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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

white kid

I'm white.

I grew up on a multi-racial block in St. Paul, Minnesota that had recently seen all but two of its white families with children move out. My friends were black, my immediate neighbors were black, my playmates were black. That's the way it was.

I'm proud of this reality, and humbled by it. I also realize that it's pretty much an integral part of who I am....ie. growing up on the block I did made me, uh, me...it shaped the way I see things from the very get go.

Now, none of this is apparent in how I look or dress or talk, it's definitely not apparent in my style. It doesn't mean I look or dress or speak like anything other than a 'college-educated white male'. I mean, that's what I "am"....a white kid, a white dude, a white man.

When I've talked about this with friends, which isn't that often...the thing that I'm never quite able to convey is this. White and black, race, is so important and so bullshit at the same time.

What I mean to say is this: what's important for me to convey when I talk about my story isn't my race or anybody's race really...uh, we're all one. What's significant to me about growing up where and how I did...the thing that I realize now...is how much I was loved, how much we all shared, and how exceptional that was for all of us on that block, period, end of sentence.

That sounds stupid. It sounds trite. That doesn't mean, in my case, it's not true. I know other people, black and white, who have had different experiences growing up in similar circumstances. I can only speak for myself and try to make it concrete for you:

In 1973 I learned to ride on a bike that was at least ten years old...a clanky clunker with a long history. I know it was Tyra's bike, and then Ray Ray's...and then Eric learned to ride on it...and then Nanny decided to give the bike to me, so I could learn to ride. It was my bike, then my sister Ann's bike, then my sister Margaret's bike and then we passed the bike on to Scooter and Tiffany so they could have their chance.

People had modest means back then. None of us had the kind of stuff that we are surrounded by today. But my family had more stuff. We were white; we had more "middle class" means. Nevertheless, kids who had less shared with me. Nanny, a grandmother raising a large family, included me by insisting that I take the bike. And while I had that bike, it was mine, I was never made to feel otherwise. There's something so American to that story...in good ways and bad. There's also a deep lesson about community and equality.

We shared much more than that. Like all neighbors we shared the simple things. We shared food. We spent time together. We just did the stuff you normally do on a block. Laughing. Joking. Wrestling. Playing games and sports. Growing up. Being with each other. Sitting on the steps. Talking about things. Getting into trouble. Being ourselves.

There's really no way to convey the profound significance this had for me, how intimate this was, how "like breathing" this now seems to me, other than to say: when I used to go back to my block, before things changed so much...and I would hear someone say my name...it felt to me like folks were really saying my name.

I felt like I was truly being seen and accepted for who I was.

I wish I could share with you the simple force, the power of hearing someone say...repeating the words, as is common in the African American tradition: "Look at you....look at you!...look at you!" and being looked at, wholly, directly, all-in-one glance, with love and gratitude and an appreciation for simply being who you are, nothing more and nothing less. To be seen in this way, to be accepted...by friends who knew me when, by neighbors who loved me when they didn't have to, by friends who included me when they easily could not have....is a powerful thing. It shapes you.

I was not "white" on my old block so much as I was simply Paul, and that's what I've always been. I guess, in this I'm just like anybody who was lucky enough to have a happy childhood in a neighborhood blessed by "good times" and caring adults.

However, when I think of the one thing I would want to share from my experience coming up, before I would address the various important and difficult aspects of the story.....it wouldn't be anything sociological or political or philosophical. At its core the most exceptional thing I take away from my block is something that I can't really share or do justice to other than to say that I was loved, deeply, as a human being, for who I am. I was accepted.

I am a lucky man for that. I am also, despite it not registering in any obvious way on my exterior, partly the man I am for that. It has only become obvious to me over time, that, in being true to myself and where I come from, I have some responsibility to that love. To its force. To its blessing. To its honesty.

Of course, at the end of the day, in our own particulars, on some level, isn't that true for all of us?



  • Paul, this is absolutely brilliant. And I'm going to be quoting you on "...so important and so bullshit..." for years to come. First-class!

    By Anonymous Michael, at 7:15 AM  

  • memories came flooding back... of my neighborhood and how I was raised and what I took for granted.

    do kids have "neighborhood" anymore? or is it video games, ipods and computers...basically one or two person activities. I remember roaming in large packs. helped me withmy social skills. heh.

    ko, keep at this writing thing. you've got promise.

    By Blogger NYBri, at 9:54 AM  

  • Followed you over here from kos ... You've got a way with words, and you offer such a rich context. This post is particularly stunning. k/o is quickly becoming one of my favourite daily reads.

    By Blogger olivia, at 9:56 AM  

  • You were truly priveleged as a kid, not because of the material and financial security advantages you had over the others on your block, but of course because of the social environment you lived in. This gives you great advantages over other middle class white guys. I envy you. I currently live on a block much like the one you grew up on and my companion and I moved here in large part because, although the block on the whole is about 50% white, among children it's about 60% black and 10% asian or latino, 30% white. On any given summer day, I see kids of various races playing together and playing well ... mostly harmoniously, and when not, it's never seemed to be a race thing. Blocks like this are few and precious in the world. Most kids still grow up in a monocultural setting, exposed to the other only at school, if then.

    Moving to a mostly white, but somewhat integrated neighborhood at age 10, after living in 100% white environments up until then, I was in culture shock, as I was again four years later when we moved again to a 100% white neighborhood. I want my own children (hopefully arriving in the next few years) to enjoy the benefits of diversity as the norm. I want for them not to regard black culture as exotic, or mixed race couples (there are 6 such couples, like us, on the block) as something odd.

    By Anonymous p.hopton, at 11:29 AM  

  • well put

    I think the way to win this political stuff is to talk culture.

    By Blogger Pyrrho, at 5:14 PM  

  • KO - I just found this blog tonight and I'm so excited. I have loved your writing and am so glad to see you with a place of your own. And the first thing I see here is that you grew up in St. Paul!! I always knew there was something special about this place. I'll be checking in here regularly.

    By Blogger NLinStPaul, at 7:12 PM  

  • i thik you're right about that, pyrrho. who we are and what kind of america we think ought to have is at the core of any good political agenda, and stories are the most compelling way to call those issues and feelings of belonging and yearning and home and neighborhood unbidden up into the reader's mind. we are a story-telling creature at the core. as with all the other stories, paul, always a pleasure to read. don't always have as much to say, but i always think about them afterwards. thanks.

    By Anonymous wu ming, at 12:40 AM  

  • I love what you've written, I was one of the only black kids in a mostly white neighborhood. That didn't, at least in my eyes, diminish the feeling of true community. Our bond was as stong despite the color barrier. Though, to be truthful, we had our naysayers...like the family that only allowed two black people in the house at the same time. Funny, thinking back on it I want to chalk it up to ignorance. I didn't get it when I was in third grade but, of course now...

    By Blogger madmer, at 11:23 PM  

  • Thanks, madmer, I appreciate that.

    (as I have all the comments on this thread.)

    We had our naysayers too.

    For me, the thing I realized "delayed reaction years later"...was how my mom was so worried about how my white friends from outside the block would never come back for a second visit. She would say, "do you have the right toys?" "do I need to make cookies?" "am I doing something wrong?"

    I didn't know. None of us did.

    Of course, now I do. My friends went home after having a BLAST on my block and said to their moms.

    "Mom, I had so much fun at Paul's house, we played football all day and had a water fight and wrestled...and all his friends are black"

    That was the end of that.

    Ignorance is right of course. In the coarse sense of the word. And in the buddhist sense too.

    thanks for your comment.

    By Blogger kid oakland, at 12:05 AM  

  • I grew up here in the LBC, known for Snoop Dog, Dre, and Sublime. Like most large cities, it is diverse. There are good parts of town, and bad parts of town. There are ethnic enclaves. Yet the wealthiest neighborhoods remain remarkable homogenous white.

    I grew up and went to elementary school in such a neighborhood. There were two black kids and two asians in my grade level, and I was friends with both. Looking back, this may have been because we were all poor. My Catholic parents demonstrated their devotion by procreating... a lot. I am the 12th of 16 kids. Like the minority students, I wore second hand clothes and hand-me-downs, had an old bike, and got free school lunches.

    Come Junior High, I qualified for the GATE program at a school on the West Side, the furthest western edge of the city and the poorest part of town. The school district set the program up at that particular school so they could bus in white kids and "desegregate" the school. Their were clear racial divisions at the school, especially between the Blacks, Hispanics, and Samoans, but it was all tied into the local gang situation. Unaffiliated students mixed pretty freely.

    It was a remarkable experience, and especially remarkable in the way the GATE kids intermingled with the regular population. We had our first four classes (including zero period) separate from the rest of the school, but then had our electives, lunch, and PE with everyone else. We learned that the dumb kids weren't that dumb, and the smart kids not that smart. That was reinforced by the fact that the local kids could earn their way into the program by getting good grades, and many did just that.

    I would say, without a doubt, that I am better person for my experience at that school.

    By Anonymous mrboma, at 12:49 PM  

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