On Race

The first girl who I thought I sincerely loved was black.

She was also my best friend who had been by my side through thick and thin during middle school, three of the toughest and most turbulent years of everybody’s life. We were inseparable; after spending all day together in school, we would go home and talk on the phone for hours about absolutely nothing. We knew each other’s family and frequently went over to each other’s houses  on the weekends and hung out. Prepubescent Danny misinterpreted this jovial camaraderie and platonic devotion for romance and pounced: When I felt the time was right, I sent her a long, thoughtful email (that’s how 13-year-olds rolled in 2004) declaring my passion.

Guess what? She turned me down. She kindly and astutely informed me that she just wanted to be friends, and, although she loved me as a friend, she was not in love with me. Dejected, I wrote her another long-winded email begging her to reconsider and once again expressing my deeply rooted love for her. She steadfastly insisted that we would be better as friends. Spoiler alert: She was right.

Heartbroken, I recounted my dramatic, turbulent sojourn of love and loss to the entire school. I wrote about my feelings on my Xanga, posted AIM away messages with sad Fall Out Boy lyrics for weeks and moved to another lunch table to avoid an encounter with the one who got away. Within a week, the entire seventh grade knew about my plight, but, luckily, she and I were able to make amends and pick up our friendship as though nothing had ever happened.

Not once did anybody ever mention race. At an age when we were all finally starting to form judgments and opinions independent from those of our parents, nobody noticed her blackness and my whiteness as being either an issue or a novelty.

Fast forward two years to high school: my best friend had moved away, and I was left to my own devices. In a new school, I was introduced to a barrage of new friends and quickly formed a new clique (while still making sure to text her on the bus every morning).

As my friends from the western (more affluent) side of the county were quick to remind me, my high school was considered the “ghetto” school in the county. While I grew up in the fourth wealthiest county in the nation and lived a very comfortable existence, my high school district included both “the 1%” and the families living in government-subsidized housing. I was extremely lucky to attend a high school where, however “ghetto” we were considered, the staff and faculty were quick to embrace difference and instill in us a love of and appreciation for diversity.

As such, my social group throughout high school was comprised of students of all races, genders, sexual orientations, socioeconomic backgrounds and religions. I never thought about the cultural markers that could divide us; to me, it was about who you are and not where you came from. Similarly, I also never considered the differences that make our cultures rich. Realistically, I would contend that the cultural climate of political correctness and unequivocal acceptance taught me to think that I was lucky enough to be growing up in a post-racial world. There was no racism happening before my eyes in Columbia, Maryland and, therefore, it wasn’t happening anywhere else, either.

Fast forward again to my college years: My liberal arts education is beginning to open my eyes, and slowly but surely my rose-colored view of the world is beginning to fade. I distinctly remember sitting in an American Studies course and discussing Peggy McIntosh’s “Invisible Knapsack” theory. My mind was particularly blown by one of the final entries on the white privilege checklist:

 46. I can chose blemish cover or bandages in “flesh” color and have them more or less match my skin.

That day, our scholarly discourse involved debating what was more socially debilitating: belonging to a low socioeconomic class or belonging to a minority race.  I (predictably) sided with the notion that poverty was more crippling than non-whiteness. I was sure that being too poor to afford designer jeans was more of an inhibitor to one’s social mobility than having to wear a light Band-Aid over dark skin. Based on my upbringing, race was so irrelevant that I could not even fathom it serving as an inhibitor in 2014. I argued that, regardless of race, everybody is presented with the same opportunities, but not everybody can afford to take advantage of said opportunities. That is what I sincerely believed to be true based on what I had experienced so far in my life; my family experienced a very frightening year in which we found ourselves in dire financial straits. I had never really lived race, but I had certainly experienced economic hardship.

Ultimately, my American Studies class was unable to come to a consensus about poverty versus non-whiteness. We concluded that race and socioeconomic status are becoming increasingly intertwined and forming very complicated, nuanced identities (a concept known as intersectionality). Despite our inability to agree, my classmates brought up ideas that made me think. I walked away from that discussion with a nagging sense of unease; for weeks I thought about the notion of  the color “flesh”.  While the idea of a bandage defining a “normal” skin tone bothered me, my American Studies course had come to an end, and I was unable to contextualize my feelings within a broader discourse on racial identity.

Little did I know, the discussion about race in America would re-ignite on a national scale in a few short months with the tragic events in Ferguson,  Missouri. I’m going to refrain from commenting on the specifics of the case because, even three weeks after the fact, there are still just as many unknowns. However, I think it is impossible to deny that the shooting and especially its aftermath have brought to light that there are still rampant racial tensions and harrowing inconsistencies regarding our collective understanding of race in America.

Watching everything unfold in Missouri has also had me thinking lately about my personal perception of race, its incompleteness and my misplaced idealism (you might go so far as to call it ignorance). I can’t pinpoint my personal tipping point, but I can recognize that I am taking the first steps toward developing a broader perspective on the notion of race. The reality of racial identity in America is so much more complex than I was raised to believe; I learned to embrace race but also to subconsciously ignore it. There is (and has been) so much going on that I had no idea about. Do I have any answers? Absolutely not. In fact, I would argue that I am more confused now than ever. I sincerely hope that the next few months will serve as a turning point in the conversation on race in America because I, along with the rest of the country, have so much work to do.

Like I said, I am now more confused than ever, but with this confusion also comes a desire to understand, to listen, to be compassionate, to contribute to the dialogue and to recognize that this is about something so much bigger than me.

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3 Replies to “On Race”

  1. In 1968 I was a 5th grade student in Mobile, Alabama (Mobile County). I am Jewish too (an oddity in Mobile). My teacher was a “negro” woman. No big deal. The bigger deal to me was that teachers were allowed to wear “coordinated PANT suits” to school. 25 years later, I took my New Yorker husband to see where I grew up, as we now live in Columbia, MD. I called my teacher to tell her I was a teacher too! She asked me if I knew she was the first black woman hired in Mobile County. I didn’t. She asked me if I knew WHY I was placed in her class. There were a lot of smart kids in the class, so I thought we were there because of that. She then told me that we were in her room because our parents were “tolerant.” My parents never told me this. They are both gone, but…I was never more proud of my parents then at that moment.

  2. I am impressed with your writing. You are so articulate and wise beyond your years. Kacy’s wedding is in a few days–as soon as I am back in town I promise that we will get together for a nice long chat!

    Your teacher and friend forever

    Diane McAllister

  3. Danny, that was brilliant and supremely well put. Good work!
    For me, my answer is to educate others once I myself become educated. When you learn about intersectionality, the reality of racial identity, and inequality in the world… the best thing to do is to teach others who feel the same as you did previously. Even if it is uncomfortable or uncool, on many occasions I have chosen to speak up and say, “Hey, just because a person is black doesn’t mean ____” or “I don’t think a person being homosexual has anything to do with ___”. It may cause tension, but it’s the only way to keep expanding the conversation and the only way to cause people to stop and consider the same things you did, and then eventually begin to make a difference. <3

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