Friday, June 12, 2009


This is a of consciousness post. Thoughts I've had rolling around.

When I was 8 years old till I graduated high school, my mom's best friend was Judy*. I could never really figure out why they were such good friends because they didn't seem to have a lot in common. Judy's kids where much older than me (her daughter babysat me but mostly my much younger siblings). Her husband was a pig Veterinarian for DeKalb Agriculture; DeKalb Ag (the flying ear of corn) had their national headquarters in my home town and the company was a huge employer in my area. Harry was well regarded in his field and DeKalb Ag bred swine and chicken and sold the breeds to many, many countries. Harry was well regarded and held in high esteem.

Harry also had a penchant for telling racist jokes. But I was little and I didn't know any better. I very much remember sharing one of those jokes with my classmates, during class, and although a few of my classmates (probablly 5th or 6th grade) may have chuckled, Mr. Strain surely did not. He didn't say a word to me but his look spoke volumes. To be fair, Harry also told jokes about "Dagos", "WOPs", and "Chinks".

I wonder, now, what he must have thought about my parents when they came in for parent/teacher conferences. After all, my parents never said such things but they certainly didn't pull me aside, after Harry had left, to tell me that I'd better not ever repeat such a thing. I do remember my mom being surprised that another couple they were friends with was getting divorced...then she said "Italians make great lovers, maybe he's loving too many." (Kinda funny I ended up marrying a 2nd generation Italian boy, 16 years and going strong...I won't comment on the 'lover' part!)

I grew up thinking that my parents were pretty cool, sort of hippies. They (along with another guy) owned rental property in our hometown and eventually sold the building to the black family that had lived in the bottom unit for years and years. Surely my parents weren't racist. They had a black tenant.

My hometown was pretty small, my graduating class was about 180. We had more black kids in our class than my own kids do. In third grade, I wanted Mrs. Bridgewater for my teacher instead of Mrs. Kincaid...Mrs. Bridgewater is black...Mrs. Kincaid was just an old biddy. Becky and David were part of the circle of friends I ran around with. They are black; they were adopted by white families and had siblings of every color, too. Denise, Latonia, Dwight...they were friends as well. They weren't part of the group I ran around with but I had classes with them and one is even a facebook friend. Race just didn't seem an issue. My best friend in Jr. High was Patricia...she's Korean. There were a couple boys, Aaron and Andy, who are Jewish...I don't remember it being "a thing".

I do remember senior year that there was a chance that David was going to ask me to prom. When my mom asked me if I thought I'd have a date, I said that David might ask me. He'd been my partner all through the "social dance" unit in P.E. that spring and we ran in the same group; he didn't have a girlfriend, I didn't have a boyfriend, it was a possibility (one that I wished was true...he was pretty freakin' cute). All I know is that as soon as I mentioned the possibility of going to prom with David, my folks had an awful lot to say about the matter. And I was shocked.

I did my thing in college, had friends of every color, dated all sorts of boys, hung out on Greek Row and the bar scene. I got a kick out of the Alpha Phi Alpha's making their pledges step in the MLK commons. I thought nothing of the Black Student Union or the Asian Studies stuff. To each his own.

I graduated and taught in the south suburbs of Chicago and spent time in Country Club Hills, University Heights, Oak Forest, Tinley Park, Orland Park, Robbins, Crestwood...the works. I lived at 159th and Cicero...far from being the inner-city, but it was certainly adjacent to some notoriously rough areas. I never, ever felt afraid. I visited friends in Wicker Park (before it became a cool place to be) and hung out with one of my college girls who lived in Rodgers Park (when it was still, very much, gang heavy). My Puerto Rican BFF taught me how to say "Don't fuck with me" in spanish and all was good.

It's only been in the last couple years of my 3rd decade and the first year of my 4th that I've ever, every felt the weight of race on a community. Maybe I've been living blind. Maybe having children who are finally old enough to understand and be heavily influenced by their peers am I more acutely aware. I don't think so.

My oldest, Sam, has a friend - who's been a friend since not long after we moved here - who's friendship he's reconsidering. This boy Jack* is a smart kid and comes from a normal family. Sam reports that Jack makes all sorts of (in his words) stupid comments all the time. Stuff like "quit being a Jew" and stuff like that. He also makes sexist comments. Sam's come home week after week and shared how much it bothers him when his friend says that shit. We've talked about how letting this boy say those things without anyone calling him on it is tacit approval. My son assures us that he tells his 'friend' to knock it off and has even began to distance himself from this boy.

Sam's also noticed that the couple of boys who are really good athletes and also not white seem to have a greater leeway in terms of behavior and he's wondered if teachers are afraid to call these boys on their behavior because of their athletic status. In fact, Sam's said "If I said some of the things ______ says I'd get in big trouble because I'm not a jock."

Unfortunately, we happen to live in a county that is notoriously racist (Matt Hale) and I think that may weigh heavily on the minds of school administrators. Maybe a couple of these boys get "a pass" because they're athletes. Maybe they get a pass because they're one of a handful of minority kids in a predominantly white, racist county. Maybe it's a little bit of both.

What I notice most are the little, seemingly inconsequential things that people say. The off handed remarks about the "South End" of Peoria. Or when my students talk about seeing a black kid walking through Pekin (a town around here with a bad reputation). Sometimes I hear people say "They" "THEY" know better than to live in Tazewell County.

Or when I hear someone say "THEY" are 'so sexual' they way 'they' dance and talk. I know my peers are only reacting to the way they've been brought up. And as I write these sentences I know there's a very good chance that people will read this and know I'm recounting things I've heard them say. They should know that I'm proud that they are more aware of the things they say...I really don't think people are inherently bad for thoughts and feelings they've lived with forever. Really.

I, not so long ago, pointed out that on a form where respondents need to identify race (for state recording purposes) that the term "mixed" might be offensive. One night Mr. Rix and I met some friends for drinks at a local watering hole. Mr. Rix left early and my good friend offered to drive me home. Her fiance (who isn't white) opted to sit in the backseat of the care as she drove me up Rt. 116 because we knew there was a police checkpoint and he felt we'd have less a chance of being stopped if he slunk down in his seat as we passed through it. Seeing as he's lived here his whole life, I believed him. But that whole experience as well as a couple other things involving my good buddy make me know that he's much wiser than I.

I don't know if race relations are worse in my new home or if I've somehow become more attuned. We've only lived here for 3 1/2 years and maybe my contact with the greater community is limited. But I noticed very early on that things are different here compared to the other communities in which I've lived.

And I think it's pretty fucking shitty.

*Names may or may not have been changed.


EmergePeoria said...

Things are different here compared to other communities in which I have lived. Black families need to begin to consider if Peoria is a good place for raising their children. All of the negativity that good kids face, the stereotyping, the schools, that's a lot of explaining to have to do to a youngster.

Ramble On said...

From looking at the "good kids" I have seen grow up, it seems like a pretty high percentage leave Peoria in search of their dreams. It is a shame that they feel the need to do it, but it is more than the job market that drives them away.