Growing up racist

The contradictions are what confused me, seeing how people could be nice and hateful at the same time. It started with my own father.

I was born in The Bronx, in an all-Italian section between Pelham Bay and Throggs Neck. That’s my house in the photo, where I spent hours in the 1970s playing stoop ball in the summer.

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When I was six years old, we were doing a class project about Martin Luther King. This was before there was a national holiday for him in the US. I had to cut out pictures from the paper, and I showed one to my father. He looked at it, cursed, and tore it up. Confused and upset, I went to my mother. “He’s angry,” she said. It seems he was remembering his brother, who died in an accident in the army and was forgotten. The attention on Martin Luther King’s sacrifice seemed unjust to him.

Growing up, I was surrounded most by older kids. I remember playing basketball at the local park, when one of them spotted a black teenager walking on the street outside. They screamed at him and chased him, telling him to get out and never come back. They were celebrating when they returned, and talked directly to us about “cleaning up the neighborhood.” “We keep the older ones out,” they said. “It’s your job to chase the younger ones.”

I learned just how serious people were about keeping our neighborhood “clean” when we awoke to sirens one summer. The house two doors down was on fire. People were talking about it the next day, trying to find out what happened, and heard the fire was set on purpose. “They were going to sell the house to black people.”

One particular memory haunts me. I was walking with a small group on Tremont Avenue to get pizza. We noticed a young black kid about my age, maybe twelve years old, riding his bike. One of the older kids took a chain that he carried with him and threw it at the bike, where it caught in the back wheel. The kid fell in the middle of the street. Our group yelled at him, and he scrambled to pick up his bike and race off.

I remember thinking that his bike was just like mine, that he was a kid, just like me. I felt ashamed and afraid, but I didn’t say or do anything.

These memories are surfacing now as I see the same contradictions in people forty years later. I'm not suggesting I’m better than my father, or better than the people I grew up with. It’s just that racism has been part of my experience and has shaped me. Somehow, we all took solace in finding an enemy.

One important thing I learned, something that gives me hope, is that the enemy we picked had to be people we didn’t know. Growing up, we were taught to hate Puerto Ricans, too, until a lovely Puerto Rican family moved in and we became close friends. Fairly quickly, we no longer thought of them as Puerto Rican, but as individuals. I still remember their names. 

We were also outraged at people who didn’t speak English, yet we honored my grandmother, who had come from Salerno on a boat in the early 1900s, and spoke only Italian for the rest of her long life. What was seen as a disrespectful lack of assimilation by an enemy was viewed as respecting tradition when done by people we knew. Women, too, could be the enemy. It was almost a game to mistreat women, yet men would go to extreme lengths to protect the purity and honor of their sister or girlfriend. It was common to have the word “Mother” as a tattoo on your arm. My father had one.

Identifying racism in other people is easy, but am I doing anything to change it? If the incident with the little boy on a bike happened today, would I stand up to the aggressors, or just shake my head in silent disapproval?

I’m sure I have conjured up my own enemies in my head, whether it's people of a certain race or a certain political party. Them and the people who support them. There is no shortage of potential enemies. Railing against them may provide some comfort or validation, but it also makes me angry and afraid. It’s a trap. 

Just last night, I came across this passage in a book that talks about exactly this. It's aptly titled, No Time to Lose

“We’re so preoccupied with our own comfort and security that we don’t give much thought to what others might be going through. While justifying our own prejudice and anger, we fear and denounce those qualities in others. We don’t want ourselves or those we care about to suffer, yet we condone revenge on our foes.”

That same book offers a way out of the trap. It's the unending practice of empathy and compassion. To stop the cycle of hate and fear, we need to get to know them better, till they become us. It's difficult and uncomfortable, but the alternatives are much, much worse.