I am not the most “woke” person on the planet, and I’m not here to persuade you of any of my bona fides.
What I am here to do is to start a conversation – overdue, to be sure – about race. I’m going to tell you where I come from. Because I am having these conversations with my children. Because these conversations have to be had.
We can’t NOT talk about race.
My father’s parents were Irish immigrants, and my father grew up in a lower-income neighborhood in Pittsburgh. My mother’s parents were first generation Italian-Americans, and they lived in the Italian neighborhood in Erie, Pennsylvania.
I grew up in Erie, the oldest child of two college-educated white people. My parents never talked about race, but they hardly had to. Erie was strikingly white and Catholic in the 1970s and ‘80s – probably still is for that matter. I grew up in a white neighborhood; my K-8 school was white and Catholic; my parents’ friends were white and non-immigrants, and they had children who looked just like me. All my friends were white.
I, obviously, was aware that people of color existed – I watched Sesame Street and The Electric Company growing up. But until high school, I barely interacted with people of color. Not that I didn’t want to, or felt I shouldn’t. It simply didn’t happen.
It’s safe to say that my parents weren’t (aren’t) racist. We didn’t use racist language, they didn’t draw bright lines between “our kind of people” and any other kinds of people. My parents’ parents may have been racist, but I never heard the n-word growing up. My mom’s father was prejudiced against, to use his words, Krauts and Jews, which I always found confusing.
My pap-pap died when I was 6, and I’ve no idea on his views on race. He was, however, an Irish beat cop in Pittsburgh, so they probably weren’t super enlightened. Although my father has said that his father never used the n-word, and when my father asked about it as a child, he told my father, “We don’t use that word.”
I remember my Italian grandmother occasionally talking about ‘colored’ people, and I used to tease her. “What color were they, Grandma?” So, yes, probably some racism there. But hardly malevolent, white-supremacist-flavored racism.
Fast-forward to high school, and finally, I was going to school and seeing non-white and non-Christian people on a daily basis – not many, but some. I went to a small, Catholic all-girls school.
When I tweeted about this the other day, I said, “I didn’t witness any overt racist acts”, but I’m not sure that’s true upon further reflection. We had one Indian girl who was definitely targeted for some harassment, for example, being asked if she was in an arranged marriage. I didn’t do that; she was someone I would’ve counted as a friend. I bet if I asked Robbie, one of the black girls in my class, she would have a story or two to tell.
I never remarked on this limited diversity in my high school at home. We didn’t talk about race. Again, I think it was more the default position of not *needing* to talk about it, about having enough privilege that racism was something that happened in the ‘60s. Everything was cool in Erie! Everything was cool because of civil rights!
Clearly, since the time of Barack Obama’s running for president, then becoming President, since the shooting of Trayvon Martin, since the (continued and now publicized) murder of black boys and men by white cops, since Black Lives Matter and the Safety Pin Box, it has been made abundantly clear that we hardly live in a post-racial society. If the election of T*ump and the events of Charlottesville are any indication, we may be moving backwards.
I talk about race with my children. They go to school with, play sports with, and live near more black and brown children than I ever did. We talk about shootings (in age appropriate ways). We talk about Charlottesville and white supremacy.
I don’t say we are “colorblind.” I tell my children to see and to be aware of differences in their peers and in the wider world, whether that’s skin color, or sexuality, or religion, or disabilities. Differences matter, although they do not make anyone superior to anyone else. Differences matter, because they mean individuals have different experiences and views.
We have to understand and recognize difference. Knowing in our hearts that everyone SHOULD be treated the same doesn’t mean everyone WILL be treated the same. And we have to recognize when differences lead to injustice, and how, and what to do about it.
*with apologies to the book of essays by Tim Wise, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son – which I promptly bought and will be reading post haste. Buy it here.