Racism and Me: A Personal Excavation

*****Important note for the reader*****

This post has foul language containing racist and homophobic slurs. They are only used for the sake of accurate and honest storytelling as they relate to my personal history.

This post could be a step to position me as an ally to the black community. I will do my best, to be honest, and share some of the uglier findings from my own personal excavation and my learned racist tendencies.

I think that’s important. To bring my authentic self to the table show that, although I’m not done, I do the work to rid myself of the ugly that has been passed down to white people through the generations.

*****Important note for the reader*****

Hi.

My name is Andy. Thanks for being here and letting me tell you a little bit about myself.

I was born and raised in a town in central PA. It’s not a large town, but it’s big enough that the townies live differently than those who live out in the boonies.

I was a townie. I grew up in a neighborhood called Hillsdale. I had a lot of family members in my neighborhood, which had its upsides, but it was also a relatively rough place to grow up. If you’ve read Hill Billy Elegy by J.D. Vance, then you have the beginnings of an understanding of the way I grew up.

There was not a largely black community in my hometown. But, many of the black families that lived in Clearfield, at least while I was growing up, lived in Hillsdale and East End. As a result, my very first friend was black. I’ll shorten his name to J, but some folks reading this will know who I am talking about. J was so much cooler than me. I was pretty shy and awkward. But J accepted me. He was funny and talented, and yes, an incredible dancer. I know that not all black people can dance, but J had some serious moves by the time he was just five years old.

I remember he would blast music from his boombox and dance out in his yard. I would sit with him and watch. I never danced alongside him because I was too shy and intimidated by how good he was. As I got older, I was afraid to dance because I didn’t want to be called a ‘faggot,’ but that is another blog post altogether. ( One that is coming soon )

Our friendship was like most other young friendships, I suppose. We were two young boys, one white and one black, trying to figure out how to be. We had no underlying understanding that our friendship might be considered taboo or a rebellion against systemic racism or a sign of societal evolution.

We were aware of our physical differences but not afraid of them. We used to point them out to each other. He was as fascinated by my white skin and straight hair as I was over his dark skin and curls. I still remember what it felt like the first time he let me run my fingers through his hair–I wanted hair like his so bad. It shocked me when he said he would rather have hair like mine or that he wanted to be white. I couldn’t imagine wanting to give up all of those beautiful black features.

As I got older, not much older, I did start to notice the underlying tensions between the white and black families in my neighborhood. J’s mother treated me politely, but there was always a suspicious look in her eye like she didn’t entirely trust me. Maybe she noticed I had a healthy-sized crush on her daughter, who was a few years my senior. Regardless, I started getting the sense that is wasn’t just the age difference that would have made that relationship difficult to manage.

I remember this one time, my family and J’s family were sitting on the front porch of his trailer, watching the heat lightning flash in the distance. I was explaining how scary the movie Candyman was to me. I tried to describe the bogeyman-type monster as a ‘big black guy with a hook,’ and the weight of the silence that immediately ensued practically buckled me over. I didn’t understand what happened, but I knew something I said changed the energy. My solo plea for an explanation of what I had said that was so wrong was only met by more silence and fidgeting.

Shortly after, we all went home ‘before the storm came.’ What a metaphor that turned out to be. Relations between black and white people were on such thin ice you couldn’t even acknowledge an actor as black, like that in and of itself was an insult.

The close part of my friendship with J didn’t last too long. Nothing happened that I can recall causing a ‘breakup.’ He became much closer to my younger brother. They were the exact same age, and it kind of felt like a natural transition the way it all happened. Although it is possible that my younger brother made a move to steal my friend, but, like I said, I was pretty shy and not much for confrontation, so slowly, J became more of an acquaintance than a close friend.

After that, like many white kids from small towns or burbs, much of my exposure to black culture was through entertainment, which, in and of itself, can be problematic. But, I ask for your patience as I get into that a little bit.

I fell in love with rap music at a young age. It was the first style of music that I discovered that wasn’t handed to me from a parent or some other adult. And it was mesmerizing. I knew these artists lived completely different lives than me, but, at the same time, I connected with a lot of their lyrics. I mean, they were talking about real stuff: poverty, injustice, over-policing, domestic violence, drugs. We dealt with all of these things where I lived. The first gun I saw that wasn’t part of my grandfather’s hunting collection was on the school bus. People in my neighborhood were dealing drugs and carrying. The police were always rolling through Hillsdale. My mom was working a full-time minimum wage job and raising three kids by herself. I am a product of Head Start, food stamps, and all that. So, despite the odds, I found some comfort and maybe even some kinship with the rappers whose albums landed in my tape decks.

Then there were music videos and shows like Yo! MTV Raps that brought a lot of a culture that I wouldn’t have had access to otherwise, right into my living room. These videos put faces to the names for me and showcased all that style and swagger that became indicative of black culture. And, again, I know the over-sexualized portrayal of black women is a problem, but as I was getting older, I surely didn’t mind seeing videos from groups like Envogue or TLC. I’m pretty sure my jaw hit the floor the first time I saw Adina Howard’s Freak Like Me video.

Anyhow, through music, I stay connected. That led me to movies. I watched pretty much anything that may have been considered a ‘black’ movie–flicks ranging from Love and Basketball to Fear of a Black Hat to Baby Boy to Brown Sugar to rap documentaries and anything in between. I have to mention Def Comedy Jam and all the legendary stand-up comedians that came on the scene in the 90s as well.

Then, like most of the world, I was influenced by black athletes. I played a lot of sports growing up. Of course, I looked up to athletes like MJ, Bo Jackson, and Barry Bonds. My favorite game, and the one I was the most gifted at, was basketball. Honestly, a book could be written about how deeply the sport of basketball is intertwined with all things black and white in America. So, I’m going to gloss over it for the moment, but probably come back to it a little later.

Ok, so by now, maybe you’ve got this impression that I’m some small-town white boy that just wants to be down. Which is a fair assumption, but not an accurate one. There wasn’t really anyone to be ‘down’ with. I just listened to what I liked and watched what I wanted and played the sports I was good at, and what I described above is ‘part’ of what resulted. There are many other interests and influences in my life, but this isn’t my complete autobiography, haha.

As far as my own style goes, I wasn’t rockin’ Timberlands and Phat Pharm or anything like that. I wasn’t really a jock either. I felt like a loner and a skater kid. I didn’t have much money, so I’d mainly wear basketball tournament tees and thrift store clothes. I tried to keep a decent pair of skate shoes. I definitely had a pair of etnies or two that I remember burning holes into with grip tape.

Alright, so let me try and transition here. So, you have me–a white kid from a small town, who had some first-hand experience with black people, but my primary source of exposure to the black community was through black entertainment. Nothing too crazy going on. But, I’m also growing up in basically rural white America, and I don’t care how beautiful the brush is that country artists use to portray life here, there is some real racism and ugly shit that goes down here.

For me, I guess it started small. Like, people asking me why I’m hanging out with ‘that black kid.’ And, as a young person, I didn’t understand the question. Uh, because he’s my friend…Then the teasing started. Other kids in the neighborhood pointing at J and laughing. “Black bean, black bean!” That pissed me off. But some of these kids were my cousins. And you’re supposed to back up family, right? Blood is thicker than water as they say. I never joined in on the chants, but I also never stood up to the family to defend my friend. Not that I can remember anyway.

There was a time later on when my protection over my brother happened to blanket J as well, but I didn’t make a hard stand against racism. I was just protecting my family. And the threats against J were absolutely racially motivated. I heard there were threats via simulated lynchings and everything. But, for the sake of being honest, I can’t confirm that first hand.

And that’s my biggest sin as I sit and reflect on my contribution to racism. Through silence. I remember placating my stepdad once when he tried to explain to me how he didn’t have a problem with black people, he had a problem with niggers. And I sat there and listened to that bit of parenting gold while he waxed philosophical on the difference between the two. Did I think what he was saying was a bunch of bullshit? Yes. Did I interject my opinion? Nope. I mean, I was scared shitless of that man for a while. He was mean and abusive for some years before my mom finally got rid of him. But that’s not an excuse. Just as honest of a portrayal as I can give.

The high school years were when racism could really be seen. I mentioned earlier about liking rap music and playing basketball. Well, I certainly was not the only young person in my town with similar interests. Do you want to know the word used for white kids back then who played basketball, listened to rap music, and, who especially, dressed “like black people?” Wigger. And I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be gratuitous, but to be very clear, that is a hybrid word meaning white-nigger. Let that sink in. And, hey, I know there are plenty of conversations to be had about cultural appropriation. But this was not a word used by ‘woke’ white people trying to raise awareness of the negative outcomes of cultural theft. This was used to dehumanize people who were genuinely moved and inspired by black people.

I, personally, didn’t get called this explicitly in school. As I said, I didn’t really look the part, if you will. But, years after I graduated and left my hometown, I was back visiting and talking with an acquaintance at a bar. He was someone I loosely knew through the skating community who made me aware that, in his opinion, growing up, I was a ‘wigger kid.’ Which, I guess, meant I wasn’t punk rock enough or some crap like that. I don’t know. But again, I didn’t take the time to press the issue. I was annoyed by the comment, but it didn’t seem worth getting into it with some drunk dude I barely knew over some image that I had no desire to escape from nor embrace. I never considered that I was somehow condoning this insidious type of racism. At the moment, I was just not getting into it with some drunk dude I barely knew who I couldn’t say definitively was indeed trying to insult me.

Where I am from, it was quite common for underage folks to go out to the woods and party. It could have been a secluded patch of land or at a camp that someone’s family had owned. I remember being at one where I didn’t feel too comfortable. At one point, a loud-mouthed football player came and initiated this spontaneous call and response with some of his friends/teammates.

Loudmouth: “What do we want?”

Friends: “White power!”

Loudmouth: “When do we want it?”

Friends: “White now!”

Honestly, I was floored. Looking back, I probably shouldn’t have been so surprised. But, at the time, I didn’t know what the hell was going on. And as crazy as this might sound to the reader, most of the people that joined in on that thought they were funny, and to this day, would deny that that was a racist act. I mean, I didn’t happen to stumble upon a Klan meeting. I was just at some camp party with a bunch of high-testosterone jocks. Some of them I considered friends. They didn’t know any black people. They didn’t give a shit about all that white power nonsense. They just wanted to be one of the cool kids. These were the popular kids. The one’s that got the pretty girls. The students all the teachers said were such good boys and were going places.

I know that was racism and there is no defending it. And I struggled with this. I look back on my reaction, which was to roll my eyes and catch the first possible ride away from there. I could have said something, vocalized my disdain. But, best case scenario, someone, maybe, apologizes and tells me to chill out. Worst case scenario, a group of guys kick the shit out of me and leave me out in the woods. I hope that today I am more equipped with the tools to stay safe while not turning a blind eye to such horrible behavior.

I didn’t totally avoid racist acts, either. I can only recall one incident, and my memory is pretty sharp, but one time is still too many. It was on the soccer field. I believe I was in a U16 league. We were playing a team from Altoona or Hollidaysburg, and they were kicking the crap out of us. There was a brown-skinned player on the other side who was dominating. No one actually knew what his race or ethnicity was, but some kids on the team started mocking him with a version of that Apu voice from the Simpsons. Well, by the end of the game, I chimed in a couple of times. Something I regretted instantly. Not one adult said anything to stop that nonsense. I still cringe when I think about that.

It’s hard to recall exactly what came over me in the moment. I know there was the frustration that comes with loss and an annoyance with my own team members. I guess it felt like something latched ahold of me and said, yeah, it’s all this guys fault. Listen to your teammates. It’s not us it’s him. I didn’t like the feeling. Have you ever felt your need to belong or fit in win the battle over your moral commitments? It kind of feels like your spirit is rearing in pain while the ego is riding high on self-righteousness. It’s internal chaos and no amount of drugs or comfort food can soothe a soul. Only acceptance and acts of kindness can do that.

Oops, I’m philosophizing again. Not the point of this post. Why do y’all let me do that?

Then I joined the Army. Smooth transition, I know.

There is diversity in the Army like I’ve never witnessed anywhere else in my life. And despite the tensions that do arise, at the end of the day, no one cares about the color of the person beside them as long as they get the job done and have your back. If you’re about to jump out of a C-130, your primary concern is that the guy in front of you properly hands his static line to the jumpmaster so it doesn’t wrap around your arm or neck and seriously jack you up or kill you. Skin color doesn’t mean a damn thing at that moment. Don’t get me wrong, when a bunch of people from every type of background comes together, things can get heated. But, there was this everpresent bottom-line, which was that our lives depended on each other, so you could always cut through the bullshit when it was all said and done.

The Army was an incredible growing experience for me as it relates to diversity and inclusion. In the group I hung out with, I was the white guy. It felt good to be around people with different experiences and attitudes. But it was also validating in some way. The more my friendships deepened, the more I realized how much we had in common. I can understand how to some that wouldn’t seem possible. I mean, of my two closest friends, one was a Latino from Miami and the other a black/Italian guy from Philly. And at any moment, we might have added several other guys to the group, Korean-American, Chinese-American, Hmong-American, African-American from places like Milwaukee, Seattle, So-Cal, and Corpus Christi.

I guess, what’s so unique about the military, is that you get initiated into a sacred order. Baptized, if you will, into a new tribe that has zero to do with the color of your skin. It provides an opportunity to remove the stigmatized vail and see a person under the skin. It also gives you this totally immersive experience into a diverse community.

I was stationed in Ft. Bragg, N.C. Fayetteville is the town just outside of the base, which, I’m pretty sure, is a majority-black city. So, not only did I have my diverse friend group and comrades, but there was nothing that I did that was a white-only event. More often than not, I was one of the few white guys in the crowd. I got to attend a national Step competition, go to black churches, attend family cookouts, and I played a lot of basketball on ‘black’ courts.

One time, my brother, two friends, and I–all white–decided to go to Myrtle Beach, S.C. for the weekend. We had no idea that we were stumbling into Black Bike Week. But, hey, we weren’t about to turn around and go home. We hung out that weekend and had a blast.

It was great to finally be shedding myself of some of the fears I had about black people. Yes, that is the point of all of this. To be honest, before my time in the service, I thought a high number of black residents in a neighborhood meant that it was the ghetto. I didn’t ‘really’ see people beyond their stereotypes. I would have found it weird to meet a black person who wasn’t good at basketball and liked country music. It took a lot of exposure, and even more, to be as neutral about a black person on a first encounter as I was about a white person.

I guess I also began to realize that I never really had an identity that was inherently wrapped up in this concept of whiteness.

This might not be the best example, but I remember one time I was walking back to the barracks from the motor pool, and I happened to be behind a group of FiSTers. I knew this particular group of guys as I was also artillery, a Cannon Crewmember, and they were up to their usual antics and fucking around with each other. I remember shaking my head, and I’m not necessarily proud of this, but my first thought was I can’t stand white people. Of course, I didn’t mean that but there is just this type of goofing around and playful grabass that my BIPOC friends didn’t partake in, nor did I. So, I just found myself staying away from those types of ‘bro-ie’ white guys.

And you know what? In all of these moments, where I was in a room or at an event with mostly black people, I never once felt as uncomfortable as I did at that camp party with only white people where some folks thought white power chants were funny. Never felt as unsettled as I did in college walking in front of a bar with a bunch of drunk white guys standing outside it, stinking of testosterone and alcohol, itching to unload their rage onto anyone they could accuse of looking at them the wrong way.

A lot of people are knowledgeable and quick to talk about the lasting impacts of slavery on the black community, which is good. Still, not many are willing to fully dissect that impact on the white one. It’s looked through the lens of privilege and accumulated wealth, which primarily is a story for the wealthy elites. But what did poor white folks gain? Trauma from an unimaginably violent war, disdain for an entire region of the country, and a new level of hatred piled onto the soul rotting disease known as racism to which they were already inflicted? What does that look like as it gets passed through the generations? Does it look like white power chants at a high school drinking party? Maybe it looks like what happened to George Floyd? More comfortable to track the accumulation of wealth over time than that of hatred, I guess.

But, I digress. This is not intended to be a sociological, philosophical, or persuasive letter to anyone. So, I will continue a bit more about my experience and be done with this already too long post.

I’m going to skip my college years. I know college is incredibly important for many others, especially when it comes to expanding one’s understanding of the world. But, I was just kind of angry in college. I started my freshman year less than a year after returning home from war and had a hard time relating to the other students. I did get to take a beautiful black girl on a date one time but proceeded to screw everything up afterward. And I observed that black students occasionally leveraged black stereotypes to their advantage. For example, many black students would cut the line at the HUB because they figured most white people were too afraid to call them out on it. It’s cool. Kind of a dick move, but I found it comical. (Although, there’s a metaphorical line that many would say was created by white people for white people…but, a different conversation.)

Ah, I do have to mention a course I took at Penn State that was life-changing. It was called the History of Africa. If you want to understand the world a little better, then you need to know about Africa. And you can’t learn about Africa without learning about the slave trade, which is immensely critical for understanding real American history. At the end of the course, the professor asked for any final thoughts on the last day of class. I raised my hand and thanked him, but expressed that frankly, I was embarrassed by how little I knew about slavery and the chain of events it caused. I felt incredibly failed by the public school system in the US.

If you haven’t read anything about slavery since high school, I’m sorry, but you don’t know shit. It’s not your fault. But, it’s time to read up.

The next time I found myself in any real contact with the black community was after college. I got a job at The Glen Mills School, which a quick google search will tell you that it has since been closed down due to student abuse. This post can’t serve as the platform to dissect all of that, but I want to mention something quickly about that timeframe on a more personal note.

I was flat broke and barely keeping my head above water during my first six-months at that job. I was crashing on floors, couches, and in my car. It was a black colleague and his family that opened their home to me. They let me stay there for a couple of months, and I eventually started paying rent and stayed with them for a bit. I miss A’s skills on the charcoal grill and playing Rock Band in his living room. (He on guitar and me on drums) They always had a seat for me at the dinner table and made me feel like family. They shared their friends with me but never tried to tell me how to live or make me feel judged.

I do get sad and sometimes pissed to know that there are people out there that might see my friend and think he is a scary or a bad person or want to hurt him. I guess, I just pray that more people will have opportunities that help them see people for who they are and not as an amalgamation of stigmas and stereotypes invented to justify the reduction of humans to mere objects for profit. We’d all be happier and find we live in a world less scary than we initially thought.

I could go on forever. I could talk about every black person in my life that has had a positive impact on me, but that list is quite long. And let’s be real, this isn’t a five-thousand-word version of but ‘some of my best friends are black.’ I could talk about my time living in Namibia, and how that Africa experience has changed me. And I could go on and on about all of the overt and covert forms of racism I witnessed over the years. Like, how my friend A and I couldn’t get into a casual bar in Wilmington, DE on a warm summer evening because he was wearing jean shorts. You know there are bars that enforce dress codes to keep black people away, right?

But what’s the point? For once, I don’t really have one. At least, I don’t have some takeaway message that I’d like to instill upon the reader. I do hope that it might inspire people, especially white people, to look at their own lives and find the racism that was everpresent. To be kind to themselves, but to be honest about how they learned to be silent or active conduits for race-based hate in this world. And then, to see if they’ve had the right combination and experiences over the years to heal themselves to not due harm to others. I hope that black readers will understand the uphill battle that many of us white people are in when it comes to overcoming racism. If I wasn’t blessed with the opportunity and the drive to leave my home town, I can’t be sure how this blog post would read.

And lastly, I think I just needed this version of myself to be out there in the public space before I could become more vocal and active in the effort to heal the racial wounds in this country. People have the right to know who their allies are and what they stand for. I’m glad people are standing and marching. But are people doing the work? How many people have retreated into the quiet space of self-reflection and are willing to stand when the cameras are off and the hashtags fade away? Relationships are fragile. How deep is your love for your fellow man? What can it withstand?

Oops, I’m doing it again.

Thanks for reading.

Take care,

Andy

I’ve included a short little video for maybe some extra content or clarification or something.

When I say ‘black photo’ I’m talking about the all-black squares being posted on social media for #BlackoutTuesday. Sorry for the poor sound quality.

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