My hope with these vignettes is to explore my personal history with race from my earliest memories of the use of derogatory language, and my experience of racial privilege, while also thinking of the art and literature I was exposed to and which I studied in my formative years; as well as the repercussions of consuming material primarily by white authors and performers.
- Grade School Playground
As a white kid, transplanted from northeast Ohio suburbia to northeast Ohio rural farmland, there wasn’t a lot I was confronted with when it came to seeing race. Even as I was raised to be kind to everyone, to find in a person’s eyes their tenderness, to laugh with anyone about the mundanity of the everyday — that with any difference at all, no one wants less than to be treated with a sort of casual solemnity and respect and comradeship — I don’t remember meeting a person of color my age until long after we moved out to the country. And even then, as I reached high school, there were perhaps a dozen people of color among a class of over 300.
Totally unbeknownst to me, and never mentioned in my family so far as I can remember, the Medina and Summit counties, where I came of age, have a dark history. In 1920s era Akron, Ohio, the KKK boasted its largest city chapter in the country, numbering in the tens of thousands. Among its members were elected officials and public figures. In the 1970s, in Lodi, Ohio, the same town at the heart of which my grade school was situated, former Ku Klux Klan “grand dragon” Dale Reusch was forming the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan, which had the dubious task of seeming a sort of progressive version of the original doctrine, as it would “include women, children, Roman Catholics and naturalized citizens.” One can easily deduce the irony of a former member of a white supremisist terrorist organization forming a different white supremisist terrorist organization and resolving to include as many more white people as possible to better take on their task in executing the overarching version of terror they were wishing for the same. Whiteness in general was the point. And children? all the better to indoctrinate as early as possible.
At Lodi Elementary in 1996, I was one afternoon somewhere on the playground, sitting awkwardly among a circle of other third graders, boys mostly, all white. I remember I listened as the most popular of the group told racist jokes, with language to this day I recall as the first time I ever heard being used by a real person. Some boys giggled and guffawed, hands on belly, maybe spitting out a “that’s not funny” through the laughter, but laughing nonetheless.
I recall that I didn’t understand the jokes. I didn’t understand why they could be perceived as funny or true, didn’t understand the words I’d never heard yet knew were bad, bad, the worst words; I didn’t understand where a child might hear these jokes, and I didn’t understand why they felt confident enough to tell the jokes to their fellow students and expect the laughs they got from them — these kids who before that moment were just other kids to me, maybe they wanted to be my friends, maybe they didn’t. It was the callousness of it all, the hatred veiled in supposed good-natured fun, the unnatural-to-me carelessness of treating people without the regard I was told everyone deserved.
It’s all a vivid recollection. Except that I don’t remember if I laughed just to fit in. I’m not sure I didn’t.
- On the Sidewalk
Stories written about Daniel Prude explain that he was a Black man who died of asphyxiation after being violently detained by police while he was in the throes of a psychotic episode. They seem to wonder about his drug use, his criminal record, the specifics of his relationships and if he had contact with his children. They note these things to offer context, I suppose. A brief bullet pointed list of offenses, as if any of it had much to do with the incident itself. Violence is violence. But violence by police against people of color, namely Black men, is something else entirely.
It’s a whole complicated mess as to how I got to Portland, Oregon, why I made yet another move in my young life (it would become the eighth city I had lived in in just under four years) as if a brand new city and brand new people would be enough to find something valuable. That life of mine was slowly slipping like sand through the proverbial sieve, with little gold to be found among the grains. I had just been diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. It’s a fascinating illness, and offers a whole lot of things to think about and write about and to generally inform an outlook on life that strives for peace and understanding. But it’s also one that makes you do the kinds of things that Daniel Prude was doing when he was attacked by those police officers, shoved to the ground, and forcibly met with a bag pulled over his head until it effectively smothered out his life.
Now, I never ran down the streets naked, to be sure, but after I fell into another full blown manic episode, quit my job, lost my lease, and spent all the money I thought I had, I was indeed sleeping on them. Or, really, not sleeping. Sitting sometimes, but walking mostly, thinking out loud, and sometimes losing control, always somewhere on the sidewalk, out for anyone to witness. No one ever called the police on me. I was never imagined as a threat to others. Because I wasn’t one. Neither was Daniel Prude.
I think about those weeks a lot. I think about the things I was believing, the fear and loathing, the frustration and paranoia. I think about the handmade cigarette I bummed from someone that was laced with a drug I never intended to do. I think about yelling at strangers, crying outside coffee shops, sleeping in and stealing from grocery stores. I think about my audacity in actually calling the police myself a few times, during situations I was probably making worse by being there. I remember finally being arrested (for shoplifting fruit) and I remember after I was released and eventually admitted to the hospital that all charges were dropped, all records erased.
I remember all these things. My being white has a whole lot to do with my ability to do that. Because if I were Black? If I had been a Black man doing what I was doing? There’s a good chance I would’ve been killed. Maybe I wouldn’t have been killed. But it all nevertheless would have looked different for me. A whole lot more like it did for Daniel Prude.
- Number One Fan
There is hope that this is slowly changing, but English and Language Arts classes in the 90s and early 00s were fairly colonized. Of all the books I remember reading in school growing up, I can’t recall any but a handful that were not written by white men. From Shakespeare to Poe to Mark Twain, etcetera, school taught the “classics,” which because of the history of institutional racism tend to exclude people of color. We perhaps read Black authors and poets during Black History Month, but that was the long and short of it.
Books were a huge part of my upbringing outside of school too, but even those titles were littered with the names of white men. My Dad was a Classics major, which says as much, and his favorite authors were dime store mysteries and Louis L’Amour. Meanwhile I was reading everything I could find about The Beatles and Bob Dylan, the 60s music world in general (which has its own problems with race representation and mistreatment of Black musicians and appropriation of Black culture), the Civil Rights Movement, and the War in Vietnam. I devoured books about the history of baseball. I spent a lot of my early years in the library. As I got older, I went to the Beats and Hunter Thompson and Kurt Vonnegut. And hovered around there for a while.
I didn’t think about my continuing to read novels by mostly white male authors until very recently. I had spent years cultivating what I imagined was a fairly diverse taste in literature. I read all sorts of different mindsets and sensibilities, but all or mostly, I’ve realized, coming from similar seats of privilege. In my 20s, I dabbled in Gabriel Garcia Marquez, was obsessed with Milan Kundera, but was also just happy rereading Vonnegut novels.
It was pointed out to me I had this habit, and it was framed in a way that had me contributing to the racism that allows such literature to gain its fame and notoriety, be taught in schools even, and ultimately make the money and earn the respect that authors of color were and are often denied.
I was livid. But I was also wrong. Just as no voice deserves to be silenced, it is also our responsibility as art appreciators and patrons to seek out those who are marginalized. Because people who are made to be silent by the system need the most to be heard by readers. And to be given the opportunity to make a living and continue to contribute to the American canon.
And so even though I wasn’t being actively racist, I was nonetheless an active participant in a whole line of occurrences that led me to pick out the mostly white male authors I was reading. I’ve come to understand that racism isn’t just distaste and name calling, stereotypes, harassment and violence. It can be an unconscious bias and a play into the system that allows the exclusion of real and meaningful voices essential to the history of thought and experience. In fiction and in life.
- Comedy On Purpose
There’s a well known sketch from an early episode of Saturday Night Live, circa 1975, with Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase in a mock interview word association test that suddenly becomes a shouting match of racial slurs hurled back and forth between them, including just about every piece of racist terminology they can come up with.
Fast forward some 25 years, and there I was, a teenager watching this on DVD. I think I understood the point. That it is a satirical piece about the power and histories of language. But I had reached the sketch through a long line of television and movie comedy — the Marx Brothers, Carol Burnett, Johnny Carson; George Carlin, Monty Python, and then the original cast of SNL — that is very white. It is interesting to me now how oblivious I was to the fact that all of these writers and performers were white. Never once did it even come to mind. None of these comedians had to tend with race at all. And neither did I.
What that sketch showed at the time was a blurring of lines, but also the fury inherent in the terms they used. Poetically, it wasn’t just a sketch about race, but race in the workplace. Pryor’s character is interviewing, we find out when the insults subside, for a janitorial position. A dig at racial capitalism, one could surmise. One that still resonates today.
It’s important to note what subversion and satire do for the enlightenment of the audience members if they’re paying attention. I think I was through everything I consumed. But so much of it for me came from the voices of the privileged few, in terms of race. It goes to show the difficult position in which entertainers of color are placed before they even perform the material. That sketch, for instance, needed doing and only Richard Pryor could have done it. Yet strangely, there is some question as to who actually wrote it. And there are implications of a white man taking false credit.
What is most obvious about it though is that the slurs hurled at Chevy Chase by Richard Pryor don’t come close to carrying the magnitude of the ones hurled at Richard Pryor by Chevy Chase. Because along with them come generations of violence and a history of oppression.