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It Never Even Occurred to Me…

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As I watched the video of the poor man lying there being flattened into the ground with a knee in his throat, pleading for air & his mother, it shocked & disturbed me.  Then, when I saw the stream of, what appeared to be urine, flowing from under the cruiser & his body limp as an old rag doll being lifted onto the ambulance stretcher…I instinctively took in a deep breathe in, said, “Oh my God” & I cried.  I couldn’t help but, think, “What in the hell was that?  Did I just watch a man die on video?”  We all, of course, know the answer.   

As an apparent member of what is now deemed “white privilege society” … a new term on the ever popular social media, I have had to really stop and ask myself the question, “Am I a racist?” and if I am, well, why? 

As I sat alone in the dark in my car flipping through Facebook last night, after I couldn’t take all of the he, she, black, white, could, should…I turned off my phone and just sat there.  There were no cars in the street, no sound.  I forced myself to dig deep into my memory banks to review and question my actions over the years.  The thoughts that came to the forefront were interesting to me. 

As a kid, I grew up in a very blue collar town named Lynn, MA.  Generations of my family lived & worked there – my Grandparents, my parents, my friend’s parents, aunts, uncles, all of them. Lynn was a popular, old shoe factory town and after the shoe industry died, the General Electric (GE) turbine engine factory was there.  The city provided thousands of opportunities as an industrial city and it was by the ocean so, people came from all over the country and world to work there and lived in Lynn.  It was huge, busy and filled with ALL types of people. I remember being a kid and hearing “That’s a Greek neighborhood” or “Stay away from the projects”.  Hmmmm, ok, whatever.  We still went all over Lynn to visit friends. 

Our city was like one big melting pot of nationalities & life wasn’t the easiest for many in my hometown.   Even as a kid, I can remember it being a tough city with streets that you didn’t go down unless you were there to “get into trouble” and we had our own Hell’s Angels chapter.  It had a reputation, “Lynn, Lynn City of Sin.  You never come out the way you go in” was the tag line. 

From what I can remember, many of us kids were all kind of scrappy and fending for ourselves to find our own identities.  We were scratching and clawing not to get lost in the shuffle.  I don’t think that I ever really noticed if a black kid or a white kid was really that different from the other.  Sure, it was obvious that our skin color was different but, I don’t know, when you’re just trying to figure out who you are as a person and simply just get by in life, what is the difference, really? 

I can remember being in 3rd or 4th-ish grade with us kids all always asking each other,”What nationality are you?” I was German & English.  My friend Tara was Polish & French. A few of them were Puerto Rican.  Everyone always asked, “What are you?”.   It was kind of a thing to know what other people’s nationalities were & if you weren’t the “popular” nationality of, say, Irish…you got bullied or picked on or got chosen last for kickball.  I wonder where kids would have learned to ask such questions and why would the answer matter?  It never even occurred to me … that I was supposed to care what race or nationality others were.

When I was maybe 8 or 9, I went to Summer Camp.  My parents had gotten divorced, my father was basically nowhere, my Mom had to work.  I was lonely and awkward, I struggled emotionally and it was hard for me to make friends.  That Summer, I had made a really great friend!  I wish now, at almost 50, I could remember her name but, I remember that we laughed all the time.  When Summer camp was over, we had made plans to have the occasional weekend sleep over.  When you make a new friend as a kid, a sleep over is a BIG deal.  I remember going to her place, a big tall apartment building, the first time I’d ever been to one…it had an elevator…how awesome!  Her Mom, who was also a Single Mom, made my friend & I dinner – some food that I hadn’t ever had before was on my plate. “What is this?” I asked.  “It’s Turnip” she said.  It was pretty good, I liked it (I even asked my mother to make it).  My friend and I played, we had fun, all was right with the world.  When my Mom discovered that my friend and her Mom were black and they lived in “The Towers” I don’t remember spending that much time there any more and sadly, I lost touch with my friend.  Maybe someone moved, I can’t quite remember but, it never even occurred to me…that their being black should be a topic of conversation. 

In my Freshman or Junior year of High School, I was still awkward & weird but, had met a cute boy who I liked and liked me back the next town over…his name was Jeff.  This was also a time when I was trying to get to know my Grandmother more as I was now an “adult” and not a little girl…you know…trying to be mature.  On a phone call with her one day, she asked me what the boy’s name was.  “Jeff Applestein” I excitedly told her!  “Applestein? Is he Jewish?”, she asked.  “Oh, um, I have no idea.  What do you mean? What is that?”, I responded.  It never even occurred to me…that the “what” Jeff was mattered over the “who” Jeff was. 

Although I understand that I may have potentially blurred the lines between racism & prejudice in these stories, I feel that what is most important is assessing the truth about how we process WHO people are and WHY.

As infants, children and young people, we only see other humans as beings and don’t know or care about the race or the nationality because in the end…it doesn’t matter.  We do, however, in the beginning, see who we are taught or lead or told to see.

For me, these people who I liked & who helped to shape me as a person, and I them, were simply other human beings who exchanged joy, laughter, good food and love with each other. Despite their race or nationality.        

It never even occurred to me …that any of the people in my stories were anything other than just that…people.  Despite our color or nationality. Understand that we are all scratching and clawing to get by in life.  Life is hard so give each other a hand to RISE, start helping and stop hurting.  Decide to choose your words wisely, use your voice to speak up and treat everyone as your equal.  

May it never even occur to you…to believe, behave or to be, otherwise.    

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