I told you I was going to talk about race.
I thought the best place to start would be to tell you about the world I live in, and the one I grew up in. I think our experiences with people of other races define 98% of our attitude toward and about others, regardless of what we're explicitly taught. And, fortunately for me, people of different colors and cultures have always been a constant.
Until I was seven, I grew up in a lower-mid class neighborhood on the less desirable side of our town. We lived right next to a municipal golf course, which was great, and right under the major flight patterns for the airport, which was not. I went to preschool from the age of two on. By my recollection, the kids in the school were fairly evenly mixed with regard to race, with the major groups being white, Hispanic, and black.
My very first crush was on a black boy named Travis. He was all limbs and had the most beautiful skin. He was sort of shy, and so was I. My five-year-old attempts at flirting included daring acts like standing near-ish for a few minutes at a time and trying to find a cot near his for nap time. I know. I was a daredevil. A big part of my crush probably derived from my hero-worship of his mother, who I thought was one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen. She was tall and stunning and always flawlessly put-together. I remember telling my mom how pretty I thought she was, which prompted my mom to encourage me to tell her so. But I chickened out and hid between Mom's knees the next time I saw her.
My playground experiences with the kids at school shaped much of my understanding about race - perhaps most importantly, that it existed at all. I specifically recall one instance when we were playing on some metal climbing structure (are all of the playground staples we grew up with now outlawed?), and somehow somebody mentioned that a black kid was black. "I'm not black!" he stated, with all the indignance a four-year-old can, "I'm brown!" He pointed at his skin, for emphasis. I remember looking at my own skin, browned by plenty of time outside, and thinking to myself that I was anything but white, when it came down to it. If I'd known the word "semantics", it might have led to an interesting discussion.
That experience was important to me because it was the first time I'd even contemplated race, including the idea that grown-ups had their own ideas about something as seemingly unimportant (to my four-year-old way of thinking) as the color of our skin. Until then, I'd subscribed to the idea that people, like cats and dogs, come in different colors. Simple as that. End of discussion. But this kid's insistence that he wasn't "black", which I knew to be the common descriptor, reflected some clear tension and valuation of the term itself.
Later, we moved to a more middle class area, but one that was still very diverse. From the second grade on I attended a public school that was roughly 50% minority, with that being broken down into about 25% each, Hispanic and black. The remainder was white, with just a handful of Asian children, most of whom were Vietnamese. It was also a very small, rural school, with "prominent" families in each race. When I say prominent, I mean powerful, by small town terms, and with long lineage, not wealthy. There was no wealth to speak of in the district and 70% of the population was on free or reduced lunch. I graduated from high school with 75 classmates, most of whom I'd known since my arrival.
My experiences with people of other races was as mixed as they were: I hated some and loved others; regarded some as my closest friends and went out of my way to avoid others. I believe I had already learned to judge people based on their character, not their appearance*, and I quickly learned that issues of prejudice do truly go both ways. As my friend, Jarika, would say, "I am prejudiced. I hate all the stupid people of each race who make us cringe that they share our skin color."
I dated boys of nearly every color through junior high and high school. I was lucky enough to have parents who believed in equality and had always told me that skin color did not matter. It was my experiences dating black guys, though, that gave me a new appreciation for the depth of racism that can still be found here, though. There were numerous experiences being pulled over by state troopers for no other reason than the fact that I was in the passenger seat of the car. Ignoring the guy and leaning over him into the car, he would address me directly: "Ma'am, are you alright? Is this man bothering you?" The clear implication was that I must be there under some form of duress. And my insistence that I was, indeed, "fine" only led to a stern, disapproving frown and being followed for the next five miles or so.
My white privilege always led me to get really upset and angry after episodes like that. I wanted to lodge a complaint, fill out a form, write a letter, or make a call. Who were they to treat us like that?! But the guy would always remind me that we had better things to do. Their acquiescence showed me that this was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to being mistreated in life in general (this really hit home when my college boyfriend was maced with pepper spray when he happened to be within ten feet of a fight on a public street downtown). They knew how to pick their battles, and I was a bit of a tourist when it came to experiencing racism.
But tourist or not, my environment has always encouraged me to think of race as a backdrop to bigger issues, like character. And for that, I am eternally grateful. Even today, as a grown, successful woman, I live in an upper middle class neighborhood, on a golf course, filled with professionals that is just as diverse as where I grew up. I love coming home around the time school lets out because we live within walking distance of all the schools and it's like watching a Norman Rockwell-meets-United Nations painting come to life. There are kids of all colors and cultures lollygagging around the stream, lugging backpacks and strapping bike helmets onto little brothers and sisters for the ride home. It's picturesque.
Take my block, for example: on my block, on my side of the street, we have a Hispanic couple, another Hispanic couple, a black couple, and Indian couple, a mixed white/black couple, a white guy, a mixed white/Hispanic couple, a white couple, then us. It's probably not what comes to mind when most people think of a suburban golf-course community, but I think it's ideal.
I love that my daughter is growing up here, where I can teach her to judge for herself and not limit her exposure to people and experiences that are different. I love that living here allows me to grow as a parent and a human, encountering new thoughts and ideas, and challenging my beliefs on a regular basis. I love that unlike where my husband grew up (that's a whole 'nother post), one's heritage has more to do with cooking habits than with where I can get a job.
That's likely enough rambling for today. Next up: why I always wanted black hair and how to make grown-up friends who aren't of your race.
How 'bout you? Who are the people in your neighborhood? And what race issues are you facing?
*To be clear, I am human and very aware that I do have some underlying prejudices. I am sure I do make snap judgements that I'm unaware of on a daily basis, but I try to be aware and eliminate those when possible.