I’m known to generally favor the conservative side of most issues. This is particularly notable when it comes to issues that are in some way related to race. Not that I am especially conservative in racial issues. For the most part, I am actually more agnostic or liberal on such issues than other issues. However, this conservatism frequently makes me the target of assertions of racism or at least racial insensitivity (usually by white people). It is also often implied and occasionally stated outright that I have little to no experience and do not know what (usually) black Americans go through.
While it is true that while there is any racial discrimination in the world – or even demographic disparities – I’ll never know precisely what it is to be a black American, I’d like to dispel the myth that I’m a sheltered white boy with no knowledge or exposure to other races and cultures.
I know that this will open me to mocking references to “I can’t be racist; I have black friends!” But I don’t think that applies. First, because no amount of racial exposure necessarily means that one can’t be racist; that’s not what I’m going for here. Indeed, there are some who are racist against their own race, whether they be contemptuous black Americans or self-flagellating white Americans. Second, as you will see, this is far more than simply having a token friend who happens to be black.
I’ll attempt to make this a comprehensive list of significant interactions/relationships with black individuals, both good and bad.
While branches of my family tree stretch back to the Mayflower, my patrilineal line (the branch of the family tree with which I am most familiar and which has had the most impact on my life) emigrated to the southern United States from Germany in the mid-1800s. To the best of my knowledge, the family stayed largely in southern Mississippi until my grandparents moved to the DC/Maryland area for schooling and work, where my white father was born and raised. My white mother later moved to the area for university. In the intervening years of my father’s childhood, the schools were integrated. With the exception of a few years spent further North, my parents lived the rest of their pre-children years in the Maryland area.
I do recall once asking my dad as a child if my grandparents had black friends (I don’t recall why) and he said not many, but explained that it was circumstantial due to there not being many black people around them. Their openness and inclusiveness was very much confirmed much later when they profusely welcomed my adopted Indian brother to the family, and more recently in their adoration of his half-Indian, half-black daughters. And if I’d been able to use my brain a bit more as a child, it would have occurred to me that my uncle (their son-in-law at the time) was Indian and my cousins were very much visibly his children, to the point of strangers doubting my aunt’s claims of maternity.
My earliest memories are of years spent in the house my father purchased as a single man, courtesy of earning money through manual labor and not incurring debt with unnecessary (for him) schooling. These earliest memories are mostly black, because our 3-5 person white family spent a few of those years hosting two other families (at separate times) for reasons I’ve never fully understood. One white family with three girls lived with us for a period of about six months. While I remember the family well, I do not remember much of this time.
Much more prominent in my mind was the longer time that a black family of six spent living with us. Probably because they had four boys who ranged in age from slightly older than me to several years older. They are, with one possible exception, my oldest friends in the world. I still have occasional contact with one or two of them. But in those years they were the older brothers I never had. And though it happened later (ironically when they lived in the same house but we had moved), my only memory of receiving physical discipline from outside my blood family came from their oldest son. That shows you just how close our families were. For the sake of comparison with the rest of these recollections, I recall their family generally being a bit “poorer” than we were, though the accuracy of that perception is uncertain. If true, whether it was due to total income or the strain of four rambunctious young males running around, I do not know.
At the age of 5 or so, my family moved to another Maryland suburb. While a great many white people seemed to live in the subdivision beyond the woods behind our home, our only neighbors were a small black family with a boy maybe 5 years older than me. This boy, too, became an older brother to me. Though I cannot even recall his name now, he is the one who taught me how to ride a bike. He’s is also the one who taught me not to lend fragile toys to stronger older boys, so, you know. Ups and downs.
Sometime around then, my grandparents retired to Mississippi.
After a couple years, the woods on the other side of our house were partially cleared and a new home was built for a black family with three girls around the age of myself and my two younger sisters. At this point, it bears mentioning that any who look up my old street address here (which I will not give) will discover a mansion with a tennis court. That is not where we lived. We lived in the now-demolished three-bedroom single-story that could probably fit in the mansion’s garage.
However, the neighbor’s houses? While not mansions, they are impressive homes. Those are the same as when we lived there. In fact, I drove by during my honeymoon a few years ago, and happened to pass by as the father of the family with three girls was returning home – they’re still there twenty years later. I say all this to say that while I didn’t pay much attention to race as a kid, my general experience in these years was that the black people I knew – as with most people I knew – were wealthier than my family.
My closest secular friend during this time – indeed, the only male school friend who’s name I can recall – was a black boy. As an aside, I recall the older of my younger sisters had a crush on him for some time.
During all our years in Maryland, my family belonged to a particular church, the Maryland branch of which my parents had been members since they returned to Maryland six months after the planting (they had been members of the parent church up North). This is the family of churches to which we still belong, and they were particularly noteworthy then for having racial makeups that represented the areas in which they were located. (I say ‘then’ only because this is thankfully less unique now.) In this case, this had the result that the majority of my friends were black. In particular, I want to mention a Jamaican then-couple, now-family who have been lifelong friends of our family – I believe they have visited us in every house we’ve ever lived in, aside from one temporary situation. I always enjoyed how the father would always go out of his way to refer to me by my full name since his first name is my middle name.
When I was just turning 8, we moved to white people country. I’m not sure I saw a single non-white person in my school or “neighborhood” during the second half of second grade. For six months we lived on a farm while my father scouted locations for a new church summer camp. Even though we were in definitively white people country, somehow this church location was still very integrated; I assume because we drove some distance to maintain fellowship with the same church, one of the members of which owned the property we lived on.
That summer, we moved to a different part of rural northern Virginia. And should you or I ever meet, dear reader, I don’t want to hear any nonsense about you coming from a small town if your town had any commercial property or stoplights. We had two stop signs, a volunteer fire department that existed mostly to produce a haunted walk on Halloween, and a country store that was occasionally in business. And three separate campgrounds, including the tree farm my family moved to. I’ve since seen smaller towns, but I had to travel to the third world to do so!
This was certainly still white people country. The denser part of “town” had a mixed population, but the town’s side road on which we lived was mostly white. School, however, was still quite mixed. The county is mostly white by a modest majority and one-fifth black, so naturally there was a fair degree of diversity for a rural area. Something odd did happen here. While I had antagonistic relationships with only two or three classmates at all, my actual friendships in school seemed to shift to being almost entirely white, even while my (much closer) church friendships remained as diverse as the area.
The elementary school here was also the one time in my life that I’ve ever said the n-word. During a 4th grade discussion of a book we’d read for class which took place in the rural south shortly after the Civil War, I wanted to know the meaning of the one word I hadn’t understood and blurted out “What does n***** mean?” I got some of dirty looks and someone told me not to say that word, but no one answered. I eventually figured it out; I suppose I’m fortunate this occurred in a special class with a white teacher rather than in our normal class with the black teacher.
Anyways, I think we (along with the charity-based camp across the street) single-handedly shifted the demographics of town every summer when hundreds of children of all races flooded the cabins across the street and the tents of “our” property. The vast majority of my childhood memories stem from these summers. Imagine the strangeness of living a mile from your mailbox and even further from the nearest people for 9-10 months of the year, but to be surrounded by friends you potentially haven’t seen in years every summer, in a structured environment that produces new friends as well. Camping pro-tip: when you form teams for capture-the-flag, force the property resident to play on the side based around the house or you’re just asking for espionage. And when the son of the man who built the camp from nothing tells you something’s against the camp rules, maybe take him at his word.
It was a fine time for me. I learned to
fence hike, to fight swim – anything anyone would teach me. Sorry, I tend to lapse into Morgenstern references at the slightest opportunity. I assume you wish me to return to the topic at hand? As you wish.
During this time we adopted my Indian brother from a New Delhi orphanage. I’ve often teased my brother about thinking he’s black, because he will actually tell people he’s black and can visually pull it off. I learned just this week that a very, very black (I am referring to skin tone) mutual friend of my brother and mine is of the opinion that my brother has earned that right, for reasons which mystify me.
After possibly the five most memorable years of my minority, major changes occurred in the leadership of our churches. This was mostly for the good, but it resulted in decentralization and a precipitous, somewhat temporary loss in membership, which meant a loss of income for the church, which meant the camp (owned by the church) was no longer feasible. Out of a job and disillusioned with much of the goings-on at the time, my parents sought a new home in a new region of the church, and we settled in North Carolina, and we’ve been here ever since. I want to note one standout memory of this move. When I told my three closest friends that I was moving, the one black friend (though this only stands out to me upon recollection) had by far the most intense reaction. It was at church, which was meeting in a high school. This stocky friend (in a jocular manner) grabbed me by the shirt, lifted my scrawny self up against the lockers and told me I wasn’t moving. Unsurprisingly, he’s the friend from those days I’ve kept up with the most, though he is decidedly not the one with whom I agree about things the most. He even incidentally introduced me to possibly my favorite modern Country song. While he and I disagree on many political points and have been on opposing “sides” of race-related controversies, I think it’s worth pointing out that he’s never been among those implying that I don’t talk to black people or have any understanding of their perspective.
My area of North Carolina is pretty diverse. My parents’ county has a small white majority, large black minority, and large populations of Hispanics/Latinos and various immigrants. My county has a white plurality somewhat more numerous than the black population, and a large Hispanic/Latino minority, which I am actively increasing.
Anyways, while the lower-middle-to-middle-class street I spent my teenage years on is entirely white and the neighboring street is populated by hicks, I still attended very diverse integrated schools and church. Several things about my one year of middle school are worth mentioning. First, my Virginia school system was more advanced mathematically. In the seventh grade, I was one in a classroom full of Algebra 1 students. In North Carolina eighth grade, I was one of only two students (to my knowledge) in the zone of my high school at that level. For this reason, I spent the first hour of every morning of the first semester taking Geometry at the high school. I mention this to point out that the only other student in that situation that I’m aware of was a young black man, who unsurprisingly also had an accountant mother. We got to spend about fifteen minutes each day on the short bus while he was taken to his middle school and I to mine. While he disappeared without warning after the fall break and I’ve not seen him since, he was undoubtedly my first secular friend in North Carolina, and possibly my only school friend in the eighth grade.
Due to scheduling, we were in a remedial Geometry class, so we were classmates with such geniuses as a senior seated next to me who asked to cheat off my test (the final exam, I think it was), when different rows were given different tests. On the flip side, high school operated on semesters and middle school didn’t, which meant I got to spend the spring of eighth grade sitting in a class full of Algebra 1 students who had no idea why I showed up halfway through the semester, spent the entire class reading Star Wars books, never did any homework, and aced every test. And this is completely unrelated to anything, but there was a nice girl I unseated from her position as academic leader of this algebra class (evidenced by the teacher announcing that only one unnamed student [me] had aced the first test I’d taken and the entire class said her name in unison). It turns out she was born perhaps 30 feet from me and a few months afterwards. This is North Carolina. I was born in the DC area. Just thought it was amusingly and mildly interesting.
Second, partway through the year a black boy moved down from New York and joined a couple of my classes. I made an effort to bond over having moved from a more Northern state. He laughed at the suggestion that Maryland was “north,” but seemed to appreciate the gesture. Later, at the beginning of gym class he asked if he could use my locker (since he did not yet have one) and I agreed. Later that day or the next day, I was shocked when he went out of his way to mock me in front of a group of classmates. The next day he showed up looking to use my locker. I declined rudely. I’m a bit ashamed of that; I was raised to repay evil with good.
Third, I was always a gifted student. It is not pride, but simple fact, to state that I am intelligent. Passing the PSAT & SAT with flying colors in the seventh and ninth grades is evidence in favor. Getting my first and last name mixed up on the SAT scantron and completely overlooking 15 PSAT math questions is evidence against. But moreover, I was raised in a disciplined household. As such, I never even considered the possibility that I might get a C in a class prior to college. It just wasn’t something that happened in my family (except to my brother who had to deal with English as a second language). For that matter, B’s hardly seemed to happen for my youngest sister (who probably has the greatest raw intelligence of the family, or at least intelligence of a scholastic bent). So imagine my surprise when in my easy-A trivial Health class, I seemed to always get sub-par grades without obvious reason. At the time, I merely assumed that I just didn’t do well. The assignments were different from the more concrete STEM or language-based classes in which I excelled. So perhaps it wasn’t my thing. Case in point, one assignment (which I don’t think it was fair to grade us on if we were indeed graded on it), was basically a marketing recognition test in which we had to match up about fifty slogans with their products/companies. I got two correct, one of which was McDonald’s “I’m Loving It.” No doubt this was a result of the absence of TV service of any kind other than VHS/DVD from our home throughout my childhood until that time (we later got Netflix before and during its streaming incarnation).
One thing I hadn’t really noticed was that I was one of very few white students in a mostly black class with a black teacher. My parents (much) later informed me that I received sub-par grades due to the teacher’s racial prejudice. Unbeknownst to me, they had had meetings with the principal (who was apparently a phenomenal administrator and went on to work in the high school) and the teacher. I don’t know precisely what occurred in these meetings, but I know that my parents and the principal were in agreement that I did not deserve the grades I received, but the teacher was adamant for reasons unknown to me. I don’t say this as a pity party or to portray myself as a victim. If this is the worst thing to happen to me (spoiler alert: it isn’t), then I’ve got a lucky life. I say this merely as an example of how it is foolish to assume that someone does not know what it’s like at all to be a local minority or to suffer prejudice based on their skin simply because they happen to be a member of the national majority. I am not equating my experiences with anyone else’s. I know full well how easy my life has been on the whole and how minor this particular incident is. I merely wish to discourage people from making categorical assumptions based on race.
Fourth, my black Spanish teacher hated me. I never knew why; I’d never been disliked by a teacher prior to the 8th grade. She was very sociable, so I suspect it had to do with me being the quiet kid. It certainly wasn’t related to schoolwork since I doubt we were assigned two days’ worth of work that entire semester. I sincerely doubt race had anything to do with it, as there were plenty of white students with whom she got along with well in the class. I say this to point out that there are situations where cross-racial animosity exists, but in which we should not assume racism until given cause. I believe she was replaced by a long-term substitute at some point for reasons I don’t know. He was also black. I don’t remember anything about him other than his involvement in the fifth event.
Fifth, I have only been in one altercation in my life that even approaches a real “fight.” Once, while leaving my Spanish class, a black kid whose name I knew but who I’d never interacted with before, shoved me for no reason whatsoever. I shoved him back. He punched me in the face, broke my glasses, and fled immediately when he heard the teacher coming. The teacher came. Unlike the later event I will recount, he handled things correctly. Brought me to the principal and I told the story. Because I shoved back, I got a couple days’ detention. But as a school-friendless bookworm who could do a day’s classwork in an hour or so, that was fine by me.
There was one more memory that was unrelated to anything but which I treasure too much not to share. The science teacher one day decided to walk along the classroom and point at each kid and declare their future profession. Most kids took a few seconds’ thought. He passed me by without even stopping and declared “Engineer” without hesitation. I suppose software “engineer” is close enough.
I did not attend my base school, but when to a high school with a STEM focus in a predominantly black community. It was here that I first experienced any degree of racial tension. Nothing significant, but the nearly entirely-black students of the base school tended to attend the regular and remedial classes, and so tended to keep to themselves. Those like me who came from a different base school for scholastic purposes were more diverse in race and background (white, black, Hispanic, Pakistani, etc.). We tended to attend honors and AP classes and therefore kept to ourselves. Among fellow Star Wars nuts, gamers, bookworms, engineering enthusiasts, and generally funny people, I found school friends aplenty. While there was nothing serious, hints of racial differences could seep through. One of my friends throughout high school was a black man with whom I share a birthday. A very cheerful, smart, quick-witted individual. I don’t know the origin of this, but it actually took me a while to learn his actual name, because at school he went by “Whitey”.
There was one substitute teacher who bears mentioning. Mrs. Solomon was the high school boogeyman. She was unpleasant, strict, and never taught anything. She is most notorious for reportedly declaring to a class of impressionable freshmen that prison’s purpose is to be the modern slavery of black men.
But in general, high school passed without significant racial incidents. Though I feel compelled to mention one particular event. It’s not particularly racial, but the perpetrator did happen to be black. This individual, with whom I had a contentious relationship through a good part of high school, once came up behind me and jabbed his finger into my rectum (through my pants/shorts). As bad as that was, what really stood out to me about this was not that a jerk harassed me in a crude manner. But that when I was emotionally recounting events to the teacher who happened by shortly thereafter, I was not treated to any sympathy. No action was taken or even attempted against this coward who (again) ran instead of facing consequences. No, what stands out to me is that the teacher – who knew me as an excellent student in her class – became angry and yelled at me. Because I used the word “gay” to describe a male inserting his finger into my rectum. That was the only time in my entire thirty years of life that I have used the word “gay” in a derogatory manner, since I was raised with an emphasis on Ephesians 4’s prohibition on unwholesome talk. Yet I was berated for the one time I used it (with complete accuracy). Is it any wonder that I developed an aversion to political correctness?
I will mention another event more for the humor value than anything. I took a Digital Electronics course taught by a redneck Vietnam vet. The class was laid back, and one of the black students played a song or two of some music with which I am unfamiliar. The teacher kindly told him to turn it off. A few minutes later, I started playing some Brad Paisley. The boy asked why I could play music and he couldn’t. The teacher said in very typical fashion for him, “Be-cawz he’s plaaayin’ country/western.” But he did have me turn it 0ff which I was glad to do, having extracted the intended humor from the teacher’s clear preferences. The same teacher was in the habit of smacking me upside the head whenever he saw me wearing my motorcycle helmet. Good times.
During high school I also visited Guatemala for the first time. The group was very large, so we actually didn’t interact with the Guatemalans very much, other than the local schoolchildren.
I spent most of my college years with roommates. In terms of man-months, they were mostly black (meaning I had more white roommates in total, but most of the time had mostly black roommates). We got along splendidly, and I always hold up one of them as a shining example of how to have pleasant conversations about any subject imaginable, up to and including race. During this time, I was the “victim” of a couple of thefts. But what stands out to me is the one attempted robbery, where four or five black men once attempted to rob me. While I have no particular reason to suspect I was targeted for being white, this shows that I do indeed know what it’s like to be alone amongst a group of another race who are, shall we say, less than friendly. (Though I certainly am not implying that this is equivalent to a regular, daily experience of being a visible minority.) There was also the time when I was the only white person among about 200 black people at a recreational event, which was an odd experience. No one was threatening or unwelcoming, but I did happen to notice some inquisitive or mildly confused looks.
University was also when I first became aware just how fast and loose certain types of people will play with the race card. I had been aware that vague “liberal” types existed who might consider me racist for my opinions on immigration, affirmative action, or welfare. I had no idea I would personally be accused of racism by someone who actually sort of knew me simply for disapproving of a particular political candidate, or that the nation’s leaders would begin declaring any opposition to increased taxes “racist.”
During university I made a few additional trips to Guatemala and actually got to meet some of the people there, several of whom are still friends I keep in touch with.
There’s no delicate way to put this. I seem to work in a profession with few black people. Perhaps it’s just been the three companies I’ve worked for, but software engineering – while generally a racially diverse profession – just does not seem to attract that many black men (or women, though that’s another subject). I’ve worked with white men, white women, a single black man (who performed his job admirably; much more so than his white counterpart at a different job), many Indian men and women, Chinese men and women, and technically one white transsexual who I didn’t really work with, but shared a cubicle wall with.
While in my career, I briefly lived with a white family of five, and I lived alone for a few months. The rest of the time, up until my marriage, I always had roommates, and they were always black, except for one guy who is half-Chinese and half-White but for some reason looks so Hispanic that twice now native Spanish-speakers have begun speaking Spanish to his English-only self apropos of nothing while my fluent Spanish self sits or stands at his side, barely controlling laughter.
During this time of increased income and ability to travel, I made enough trips to Guatemala that I’ve completely lost count at this point. It’s how I met my wife (who I brought to the US on a fiance visa) and was adopted into a family of twenty or so Guatemalans and counting when a black man married us while a Dominican provided interpretation to Spanish. We now have a son who will grow up bilingual. During the same general time period, my Indian brother has entered into a long-term relationship with a black woman and produced two beautiful mixed daughters. (As a Christian, I must point out that we do not approve of the sequence of events here, but that doesn’t mean we love anyone involved any less.)
I have also been involved in small groups and specific structured relationships within the church with people of all manner of backgrounds – Dominican, Jamaican, Haitian, Ghanese, Kenyan, Dixie, Yankee, black American, Peruvian, Mexican, etc. And when I say “background” in this context I mean that they’re generally from those places (or in a few cases are children of immigrants). They speak the language, they have the culture, etc.
Oh, and by the way, if anyone – particularly any white people – reading this are offended by my avoidance of “African American” in favor of the word “black”, none of these black people I’ve known have ever taken offense. And several of them have some issue with the term “African American” themselves (though would not consider it offensive). As one brother wisely put it: “It’s all about intent.”
So, do I know precisely what it’s like to be this sort of person or that sort of person? No, of course not. But nor do they know exactly what it’s like to be me, specifically.
Should I be more sympathetic to peoples’ feelings? Perhaps.
Feelings don’t care about your factsBrian Adams, personal friend
But I’ll stress that while feelings are valid, they are irrelevant to certain discussions of policy, practical solutions, and sometimes morality.
Facts don’t care about your feelings.Ben Shapiro, political pundit
I just hope people will take a little more time to consider what they may not know about others they dislike or disagree with before they take the lazy, intellectually cowardly route of assuming malicious intent in general and racism in particular. And avoid ascribing characteristics of a group, real or perceived, to particular individuals. That is, after all, the core of racism. As Jordan Peterson has noted, the variances between groups pale in comparison to the variances between individuals.