The first time I was made emphatically aware of that fact was at six years old. I was playing with two kids that I’d gotten to know. We were running around a schoolground next to the baseball field where my brother played games in downtown Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Every week I’d meet up with two kids, a pair of twins actually, that were a bit younger than me. They loved to play tag and wrestle around.
But one day I was chasing one of them and he came to a sudden stop. I was a bony, skinny kid who was all elbows and knees and one of those struck him right in the eye. He went down crying. I helped him up, then his brother came over, grabbed him by the arm and pulled him across the field toward the wall of houses south of the field.
The next week I showed up to play and the twins were nowhere to be found. Nor the week after. Finally I saw them at the playground the third week and ran across the grass to greet them. I loved those two kids. They were bright and funny and loved to laugh. But when I approached their faces fell.
“We can’t play with you,” one of them told me. “Our momma said so.”
“Why not? I’m sorry if you got hurt,” I pleaded.
“She said we can’t play with white boys,” the one with the black eye told me.
“Was it because I bumped into you? Was that it?” I wanted to know.
Of course it was more than that. Their mother feared their children were being roughed up for no other reason than they were brown-skinned.
It broke my heart in the moment to realize that a rough mistake on my part had led to a broken friendship. But at six years old I told the two boys, “It’s okay. I understand.”
That was that. I realized for the first time that the color of my skin could be a threat to other people. That made a big impression on me. I’m not saying it cured or prevented me from racist reactions that I might have learned along the way. But because the race you inhabit is something you inherit, and it can’t changed, there are racist thoughts one learns along the way. That makes it impossible to know exactly what it’s like to be in the other person’s shoes. The people that are targets for those racist thoughts, actions and reactions never escape them.
The benefit of not having to live with racial stigmas has been accurately branded ‘white privilege.’ Some white people love to deny that it exists. But much of what has happened in the 200-plus years of American history, and that continues to this day, proves that white privilege not only exists, but is getting worse in this moment when selfish white Americans are claiming persecution for themselves. And we all know who’s leading the charge.
Race of a lifetime
I doubt those children with whom I played in the 1960s recall the incident when I bumped into one of the twins while playing together. It is far more likely they either symbolically or literally experienced events in life that really were racist in origin. So the divide is apparent: I got to go on with the race of my lifetime, being white, and they got to deal with what it meant to be brown-skinned or “black” in America.
That has everything to do with the unrest we’re seeing in this country today. The allegory of my accidentally knocking into that child and giving him a black eye holds true in many ways. Black people are constantly getting knocked upside the head and even killed simply because their skin color differs from the majority white population.
Which is why the instincts and reaction of that mother trying to protect her children from harm during their innocence was a lesson in their race of a lifetime.
That mother showed the right kind of pride. Whatever her prior experience with racism––and it was likely rife in the early 1960s when these events occurred––she knew that two four-year-old boys were hardly ready to deal with it. She likely wanted to give them the tools to avoid trouble when they could, even if they weren’t trying to cause it.
I still remember the beautiful smiles and sparkling eyes of those twins. And their creative nature during play was a joy. They made a big impression on me before I accidentally caused the end of our relationship with an elbow.
It’s hard to get back to that place after something bad has happened. If it keeps happening over and over, it’s really hard for people to be perpetually forgiving of the insults, the slights, the blocked opportunities, the economic and social prejudice, and the violence.
The closing lyrics of the Stevie Wonder song Living in the City seem to ring true now more than ever:
I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel, no where could be much colder
If we don’t change the world will soon be over
Living just enough, stop giving just enough for the city