I don't consider myself a spokesperson for people of any color or ethnicity, but I can certainly speak from my own experiences (there goes my disclaimer -- you'll see this often). You see, when I was a child, my Mother and my Nana didn't talk about race as an intellectual exercise and certainly not if my brother and I were within hearing distance. We were never taught about race. They never sat us down to explain who we were or what we were and how we were supposed to behave as a result of it. We were simply, "colored people."
There was general talk, however, about white people and colored people, Irish and Italians and Jews.
Groans and rolling eyes tinged with anger and disgust would typically follow news broadcasts which only presented black faces when there was
crime involved, or perceived injustices by police toward our neighbors and friends.
Then there was Nana and her general dislike for the Mintz's, the Muntz's and the Lang's; white, German-Jewish families with "big, pretty homes," and for whom my grandmother cleaned, washed and toiled twice a week each for $20. Though she thought of them with distain, Nana never complained about her work, and the major complaint she held about them was their lack of cleanliness. Mom talked about the Irish and Italians who worked around her at the aluminum plant near Grays Ferry, called "All Aluminum."
No, racism wasn't even a word that came up -- not even during any of the conversations I eavesdropped on regularly. According to my Nana, there were good white people and bad white people, and we needed to stay away from the bad ones. Oh, and we should stay out of "White Neighborhoods." We were living in "the White Man's world," and that's all there was to it. That was the late fifties.
Then in the early sixties, something happened...
Colored became black, and the saying went, "if you're white you're right, and if you're black, get back."
One day when I was riding my bicycle in a part of a different neighborhood, I noticed a really nice playground with working swings, a tall sliding board and a labyrinth of monkey bars. It was a mere four blocks away from my home and although I knew I shouldn't have strayed away from my own neighborhood, I decided to ride my bike around the perimeter of the fence that surrounded the playground.
Suddenly, a very, very angry little boy with the stringiest, yellow-white hair began running toward me from a small side street adjacent to one of the
playground's tall chain link fences. He couldn't have been more than my age, at best. I actually didn't think much of the little boy. I just continued to ride my bike around the playground fence.
Then, just about as suddenly, I felt like I was a great deal more than a mere four blocks away from my house. I was light years away from where I should have been. This was a "white neighborhood" and apparently, I was just caught trespassing.
As I gripped my handle bars, breaking so as not to hit the boy who had finally caught up to me, he yelled,
"Get outa here, you nigger! Get away from my playground."
Then he began yelling incessently, as though alerting the neighborhood militia of my transgression,
"nigger! nigger! nigger! nigger! ... nig..."
I'm certain I didn't catch the last refrain of "nigger" in my ear, not completely, since I sped off on my bike so fast toward home, that I almost got hit by a car on Broad Street.
Yes. I had gone east of Broad Street in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and every black person living at that time during the late fifties, the entire decade of the sixties or even the early seventies, understood that you must never venture beyond east of Broad Street alone -- well, except me, I suppose.
I never told my family about my first experience of being called a nigger by a white person, and although it made me angry, I wasn't overly sensitive about the "N" word, just the "get outa here" part. I decided that this little boy had to be one of the bad ones, and if he was bad, his parents were, too.
The reason why I wasn't very sensitive to the word nigger was because I was desensitized to it, having heard it used very often by neighbors and other black people.
"... black nigger, ole nigger, stupid nigger, drunken nigger, and lest I forget, funny nigger and crazy nigger..."
(I'm sure there's more...)
No, it wasn't part of our normal conversation. It was typically used in the same darogatory fashion as the way white people intended it to be used to describe us, and yes, my family had no problem referring to other black people as nigger or neeegro if it suited the situation.
Yet, as I thought about it more and more, watched the TV and saw people like me being hosed, bitten by dogs and clubbed by police for freedom I thought I already had, the word began to sting like a leather strap on my bare behind.
Because this little white boy was telling me to get out of a place I where I had a right to be, and he felt justified in doing so. And the fact that he felt so justified, so entitled made me seethe. He was white and I'm black. This was real.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1960's called into question our right to be where we wanted to be against the wishes of the white people who would keep us out, just because we were black -- like that little white boy. It was a call for the same basic human rights that white people enjoyed on a regular basis without even thinking about it, worrying about it or being told they had no right to exercise.
As an adult, I've asked a few of my white friends to tell me how they learned about race. In each of the cases I heard:
"We grew up not seeing color," or
"My parents always taught me that color doesn't matter," or
"We are all the same."
So, it appeared that they were taught about race. I am not going to assume that all white people were taught about race based on those few that I spoke candidly with. No, that would require more research and study.
Now I need every white person reading this post to think about those statements for a moment.
Now close your eyes this time and think critically.
Since I won't know unless you comment on this post, I'll tell you what I believe it means to be colorblind, or to believe that color doesn't matter, or to believe that we are all the same, within the context of racism in America and what it means to be a
C O L O R
In a country where the color of various shades of brown skin have been pooled together and thrown into one "black" pot by the culture and systemic policies that make "ANYTHING BLACK" something ugly, evil and to be vilified, NOT seeing the color of that skin is the same as acknowledging that the system of racism doesn't exist, and at the same time, that the mistreatment of blacks associated with that systemic racism doesn't exist.
It allows you to ignore this system of racism by seemingly blinding yourself from the reality what you might see everyday; the "ignorance is bliss" phenomenon. If you look at the word ignorance, you will see the root: "ignor-ance."
Black people, however, can't ignore color, nor can we ignore the vestiges of shame that our "color" has been assigned. And I do mean assigned.
We all know about the connotations of the color black in our society. We all know about the connotations of the color white in our society. Black as a color, not a person is dark and mysterious. It is considered evil, dirty,
malevolent, wrong. White as a color, not a person is clean, pure, angelic, right. These things are institutional; they are imprinted into the hearts and minds of each and every person living in America today, black or white.
And this, my white friends, is part of the problem. Why do you suppose for a group of people whose skin is various shades of brown, from creamy latte, or the deepest brown in the center of a coffee bean to the purplish hue of a black olive, would be assigned to a color whose very connotation means evil, dirty, malevolent, and just plain wrong.
In a world filled with color, it is ludicrous to fein color blindness when it comes to skin color. To be color blind is to deny the reality of a system designed to marginalize an entire race of people on the basis of,
C O L O R
And why? Was it because of slavery? Was the fact of black servitude and life as a commodity to be sold a justification for the systematic denial of human rights when slavery ended? Wait a minute...
Black people were victims then, too. But I digress.
It is OKAY to see color. We see it every day. By teaching your children to "see" the color of our skin you are acknowledging that we exist, which in turn validates that person who is "OF COLOR."
I must warn my white friends that there is a down-side for some. Actually acknowledging racism and all its vestiges will also magnify the injustices of it all. Some may feel responsible and they just don't want to feel that level of guilt. Why should they? After all, they didn't do anything, personally. For others, there is no willingness to admit anything exists at
all, thereby ending any reasonable discussion of race and racism at all. By contrast, Black people do not have the luxury of individuality in this racist system. The guilt felt by one of us is felt by all, even if I didn't do anything personally. We are all suspect as one race and we are all considered guilty of anything.
I'm certain that the little boy who called me a nigger and didn't want me in his neighborhood wasn't born thinking that way. He probably wasn't sitting on his father's knee being warned about of the "evils of blackness, black people or the coloreds." He probably watched television and saw the "bad black criminals causing trouble," watched the news and saw all the black criminal faces and heard his parents rationalizing their own learned bigotry.
More likely than not, he eavesdropped on conversations just like I did, and he heard the word, "nigger," just like I did, and he used it just like we did. He probably heard his mother and father argue against what the Civil Rights Movement stood for. And because he lives in a society where he is the fortunate beneficiary of that system which validates his behavior and provides the justification for him to scream...
"GET OUTA HERE YOU NIGGER..."
This is where I am going to end for now. Next time I will be discussing the PWSP or the "Perceived White-Skinned Privilege," and why today it is only a myth.