Let me give you my life story through the lens of race.
My parents grew up in white ethnic families living in white ethnic communities. After they married in 1964, they moved into an apartment in Chicago’s Marquette Park neighborhood—the site of some sort of demonstration against Martin Luther King, Jr.—not far from where my dad was raised.
After I was born two years later, they moved the family to a planned community known for its diversity. The suburb’s population, then and now, was mostly white and black, with a smattering of Asians and Latinos. When I was growing up, the black population accounted for about 20% of the town; it’s higher now. The school district included a predominantly black section of a neighboring town, and most of the children there were bused to our town. So my classes always included at least two racial/ethnic groups, sometimes four or five.
During my grade-school years, our neighborhood was diverse. There were mixed-race couples with kids; one such family had adopted sons who were Korean/African-American. A black family lived next door to us. A Japanese woman and her white husband lived across the street. There were white families and black families, and occasional singles and couples.
Then I went to small-town Minnesota for college. The school strove to attract a diverse student body, but they had a tough time attracting (and retaining) African-American and Latino students to such a white (and wintery) place. I remember a friend who grew up in Mankato arguing that there was no racism on campus, because after all, he wasn’t seeing it. My senior year, some students started up a White Students Against Racism discussion group, which I joined. One woman recalled the stress of being a retail employee instructed by her boss to watch the black customers to make sure they weren’t stealing.
After graduating, I returned to the Chicago area and got a job in publishing. There wasn’t much overt racism on display there, but I had a white colleague who took issue with her (Asian-American) editorial assistant’s use of a nickname on her business correspondence, saying it seemed “too ethnic.”
Then my Asian-American fiancé (the Mr. Tangerine we all know and love) graduated, and we got an apartment on the North Side. The Lakeview neighborhood is mostly white, but the area is still fairly diverse; not many poor people, no, but people of all colors and backgrounds, and a sizeable GLBT population. We got married (my relatives didn’t seem to have any reservations about his race—but then, many white people seem to have an easier time accepting Asians, being the “model minority” and all) and moved a few blocks north, closer to the partly poor Uptown neighborhood, but still in an area with largely the same demographics as Lakeview.
My husband grew up in a predominantly white suburb in Wisconsin, and reported sometimes feeling “different” as a result of his race. I didn’t want our child to ever feel that way, and we’re both so incredibly comfortable and at home in our neighborhood, we saw no reason to move to the ‘burbs after Ben was born. (Hell, I feel like a fish out water when I find myself in an almost-all-white environment; it feels like…something’s missing.)
“What about the terrible Chicago Public Schools?” the relatives quailed. As it turns out, Ben’s attending a good CPS magnet school just around the corner, and the student body reflects the city’s population: No ethnic group makes up a majority. Kids come from all over the city—some from 12 to 15 miles away! in city traffic! Some kids’ families are immigrants, hailing from something like 50 different countries. Different races, different religions, different languages, different cultures, different traditions. But they’re all learning the same curriculum and playing together; they all made paper turkeys before Thanksgiving (wait! unfair to vegetarians!).
I’m sure some of the kids attending Ben’s school will be exposed to racist attitudes at home and in society, but at school? I’m incredibly hopeful that the children who spend nine years in this multicultural environment will emerge from the cocoon as teenagers who can accept and look past differences, who feel completely comfortable being in the minority at times, who understand that every individual has something to contribute regardless of their color or background.
It’s unfortunate that most American children don’t have access to an educational experience like this. If they did, I believe the frayed edges and gaping holes in the nation’s fabric would be mended within a few generations.