I was happy growing up. We all knew each other. It wasn’t some sleepy Mayberry, but the kids I went to kindergarten with are the same ones I graduated high school with. They were my playmates, classmates, and teammates. Race was definitely not an issue.
Jake and I had been best friends for a few years. I think it started as freshmen in the weight room, then weekends harassing the same girls, then pretty much living in each other’s houses. One day, in the locker room, with all the social grace of a sledge hammer, I finally asked, “So dude, what exactly are you?”
“@!$# I don’t know,” was his reply. “Are you like a Mexican or something?” someone else chimed in.
“@#!$ you, I’m Spanish,” Jake finished. We never talked about it again.
In the nine years since I left, I’ve been back twice. I still read the hometown paper, especially during football season. Something I read recently got me thinking back; reflecting.
It isn’t my alma mater, but it’s the school right next door. It’s the same home town. Some kids got stupid, a kid who probably looks a lot like my kids would if I had a son, was offended, and now it’s a big deal. I’ve read the kids blog, I’ve read the comments, and I’ve read the local coverage.
“We aren’t racist,” is the cry from kids and parents. “He’s racist for trying to make this about race,” declare others. Both the principal and vice principal are on leave pending an investigation. It all got me thinking about a picture in my yearbook.
Of course we weren’t racist! Bill was cool. Kuki was one of my favorite people. We were taught that to be racist meant hating a person because of their skin. That wasn’t us.
My wife and I talk about our high school experiences, hers down south and mine in Utah. We laugh and tell stories. She talks about the lunchroom and how everyone had their own tables, black kids at one table, white kids at another. “Was it like that for you guys too?” she once asked.
“No way”, was my quick response… that would have been a very lonely table.
Five hours of sleep, 200 views, and 2 emails later and I’m writing an addendum. I oft fall victim of my own attempts to be subtle, or get cute when writing. Doing so on matters of race often leaves those less informed missing the point and feeling even more slighted when corrected post event. I suppose if you attempt to be subtle in your writing and no one gets your point, your writing is really just shallow.
In retrospect we were all wrong.
Bill, I remember when your parents came to watch you play basketball. I was confused. I never said anything. I hope they did. I fear many children like you, or like mine, growing up where we did, with people like me… will grow up unprepared.
Anson, I remember back when we threw javelin together on the track team. We had no coach and we had fun. I had no idea “Spear Chucker” was a racial slurr but I suspect you did, and may have even been called one. Thanks to your good personality and my ignorance I probably retold stories of us being the JHS Spear Chuckers a million times. It makes perfect sense to me why David Chapelle walked away from his TV show.
Zac, I didn’t know till this morning that they pasted a “Fresh Mex” add to your locker back then. I would have known it was wrong then, but I ‘m sure I never would have said anything. That was wrong. I did know they called you Spic ‘n Span when you got a job washing dishes. It felt wrong but girls laughed…. so I did too.
Kuki, I wish I could ask you if it made you feel odd when we called you “chocolate chip Kuki”. You werent the type to speak out, maybe your brother will tell me. Your family helped us learn to appreciate cultures not my own, but in retrospect it has helped me realize how hypocritical our culture is in applauding some cultures while ignoring the very existence of others.
We were taught by good teachers and parents to be colorblind. We thought we were looking past our differences but at some level, we did not. When one is blind, one cannot see. Another word for not seeing something is ignorant.
To ignore someone’s color you in a very real way have to ignore that person. We didn’t get that and most of us still don’t. It’s part of the reason my wife had a tough time living there. She liked everybody, it was hard to put a finger on just one thing.
Lets just say it was a very lonely table; even more so because most of us refused to even know it was there.