Maybe it’s because there wasn’t a lot of hugging in my childhood home, but I never liked too much space. I always craved the power of touch. A deep hug from a friend. Clasping of hands in a “you’re my brother” sort of way. Holding hands with a romantic partner. A massage after a hard workout. You name the touch, and I was in favor.
You can imagine, then, by month two of our Covid-induced social distancing and quarantine rules, I was feeling a bit out of sorts with all the space thrown at me. I could handle the mask wearing, working from home, and canceling a few concerts. It didn’t bother me that people were asked to wash their hands more.
But the kind of touch I’m not okay with is the kind applied to George Floyd’s neck.
The extra Covid space forced us to see first-hand the perils Black and Brown people face in America. Without our normal distractions of nights out, restaurants, basketball games and the like, we were left with nothing to do but sit and watch in real time the abuse our darker skinned neighbors experience.
But why in 2020 was this still happening?
Before the sixth grade, I only knew one Black kid. James. He was studious, smart, and other than the color of his skin, he was basically the same as the rest of our twenty-six white classmates. James spoke the same way we did. Lived in the same white neighborhood as most of our other classmates. He liked the same cartoon characters. He played on our little league baseball team — although he wasn’t very coordinated, so he mostly sat on the bench. None of us kids really thought much about his skin color. He was just James. Smart, straight-A student James. He later went on to become valedictorian at our high school.
It was 1980, and the big talk in the Columbus public school system was desegregation. I didn’t know what that meant at age eleven, but I overheard my parents discussing how someone named Judge Duncan ordered the schools to develop a program to integrate. They eventually called it bussing. Where Black and white kids would have to take school busses to different school districts away from their own neighborhoods. The goal was to make the schools a tossed salad of race. So when I showed up for the first day of sixth grade at Yorktown Middle School, I had new bussed-in classmates. Lots of them. James was no longer the only kid with darker skin. Half my class was, and they were nothing like James.
Some were smart. Some less so. Some spoke with a slang I had only heard the few times I watched the sitcom Sanford And Son. Many of the new dark-skinned boys were good at sports. They didn’t all like the same cartoons, though. Instead of going to arcades each weekend, they largely preferred the roller-skating rink. Every Friday night at United Skates of America. I had never even been roller-skating.
Most of the kids were from the inner-city neighborhood Olde Towne where my mom taught fifth grade. Boarded up homes. Occasional loud stereo systems blasting out of early-model, large American cars with broken mufflers. Oldsmobile Cutlass Supremes. Chevy Novas. Always a few people just walking around the streets smoking cigarettes. At least that’s what I saw the few times Mom took me to her school to help make her bulletin boards before the year began.
The not-so-funny thing is our pothole-infested street wasn’t much better. The four blocks of streets surrounding our house on Shenandoah Drive on the east side of town hadn’t been repaved in at least two decades. But our neighbors were all white. Lower-middle-class laborers. An occasional semi-truck Peterbilt cab parked four doors down from our 1,300-square-foot one-car garage house. Cars on blocks, with neighbors sometimes underneath them doing repairs that never seemed to get finished. We were shunned as the only family with a foreign-made vehicle, with our Caucasian-colored Japanese Datsun 210. Everyone else only bought American. Oh, and lots of American flags. Our Marine veteran neighbor Mr. Edwards actually had a twenty-five-foot flagpole in his front yard like the kind you see outside schools. We and one other family were also the only Jews on our street.
I wasn’t afraid of our new classmates, unlike many of the other white kids. But I was definitely curious. Who were these brown kids? They were different and I wanted to know why.
“Hey, I’m Jeff. What’s your name?” I asked the towering five-foot-nine sixth grader sitting next to me in homeroom the first day of school. Terrence’s skin was way darker than James’s. “Terrence, but my teammates call me Big T,” he responded with a wide smile. Over the next six months of homeroom, Big T and I talked about everything eleven-year-olds talked about. Television. Sports. Girls. Our families. Music. More girls. But I watched Superman and Wide World of Sports. He watched Fat Albert and The Harlem Globetrotters. I had listened to Barry Manilow and Neil Diamond on the eight-track cassette player in Mom’s car. He was listening to Michael Jackson and New Edition. I enjoyed Andy Griffith and Happy Days, while he was busy laughing hysterically at Good Times and The Jeffersons. I played baseball. He played basketball. He knew how to dance. I could barely do the bunny hop.
And on and on it went. I had no idea there was an alternate universe just a forced bus ride away. The other new kids I met, Leonard, Talia, Sharice, Theo, and Ben to name a few, pretty much liked the same things as Terrence. Sure, they all had their own unique flavors, but most of the Black kids lived in a world I was only now discovering.
It wasn’t just new music or different television shows, though. There was something about these kids that was fundamentally different. They had a deeper laugh. The way they hugged and greeted each other. How they smiled. The way they clasped hands in a you’re-really-my-brother kind of way. The more comfortable and relaxed way they spoke to each other. A camaraderie among them that I had never seen before. I knew they had something the rest of us didn’t, and I wanted in on the secret. I devoured every morsel of education from my new friends and remained in awe of their world.
Fast forward nearly forty years, and that bussing experiment catapulted society into a more integrated workforce. Black and white laborers working side by side. In factories. On construction sites. In restaurants. Professionals, too. In law firms. Banks. Advertising agencies. Not that those places don’t have a way to go still, but integration in the workforce happened on some level. So, you’d think that once we got to know each other, we’d all just connect like I did with Terrence and others in middle school.
The problem, though, is we never integrated our after–5:00 p.m. space in this country. For the most part, Black folks return to their neighborhoods and homes. White folks return to theirs. Virtually nobody different spends time in each other’s homes or with their families.
Put another way, we never got to know each other in the most intimate parts of our lives. Black and white remained separate. We racially distanced ourselves in those critical spaces of our day.
And that’s precisely one of the big reasons why we are still dealing with and talking about these issues.
You can’t just tell your kids to not be racist and expect all to be ok. If you tell your kids to “be honest be honest be honest,” and then one day at AMC Theaters, right in front of your kids, you tell the teenager selling you tickets that your daughter is eleven so you can save an extra $1.50 on the movie when she’s really twelve, you just undid all those “be honests.” In fact, you taught your kid that you can lie even to save $1.50 on a Frozen 2 movie ticket. Damn I missed the movies during Covid.
It’s the same with race. You tell your kids don’t be racist. Don’t be racist. Don’t be racist. But then in your house, only white folks are ever at your dinner table. Only white folks spend time with you in your after–5:00 space. You’ve essentially taught your kids that it’s okay to keep Black folks separate. At a distance. To treat them as less. Not welcome in your home. Not part of regular society.
All that “don’t be racist” verbiage was just undone by your all-white household space. That’s precisely where unconscious bias really sets into our impressionable minds.
That unconscious bias, positive and negative, affects our daily reactions and decisions far more than our intentional desires. Most of us don’t consciously feel racist toward others; most of us want to view people in a positive light. To make sure everyone has the same fair shake in society. But research shows that even while we consciously feel this way, our behavior is more often guided by the unconscious, developed over many decades beginning as a child. The people with this unconscious bias and anxiety are just like you and me. They are teachers, judges, police officers, bosses, bank loan officers, landlords, emergency room doctors, job interviewers. Those in positions of influence and power.
Social distancing wreaked havoc on a lot of us for the better part of the last year plus, but racial distancing has done far worse to Black and Brown people.
As we struggle to create our new normal, maybe we could integrate our personal spaces with more colors and stop the cycle of unconscious bias training of us and our kids. Maybe then we can put an end to racial distancing.
English writer Samuel Johnson once said that the only people he didn’t like were the people he hadn’t yet met. Let that sink in as we find a cure for the ongoing racism pandemic. You may actually like what you learn from our fellow dark-skinned humans. I do.
Previously Published on medium
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