Recently I read an essay by Ross Gay, “Some Thoughts on Mercy,” and I’m still thinking about it. The author wrote about being black in America while unraveling the complicated emotions he experienced after being stopped by a police officer for no apparent reason. The essay was unflinchingly honest and offered a powerful, painful, and personal look at racism in America.
After I read the essay, I felt some complicated emotions myself. I felt sad that, in our contemporary time, another human being had experienced a lifetime of blatant racism, to the point that he had begun to even question his own sense of identity and self-hood. I am aware that this person’s experience is all too common. And I would think, by the 21st century, in America – the veritable “melting pot” and “mosaic” of different races and cultures – that racism would no longer be an issue for human beings. But it is. Despite the deep knowledge that “people are people”, there is segregation and inequality and racism in this country. And it makes me sad and angry.
I am Italian-American, a couple of generations “off the boat”, and considered “white” by the color of my skin. Because of that, I have never experienced the level of racism that I know others have in America, including the immigrants of my own family. As a child, I grew up in a mostly white neighborhood, but I went to a very mixed school. My friends were different colors and I accepted that without question. In my child’s mind, everyone looked different, and there was no judgment based on the color of one’s skin. There was a time in my life when I had yet to be taught racism. But I remember distinctly when I first discovered that the color of one’s skin was divisive and had become a cold, difficult reality.
When I was in 7th grade, I had two best friends in school.We had a BFF club, wrote notes in school, ate lunch together, and talked on the phone. Erika was spanish and Sandy was black, and though I knew that, I simply didn’t consider it an issue. Since kindergarten, all of my classmates were different colors and came from different cultures. I loved Sandy and Erika because of who they were and how we connected. That year, my friend Sandy had a birthday party. Of course I was invited, and so was Erika.
I was allowed to go to the party, but Erika was not. On the day of the party, I remember that when my mother was driving to Sandy’s house, she had remarked that Sandy lived in a “black neighborhood.” I remember thinking it strange that she would say that, but it wasn’t until I got to the party that I began to understand the implications of what it meant to be “black” or “white.” It turned out that I was the only friend of Sandy’s at the party who was white. All of our friends from school knew that we were BFF’s, but many people were still surprised to see me at the party. People I had known since kindergarten did not treat me the same way at the party as they had at school. Even Sandy treated me differently, like she didn’t want me to be there. I remember feeling acutely like an outsider. It was like I had entered a strange, surreal world where suddenly nothing made sense.
Nevertheless, as the party went on, I was gradually let in. I hung out with a girl who I knew from school, who sort of took me under her wing. I discovered that Sandy was friends with most of the people at that party outside of school. In school, things were different. In school, she had two best friends who were considered white. Even though I had grown up in a neighborhood that was mostly white, I did not encounter racism. She, on the other hand, had grown up in a neighborhood that was mostly black, and racism was very real to her. Later, she had told me that she didn’t expect me to come. The disparity of our worlds had collided that day, and things would never be the same again. I remember sitting outside my house after the party, under the tree where I liked to read and think, trying to understand a world that suddenly didn’t make sense to me.
By the next year, Erika left our school to go to public school, and Sandy and I gradually grew apart. The year after, I started high school, and again I went to a very integrated school. By this time, I was aware of the difference between black and white, school friends and home friends. And even though I had a lot of friends from different cultures and races, we seldom hung out outside of school. As I grew into my teenage years, I could see the way things had changed, and it always made me feel sad and angry. Black kids hung out with black kids, white with white. There were mostly black clubs and mostly white clubs. The cheerleaders were white. The boosters were black. Sometimes there was crossing over, but rarely.
In college, the racial divide became even stronger. From high school, I went to a local community college with the plan to save money and transfer to a better (which meant more expensive) college after I received an associate’s degree. There, the segregation was more severe. Black students hung out in the student union. White students hung out in the brick cafe. Even classes became more segregated, with certain majors attracting mostly black or mostly white students. By the time I left college, I had few friendships with people of different races. They were no longer part of the world I appeared to inhabit, and I’m not sure how that happened but it did.
When I was at the community college, I worked in the philosophy department as a student aide. My friend Donald worked in the sociology department right next door. We used to do our photocopies together, and we had become fast friends. We were an unlikely pair. We used to have a lot of conversations about racism. He often joked about being the token black guy in certain places, because he was interested in different cultures and joined groups or events that were mostly white. And even though we were great friends and talked about everything together, I remember that there was still a divide. Once I drove him home because he had stayed too late talking with me and missed the bus. I remember that he was anxious, and instructed me to lock the doors and not stop at any of the stop signs on my way home after I dropped him off. He lived in a pretty rough neighborhood, and even with his open-mindedness and our friendship, he told me that a white girl didn’t belong in that part of town.
As an adult, I live in a mixed neighborhood, neither white nor black. But I still see division and segregation all around me. I know that this is learned. Racism is learned. And what follows is a mess of social reproduction and hatred and fear that is passed along by implicit and not-so-implicit understanding. It’s socioeconomic and political. It’s how we live, where we live, where we work, where we go to hang out, even the music that we listen to. It’s the stories passed along through families, through friends, through the dominant culture. It’s how we are educated, directly and indirectly. It’s the books and magazines and television shows and movies we are exposed to. In short, America is seething with racism, even though it is one of the most multicultural places in the world.
I don’t know what can be done about this. As a teacher, my first response is education. But I know that the field of education is extraordinarily flawed, and no matter how many classes teach teachers about multicultural education, each teacher is an individual person with his or her own conditioning. There is still the board of education to contend with, the standardized tests that still favor the dominant culture, the economics that still rule communities and determine funding and the level of education available. There are still millions of individual families that are teaching their children different things than they learn in school. I know that these roots go deep, way deep, and there are so many different factors that contribute that I know that education is only one piece of this sad and broken puzzle.
I’m even wondering why I started writing about this in the first place. It seems a hopeless endeavor. How do we stop racism? How do we teach people things that they know instinctively as children, before they are taught differently, that people are people no matter what their race or culture, and that these differences are aspects that enhance our collective experience of being human.
I don’t know.
Then I think about what brought me here, to write this tonight. That essay by Ross Gay. He shared his experiences with racism, his utter frustration and confusion and anger at dealing with a world that has been conditioned in a way that is hurtful and painful and divisive and wrong. And though my experiences have been very different, I feel the same frustration and confusion and anger. That made me want to share my experiences, to continue the conversation, to stand up as a person in the world, and to break my own silence about the confusion and complexity of racism in America.
It is not just about being a certain color or race. It is about how we interact with each other, individually and collectively, as humans on this planet. Here, we are all just people in the world, doing the best we can, with a limited knowledge of how or why we are here. We have so much potential that is squandered by division – by race, by culture, by gender, by sexual orientation, by economics, by politics. I wish that people would realize just how much power we could have, what amazing things that human beings could accomplish, if we could only collectively unite together, for the good and benefit of all.