I got this video from a young woman who read my MLK Day "Color and Character" story. She is the only black student in her class. "I am standing here today to help you understand the discomfort I have felt," she says. Definitely worth watching.
Another poignant barbershop moment today.
I get my hair cut by a black man who has a shop in a small suburban community that is affuent and almost all white. He's in his late 30s with several children of various ages. He has operated his shop in the same place since 1995. We were talking about dogs when he made this comment paraphrased below:
It's funny about white folks with dogs, man. You know I got kids, I've been had kids. And as many times as I've walked around here with my kids, nobody has ever said anything to me about my children. But if I have a dog with me? Man, I can't tell you how many white people come up to me and want to see the dog, talk to the dog, pet the dog. They will cross the street to come see this dog. I'm telling you, man, we could go outside right now and do an experiment, keep a tally and everything. It's true. All these people want to come see the dog. And I'm like, I have some pretty cute kids, too.
He's not. Some black people might disagree, though. And I have been disturbed by a few things this nice young blond boy has said, including a remark yesterday about the brown people who work in Dunkin Donuts. It makes me question the conventional wisdom that racial bias will fade out because young people today see race differently that previous generations.
My family lives in a suburban town that's about 95% white. When we moved in four years ago, the welcome extended by our neighbors, all of them white, was extremely warm. The first day, four neighbors came by to bring cakes, pastries, a case of beer, and kind words. As time went on, they helped us navigate our new surroundings and invited us to this and that, including to become members of the private swim club (although that club is a story for another day). We do have four other black families living within a block or two of our home, although as you get deeper into the neighborhood, farther from the commercial thoroughfare and into the more expensive homes, it gets whiter. I have never heard any racial remarks or felt any hostility whatsoever. Overall, this is a nice neighborhood for my wife and I to raise our children.
The only remarks I'm aware of have come from Frankie (I have changed his name). He's the same age as one of my sons, they both love sports, so they play all the time. He's a nice kid, polite, and his parents are friendly. A few months after we moved in, my son came back from his house with a funny look on his face. "Frankie said black people are bad," my son told me.
Oh, word? I called Frankie's house and his mom picked up. I calmly explained my son's story to her. She was mortified. "We're not that kind of people," she said. At this point, my wife and I had a decision to make. We chose not to excommunicate Frankie from our lives. He probably didn't know any black people. Somebody had to teach him about reality. We did, however, ban our son from setting foot in Frankie's house.
The months and years passed, and Frankie and my son remained friends. Not best friends, but they played together all the time. The no-Frankie's-house ban was eased slightly. During this time, my son has related two other remarks to me. One day we were discussing why so many football and basketball players are black. He said, "Frankie says black people are taking over sports." Another time, my son said he was describing a bike camp to Frankie, where they ride throughout the city, which is about 50% black. Frankie was like, "Are you crazy? You're not afraid of getting shot?"
Of course I talked to my son about all these remarks, why they were off base, and what might lead his friend to make them. I advised my son that his friendship could help educate Frankie, because now he knows a black family that includes a doctor, a judge, lawyers, bankers and business owners. And I took it upon myself to wordlessly educate Frankie about black people. When he rides in our car, I play either NPR (because we don't just listen to rap) or rap (because we do like rap, not all of it is destructive, and this is what good rap sounds like). When he's at our house, I ask him to spell stuff, or to do some mental math. When we go to the hood to play basketball, I let him tag along. (But not into the *deep* hood, because his folks would be shook. Come to think of it, my wife probably doesn't want our son there either.) And Frankie never seemed fazed for a second. The kid is a super athlete, and when he's the only white kid on the court, he doesn't act scared. Not even his first time playing with us, when a big kid blocked his shot twice in a row, each time with the comment "get that shhh outta here!" Frankie just grinned and ran back on defense.
Then came yesterday. On the way to school, my son and I stopped at Dunkin Donuts, and I asked him why he thought so many Southeast Asian people work there. After school, we took Frankie with us to hoop at the gym. On the way home, we passed that same Dunkin Donuts. Frankie spontaneously said something like, "They need to do something about all those Indians in Dunkin Donuts. You can't even understand what they're saying!"
I'm not mad at Frankie, or at his parents. I don't want to label them racists. This is a guess, but I think Frankie's family is just living life as it comes, paying no special attention to the way society creates and promotes racial stereotypes--like fish unaware that water is wet. Frankie is just one kid, in one town, and there's no way to tell if his remarks mean anything bigger or not. But he does make me wonder about the hidden aspects of America's undeniable racial progress, and whether ignoring race, instead of educating people about it, will get us where we want to go.
Jesse Washington is a Senior Writer for ESPN's TheUndefeated.com