So I was recently informed that I am racist. I found this to be a very perplexing statement given that I was told that I was racist specifically because I don’t care about race. Has the world gone mad?
I was born about a decade after The Civil Rights Act. I was raised in a small town. It was prominently white, but there were definitely people of color mixed in. I never really thought about it. I had friends in my building whose parents were from Africa and they had names that we could never have guessed how to spell, but they were just normal to me. I knew them for as long as I could remember. I had friends from all over. It didn’t really matter to me what color you were I was more interested in playing tag or swimming or riding my bike. If you wanted to as well you were my friend. We had kick ball games in the front yard with everyone in the neighborhood. We didn’t break up the teams in black vs white, or boys vs girls, everyone played with everyone.
When I reached my teen years I moved to a suburb outside of Boston that had what was called the METCO Program. This program gave kids from the inner city a chance to go to school in the suburbs for a better education. It turns out I had lots of friends in the programs. I didn’t know that for a good couple of months when I first started at the school. I had never heard of the program before and even when I did hear about it the thought never occurred to me that just because someone was black they MUST be from that program. A friend of mine had a car and we used to go into Boston and visit the friends we had met from our schools. We weren’t their white friends, and they weren’t our black friends.. we were all just friends.
Through out my life I have been friends and/or dated people of many different races, religions, sexuality.. and what have you. I didn’t think of them as my Asian friends, or my gay friends, or my Jewish friends.. they were just friends. I treated all of my friends the same. I have treated all people that I meet the same. I was raised to not judge people by the color of their skin but by the content of their character and apparently… that makes me a racist.
I’m told now that it is not good to treat everyone the same. It is not good to not pay attention to race or sex or any other immutable trait. That I am to ONLY pay attention to such things and that I am to give special attention to those that are different than myself. Now I’m not talking about getting to know about other cultures. That I’ve always done. I’ve asked my friends who I knew spoke another language to teach me some phrases (not just the dirty ones) or write my name. My dad encouraged me to attend different religious events and festivals for different cultures so that I may learn about things that I may be interested in myself.
I remember once as a teenager I volunteered for a City Year service day. I ended up being assigned to a local inner city Boston school that was being cleaned up, and I was asked to watch the kids that were there while their parents did their work. I was so happy I always loved taking care of kids. This school was in the middle of a section of Boston called Mattapan. It’s pretty much all black people. I was playing with the kids.. I still remember some of their names, and I still use it as an example of one of my proudest moments… not because they were black, but because I used my time there to teach one little boy in first grade who didn’t know how to read how to do a word search. He was so proud of himself that when his friend came over to give him the answers he told him that he didn’t need them and that he had learned to do it by himself. I hope that he took that with him. That he learned that everything that he wants to do it within his power and that he can do it all himself.
I remember at lunch all the tween girls were braiding each other’s hair and one of them came over and asked if she could touch mine. I have VERY straight.. Very blonde.. Very silky hair. She had never seen anything like it before. Her friends all chimed in saying that she couldn’t ask that. They said how rude she was. I smiled and told her “of course you can.. you’ll never learn about anything new if you can’t experience it.”. The rest of the girls were so excited and they all wanted to take turns brushing and braiding my hair. I didn’t think it weird that they were interested in learning something new. I found it weird that they had never known a white girl who’s hair they could touch. I’d known plenty of people of color in my life in a small town and we all played with each other’s hair.
In fact this wouldn’t be my last conversation about hair with a black girl. About a decade later I was sitting at work and someone had come in with a perm. A friend of mine, thinking out loud said, “how do you get the curl to stay? how come it doesn’t just wash out?” Again.. confusing to me how you can live in this country.. watch all the same TV commercials and not know about general products. I explained to her that we use chemicals similarly to how she used relaxers for her hair to straighten it. Her mouth dropped open. “HOW DO YOU KNOW ABOUT RELAXERS?!?!”, as if it were some top secret information “for black eyes only”. I had no idea how I know about it. I just did. It was part of American culture, therefore part oh MY culture. I didn’t think of it as a black thing or a white thing.. it was just a thing.
I have had many conversations like this over the years. I love to read and learn and grow as a person and part of growing is learning about things that don’t revolve around yourself. Things that are important to other people. People just like you who may experience different things. That’s how I was raised. I was raised to not think about race, religion, sexuality, or anything else that may make us different because in the end we’re not. In the end we’re all the same. And, that, I’m told.. is what makes me racist… at least according to my white friends.