she smoothed the STP logo across her chest.

She didn’t say anything, at least not with words. I looked around and suddenly realized that I’d wandered into the black part of the playground, so I turned around and walked back. I was too baffled by the whole encounter to even rub my stinging cheek. Afterward, I saw no reason to tell anyone about my lost STP sticker.

My friends and I used to tell each other jokes, the more “bad” the better. We told “polack jokes,” about how many of them it took to screw in a light bulb and so on. “STP,” we said constantly, really meant “Stop Teasing Polacks.” It took me awhile to realize that “polack” referred to a person from Poland. I thought it just meant an especially stupid person. It was the same with the word “white” in that phrase I heard sometimes, “Hey, thanks, that’s mighty white of you!” It took awhile to connect that expression with white people.

We traded jokes about black people too, and like the “polack” jokes, we knew better than to share them with adults, especially our parents. I don’t remember if I found most of the black jokes funny, but one seemed especially clever to me. So much so that I decided to tell it to my dad.

We were shooting hoops in the driveway after dinner, as we always did when the weather allowed, and since the joke was about basketball, that’s when I told it to him.

“You know that basketball team in New York?” I said.

“Yeah? Which one?”

“The one with a new name.”

"New name?" my father said, pretending to guard me.

“Yeah. Their new name is . . . the New York Niggerbockers!”*

Instead of the laugh I expected, my father grabbed the ball from me, then gave me one of his hard, long stares.

“We. Do. NOT. Use. That. Word. GOT IT?”

“Okay, yeah, got it. Sorry.” I knew which word he meant, but I didn’t know yet the word was THAT bad.

As we went back to our mismatched game, I felt surprised. My friends (all white at that time) had found that joke so funny, and they’d been saying it for days. The chance it gave me to impress my dad, who always appreciated cleverness otherwise, had fallen worse than flat. In fact, I felt lucky I hadn’t been punished.

A year or so later, when I was ten, I came home to the complete surprise of a “For Sale” sign on our front lawn. My father tells me now that he doesn’t remember race having anything at all to do with the decision to buy a bigger house outside of the city. It’s become obvious to me, though, that if we hadn’t been white, there would have been very little likelihood, or even possibility, that we would have moved into “the suburbs,” no matter what my parents may or may not have thought or felt about the nearby “inner city.”

I made it through my years as a teenager in a place that seemed really boring (and then as I got older, “stifling” and “sterile”). I paid for some of my own clothes and other things, first as a paper boy, then as a bus boy, and even as a “salad boy.” I didn’t think much at all about race anymore, except when topics involving the “inner city” arose. That was certainly a place my friends and I still never went to, even when we had our own cars. The empty suburban streets provided plenty of room for chasing and racing each other, and for doing “donuts” on the lawns of unfortunate neighbors. If we ever got caught, boredom was our excuse.

My high school had something like 1500 students, and as I look at my dusty senior year book, I can see that only eight or nine were not white. Which seems incredible to me now. I never thought to wonder back then, at least not coherently--how did that suburban space get that way? Had it always been like that?

I remember talking in a school hallway with a friend one day, when he suddenly revealed a side of himself that I didn’t realize was there. It happened when one of the black guys walked by.

“Look at THAT,” he said, suddenly snide and cold. “Damn niggers. High asses, cocky attitude. I HATE them!”

“What? What the hell are you talking about?”

He fell into a silent smirk, and I didn’t know what to say. I did know that was the easy thing to do, and so I did it—I kept saying nothing. And no matter where I wanted to be, which at that moment was away from this friend, it was clear to me which side I was on. Not that I wanted to be, but there I was.

Later, when I was about to graduate from high school, I didn’t feel like a boy anymore. My classmates had a “senior banquet,” a grand finale at a downtown hotel. This was a workplace, I now realize, where a lot of the staff must have come from the “inner city.”

At one point that night, I was sitting at a big round table with about ten other seniors. I don’t know if it was before or after all the silly awards had been announced by our class president. We were being served “banquet” style, with whole plates of food gently placed in front of us, by servers who were friendly enough, but mostly silent, and mostly black.

My table might have been louder and more mischievous than some others, because we had a certain guy named Rich sitting with us. Rich was something else, kind of famous actually. He was really loud, for one thing, and he’d been suspended many times from school, and almost expelled too, for ultra-smartass things that the rest of us would never do. He swore at teachers. He let greased piglets loose in the school one night. After feeding them Ex-Lax.

I’ve often thought that what Rich did that night in that place further demonstrated his fundamental separation from the rest of his classmates. But now I’m not so sure.

The server for our table was a middle-aged black woman. She gradually moved around our circle, silently placing full plates in front of us. When she reached Rich, he stood up, pulled out his wallet, and said, “Hey girl! I got something to show you!”

The woman paused, like the rest of us, to see what he had in his wallet. It was a card.

Instead of handing her the card, or even showing it to her, he shouted, “I, my girl, am a card-carrying member of the KKK! That’s right, the KKK, and you need to know that! See that, this official membership card has KKK printed right across the front of it, with my name below it!”

I remembered then that I’d heard this before about him. That it was really true, crazy Rich had somehow found out how to join the Ku Klux Klan.

Aside from the daring, extreme nature of this latest stunt, Rich’s demand that the woman look at the card was strange, because he never did actually show it to her closely enough so that she could read it. He just kept waving and shaking it over her head, telling her again and again what it said.

I didn’t know what to think. I looked around, and the rest of the table was laughing. I wasn’t, and I couldn’t, especially when I looked at the woman, who tried to ignore Rich and go back to passing out plates.

Rich finally sat down, fully satisfied with himself, and another guy slapped him on the back as he roared with laughter. Everyone else was either laughing or smiling, a bit shocked by Rich's antics. I didn’t laugh or smile as I watched the woman shake her head and go on to the next table.

My food tasted terrible. But I didn’t get up and leave.

I saw which side I was on.

*For those who may not know, a professional American basketball team, the New York Knicks, used to be called the New York Knickerbockers.

[This post is dedicated to my father, who only THINKS he’s a “conservative.” Thank you, dad.]


  1. This is a great post! I really enjoyed it.

    Can you explain what “Hey, thanks, that’s mighty white of you!” means? I have never heard of this expression before reading your blog.

  2. Thanks restructure. I think the meaning of that expression depends on who's saying it, and when (historically speaking), and in which context. As I understand it, back when it was common for white Americans to say it, it was a racist comment that meant either "thank you," or "that was a good thing you did." A Wikipedia page defines it as a way of saying "Thank you for being fair."

    Check this page and this one for more current understandings, some from non-white perspectives.

  3. Thanks! That's so interesting. I'm familiar with usage #3, "to behave or act in a manner stereotypically attributed to Caucasians", especially when applied to non-white people, so this non-ironic usage seems strange (and somewhat funny).

  4. Hopped over here from lucky white girl and I have to say that I really enjoyed this post as well.

    I can distinctly remember the night I stopped being innocently "colorblind" (as I believe most children are)...

    When I was in second grade, I attended a sleepover with a handful of (white) friends from my Girl Scout Troop. While we were at the video store deciding what movie to pick out, one of the girls' older brothers came up and inquired about our plans for the night. Upon discovering we only had very tame adventures planned, he suggested that we go "nigger knocking." None of us knew what it entailed, but the way he said it made us all certain that it was something that cool kids did. We wanted in on it.

    Upon returning to our friend's house, we started talking about it and discussing what it could mean, when her mother overheard our conversation and became furious. We couldn't figure out what we'd done wrong, but it was something so bad that she disbanded our sleepover and called all of our parents to take us home.

    That night, my mother explained to me how some people don't like black people, how the n-word is an offensive term that nobody should use, etc. I felt extremely embarrassed for being so excited about such an awful activity, even though I couldn't have known any better.

  5. Wow, this brought back memories of my childhood, and what it was like to be black in a white working class community. The racial taunts along with the few black and mainly white divide was a daily part of our existence. It can really mess with a black child's self esteem.

    I've heard the phrase "It's mighty white of you, " a great many times making it seem as if good deeds are something that can only be equated with whiteness.

    Have you ever wondered if any of those kids who laughed out loud at the banquet didn't feel that same knot in their stomach, but were too afraid to stray from the team and show their disapproval?

  6. I enjoyed this. I like that you're sharing personal anecdotes.

  7. I hope that some of those kids did in fact feel the same....thanks for sharing.

  8. Thanks for sharing this story. I was beyond shocked. Great story line.

  9. You write well, thanks.

    It never struck me what the word really meant till about eighth grade. I have called it "doorbell ditching" ever since.

  10. I teach about race in a New York City college. I'm so glad to read your blog. I wish I could get my students to talk as openly about race as you do here. That's the start to making change - acknowledging that something's not right about our society. Thank you, thank you.

  11. That's a great story to hold onto, Jenni B, thanks for retelling it. Yes, it's a (white) shame the way racism can be exciting for kids. It's great that your mother stepped in like that to counteract it.

    Yes lynn and white trash academic, I did wonder if any of the other white "seniors" at that table also felt that same knot in their stomach. I can only hope that some of them did--I remember asking a couple of them about the incident afterward, and that they were only willing to try to laugh it off. The strained quality of their laughter, and their averted eyes, did suggest some discomfort over the incident and, hopefully, an incomplete identification with the suburban KKK kid.

    I'm glad you enjoyed this post, anonymiss. I'll keep thinking about my life and my past in search of other relevant incidents and stories. I'm still trying to undo my "white" training, and that's obviously a good method for doing so, and for encouraging others to do so.

    Thanks for stopping by, LLDR and brohammas, and I'm glad you found value in this post.

    anonymous, have you considered having your students write stories about their childhood encounters with race, including their training into their own racial identities?

  12. Macon, at what time in your life did you 'wake up'?

  13. I'm not sure that I have "woken up" yet, jw. I think I'm still trying to do that. To the extent that I may have succeeded, it's been a gradual process through many incidents, circumstances, and influences (some of which I described in this post), rather than something I can attribute to some specific time in my life.

    How about yourself? Are you "awake," and if so, is there a time in your life when it happened?

  14. I was too curious to ever believe society's lies and I also joined the alleged 'wrong people', those, who know the reality of life and and of a nation because they aren't accepted by main-stream.
    I never had a reason to join the main-stream side, I wasn't willing to assimilate and to give up my own soul

  15. >I'm not sure that I have "woken up" yet, jw. I think I'm still trying to do that.

    please explain what you mean with that

  16. jw, what I meant was that learning to be and act like one is supposed be and act, as a "proper" and "functioning" member of society, means following certain (largely unspoken) rules for acceptable and pleasing thought and behavior. This is a process that I think all children go through, unless they somehow grow up in isolation from others, and thus do not develop their own innate desire to be accepted and loved by those others (and I do think--okay, I hope--that such desire is innate). I've been lucky enough to learn what many of these rules are, in terms not only of race, but also of nationality, gender, social class, sexuality, and others, and I now do what I can to reject those that I find objectionable because they're harmful to others, and to me. Like other functioning members of society, I've been "indoctrinated," and so for me, "waking up" means learning about how indoctrination works, and finding ways to resist it. I continually do this kind of learning (and unlearning) in more ways than I can describe--reading, watching, listening, conversing, acting differently than I used to, going places I didn't used to want to visit, interacting with people I used to somehow feel I should avoid, and so on.

    So that's the sense in which I interpreted your initial metaphor about "waking up." What I meant by saying I'm not sure that I have awakened yet is that I'm not sure I've awakened fully. In fact, I'm sure that I haven't. I'm still learning about objectionable unwritten rules that I've been led to accept and enact. If you meant "wake up" in some other sense, please do explain what you're thinking.

    Regarding your brief description of your own past, I must say, you are incredible! To think that a person could somehow resist, right from the start, all of that which I've just said I'm still trying to wake up to. Your description of your past reminds me of a friend of mine, who used to swear that he clearly remembers his own birth. Both descriptions of such preternatural childhood abilities seem incredible to me, but then, stranger things have probably happened, somewhere.

  17. > what I meant was that learning to be and act like one is supposed be and act, as a "proper" and "functioning" member of society, means following certain (largely unspoken) rules for acceptable and pleasing thought and behavior.

    Somebody white within a white society/Eurocentric society is supposed to act Eurocentric and 'white' - meeting Eurocentric norms and ideals.
    Therefore the question, when you write this:

    >I've been lucky enough to learn what many of these rules are, in terms not only of race, but also of nationality, gender, social class, sexuality, and others,

    Why is it luck to learn these rules and to be accepted by people, who accept only 'empty' people (those following mainstream to be accepted) ?

    You wrote in your text:

    >I’ve often thought that what Rich did that night in that place further demonstrated his fundamental separation from the rest of his classmates.

    I think he wasn't separated or why did he believe that he can come up with his shit when he is among white people he knows? He felt safe to do so. Why?

    >Regarding your brief description of your own past, I must say, you are incredible!

    I am not incredible, I only insist that people accept me for who I am and not for what they want me to be. It isn't a preternatural ability, but can easily be explained by psychology. Within similar circumstances individual people will act in different ways.
    My favorite quote by V. Frankl: 'Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms - to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way.'
    And this is already true for children. Children aren't born soul-less where adults can just fill in what they want to make out of their children.

  18. jw: "Why is it luck to learn these rules and to be accepted by people, who accept only 'empty' people (those following mainstream to be accepted) ?"

    I didn't state what I meant clearly enough, it seems. I mean that I was lucky enough to have, or else somehow gain, the ability to learn to see the unwritten, unstated (and thus not normally seen) rules that govern "normal" existence. By explicitly learning what many of those implicit rules were, instead of just blindly or automatically following them, I gained the choice of rejecting those that I found objectionable, because they were harmful. So, I think I'm saying a lot of what you've been saying here--that following the mainstream in order to be accepted was what I learned how NOT to do, because again, I learned to see the unwritten rules that many people around me couldn't see, and thus rather blindly followed.

    You wrote in your text:

    >I’ve often thought that what Rich did that night in that place further demonstrated his fundamental separation from the rest of his classmates.

    I think he wasn't separated or why did he believe that he can come up with his shit when he is among white people he knows? He felt safe to do so. Why?

    You left out the sentence after the one of mine you quoted, the sentence that says, "But now I'm not so sure." I'm "not so sure" that he was separated from us because although what he did was far out of the range of acceptable action for any of the rest of us, he nevertheless believed, as you say, that he could come up with his shit among us and feel safe to do so. Why, you ask? Because he knew we wouldn't stop him, and that most of us would instead applaud him, and wish we could be so daring. I wasn't sunk far enough into a white supremacist perspective o laugh at and applaud his actions (which is why I felt instead sick about what he'd done), but many of my fellow classmates and fellow suburban residents were. So, the extremity of his racist actions did separate from us, but on the other hand, he got away with it because in a deeper sense, he wasn't separate from us--he was on the same side we were on, in racial, and racist, terms.

    Regarding the last part of what you wrote, those are nice words about freedom of choice. However, I think I differ in that one point of this post is my belief that some kids are more encouraged to exercise and do something positive with that choice--to realize they even HAVE that choice--than others are.

  19. You try to reject all what doesn't fit your concepts and you even don't think about it.
    You are more mainstream than you want to believe

  20. Maybe your dad IS a conservative and an all-around good guy. They're not mutually exclusive.


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