Before Racism

by Crystal Torres on June 12, 2011

When I was a child racism did not exist. My Irish-American, Catholic grandmother had grandchildren that were varying degrees of white, black, latino and Jewish. My neighborhood, and neighborhood school, were even more diverse. I lived in the sort of images I saw on Sesame Street and in the United Colors of Benetton ads.

www.benetton.com

I was first introduced to racism as a history lesson. It made as much sense to me as people believing the earth was flat. No, it made less sense to me. I could not experience firsthand a point at which the world stops and you fall off, nor a point where it continues all the way around. I only knew North Hollywood, personally, the rest I had to take on faith in maps and globes and teachers. I could, however, experience firsthand that people of all skin colors were equally capable of greatness or meanness or anything else on the human spectrum. I knew through tears and laughter and play that kids were kids were kids. Some I liked, and some I didn’t, but to base that on race, even as a child, seemed absurd.

When I started junior high it wasn’t hard to recognize that the cliques were largely monochromatic. Dinyelle, a neighbor and friend, was a year ahead of me. She was my preview. I would invite her to go somewhere with myself and my family, as I had over the years, but her answer changed when she was in seventh grade.

“Will there be any black people there?”
“If you go, then there will be at least one black person,” I’d answer jokingly.

Why should it matter? Then I started seventh grade and I began to understand the riddle. This group of kids wears this brand of jeans and does not listen to that radio station, and so on, and so forth. All these little tribes with all these ways to identify who they were and weren’t. Some cliques were integrated, many were not. Most were hostile to people who played by different rules. I didn’t like this strange place where people were allowed to exclude and be excluded. I thought I hated junior high and all the hatred unique to that place.

With time and experience I have learned that junior high was not that strange. All the petty mean things I keep trying to label as being from that place are far more universal. I fear they are more common than the positive experience I had before junior high. I’d just managed to live the first twelve years of my life in blissful ignorance, sheltered from most of the -isms. My friends and family had always spanned such a broad spectrum of human beauty.

I’ve endeavored since then to do what I can to make my childhood more true than my junior high experience. Most of the time I am surrounded by likeminded people trying to foster a better world than the one we inherited. Every now and then I am reminded that the ugliness persists.

A childhood friend of mine, Oracle Jayne Doe, does hip hop. Like most entertainers she travels, and finds herself in places she wouldn’t otherwise. Last night she posted on her personal facebook- “Racism is still alive!”

My heart broke. Now, I know she’s a grown woman, and a strong one besides. It’s just that a part of me still sees a nine-year-old whenever I look at her. She’s got that same smile that radiates, not just from her mouth but in her eyes, that spark of mischief. For a moment I was angry, really angry, at whoever did whatever to that precious girl to make her feel that way. You know, even I know, whatever it was, she can handle it. We’re not Bluebirds anymore and if we’ve made it this far I suspect we’re gonna keep on just fine.

It’s just that… I refuse to accept it. I mean, I accept that we’re grown. I won’t accept the idea that racism is still alive. To be alive is a gift it does not deserve. It validates it somehow. Racism cannot be alive. I had to argue. I said- “That’s not life. Some places are just haunted by the ghosts of all the ugliness that was.”

Now I shouldn’t have been trying to be all deep in her comments. I’m not good at being clever or succinct and the best comments are both of those things. I feel like I posted too much and said too little. It’s just that she was part of that smoggy Utopia I grew up in. I see childhood in her, hers and mine, ours together. We weren’t best friends, but I’ve never had a mean thing to say about her and how dare some stranger dump their ignorance on her.

I know that my freckled, pale skin, makes it easier to get by in the predominately white zip code I’m living in now. I would rather live in a more diverse area, but this is the one I can afford. Monochromatic communities tend to breed a certain unchallenged xenophobia. It is the privilege of the majority to be ignorant of that prejudice. Which isn’t to say that everyone here is a racist, they aren’t. It’s just that I don’t experience what racism I know exists. I don’t like the idea that people are nice to me because they assume I am like-minded; just like I assume they are like-minded, because most of us find it very difficult to understand how a reasonable, seemingly intelligent person, could come to conclusions so different from our own. I surround myself with people who help me preserve my delusions that racism exists only in some other time or place. I can’t help but be upset when it intrudes upon friends or family, people I care about.

I don’t want any friendship extended to me that would stop short of my Jewish stepfather, my gay uncle, my Mexican cousins, or my black friends. Now, nobody ever eradicated an -ism by being the side that hated the other side more. I can let it go, I can even love something deeper down in those who act hatefully. I can raise my children to embrace love and peace and diversity. I can be reminded yet again that a heart can break an infinite number of times and not have diminished, at all, its capacity to stay open. It is not enough to insulate myself from hatred, I have to stand against it. I can’t go back to that time in my life when racism did not exist, but I can strive for a day when it is anything but alive. That’s gotta count for something.

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