The following is a paper that I wrote for my sociology class:
One of the many things about having a child is that you are constantly re-living your own childhood through their eyes. So it goes with my five year old, Miles. As he grows, I am reminded of what it was like to see the world through the lens of a boy. Like my parents before me, I am trying to teach him to love all human beings equally, futile an exercise as that might be. Just like Miles, when I was five years old, I had no idea about the complexities of race and of the privilege that I had been born into. He is blessed in that, at the very least, he is being brought up around more people of color than I was.
I was raised in North Conway, New Hampshire. North Conway is one of the whitest towns in New Hampshire, putting it in the running for whitest town worldwide. I had no kids of color in my schools or in my community and no adults of color to look up to or teach me baseball at little league. My earliest memories regarding race would be given to me through the television and through the speakers of my record player. They would also be largely Black figures and I first fell in love with their talent. I awkwardly tried to moonwalk like Michael Jackson, (a move that eludes me to this day.) I wanted to be a part of the Huxtables. I wanted to play ball like Boston Celtics center, Robert “The Chief” Parish. Like most white kids in a place like North Conway, the first time I heard hip hop, it was Run DMC featuring Aerosmith on MTV. Though I was surrounded by exactly zero people of color in my community, why would I have any reason to believe they were the lesser? If there was racism amongst the adults in town, and I suspect there was, I never heard any of it and my parents never let that kind of hatred walk through our door.
As I got older and started looking at the world with a more critical eye, disturbing patterns started to emerge. I learned about historical markers like slavery, Jim Crow, segregation, and the civil rights struggle. They were fleeting chapters in my social studies class and those atrocities felt so far removed from my reality. Native Americans, I thought naively, were partners in forming a new world. My Mother had an affinity for Eastern culture, so I grew up looking at Asians through the hardly comprehensive window of Buddhism and meditation. The Latino community was a complete mystery to me. By the time I was twelve years old, I could comprehend the magnitude of America’s racist past and I would even say that I knew racism still existed, however, I was lacking a frame of reference. I also knew the continent of Australia existed, but because it was so far away and I would never go there, I was content to just know where it was on the map. What I hadn’t seen coming was Spike Lee’s 1989 masterpiece, Do The Right Thing.
I can remember going to the theater with my Mom to see this movie, after spending a considerable amount of time convincing her that I could handle an R rated film like this one. I can also recall the scene that would change the way I looked at race forever. A stinging montage of vitriol:
Mookie: You garlic breath, pizza slinging, spaghetti bending, Vic Damone, Perry Como, Luciano Pavarotti, Sole Mio, non-singing motherfucker.
Pino: You gold teeth, gold chain wearing, fried chicken and biscuit eating, monkey, ape, baboon, big thigh, fast running, high jumping, spear chucking, three-hundred-and-sixty-degree basketball dunking, titsun, spade, Moulan Yan. Take your fucking pizza-pizza and go the fuck back to Africa.
Stevie: You little slanty eyed, me-no-speaky-American, own-every-fruit-and-vegetable-stand-in-New-York, bullshit, Reverend Sun Myung Moon, Summer Olympics ‘88, Korean kickboxing son-of-a-bitch.
Officer Long: You Goya bean eating, fifteen-in-a-car, thirty-in-an-apartment, pointed shoes, red wearing, Menudo, meda-meda Puerto Rican cocksucker. Yeah, you!
Sonny: It’s cheap, I got a good price for you, Mayor Koch, how-I’m-doing, chocolate egg cream drinking, bagel and lox, B’nai B’rith Jew asshole.
Mister Señor Love Daddy: Yo! Hold up! Time out! Time out! Y’all take a chill! Ya need to cool that shit out! And that’s the double truth, Ruth!
I was floored. It was the first time I had realized race in the context of the world that I was inhabiting. That night, my Mother and I talked about race for hours. I asked question after question about her experiences and how she grew up. I wanted to badly to have friends of color after seeing Do The Right Thing, however, we lived in North Conway and that wasn’t in any way possible. It was like having a bucket of ice cold reality dumped on my slumberous existence in northern New Hampshire and I wanted to live in the freezer. Without growing up around people of color, I was so curious about their culture and captivated by what it meant.
In the nineties, I soaked in as much culture as I could; reading the Autobiography of Malcom X, developing a refined taste for musicians like Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding, cheering on players like Red Sox ace pitcher, Pedro Martinez. Still, people of color only existed for me in a detached reality. That changed when I went started school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida as a nineteen year old in 1997. In terms of race, it was like going from zero to a hundred and fifty miles an hour in a Chrysler LeBaron. In the course of one year, I had friends of every kind of race. I had somehow convinced an indescribably beautiful Jamaican girl to be my girlfriend and subsequently had my heart ripped out by her. For the first time, I was eating dishes like, Sancocho, the Dominican stew of the Gods. I got into my first and only fist fight as an adult with an Asian guy, over something that, I honestly can’t remember and lost. I sat in a bathroom with six Black kids and smoked my first blunt. It was then that one of my fellow smokers looked at me me dead in my eyes and said, “Man, you a nigga’.” I can not express the feeling of validation this gave me at the time. Though I never finished my degree in Florida, it had finally given me the perspective and experience I had so desperately yearned for.
Throughout my twenties, I felt the need to grapple with what it meant to be a white person in America. I started to really see my poverty as different than the poverty of those in minority communities. I also started to become interested in race on a global scale. What did it mean in a place like Africa to live in poverty? I had learned from my experience in Florida that, for me, the only way to achieve real perspective was to immerse myself. So I worked hard, saved my money, and traveled to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania for three months.
It was life changing in all the ways that a white person talks about trips like these being life changing and at the same time, not at all. I was surprised at how easy it was to be myself in a place like this. Surprised at how few miserable faces I saw. Surely, this poverty was different than any I had ever seen and yet, these folks didn’t look anything like the miserable, fly on the face, Sally Struthers commercials from back home. There were times when I was the only white person around for miles and it felt that way. I wasn’t threatened, but I wasn’t at ease either. I just felt looked at, conspicuous. The way a person of color might feel when they are in a white neighborhood, except even then, I still carried my white privilege around me like a backpack. I was the minority, but the privileged minority and wherever I went, people asked me for money. Even as I tried to remain objective, there was no getting around the idea that race was different here. I was experiencing something new in Africa, not just white privilege, but American privilege.
Today, I am in my mid-thirties and in some ways, feel further away from my five year old self than ever before. My son just started kindergarten and I was struck by something on his first day of school. I looked around at all of the parents proud faces and noticed that ninety-five percent of them were white. It probably would surprise no one that my son’s school is a state of the art facility, for a public building. How has the socio-economic dynamic in America remained unchanged? Why is the unemployment rate so much higher in communities of color? Why have things stagnated? I try to stay humble in the face of such acute societal problems. The more I learn, the more I see direct lines from issues from the past, like slavery, to the issues of today, like minority incarceration rates. I see all of this through the sometimes naive and woefully ignorant eyes of a straight, white, American man, trapped in a straight, white, American man’s body. If society sees my son and I as the part of the problem, then what can we do? Could it possibly be the advice offered by Malcom X to a young white woman who asked what she could do to help his struggle? “Nothing”, he told her.
Since I need to live inside my own reality and help shape another, I will be vigilant and as wise as possible in teaching Miles to love equally and empathetically. I will be there to guide his sails, but not tell him what to feel. More and more each day, I see aspects of my character come to life in my son. Like me, he will have to unpack what it means to be born into privilege, to inhabit a world where racism exists. I will answer his questions, understand his mistakes, and expose him to as much of the world as I can. I will make an effort to give him the gift of perspective, because I know now what it has meant to me. Raising him is a profound, significant responsibility and oftentimes, I am reminded that I am learning as much today as I was when I was five. Contrary to what my boy may believe, I don’t have it all figured out. I listen intently to the stories I hear from people of color, question and analyze my internalization and observation of racial culture, and take Miles along for the ride. This is the way that I fight for a better future. This is how I hope that the imposing wall of racism is being slowly, painstakingly chipped away. I pray that my son will take a place on that wall next to me and someday, continue to break more of it down, long after I have put down my chisel.