Saturday, May 24, 2014

Me and Race Relations

(1) I was born in North Texas in 1965. As a kid around age 5, I'd often hear my father (born in 1940 in East Texas) "playfully" recite the rhyme, "Eenie-meenie, minie-mo, catch a nigger by his toe..." My German-born mother amended this to "catch a TIGER by his toe," which is how I continued to recite the ditty whenever I had to do some picking.

(2) My father was in the Air Force and we travelled a lot. I lived in small (under-5000-people) towns primarily in Texas until I graduated from high school in 1983. From kindergarten through my senior year of high school, I had almost no black classmates. In 2nd grade in College Station, Texas (college town for Texas A&M), there were a couple of black kids -- one, Alvin, handed me a folded-up love note one time and almost ran me over with his bike another time. In 3rd grade, my family moved to an Air Force Base near Warner Robbins, Georgia, where I attended school for only a year. There, I had my very first (and only) male AND black teacher, Mr. Hand. I was kind of scared of him because he was an older, 50-something male (previously all of my teachers had been younger white women) and had a constantly very-stern expression on his face. At this Georgia AFB, maybe 1/3 of the kids in class were black. I was friends with a black girl named "Pam," who was very smart and also very athletically competitive with another black girl whose name I can't remember now. The two argued constantly about who was the fastest. One day, they had an unofficial race out on the playground and Pam came in second. Also re Pam: I remember once sanctimoniously telling my mother -- I was 8 years old, mind you: "I think one day Pam will do great things for her people." (How completely ODD! In 1973, "race relations" and "black power" certainly weren't a topic of conversation around my house. Where in the world did I get "great things for her people" from?!)

(3) The next time I thought about "black people" as a subject was when I was in 6th grade (1976) and Alex Haley's "Roots" had just been published. My parents were not getting along, and in the months prior to their divorce, my mom took me and my brother to her home country of Germany for an extended stay. Everybody in the US was talking about "Roots." And of course my East Texas father specifically FORBADE me and my mother from reading it... Guess what she and I shared a copy of on the plane...

(4) I didn't think about race relations again until I entered college at the University of Texas in '83, when I was 18. My roommate for one semester was black. There was an awkward moment when she came in the room one time after I had borrowed her "Black Boy" book by Richard Wright. I guiltily asked if she minded: "Why would I mind if you read that?" "Well, it's YOUR book!" That same semester, I was walking into my dorm, and a black couple were right ahead of me, the guy holding the door open for the girl, but me also passing through behind her. When I said "thank you" to him as a courtesy, he responded, "I was opening the door for HER, not YOU." (That made me feel horrible; what unnecessary unkindness.)

(5) For 3 years in the early '90s, I had a black woman boss at the library where I worked who was completely a great boss.

(6) When I moved to San Francisco in 1994 for grad school, I got another awakening. In a record store, there was a stand-up cut-out of country artist George Strait that someone had scribbled "FUCK U CRACKER" across the face of in black magic marker. (I didn't even know that "cracker" was still used as a term any more.) In all my years in Texas and in Austin, in all my years of going into record stores, I'd never once seen "NIGGER" written across any face. That I'd entered an Alternate Universe was made even clearer to me later in SF while I was working at a movie theater a few blocks from my apartment: Four black girls tried to sneak into a show without paying; when I stopped them, the immediate response was, "Fuck you, you frizzy-haired white bitch!" When, on another day, I stopped a group of Vietnamese teens from trying to sneak in, I got: "You're racist! You just don't want Asians here! This place hates Asians!" (Really, I just wanted them all to pay their admission. Plus the theater manager was Asian.)

SF proved constantly crazy: On the city bus one time, a young black guy got on and didn't feel like paying his dollar fare. We passengers all sat there for 10 minutes while the guy went on and on and on with the driver. A kindly fellow-passenger even went up and handed the guy a dollar, but he wouldn't take it. He just DIDN'T FEEL LIKE PAYING HIS FARE. And so we sat there. And finally the driver gave up and let the guy on.

It was a fucking bullshit-fest. This was the first time that I actually remember having a Racist Thought: "If I were back in Texas, there'd be some tough white guy on the bus who wouldn't put up with this shit and who would put this guy in his place." I consciously MISSED that "white guy" who would "set things straight." Not necessarily "white against black" but "somebody against bullshit."

(7) Another San Francisco thing, when I worked at the movie theater: During a movie break, a 30-something woman came out for popcorn and noticed that I had an accent. When she asked and I told her that I was from Texas, she "stage-whispered": "Texas is great, but there are too many MEXICANS!" What the fuck? Before coming to SF in '94, I'd lived in Austin for 10 years and in Texas as a whole all the years before, and I'd never ONCE heard anyone, ANYONE, say "There are too many Mexicans." NEVER had I heard this in any place in Texas. I only heard it once I came to San Francisco.

(8) Post-1994, things had been trolling along diffidently... Until a year or so ago (2012) in Austin, when I got on a bus heading downtown. A couple of young black guys were at the back of the bus. And they were going on and on for miles, LOUDLY, about the girl they'd fucked the night before. I finally turned around and screamed at them to SHUT UP: "No one wants to hear it!"  I then got verbal abuse, the bus-driver got verbal abuse, the guys paced up and down the aisles of the bus shouting until their stop. It was scary. (The one funny thing that the guys said to me was, "You shouldn't even be on this bus! Where's your car?")

Oh yeah -- I forgot about the two black drug dealers (Marty and Philemon) that I hung out with in Austin clubs, and sometimes spent nights with, circa '95-'96... I was completely unhappy with my life at the time, but they were both gentlemen, both very patient with and kind about my unhappiness...

No comments: