So, I’m white. Mostly Irish, with German and Czech, as some of you might know from my last name. In my DNA is some African ancestry, but it’s been so watered down, you’d never pick it, but I know it’s there.
I’m not a creationist, despite my early Catholic education.
I grew up in comfortable Oak Park, Illinois from age 6 until I left for college at 17. My parents still live in that same house we moved to in 1976 from an Evanston apartment a cemetery away from the northern edge of Chicago.
Oak Park is bordered by Chicago on two sides. My folks’ house is about eight blocks from Chicago’s border at North Avenue, and Austin, the largely African-American, largely poor, west side.
Austin Boulevard’s 34-foot stretch of asphalt is almost like a border fence between countries. Though the eastern half of Oak Park is more integrated, even considering the village’s proactive integration plan, my particular patch, even having African-American next-door neighbors for years, is largely not.
Continuing west of Oak Park is River Forest, the haven of many mansions and many heiresses, but just over the Des Plaines River at the village’s western edge is Maywood and Melrose Park, and the socio-economic drop is something like the top of Everest to Base Camp One.
I say all this because I’ve just read the going-viral Facebook post, now article by Brian Crooks, an African-American man who writes about growing up in a mostly-white Naperville, a far western suburb of Chicago.
It made me think again about the leafy, comfortable, though more diverse island I grew up on, and how I identified race in my formative years.
Made me think about going from my nearly all-white St Giles Catholic school to the sprawling 3600 student Oak Park and River Forest High School where I first got to attend classes with black students.
I walked the streets, lived beside, babysat for, rode trains, shopped beside African-American people for years, but never went to school with a black student until I was 13-years-old.
There was only one non-white student in my primary school graduating class of 90. A Korean-American boy who was a great kid, but I was also a shy introvert, so that’s about all I can say about young John Kim. I kept my head down at St Giles.
We were all Irish, or Italian or Polish-heritage kids, and so moving on for my four years at OPRF was an eye-opener. I had all kinds of kids in my classes, though fewer black students than white.
In A-period, or homeroom, there were many black students and on yearbook, again, we had a balance of race and it was a safe, supportive environment for me. My advisor was fair and open-minded, and kids were kids, and I didn’t define people by their color, but more about whether they talked to me, or how I was treated.
But I was a white kid. I know now, I had privilege merely due to the color of my skin. And at 13, I soon learned what skin color meant to other kids.
I remember freshman year, just outside my homeroom was the third-floor landing space for the main staircases. I absorbed in that first year, people, and I am talking about white people, called that space ‘The Jungle’. I didn’t get that at first, but finally, it twigged.
That third-floor space was a stopping point for many African-American students during passing periods, and it was boisterous, loud, joyful, and crowded. For all of the ten minutes between classes, it was like the tide in the ocean, ebbing and flowing in volume, and I didn’t mind it, but I realized many non-black students might have found that space confrontational, so they attached to it a analogy of the cacophony of what might be found in an African jungle. And I suppose, monkeys.
Nice. Intelligent. Hateful.
It did not inform my own attitude about race. I just pushed through the happy mayhem to get to class. It wasn’t like the white kids didn’t form crowds of their own in the student center or cafeterias. Many of those kids were wealthy and deprecating to me and my friends. Elitist or dismissive. Some of those kids made fun of the students in the special unit with disabilities, or Unit One students -those kids who were struggling in life and needed extra help.
I noticed those things, because I know how I was treated in grade school, and I know how it felt. If I was treated poorly, it affected me. If I was sidelined or made fun of by other kids, I retreated into myself. I still have those resentments almost 40 years later, but the thing is, all those kids were white, just like me, and I was not good enough. I felt like I was not equal.
We didn’t have a lot of money, and I liked to read, kept to myself, was good at art, had few friends in school, liked my teachers and going to class, and all that made me a target, and it rankled.
When I got to high school, it wasn’t a balanced racial mix, but all the African or Indian or Chinese or Filipino or Egyptian-Americans, and more I met were kind, or friendly and that made a lasting impression. I was not color-blind, but I was grateful for kindnesses, no matter who it came from.
Looking back, this highlights the critical importance of school integration. I could not know it at the time, but I would have done well to attend a school even more racially-mixed. But I had what I had. The adults, many white, were in charge and continue to be too blind to overcome their own bigotry for the sake of a better future.
As a teenager, you understand inequality, and I could not do a lot about it at 14 or 15 or 16. But I understood people don’t choose to live that way because they want to. It was because they could not get out of an system-imposed hole. Now I know much more, and those feelings are amplified.
Despite riding the el the nine miles into the city, or driving in on Lake under the tracks, beside the Henry Horner homes and exhausted two-flats where families were trying to make a go of it, I understood as a high school student those folks, who seemed to live on their own troubled island fraught with violence, burned out homes, heaps of uncollected trash, drug dealers and schools that looked like fortresses were poor, and poor for a reason. An unfair reason.
A reason the white people refuse(d) to own.
I also knew that older generations who witnessed the decline of neighborhoods like Austin after ‘White Flight’ were resentful of the change, and thus, resentful of the non-white people who moved into those neighborhoods, taking with them the inequity of life that compromised their chance to enjoy the same choices white families could more easily access, merely by their skin color.
Never mind African-Americans were brutalized, murdered, experimented upon, humiliated and degraded, terrorized, not allowed to have a voice in government, on policies, or have a say on the future of their children.
Never mind any of that. Never mind that is all still happening.
Here in Australia, there is racism and bigotry, and it is alive and well. Nobody does it better than whites against Aboriginals. It is classic racism, and so embedded that people, like a fellow I spoke to the other day, are in complete denial it is happening.
He came by to ask if the paper would run a story about his next-door-neighbors who have trashed their home and so, reduced the value of his own home, and are affecting his well-being. He described the chaos, the supposed drug-dealing, the dogs meandering on and off the property, the destruction, trash on the lawn, and I listened for the kicker.
“And I don’t want to say they’re Aboriginals, but they are,” he said.
Of course they were.
“I’m not racist,” he insisted. “I had an Aboriginal bloke who was a friend of mine.”
Yes, yes, I said nodding, and told him there was absolutely no way we could run this article, foremost because we might be done for defamation. I advised him to contact the police about the drugs, a lawyer about trespassing and a real estate agent about how to impress upon his neighbors they needed to tidy up their block.
“Those black fellas are better off down by the river, where they belong, and I don’t mean that with any disrespect,” he said, almost kindly, as though the first Australians were more like happy animals frolicking in the bush rather than human beings like himself.
At a loss for words, having to maintain peace in this very small community I work in, I looked into the eyes of this man, who was a self-professed non-racist, a man I had spoken to before on something entirely different and benign, and studied him. So deeply ingrained was his racism, he was not even aware of it.
And I failed, because I should have pointed out by describing their ethnicity as the basis of their behavior, he actually was being racist in its purest sense. I didn’t, and in that omission, I endorsed his view, and allowed him to believe I was ok with it. I failed. I was stupid.
That failure, either from fear, or concern for his feelings, or what he might do or say afterwards, or even out of resignation that nothing will change if I opened my mouth, is the same thing we as white people do all the time.
We perpetuate this behavior and these views by not speaking out in normal conversation when those ugly words spill out, and calmly saying, “That is a racist statement. That is not right, and you are not fair.”
As in Brian’s essay on being black, the roots of whites’ racism lie so deeply, they become like breathing to us. We make assumptions. We assign blame to those affected because they are easier targets than the institutions who have imposed a way of life, like a school system, the police, a city, or a government.
Those things are too hard to understand. It’s too much trouble to unpick the tapestry of decisions made to give a Chicago west side kid an education in a highly-segregated school, under-resourced school, and hostile neighborhood environment, who cannot compete with the north side kid who can go on to college. Same brain or better, same ambitions, unequal opportunity.
We blame her failure on her color, and not her upward battle against prejudice. We don’t work to fix her situation so one day, she has the same shot as the white girl. But we’re a long, long way from that place, and this is exactly why black lives matter. It’s about fixing the scale, because it’s broken.
White America and white Australia have allowed this to happen, because it is not happening to white Americans and white Australians.
We brought African slaves to America, abolished slavery 153 years ago, but far too many of us never bothered to change our attitudes about equality in the process. Impossible to think the white man would virtually unshackle his landless, property-less slave and say “Ah, so now, sir, we are equal.”
Legislation on paper cannot adjust attitude, and skin color is a like a highlighter on an essay.
Over 150 years, and we white people cannot accept people are people, melanin is melanin created to protect us from the environment where we evolved.
The color of skin does not affect who we are as human beings, in our brains, in our DNA, in our motivation to succeed or to have a good, safe, productive, fulfilling life.
We were thick enough to believe we could catch something be sharing water fountains, bathrooms, pools and restaurants, or just about anywhere bodily fluid or cells might be swapped.
We white people are thick enough to believe color affects how good a job is done, how well a person learns, how eligible they are to live in a neighborhood, where they can find love, play certain sports, what matters to them, or even to lead a country.
Nowadays, if you asked the average white person if this is true, they would deny it, but many will still secretly believe skin color makes you lazy or criminal.
Or not so secretly, because this white woman has heard it twice in conversation from the mouths of white people in the last week alone.
How stupid are we?
-The featured image is by Elliott Erwin (b. 1928), Segregated Water Fountains, North Carolina, 1950.