My Journey Through Race and Racism

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When I was a kid, everyone in my neighborhood was divided into categories along three dimensions. There were color differences (light vs. dark hair and skin), there was the Catholic vs. Protestant divide, and there was the binary distinction of whether or not your dad served in World War II. In fourth grade and again in seventh, I attended a new school and each time encountered a greater diversity of kids and teachers than I knew before, and learned about new kinds of people. At the same time, I would often visit my father at work, and during the summer he and I would have breakfast downtown at the Dewitt Clinton. Then we’d go our separate ways to our respective jobs (he had a real job…I had one of those urban make-work jobs designed to get the kids off the streets), and in these contexts, I met some adults that were different from the ones in my neighborhood.

So, over time, I learned about people who were different from me, and like anyone else, I formed opinions not just of these people, but opinions of the kinds of people I was beginning to learn about. Most of this ended up having to do with “ethnicity” and that, in turn, was shaped mainly by complexion, hair, and other physical features, and to a lesser but not insignificant degree, religion, cuisine, and other cultural traits. I was getting my identity ducks in a row.

Some of these people tended to be friendly, some scary. Some of them were “safe” and others not (including those that seemed more likely to beat me up or mug me to take my stuff). And some of these different kinds of people seemed to be smarter than others.

When I was growing up, being “smart” was one of those things that was on the table as a matter of discussion and observation. My parents were smart, as were my siblings and I. My mother had a high school degree and my father had a B.A. and some, but not much, graduate work (but he would later teach graduate classes). Among my siblings, we were eventually to hold numerous B.A.s, M.A.s and Ph.D.s. Only a few dads in the neighborhood had jobs you needed to be smart (according to cultural custom) to do, and my father was one of them. All of the moms seemed smart–it was just a question of how much smarter each mom seemed to be than each dad, with variance among the dads being the key determining factor. For my family, they were pretty equal, for the Zs down the street, Mrs. Z was clearly at least double-smart over Mr. Z. For the Across The Street Ks, it was hard to tell…Mr. K was one of the dads with a smart job, but both of them were constantly distracted with their many kids and with making ends meet. Everybody in the neighborhood was distracted with making ends meet.

There were many indicators that my siblings and I were smart. We were the go-to kids for others of our age who needed something figured out or some kind of information. We were always getting recognition in school. None of us knew what a B or a C was. I might have seemed smarter than all my siblings because I was the first kid in my family to be taken out of regular school and put in “smart kid” school. But I’m not. We’re all smart in different ways, except my sister Bunny, who is clearly smarter than all of us. (My sister Elizabeth hated when I would say that.) Anyway, smartness or lack thereof was part of the trope of the neighborhood (along with the other dimensions I mentioned above and will discuss below), especially for preteen kids. Mostly, though, it was an issue that annoyed others in the neighborhood. Like these conversations with my friend Joey, recorded here exactly as they happened (there are some things one does not forget):

Joey: “Hey, Greg. You’re a regular Walking Encyclopedia!”

Greg: “Thanks, Joey. I like to learn lots of stuff.”

Joey: “Mugrphhhmmmft.”

(Mugrphhhmmmft is the sound Joey’s fist makes giving Greg a bloody nose.)

…or this:

Joey: “Hey, Greg. What do you think that is up there?” (Pointing to the moon.)

Greg: “That’s the moon, Joey.”

Joey: “It can’t be the moon because it’s not night time. I know something you don’t know!”

Greg: “It’s the moon, Joey. You can also see it during the day.”

Joey: “My brother says it’s the other side of the Earth. You can only see the moon at night. You’re so stupid. You’re a stupid face!”

Greg: “I don’t know, Joey. Yeah, I guess if your bro…”

Joey: “Mugrphhhmmmft.”

…or this:

Joey: “Hey, Greg. You go to AP school. You must be really smart.”

Greg: “Well, not really. You could go there too, you know. I mean, yeah, it’s for smart kids, and you should go there too because you’re…”

Joey: “Mugrphhhmmmft.”

And so on. I couldn’t win with Joey.

Joey was my “friend,” but he was also the guy who gave me the most bloody lips and bloody noses. I now realize that it may have been an abusive relationship. Alas, there was no concept of such things back then. And the reason I mention Joey is because he was pretty typical of a lot of kids I knew.

Joey had a lot of friends who were like him, who looked like him and acted like him, and and it was kind of obvious that he and his friends formed a kind of racial group with similar characteristics, some physical and some behavioral. I could not possibly help but notice this because these kids–the ones like Joey–were the ones who were most likely to stop me on the street, threaten me or simply attack me, and take my spare change. I formed thoughts along these lines back then, and I look back at it and realize that these were racist thoughts. But to me, as a kid, they were about real differences. They became part of my way of defending and protecting myself. I saw kids that look like Joey, and I crossed the street. Later on in my life, I had to train myself to not do that and to avoid those thoughts.

The group Joey was a member of had a lot of families with only one parent (the mom) and a lot of kids. They all seemed to go to the same church, the kids were all pretty tough, and with only one exception, every time I got mugged or my bike got taken from me it was one of those Joey-kids that did it.

The adults also had traits that allowed them to be divided into different groups. The dads that had “smart jobs” mostly fell into one category, and those families, including the kids, were nicer, the kids would not beat me up and the families were always polite and thoughtful, and so on.

I also met a few of the people my father worked with and this, I’m now very ashamed to admit, contributed to me forming opinions of people in a categorical, and I now realize, racist, sense. As I mentioned, my father and I would have breakfast downtown at the DeWitt Clinton. There were a number of people we met up with most mornings there, and I particularly remember this one guy we would run into a lot, a kind of a “street character” that people called “the mayor” (I guess that was funny) who was in the same “racial” group as Joey (“you can only see the moon at night”) and this individual stood out as, to be honest, not all too smart, and maybe a little violent. He conformed to my expectations.

The place my dad worked had a board of directors, so even though my dad was the director, he answered to the board. We would run into them at the DeWitt Clinton and other places. They seemed not only smart but also were always well dressed, were leaders and powerful individuals, and so on. The board of directors was one style person, one skin color, one way of acting, in total contrast to the “race” that included “the mayor” and “Joey.” We would also run into dad’s main assistant, Brenda, who was in the same “race” as the board of directors, and she was really smart and could easily run the place on her own and was widely respected.

So the contrast between the Joeys and the Brendas was pretty strong. The Joeys were not too smart. They were poor. The families lacked dads. The kids and many of the adults were trouble, prone to violence, always stared at you hard. Their houses were rundown and their lawns covered with junk. The Brendas were well-dressed had more money, were smarter, nicer, better-educated, lived in nicer houses, and had nice yards. I remember as a kid thinking that the Joeys were dangerous and mean, and the Brendas were warm and welcoming. It may have helped that Brenda herself was rather hot, as I recall. And most of my dad’s bosses were of the Brenda group (race, ethnicity, whatever).

And yes, I admit it, I had race-based thoughts. I had a tendency to see someone and look at certain traits…the color of their skin and shape of their hair mainly…and assume certain things, to make certain judgments. As an adult I know that these judgments are both ethically and morally questionable and scientifically indefensible. But for me, back then, they were the reality that I lived in.

One of the strangest things about all of this was this: I could see that the Brendas were in so many ways “better” than the Joeys, but my father, my mother, my siblings, me…we were all Joeys. I was a member of the inferior race.

You see, I was an Irish kid. I lived in an “all white” neighborhood, but all of my neighbors but one (Billy R.) were either Irish or some form of Mediterranean or Eastern European, mainly Polish or Italian. The swarthy Polish and Italian people had stable families (mom and dad at home), the kids were generally well behaved, and it was among these folks that I saw fathers with professions and mothers who were housewives, often with a part time job. Among the pasty-white and freckled, red- and blond-haired Irish I saw, almost without exception, kids who were mean and not very smart, and families like Joey’s and the Ds around the block, where the kids were running especially wild and there was no father in the household. I think Joey’s mom got welfare.

“The mayor” at the DeWitt Clinton was also Irish, and his silly behavior, his forgetfulness, almost clown like demeanor was in stark contrast to the demure, professional behavior of my father’s bosses–the board of directors–80% of whom were African-American. Brenda was also African-American.

Then we moved to a new neighborhood. And everything changed.


We were unusual, my family. Looking back at it, I now realize that this may have been why Joey was always beating me up. I was being “uppity.” When my father started to earn more money with his smart-person job, we moved to a nice house in a nicer, newer neighborhood and suddenly were surrounded by people different from us…by a “race” who typically had better than average jobs, had more money, were known to be smarter, than my kind. Suddenly I was going to a school with a lot more of this new kind of kid than I ever imagined existed. Eventually, as a matter of fact, I even married one of these folk (for a while). So just as my old neighborhood was structured in such a way that I came to accept races and ethnicities as real, meaningful entities, my new neighborhood taught me more of the same.

I later experienced additional transformations that refined my growing race-based thinking. At some point I started working in a very active ghetto, doing archaeology. Here, I found out that most African Americans were actually not well-dressed and seemingly well-off (or at least middle class) but were actually living in really crappy housing. The people I worked with were afraid of the African Americans, and they did steal some of my stuff. I remember feeling more comfortable on days that I worked with my friend Fred, who was an African American, because he knew everybody and was relatively famous, being the brother of an NFL pro. I found out, around the age of 13 from direct experience working every day in the ‘hood, that there was a strong correlation between poverty and skin color in my hometown, and that the Joeys were actually somewhat better off than the African Americans living on Arbor Hill or in the South End.

Another transformation had to do with school. I started out at an all-white, all-Catholic school. Then they took me out of that school and put me in a smart-kid school. There, I met my first African American fellow students and my first non-Catholic fellow students. In fact, there were exactly two of us Irish Catholics in this class, and everyone else was either a non-Catholic Christian or a Jew, and among the non-Catholic Christians were African Americans.

If I drew conclusions at that time, or experienced a refinement of my race-based thinking, I would have to say that black people filled the range from most functional, smartest, most powerful, and most respectable in behavior to least in all these same areas, with whites distributed along the in-between areas, with Jews at the higher end and Irish Catholics at the lowest end.

The move my family made reinforced this transformation. We moved from an all-white but also all-Christian neighborhood to another all-white but mainly Jewish neighborhood. This reinforced the idea of Jewish superiority, because my neighbors were pretty well off, some spoke wisely in exotic foreign accents, many were university professors, and when I went to a new school at about the same time, it was another smart-kid school with piles of Jews and a handful of black students.

Indeed, my first real conversations with a peer about race and biology were at this new school, with my friend Miles. He was very smart and he was Jewish. He used to tell me that Jews would always be smarter than Catholics. Here’s why. Catholics scour the community to find the smartest men to be their leaders and make them the priests. The priests are then not allowed to reproduce. At the same time, Jews scour the community to find the smartest men to be their leaders and make them the rabbis. Not only can the rabbis reproduce, but they are virtually bred…everyone in the community supplies them with resources to maximize their reproductive output.

According to Miles, since this had been going on for 5,000 years for the Jews and 2,000 years for the Catholics, the difference should be immense.

You know what, though? This conversation happened in eight grade, and I promise you that there was never a moment when either Miles or I believed it. We found it hysterically funny. There was never a moment when even one neuron in our brains considered this comparison to be valid. We knew intuitively that it was wrong because by that time we both had a pretty good understanding of the bankruptcy of theories about racial superiority or inferiority.

No, we did not learn this from our parents…our parents had no idea. Our parents had typical white, middle class, 1970s racist ideas, though my father not so much. (Well, I can’t speak for Miles’ mother. I don’t recall her ever uttering a racist word, but we did not have a lot of conversations.) We were not really learning this from school either. We were just two smart guys who had seen enough of the world at an early age (though with different experiences from each other) that conflicted with what society was trying to make us believe to rebel against being assimilated into the Racist Thinking Borg. It probably helped that we happened to be living in a society…in a particular city, at a particular time…that had been undergoing social and structural transformation.

I’m lucky to have had this model rather than the usual race-based model in which whites are superior in every way and blacks are inferior in every way (music, rhythm, sports, excepted), which is the model that most whites and probably many blacks grow up with. I also had the opportunity to see with my own eyes the direct correlation between circumstances and these other traits, as well as to see some pretty overt and nasty racist acts that made me realize the severity of racism as a social modality. I saw and heard things that made me cringe when I was little, and I remember that cringing…even at a very young age the racist model was there for me to absorb, but my actual experiences were telling me that it did not fit.

When I was a kid, we played war. Since we were in denial of our involvement at that time in Viet Nam, and Korea was the “forgotten war,” the war we modeled in our play was World War II. This is the reason for the importance of each dad’s involvement in The Big One. Our status as kids was usually determined in part by this fact.

My dad was in the war. He was in London and he was bombed, and he received a medal from the King of England as well as from the US Army, and it was actually possible for me to sneak kids into the house and show them the medals, which my father kept hidden away in his desk. My status could only have been improved had my father been wounded. Oh, well.

The good guys in the war were the Americans, and the bad guys were the Germans and the Japanese. But then one day I found out that I was half German. Holy crap, that made me half bad guy. This is probably why I had more than a little empathy for Billy R.

Billy R. was the one kid who had no dad but who was not Irish, or at least, as far as I know he was not Irish. His mother was Japanese and his father a Caucasian American who was in the occupation forces after World World II in Japan. Billy’s dad died right around the time he was born, so he never knew him.

Billy’s mom was different because she was Japanese and because she was a single mom. She worked, naturally, as a server and matron in a Chinese restaurant. When the first Japanese restaurant in town opened up, naturally, Billy’s mom worked there. Also, Billy’s mom maintained a garden in her back yard that was the envy of all of the moms. Especially my mom, because Billy’s back yard was over the fence from ours…we were over-the-fence neighbors with the R’s, which made for a special relationship.

Billy was my friend, and whenever any of the kids insisted that Billy be the bad guy in the P.O.W. camp because he was Japanese, I would stick up for him right up until the moment that Joey and his friends would beat both of us up. In truth, Billy mostly avoided playing with the other kids, but he and I would play together in my yard now and then (we could not play in his yard for fear of messing up the nice garden, but in my yard we had some good options).

One day, years later, when I was attending the aforementioned smart-kid school with many Jewish students, I saw Billy again. He had grown huge. He was at my school to play in a wrestling match. He had become the top high school wrestler citywide (and beyond, if memory serves). I wonder if there was a point in time where Joey started to cross the street when he saw Billy R., rather than the other way around?

There was a candy when I was a kid called N-word Babies, and a kind of nut called N-word toes. I remember the day I realized what that word meant. I had been using the word but not knowing what it meant. I found out what it meant while I was standing on the steps leading up to the front porch of my house. I remember sort of holding on to the black metal railing and moving it back and forth a little because it was getting loose (from me sliding down it and swinging from below it, most likely). I can viscerally feel these things right now as I remember this conversation. One of my sisters was there, my mother was there, and the neighbor from next door was there. We were eating N-word Babies. I asked what the word mean, found out, then I asked, wasn’t that a bad thing to say, and I was somewhat sheepishly told yes, it was. It was kind of embarrassing. My memory of this is that we didn’t get N-word Babies any more as a snack and we started calling n-word toes by their other name: Brazil nuts. We also stopped catching n-words by the toe and started catching tigers by the toe instead (while eeny-meeny-minie-moe-ing). (The strange thing was, these candies were not labeled with the n-word, that is just the term people used. I’m not sure if they ever were. But a quick and disturbing search of the Internet will reveal plenty of commercially produced products using that racist term.)

The Jewish shopkeepers on Central Avenue kept vicious dogs behind the counters for protection. If black kids walked into the store, the swinging door allowing access through the counter was unlatched and the dog would chase the kids out. Usually the shopkeeper only needed to threaten the kids and they would leave.

We would always assemble at car accidents to watch the blood and gore. (I lived near a couple of pretty bad corners, and this was the days before seat belts and other safety features). One day there was a bad accident in which a black man was ejected from his car and splattered on the pavement, blood spewing everywhere. There was no ambulance called for him. Instead, the police took him away in a “Paddy Wagon.” I later learned that it was called a “Paddy Wagon” because it is the vehicle used to take drunk Irishmen off to jail on Saturday Nights. So don’t call them that.

Anyway, while they were taking this African American man who had not done anything wrong away in the racistly named vehicle, the conversation included things like the color of his blood (shockingly, it was the same as found in white people similarly spattered on the same pavement in earlier accidents) and his facial features (“his lips are so big…”). These were the conversations among the adults. My memory is that the kids were awestruck by the blood and guts and were mostly standing there quietly, ashen, horrified. I asked an adult…I think it was the guy who ran the dry cleaners in front of which this accident happened…why they were taking him away in a Paddy Wagon. “I don’t know. I guess because he’s a N-word,” was the answer.

My personal experiences and what society was constantly trying to teach me were almost always at odds. I was lucky to have had these contradictory experiences as a kid. This helped prepare me for what I was to encounter years later when I went to Africa for the first time. During the mid-1980s, there were several years where I spent more time each year in Africa than I did in the US. It was almost like I was living there and visiting Cambridge once a year for a truncated semester of coursework. Then, over the next several years, I spent varying amounts of time each year, most years, in Africa. Overall, I’ve spent several person-years living there, in a number of different settings.

If there was a race-based model of intelligence (and there is not), it would have to be somewhat like the model I saw developing with Irish, Black and Jewish people when I was a kid. Pygmies, for instance, not only have very large brains relative to body size, but they are also all very smart. I could argue this on the basis of four years of research with Pygmies. In contrast, the best evidence suggests that the white folks that I have lived among in various US neighborhoods and the white folks I grew up with are of below-average intelligence. Among the African villages, the farmers, there would seem to be a full range of people who really don’t seem to be very sharp at all to people who are veritable geniuses. Among the blacks I knew as I grew up, and among whom I’ve lived since moving out of my hometown and living mainly in “diverse” neighborhoods, I see a similar range of variation. My own experience supports the idea that almost all Jews are smart, just like almost all Pygmies are smart. Maybe the Jews and the Pygmies are closely related.

So there is a full range of black people and a full range of white people, and both groups have their own little special elite groups here and there. This would be the model that my experience suggests, if you absolutely must insist on a race-based model of intelligence.

This is, of course, not what I believe to be true. It is just what I would have to believe were I to force my observations into traditional race-based biological thinking. The details as to why the traditional race-based biological thinking is wrong is a subject to cover at another time.

I will end with one simple observation. There are a lot of people having a conversation about whether or not the color of one’s skin can tell you that a person is likely to be smart or not…or more precisely, if we took 20 black-skinned people and put them in a room with 20 white-skinned people, the whites would on average be smarter than the blacks right there, in that room. If we went into that room and asked for everyone’s opinion on something, we might want to give the blacks’ opinion some consideration because everyone is entitled to their opinion, but we could also know that if this opinion was about anything complex or difficult to understand, and if there was a difference of opinion between the blacks and whites, the whites’ opinion would be more likely correct.

That is what this conversation is about, right?

What strikes me is this: I don’t see any black people signing on, reading through this conversation, and going, “Hey, WTF?” Perhaps this does not happen because this is a conversation among whites who pretty much have been having this conversation among whites their whole lives.

True humanity can only form on a foundation of real experience, and reality is diverse. I feel very badly for those who have not experienced that diversity.

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3 thoughts on “My Journey Through Race and Racism

  1. I am 72. I was raised in an upper middleclass family with a Hispanic last name. I was often asked “Oh but your family is from Spain, you are not Mexican, right?” I would joke that, yes, they were from Spain but had vacationed for a couple of centuries in Mexico and then a couple more in California. My parents were multicultural, white, north European and a little indigenous and one close family was African American. One of the sons was my age and he and I were like any two boys.
    When I was about 12 I was at his house when the county sheriff came to arrest him for involvement in a minor theft with some of his friends. No respect for his mother. Intimidating language and posturing. Pushing their way in without permission. Took him away without his mother
    I can contrast that with the county sheriffs who came standing hat in hand to ask my parents if, at their convenience, my parents would bring my brother down to the department to speak with an officer about his involvement with the near death of a boy who almost died due to alcohol my brother stole from our home.
    Also 4 years when later when a local police department shot and nearly killed him while he was running away from a stolen car. They said in their press release he had been cut on barbed wire. We kept his blood soaked clothes in our garage so the evidence of 12ga shot would not disappear. I spent a week planning to blow up the station, couldn’t get enough explosive. He was never charged.
    So, I’m not racist, right? In the last decade I have become more aware that when I hear or see an African American speaking or doing something, the volume of my attention goes down. It first became apparent when hearing black athletes speak about things. Many if not most have strong cultural accents, colloquial language usage. To be honest I have a similar response to Brooklyn, Bronx, New Jersey and multiple southern accents and speech patterns. The difference is how quickly I can refocus. I was not educated overtly to feel like this. But the culture we live in marinates in us many subconscious reactions and responses. If I don’t try to maintain awareness of them, they execute.
    Humans are by culture/ society “programmed” in their youth. I have found that the best, with no connection to intelligence, grow into aware of this.
    The 50’s were awful in context.
    If you get to the CA by area I would like to have a beer or glass of wine with you, or if I get to where you are.

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