August 9th, 2007

red shirt

International blog against racism week

All right, I'll play. But I feel a little bit like elisem wrote:
I am a little fearful that I'm waving a banner around and dancing up and down and trying to win a hat that says Clueful White Chick, or something. And I'm not. I miss all sorts of clues. Not just about racism, but many things.

That said, let's see...

I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan, one of the most racially diverse towns in the North, I always thought. Then I grew up and went to college in Iowa and took an internship in Ohio that had me driving into Detroit one day. When we got lost and I had to get out of the truck and call mom on a pay phone to get directions, two things stuck out in my mind.

#1: The guy from Kentucky who was with me was scared out of his wits because a) he was in the DAaangerous city of De-troit and b) a few black folk had wandered up to his truck to see what he was up to pulled off in this parking lot on the edge of downtown. Was he lost? None of them were threatening, but he was scared.

#2: There were a hell of a lot of black people, per capita. And if there were that many more black people than white people 40 minutes outside of Ann Arbor, something was causing Ann Arbor to stay as white as it is. It's mostly class (money), I think, but I still haven't gotten it completely figured out.

When I went back to the truck, I offered to drive, because the skinny white boy was still scared and I knew where I was going (not that I wasn't cautious about three guys standing around the truck, and us possibly on their property, but I wasn't like he was).

Ann Arbor is diverse, but it's internationally diverse; lots of people here from other countries, and not so many blacks from Detroit or even arabs from Dearborn. The main black person I knew, growing up, was my dental hygienist. She took care of my teeth until she retired and was a friend of the family, through some slightly closer family friends. But Marion did not grow up here in the States, she was an immigrant. She has a gorgeous accent (and is beautiful besides). I wish I could say with confidence where she was from but I don't remember.

The youngest black friend I had was in second grade. Ashanti had trouble staying still in class, and always seemed to be in trouble, but he and I liked each other a lot. I missed him when I changed schools and I will never forget watching the gym teacher pick him up by his ears against the wall.I don't think he would have been so mistreated if he hadn't been black. There was another black boy who lived up and across the street from us when I was 7, who propositioned me in my closet, using sign language. I turned him down.

I never have really dated anyone black, though a black friend of mine took me to the Valentine's Day Dance one year in College, and I had sex with another black friend who has gradually become one of my closest friends and always has been one of my favorite friends to flirt with. I am frustrated that science fiction fandom is so white, and that Ann Arbor continues to be.

My mother had a black roommate in College, and dated a black man, and shocked her parents with these things. I dated someone who was half Chinese through most of high school and nobody that I know of thought anything of it. But my mother, racially open-minded that she was, warned me to be cautious of the guys hanging around the bus stop, who were almost all black. A black man stalked me on my paper route when I was 10 (he liked to kiss little blond girls and had a rap sheet 4 feet long). A black man broke into my grandmother's house and stole her purse in Flint. The next one to do it, she shot him after he ignored her warning, and she got badly beaten as he fought to get the gun away from her. Once he knocked it out of her hand thankfully he did nothing with it, and what nearly killed her later was not her injuries directly but an allergic reaction to the codine for her cracked sternum. But anyway, my youth was inconsistently riddled with incidents and warnings concerning black men, and I sense it in myself, in how I am more watchful around certain people than others. My sister dated a persian who treated her badly and then stalked her for a long time; culturally, my mother warns me of persian and arabian values, devaluing women. Thankfully I also met some Iranians at Waterloo who became good friends, which counters that somewhat. Culture and race are so intertwined. When I was young, one time I remember being at the bus station waiting inside out of the rain or cold, and how this one fellow raked me up and down with his eyes and leered. I rolled my eyes and looked away, pointedly. He muttered something about how some people didn't date black people. I felt helpless to defend myself against the accusation of racism, feeling I mostly just wasn't interested in someone who would act that way, who felt it was culturally okay to do so.

When I was at Grinnell, which was even whiter than Ann Arbor, there was some dialogue on race on campus. And I realized then that I was resentful, that some of my own guarded reaction to some black people was because some of them didn't seem to see me. Not just as a person - they seemed less likely to look up and meet your eye than other people, on average. Cycles of prejudice, reinforcing each other. Making connection harder to achieve. If you don't expect me to react well to you, you are less likely to even risk interaction. Second semester of my sophomore year, I was assigned a new roommate. She and I never really clicked or got to know each other very well. He boyfriend virtually moved in, and I didn't mind. He was quiet and nice - I sometimes described him as my favorite of my two roommates. But most of her social time was spent at the black cultural center, and I didn't feel welcome there. I never even tried going there, honestly.

So now I'm back in Ann Arbor, and I go to the Y and note that most of the black people I see there at any one time work there, and I feel weird about that. Sometimes I think about drumming together a sponsorship program to give memberships to people in the housing community just South of my neighborhood, or other poorer people in town. The Y isn't cheap -- isn't that kind of backwards? Sometimes I think about going into Detroit, to teach, or to work on improving the supplies and libraries in those schools. Detroit is still getting smaller, and they are closing schools instead of lowering the student-teacher ratio. It's a shame.

So this is kind of a ramble, I guess. I don't have any deep insights. Most of the time, I don't run up against racism or racist people. I don't watch TV anymore, mostly; haven't for four years. Whenever I do I can't stand how couples are paired up racially in sitcoms. A friend complains of how porn and drama both never seem to show black women getting involved with white men. One thing you can say about Antonio Banderas' movie Take The Lead is that at least the races were mixed up a bit. I like that movie.

I encourage my company to recruit from technical schools in Detroit. I still may come up with a scheme to help out there. AASFA has talked about a Books to Schools program. We'll see. I wonder if, here in town, most of the gifted black students still end up at Gabriel Richard high school. Hope not. That high school and ours used to do a joint program for Martin Luther King day, but it never worked in terms of getting us to talk to each other. Things like that shouldn't be done one day a year; they have to be done throughout life.

I grew up listening to Bill Cosby's stand-up recordings, and have had occasion to be grateful I know comedy routines that are so universal. I didn't hear a polack made fun of for being polish until I had a polish soccer coach who complained when a rainy day made it hard for him to keep track of the players on his dry-erase clipboard; he made fun of himself, saying that he couldn't keep track of so much in his head, he was polish. That's still the only such joke I've heard, actually, though in Canada we were regailed with newfie jokes.

I grew up, somewhat protected, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which is a bit of an island unto itself, and where the butt of our jokes was people from Ohio. I almost dated someone from Ohio once, but it never got serious. Just think of what the kids would have had to put up with. Almost as bad as a mixed marriage, with people who went to both U of M and Michigan State...