Growing up white in a Technicolor world
There is white, and then there is OMG “white.”
One is the absence of color, and the other is a complete lack of any cultural influence that gives special flavor to its host.
It sounds cliché these days, with everyone claiming Native American heritage, but I really am part Cherokee. I have majority Scottish ancestry on both sides, so I am not totally “skim milk” (as in devoid of ethnic culture) by genetics, but pretty nearly.
The whitewash that really made me blanco was my home environment. There were no cultural traditions or practices, no ethnicity to lend tinge or hue to our daily lives. We had become as generic as the American ideal citizen. Our heritage was bred out of us and we could be found in the dictionary under “same.”
This was not a problem with my relatives, or others of my anglo-caucasian type as they saw it as approaching “perfection.” To me it was the opposite. We had become invisible.
Another real problem that I was beginning to see was the belief that becoming so non-specific made someone superior to those who still have evidence of where their families originated. An odd assumption that they were better than anyone else who was different by any of the following criteria: the color of their skin, the accent heard while they adjust to a new language, the style of the clothes they wear, or the church they choose to attend.
I could not change the color of my skin past the obvious tan obtained from living outdoors as much as possible. I could also not give myself a cultural identity. But I could make sure that I was not caught in the attitude trap of assumed superiority.
I am not apologizing for being white. I do not have a problem with the color of my skin, as skin color has never meant anything to me. It never had to. And my friends didn’t care either.
My Cubano friends always believed that they would be going back home to Cuba. This gave them great reasons to hold onto their language, customs, beliefs and lifestyle. They were and are a proud people with big hearts and an open arms culture — open to those who treat them with respect and equality. I was wrapped up in the arms of families that treated me like I was born in Havana and shared everything that they had with me. I was their adopted son to be fed or fussed over, and sometimes fussed at.
Sadly others with my skin color choose to spit on elderly women and call children rude names. Some business owners harbored a belief that it was fair to charge people more as a “lesson” that they should somehow automatically know American English upon arrival in the USA.
My being white entitled me to: speak English as poorly as I possibly could and not be picked on for it, not be automatically hassled by police officers, to sit in the front of the bus, to dine anywhere, use any bathroom, stand on a corner with as many friends who looked like me as I wished to, go to any school, and kiss a white girl on the cheek without being knocked to the ground.
Until I learned in elementary school that I didn’t fit in either, because I made grown up white folks (and their kids) uncomfortable. I could read too well, understand big words, solve math problems without taking off my shoes, and quite often knew what teachers were going to ask next before they did. This made me not fit the mold and fall outside of the perfect median marks.
I am grateful that I am not normal… I have seen it and it scares the Hell out of me.
When I was pushed to the outside of the herd of “normal” white students I found a group of kids and their families that welcomed me and were not afraid of intelligence.
My new friends were a rainbow of colors and cultures and neither they nor their families were afraid of smart people. They universally accepted me and didn’t mind my white skin color or bizarre habits of reading and learning things.
These parents of varied skin tones and backgrounds all knew that smart kids were more likely to succeed in getting the education necessary to rise above the low paying jobs that would otherwise be the fate of their children. In other words I was seen as an asset rather than some kind of freak. I could only guess that they hoped that my smarts and habits would rub off on their kids … or something like that. Occasionally I did some tutoring in English or math, but back then we just called it helping each other.
I wish I could say that my friends received the same warm unconditional welcome from my family and their friends. But it simply wasn’t true. The color of their skin and/or the country of their family’s origin mattered to them. Rude and crude names were used in my presence and occasionally when my friends could hear. They routinely embarrassed me.
Through my association with these good and kind people (kids and parents), I was to get an education on what growing up anything but a WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant) was like.
When my friends and I went to the store or a food place the managers would call the cops on us. Not because we ever did anything wrong, but just because we “looked” like we might do something. The same reason that cops stopped us riding our bicycles through my own neighborhood. The same reason that store owners would only allow us in one kid at a time.
What was the reason? Some of the kids were various shades of black or brown, some of the boys had long hair, and some spoke with accents or wore ethnic clothing designs. Plus a couple of white boys who they knew had to be trouble if they ran with kids not of their own “kind.”
After a time we decided to create our language that was a mixture of English, Spanish, Yiddish, Italian and Miccosukee (Seminole Indian language) words. It wasn’t a code or trick double meaning thing, just different languages mixed together. We thought that it was very cool because we had to learn a little of each other’s languages to make it work. The best part was that it confused those who made fun of us or wanted to pick on us for whatever reason.
That is when I learned how much white people fear that everyone is talking bad about them if they don’t understand the language being spoken. They get absolutely paranoid!
Cranky old white men threw us out of movie theaters, cops threatened to take us to the police station and make our parents come down to sign for us. Other white kids complained to our teachers that we were cussing at them or telling lies about them. One old white man (who was the janitor at our school) complained that we must be communists being trained to invade America like some kind of youth sleeper cell. All because we used different words mixed into our spoken language to communicate.
I had multiple visits from religious people (church pastor, youth group leader, Sunday school teacher) trying to get me to attend their church services, or to pray for me on the spot to heal me. They were of course, all white people. Only the white people saw any problem with our behavior.
That is not to say that we weren’t given warnings and cautions by the parents of my rainbow family. They told us, and I mean us as I was one of their kids too, to be careful about aggravating the police and to watch out for the KKK. The father of one of my black friends told us that a white man could beat us, or shoot us, and never get convicted of anything. It was the early 1960s and what he said was painfully the truth.
We stayed together like the brothers we had become, through all of the harassment and discrimination.
My own parents suggested that I should find “better” friends to hang out with, meaning of course, WASP kids. They had problems with children who had no police record, no disciplinary actions at school, were never disrespectful to adults… nothing other than they weren’t poured from the same batch of goo into the same mold as I was. Their answer when I confronted them over this was to exclaim, “See, they are already making you talk back and be a smart ass!”
The stated reason they and other white adult authority figures used was that it would “just lead to trouble if we kept mixing races”, meaning hanging out together.
There was a beady-eyed Austrian guy named Adolf who held these same kinds of beliefs. These words were spoken to me by the same white people who fought to stop Hitler. It was possible that they didn’t realize the damage caused by what they were saying. It was also possible that they didn’t really disagree with what Hitler said either. Once again I was embarrassed to be the white sheep in the flock.
As we got older and went to junior high school part of our group went to other schools due to zoning restrictions. A couple of families (my Cuban brothers) moved to Miami, and one of our “gang” died from “hundreds” (we didn’t know how many really, just that it was a fatal amount) of hornet stings.
The remaining few played sports together on school teams and hung out as much as possible but our daily lives had gotten faster and more complex. We had more friends and more pressure to conform to groups not wrapped around our neighborhood.
By the time we hit high school we were down to three, but fortunately two of our old gang came back to us from their junior high odyssey, bringing us back to five.
After the first few weeks of school it was my friends who were now on the defensive for hanging out with a white guy. This was the first time that I faced abuse and exclusion just because of my skin color. I soon made friends with the other black kids and was known to be “OK… for a white guy.” We did have a tense face-off in the P.E. locker room with several members of a black gang not from our home neighborhood, but my friends were willing to stand by me and it resolved without violence.
There was group of white redneck types who didn’t see my association with people of color as acceptable behavior. One afternoon I got stabbed in the back with an ice pick while in the halls changing classes. Boys from the “KKK youth group” (my name for them) were all around me when it happened, but no one saw a thing. I also had “Nxxxxr Lover” spray painted across my locker. You know, I had white friends too but never got called a “Honky Lover” by anyone.
My Seminole friends had enough of the “race wars” and transferred to the high school closer to the reservation. Not too long after that there was an incident where I punched a teacher in the nose at our first high school, so I joined them there.
Outsiders came in and started a race riot the next year (at the new high school) and all but one of my Indian brothers decided that they had enough of white schooling and quit. Funny thing about that, if you weren’t white the school counselors didn’t even bother calling or visiting to see why you quit in those days.
My senior year of high school was in Augusta, Georgia and I saw a more “textbook” version of racial inequality between whites and blacks.
Where in Florida there had been many races, ethnicities, cultures, etc. to make a Technicolor world, in Georgia it was just black & white. Old wealthy white people were in power, dictating life to both poor whites, and black folks trying to follow to non-violent ways of Dr. King.
There was class warfare between rich and poor whites, with wanna-be social climbers trying to rise and aristocrats trying to maintain “purity.” They all thought that the blacks were their social inferiors and treated people older than themselves like they were children or mentally challenged because of the color of their skin. I constantly asked myself, “Where is the respect for our elders?”
The civil rights movements of the middle ‘60’s were not lost on me, but seemed to have been dismissed as a passing fad by the citizens of my new city.
My employer that year was a native son of Augusta and even though he had served in the U.S. Army, he still considered anyone who didn’t look just like him as inferior. By graduation time I was fed up and visited the Army recruiter. I had to get out of that town.
In the military there are rules against discrimination and I embraced that plan. I still saw the struggles of the different against the same, but at least the playing field was mostly level now.
My entire life has been an ongoing lesson about appreciating differences and I have thoroughly enjoyed it thus far. I think maybe a little bit of the rainbow has crept inside of me after all.