Friday, December 02, 2005

Blog Against Racism

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 fiancĂ© (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.


Krupskaya said...

Did your college happen to be on the top of a hill?

Piece of Work said...

It sounds like a wonderful school. Wouldn't it be great if more schools were like that? Unfortunately here in L.A., you get overcrowded, outdated, terrible public schools full of minority and marginalized kids--or white affluent public schools that cost 20,000 per year. There is the occasional neighborhood school, or magnet or charter school that does better, but they are few and far between.

Orange said...

Yes, Krup, there was a hill. There was a river, and over yonder on the other side of that river, up a bigger hill, there was another college. And the people from my college, they sang "Fool on the Hill" and directed it at the people from the other college. Know what I'm sayin'?

Krupskaya said...

Funny...people on the hill sang songs about people who lived on the smaller hill, which from the taller hill was more like a valley, or even the depths of hell, since people on that side of the river were all godless and everything.

You were likely gone from that town the year I got there, though.

Orange said...

I arrived in '88. You?

Anonymous said...

I didn't go to college anywhere near Minnesota, but just out of curiosity, was there a cereal factory near either of these hills? I always thought it would be fun to go to college in a town that smelled faintly of cereal all the time.

Orange said...

Ah, yes, the Malt-o-Meal plant. It smelled more like popcorn to me—roasty popcorn. But shortly before Thanksgiving each year, when the wind blew the wrong direction, the Malt-o-Meal aroma was replaced by the turkey farm stench. Bleah.

Craig said...

You bring up some interesting points about not seeing racism and therefore thinking it doesn't exist.

I grew up in the South. There certainly was racism there, but you typically knew who to expect it from. People like the guy I went to high school with that at a mention of Martin Luther King Day said, "My dad and I won't celebrate that." My question about why was met only with a stare that indicated that asking was the stupidest thing anyone could do. (He did celebrate Jefferson Davis Day, though.)

I've moved around from the South to the Southwest to the Midwest (including Illinois), but when I moved to Michigan about four years ago I was very surprised. What I found was that the area I live in has what seems like an almost exclusively white population. No one here seems to think that they or anyone else is racist, but the reality is amazing. There is probably as much racism here as anywhere I have ever lived, but it is hidden under the cloak of ignorance.

Your point about the school is an excellent one. If people were simple able to spend more time around people of other races without interference from those who have already become biased they would see that the differences of race are not as important as the similarities of being human.

Anonymous said...

I didn't know Mr. Tangerine was Asian! So, let me guess...Ben looked EXACTLY like his dad when he was born, right? Just like dad is white and my mom is Chinese, and I came out a little Chinese baby who didn't look white in the least. Gotta love those dominant genetic traits ;-)

Orange said...

Stella, actually, Ben looked like a little sage when he was born (preemies always look so grown-up), but since then he's looked a lot more like me. His hair and skin colors are at the midway point between Mr. Tangerine and me (but Ben tans beautifully, and I don't). He has incredibly happy brown eyes, and I really can't say whether they look "Asian" (I don't see my husband's eyes as Asian even though a stranger would). Actually, plenty of Latino people have assumed that Ben is one of theirs. And an African-American schoolboy once said Ben looked just like his little brother.

Agent 31 said...

Hope for the future is all we've got. I just wishes races would willingly expose themselves to each other more often so we'd see that we're really not so different, and we're not always the way we're expected to be.

Mignon said...

My brother married a Filipino-American and their two children looked like little sumo-wrestlers when they were born, but now they look like both parents. I asked my brother once if he looked at his babies (when they were teeny) and saw them as Asian and he not only said no, but was surprised at the thought. He said, "They're just my boys."

And have you ever lived in a town with a brewery? In Portland, before the took out the Henry Weinhard's brewery it always smelled like green beans.

Anonymous said...

Huh. I've had a similar experience with my mixed ethnicity -- lots of people can't quite tell what I am, though in cosmopolitan NYC, most people do correctly guess a mix of European (because my last name screams "Irish!") and Asian (because of my slightly slanted eyes and dark straight hair, I guess). But I looked 100% Chinese when I was born -- my dad's eyebrows and eyelashes didn't show up until later in life.

Interestingly, on trips to Germany, which is much less ethnically diverse, I've been stopped by strangers with "Are you Japanese?" and "You must be Turkish!" Nobody looked at me there and thought "biracial," and I'm guessing this is in large part due to the Germans' more limited experience with multiracial people -- so they assumed I must be part of a group they're more familiar with, like Japanese or Turks. (For the record, I asked a Turkish-born friend whether the latter comparison was crazy, and he said it was somewhat of a stretch.)

Anonymous said...

New to the blog scene and hence so id as yet,
Read your blog and the writing is clean and simple and makes so much sense.
I really like what you have to said bout racism. My views are that in our psuedo modern society shades of racism does exist. Maybe take a few generations to purge this.
I would like to see people on earth living like it was back in Gondwanaland, no barries just one big land mass(btw people did not exist in Gondwanaland), Just wished they did.
Take care and may God bless you.

Chris said...

"Shades of racism does exist"? If those are just 'shades' of racism, then the absolute cold of deep space must just be 'a little brisk'.

No, the cancer of Racism has been eating away at the flesh of nations for thousands of years, and we are generations away from a cure.

Every child born into a racist family has a better-than-average chance of becoming a racist him/herself.

Ignorance is dangerous..."innocence" is bliss.

I, personally, feel that it should be a Federal crime to teach racial hatred to a child.


Krupskaya said...

Ah, I arrived in 1989! Did you play rugby, singing as you did?