By Bob Dorn
We all can act stupid around race. The more stupid about it we are, the more racist we become.
Some of us are a tiny bit stupid, enough to think we can say “Bragh” or “Carnal” and thereby get past the barriers between people by saying magic words. To one degree or another we carry with us when we go to work or school the delusion that we can know by their color, or dialect, or accent who’s likely to be a friend to us.
I had a good friend who used to say, “To assume is to make an ass out of u and me.
Beyond the merely unconscious screw-ups lay (and lie) the racists themselves, the ones who consciously bring stupidity with them as a tool to alarm the inexperienced, and to insult the people who’ve already had to endure the stupidities. I don’t want to talk about them. We all know who they are. They make their livings letting us know who they are.
White awkwardness is a starting point for racism; it’s both a result and a cause of a perceived distance between people. Imagine, if you were Mex-Am and had to listen to some fool you don’t know tell you about the wonderful meal he had at a Rubio’s. Would you want to know more about that person in front of you, or would you step away to find relief? And if you did turn away from the Rubio’s fan might he be nudged toward a misjudgment of you. It’s the little stuff that starts the march toward pointless resentment, isn’t it?
I wonder if very white people tend to be underdeveloped, socially speaking.
We all use sidewalks. Who is most likely to avoid eye contact with people approaching them from the opposite direction? I’m afraid it’s usually us whites.
We pretend to look at our cell phones, or to the right or left at nothing at all. I think white people fail to greet each other almost as often they do people of color. (Ralph Ellison wrote a beautiful book called The Invisible Man). White people are worried by strangers. Is that civilized?
Where I grew up in the late 40s and 50s and 60s, Phoenix was a crazy mix of people from the South, along with Northern snowbirds, Mexicans who’d been there far longer than the whites, blacks making their way Westward for the 40 acres and a mule… and whites tended not to mix. I was folded into the considerable number of Italians there, simply because my extended family’s origins were in Sicily (my father, a Jew, had been absorbed by my mother’s gregarious and delightfully eccentric family).
Daddy would drop me off at the downtown YMCA, in the shadow of the grand Westward Ho Hotel every Saturday, where we learned calisthenics and swam and played what we called dodgeball out in the parking lot. The Phoenix version was played as black kids against the whites, with the white kids in the middle of the ring.
I remember not being offended by that arrangement; the black kids seemed better able to avoid having their bells (or balls) rung, and also able to wing the ball at our heads in a flat line. I did notice that whenever one of us was able to avoid getting hit and — according to the game’s rules – was thus permitted to join the people who formed the ring, he’d have to argue to get to the outside position.
There were no black kids at my high school. My cousin, fully of Southern Italian parents, was so dark he was nicknamed Nig’. Sicilian and Jewish, my hair escaped all attempts to control it. (Later on I left it alone altogether and it formed an Afro.)
I was a prodigy on trombone, but playing it got in the way of being cool, so I quit music and played football and by default ran with the wilder elements of the middle-class Mexicans and whites. I felt pretty much like an outlier all through high school.
When I broke my hip, temporarily suspending the football life, my roommate in the hospital, dark as a moonless night, was John Hadnot. Looking back, I came to guess it was a slave name. He’d fallen 20 feet from the roof of a Winslow lumber mill, cracking his body in numerous places. He bore the pain silently, so I tried to match his stoicism, a word I’d just learned in English class.
A girl from my block, Nicki, short and roundfaced and thick, visited me in the hospital alongside Jana — who went out with 20 year olds, the girl who thrilled me and was beautiful and olive-skinned. Afterward, John said Nicki had made him wish she’d get right into the hospital bed with him though he was encased in a full body cast. I thought that a pretty bold thing to say.
It probably gave birth to an urge in me to get a little outside the normal, and I thought to make a joke of his name, “I’ll call you Hadn’t.” He looked at me, appraising, and stonily told me, “you can call me John.” After I was released from the hospital I went back to visit him, and he appreciated that.
Another introduction to the real world came during the last two summers of high school when I worked on a terrazzo crew owned by the father of two Argentine-Italian brothers who got me the job. At first I was allowed only the wheelbarrow, next was trained at the mixer on the proportions of cement and sand sacks and marble chips to add together, and how much water, and then left to do that job, while another newcomer wheeled the barrow to the two pouring crews. These six or eight were a group of Italian, Mexican and Scots-Irish plus some ne’er-do-wells that included a noisy and playful guy of no obvious ethnicity named Sadek.
I was sent on to the polishing crew, an entity entirely separate and apart from the pouring crew and nearly all black. I took orders from Big Willy, the fatherly foreman, who showed me how to replace the worn carborundum stones with new ones into place so that the great heavy machines could be passed over the crude floors until they became glowing imitations of Roman fundament.
The smaller Willy talked trash; who he’d bedded and what she told him during the performance. I was too young to see it as his method of gaining respect and/or entertaining the crew, and shrank back from trying to take part in what I couldn’t know much about. There’d only been some tonguing at the drive-in and a bit of breast when I got lucky. I was still a virgin.
One day, little Willy asked me at the crew’s lunch break, “What about you, Bob, do you get some pussy?” I ducked my head and shook it no. “No? You ain’t never had any?” Again I shook my head no, and Willy, said, “What do you do, Bob, pull it?” I admitted I did, and Willy looked at the others and proposed, “We gotta get him together with Sadek’s wife.”
They were my entrance to the real world, not the bubble of enforced neighborliness that caused my mother and father to close the windows so that the neighbors wouldn’t hear them vent their fury at each other. (Once my mom even yelled out the window they hadn’t yet closed, “That’s just fine, Frank, let the neighbors hear.”)
Mom had been a Brooklyn flapper, and took the train into Manhattan with her girlfriends, and the A-train up to Harlem. One day I was driving to Mass with her and asked her how she’d feel if I “married a black girl.” Her response knocked me out: “I’d just want her to be Catholic.”
It was the 60s, and for many whites and blacks excitement bubbled from the notion that it was possible to cross over the artificial but historical lines defining and separating the races, that we could finally come to see each other as personalities, as individuals. It could be difficult at some points; sometimes our history overcame our new-found beliefs.
I remember a couple of friends inviting me to a party in Encanto, well after my self-claimed enlightenment about race. It turned out it was thrown by a black motorcycle club and I was the only white there. After some 30 or 40 minutes I went paranoid. I wasn’t a motorhead, nor African American and had become unglued; I had a sense of being totally out of place.
My pals knew it and told me I’d get over it and said I had nothing to be afraid of. It wasn’t my favorite party but they helped me recover enough of myself that I could dance.
Race thinking is tough to overcome. Memories of racism often produced in blacks and, to a lesser extent, Chicanos a wariness around pale people. I was a reporter for the Copley afternoon daily and there was a lot to overcome on stories that touched black lives. A veteran photographer told me a story from years about taking a pictures of a Girl Scout troupe. When the story and picture was published the one black member of the troupe had been airbrushed out of the photo.
I cursed the newspaper for its politics, satisfying myself I wasn’t to blame, but there was something missing from my reaction. The photographer, Thane Mackintosh, made me realize what it was. “Can you imagine how that child felt,” he asked. I’d cursed the newspaper and in my anger had forgotten the real damage it had done.
A more innocent bit of race-thinking came one night when a beautiful, hardy 27-year-old I’ll call Donella and I spent one of our frequent nights together proving just how exciting it can be to cross over.
She told me that she loved my brown eyes, that they were like a black man’s. She might have loved them but they weren’t brown, they were blue. I had to turn on the light to show her.
“Get out of here.” She was genuinely surprised. We see what our minds see when race enters the picture.
A few months ago I rode the Number 7 MTS bus from downtown to my 578 sq.ft just off Park Boulevard, a comfortable little spot (except on marathon days and Saturdays when people are going to the zoo).
After the driver had picked up a fairly diverse lot at the Broadway stops he turned up Park Boulevard at City College and stopped for those waiting at the benches there; one of them a woman, probably near her 50s and dressed stylishly. She’d been forced to board the crowded rear and tried to work her way through it and as she did, she steadily grew agitated.
She looked at the mostly African-American passengers and turned around and headed toward the area where she’d boarded, but was blocked from going much further forward by the late afternoon crowd. She stole peeks at the population I was part of.
When one of them had to get by she desperately called out, “Don’t touch me.” She even said it again. The people around me showed no reaction, not a shake of the head nor an eye role. She escaped whatever threat she perceived by getting off at the following stop, which struck me was not her original destination, the bus having arrived at it so soon after she’d boarded.
When the bus reached my own stop I couldn’t resist repeating her words, “Don’t touch me,” looking for a laugh, which I did get. But then I saluted the back of the bus in a kind of Mission Accomplished way.
A lot of us white people – I suspect a majority – carry around a lot of guilt over the persistence of color lines, and the meaningless distinctions and really damaging political behavior that continue them. We can get too eager to establish how we’re really not that way.
As I got off the bus I was saying, See, I’m not like her. I’m Okay. It was invented behavior, and I wouldn’t have done it in a white crowd. That’s a mild sort of racism, but it nevertheless is recognizably so. One face for one crowd, another for the other.
We all, still, have a lot to learn.