SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2007 Personal Memory Ethnographies
Colorblindness at its WorstI am firm believer in that no matter what the situation when encountering another person the first things that will come to mind are differences between you and that person. These differences entertain whether or not the person is male or female, tall or short, or white or colored. A first grader will always first distinguish these differences, at least I did.
I grew up in Maryland in a town that was lower-middle to middle class in 1990-1991. The town was full of groups from different heritages and ethnicities. Being a little kid I never thought twice about it. I never really knew the difference or was aware that someone else’s color can be a big deal. The school that I went to in first grade had many familiar faces from my neighborhood. Many of the friends I knew were white but some were also black. We stuck with our own groups usually but did not know why we felt the need to cling to “our own”. I still tried though, to make friends with the black kids.
The school that I attended was in an old building built in the 1960s. It was sturdy and well kept but its ancientness gave an eerie feeling to the school. The smells of books, cafeteria food, and the old gym demonstrated the reality of school. It smelled of boredom and dullness. The only thing that made it interesting was the distant rooms that kept hidden the cafeteria, or the mysterious instruments our music teacher would magically turn out.
Deerfield Elementary is your typical small town school that wants to make a difference and teach its students that everyone is equal. They emphasize that there is no difference between a black, white, red, or yellow person. They strive to teach a colorblindness that defies everything identity stands for. Looking back I can see that this is where racism begins and why identity is so critical in our culture.
One day, we were sitting in a group around our teacher Mrs. Mary, who was one of the prettiest teachers in school. She was white with long natural blond hair. My friend Donald and I thought she was a doll made in heaven or something to that effect. Whenever she read stories she would enhance them to sound wonderful. Her emotion and attention to detail captured our imagination. One day she was reading a story while Donald and I decided to make jokes and laugh a little too loudly. We were a little disruptive. Mrs. Mary did not tolerate our immaturity so she ceased our amusement with a stern and aggressive tone. We both were feeling a sort of embarrassment. I felt a little embarrassed and did something that I did not realize may have been treasonous toward a friend. After Donald went to the restroom, and while he was gone, I moved myself away from him, literally. I did this not because my teacher asked me but because I felt it was his fault that we had gotten reprimanded. I saw it as a black kid got me in trouble. At the time I did not think of his color; however, when imagining how he must have felt, I cannot help but think that his mind saw only color. He was one of a few colored kids in our class from what I can remember. Though I have a Spanish surname, I never thought twice about being “white” at that age. He saw me as white. It’s what I have to assume. I do not know what made me move away from Donald but looking back now all I notice is color.
After Mrs. Mary put a stop to Chris and my rudeness, I raised my hand so I could use the restroom and when I came back, I could not help but notice that my friend, Chris, had moved away from where he was sitting. I proceeded to sit next to him and his response was a swift move back away from me. I could not digest what had just gone wrong nor did I comprehend the significance of this. I sat for a minute thinking and then realized something I had never thought of until then: I’m black. This realization of my race became an astonishing notion of my identity. I do not know if Chris was thinking about the color of my skin because he was white but I do know there had to be a sub-conscious idea or generalization of color in his mind.I hope that he too will one day reflect back on this moment and see just as I have how detrimental that event really was. We will see that we were just kids and for once notice that race did not matter up until that event. Maybe we could be friends again who come to terms with what happened and simply laugh about it. At least, I could.
Looking back at this I remember that his last name reminded me of the cartoon in which a Mexican mouse is the fastest mouse in the land, Speedy Gonzalez. His last name was Gonzalez, spelled exactly the same way. We all thought in our class that Chris was a fast runner at recess and would joke that he was Speedy. He seemed to embrace this probably without thinking about the content of what the cartoon was portraying. Speedy has to be fast because Mexicans are always on the run from the INS, or the Border Patrol. Yet, Chris seemed to think of himself as white, not Mexican. Otherwise, had he known that he was also a minority he might have sat next to me instead of positioning himself away from me.
Of course, in 1992, as a little boy, I did not think about such things. The environment around me seemed normal and I only cared if it was raining or snowing outside. I was in the first grade and we had never heard about events or programs like Affirmative Action or DNA Ancestry. This stuff does not matter when you are thinking about cartoons and GI Joe’s. You care more about the kid aspect of your life.
Before or during first grade, a man named Rodney King was the spotlight on the news. I heard his name mentioned once before but it was very vague. I did not understand what the significance behind his name was about. All I remember is that it was about a black man and the police. I did not know about the pursuit and chase that King had lead the officers on and that he was brutally beaten by the police when he voluntarily stopped. The police beat him because allegedly he tried pulling an officer’s gun away to defend himself from the police. When the officers were acquitted of the brutality, the L.A. riots broke out, which ended in a number of deaths and millions in property damage. King was then awarded a settlement and two of the officers served time in prison. How did this affect me? It did not touch my life personally. As I said before, I was concerned with cartoons and GI Joe’s. I liked watching Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, and Speedy Gonzalez. I never thought twice about the stereotypes these cartoons perpetuated or considered how the news and current events would play into my way of life.
First grade was the time I really noticed the deception of colorblindness. So when I saw Donald’s skin color, I did not question why I might have imagined that Donald’s blackness had gotten me in trouble. I did not have any awareness that outside influences may have shaped the broader environment that provoked the incident in which I noticed only color.
Now that I am studying diversity and racism as my major, I feel badly for the times I thought myself superior to others. I was naive and ignorant. My parents never taught me to dislike anyone because of color but to treat people as people and to disregard race. I did on the outside but on the inside whenever I was angry at others I resorted to blaming their race. I internalized my resistance and the fact that they are different. I imagine this is how I treated Donald. Yet as a first grader, how did I really distinguish this? Even then, I still saw only color and not Donald who was a friend.
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