Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, very near Idaho, we heard white supremacists and satanic worshippers were living no more than 20 miles from where we were. To my high school friends and I, it felt like an urban legend. Of course, it would have been a rural legend because, if they were actually there, they were living in a lightly populated area with lots of forested land.
In the 1980’s, the whole country learned at least part of it wasn’t a myth when people from the aryan nation and the order (not capitalized intentionally) assassinated a Jewish radio host, bombed a synagogue, robbed banks, and stole millions from armored vehicles. The aryan nations were recruiting heavily from prisons. They had parades through a nearby town.
It was in this climate that I firmly took my stand that I was in no way racist. I might add that, where I grew up, there were hardly any black or brown people. In my high school of 1200 students, there was one biracial guy who grew up in the area. I thought he was treated the same as everyone else, but how would I know? He probably did have to deal with name-calling or worse. There was a brother and sister who arrived mid year with beautiful, dark skin, but they only lasted a week. One day, I wore a sleeveless top that dipped really low in back. As I was walking down the hall, I felt someone touch me, one finger drawing a line down my back. I turned. It was the new guy. He smiled and said, “I just had to feel that.” We both laughed. There were a couple schools in the county with more diverse student bodies. I would’ve transferred to one of those if I was a black girl landing at my high school with no other black girls. Anyway, I guessed that’s what happened.
The university I attended was certainly more diverse than my high school, but then that’s not saying anything. When far-right wingnuts stood on campus spewing their nonsense, I was one of the students who would gather around and argue. It was the mid 80’s and we were required to take a class from the list of multicultural offerings. I took an intro class in the Africana Studies program, part of the Department of Race and Culture Studies.
Following college graduation, I began my career as a teacher in Southern California. Obviously, I encountered a rich tapestry of colors and cultures as I explored south to San Diego and Tijuana, west to Santa Barbara, and east to Las Vegas. Being introduced to authentic Mexican and Asian cuisine was an eye opener!
So, imagine my surprise and shame when my implicit bias showed itself. One Saturday evening a few months after I moved to So Cal, a couple of friends and I went to Westwood. Adjacent to the UCLA campus, there are lots of young people barhopping and checking out the wide variety of shops selling fun, odd, and risque wares. We were standing near a gyros stand, looking at the pictures and trying to decide if we should go for it. None of us had heard of gyros, let alone falafel!
There were lots of young, good-looking people driving very nice cars slowly around, cruising. I saw a beautiful, silver, convertible Porsche Carrera with two blacks guy in it. I thought, “Wonder who they stole that from?” My jaw dropped and I felt sick – at myself! My next thought was, “I am racist and I didn’t even know it!” They were probably students at UCLA, one of whom had a really, really nice car, not unlike many other young people enrolled there.
The realization came that I had lived most of my life in completely or predominantly white areas and I had accepted stereotypes of others, and it would require self-awareness and a desire to learn about the experiences of others to expose the implicit biases I harbored and dismiss them, replaced with understanding and curiosity.
I consider myself lucky to have lived a portion of my life in a very diverse county. Life was diverse – my students, coworkers, friends, neighbors. I formed close enough friendships with some people that I felt comfortable asking hard questions about how life looked for them and how they felt the effects of racism, both overt and systemic. One teacher friend talked about how she and her husband, both black, definitely had to jump through more hoops than others to secure a mortgage, having to pay more down, and the whole process taking forever. Another friend of mine lost her son who had been invited to come by a party, only to find he was the only black kid there. Some ignorant racists, probably Palmdale Peckerwoods, told him he didn’t belong. He tried to explain it was his friend’s house and he’d been invited, but they kicked him out and stabbed him. He died a block away, trying to leave. He bled out. He had just completed his first year of college and had come home one week earlier for summer break. I was in L.A. County when the cops who kicked the shit out of Rodney King were acquitted and riots broke out. Lots of people talked about race then.
My point is, we have all grown up with ideas or ways of doing things that are ingrained. Some of these things are no big deal, like when you’re a kid and you’re amazed that other families do things differently than yours. You had just assumed that everyone sat around the table for meals or you thought everybody eats on t.v. trays in front of the television.
If we want to embrace this time, when millions around the world are crying out for racial equality and racial justice, we must each start by examining and owning our own implicit biases with an open mind and curiosity to learn what life is like for people of different colors and cultures than our own.
After seven years in Southern California, my husband and I moved back to my hometown. The lack of diversity was glaring, coming from one of the country’s major metropolitan centers. Over the years, the community has definitely become more diverse, but it might not feel that way to all of our neighbors.