Difference: The Invisible House
Casper, Wyoming in the early 1970’s was a growing industrial city not unlike most other cities in the Western United States at that time; at least not in any way you could see just by looking. Like other cities it had its share good points and bad points, but unlike its more modernized cousins, Casper had more than its share of racial and cultural differences to deal with. Casper was one of those places where the freethinking times of the modern world collided head-on with the old fashioned ways of the small town. As an Irish immigrant, and a Wyoming native, my grandfather and grandmother had watched Casper grow over the years changing from a small cattle town into a bustling member of industrialized society almost overnight. Other changes, however, were not so forthcoming. The liberal progressiveness of the big city was ever-challenging the engrained insularity of the small town; and the small town was fighting it tooth-and-nail.
For me Casper was the place where, each summer, I would escape the drudgery and brutal heat of the Arizona desert, and spend a month of carefree time in the refreshing Wyoming climate, visiting my grandparents. As a kid growing up in the culturally diverse surroundings of Phoenix, Arizona I felt I had been aware of “difference” as it pertained to people, races, or cultures. It was the summer before my eighth birthday when I was to learn how wrong I was, and to have my first real lesson about “difference.”
It was always enjoyable to have David come visit for the summer. Since his grandfather and I didn’t travel, this was the only time of the year that we would get to see him. I often wondered who looked forward to it more, David or us. In preparation for his visit, I would spend several days baking batches of cookies, making treats, grocery shopping, and straightening the house; while his grandfather would start getting the camping and fishing gear organized for our yearly trip to the mountains. We would try to make everything as perfect as we could so that David would enjoy his stay with us. Of course, some things you just can’t plan for.
Shortly after arriving at my grandparent’s home, I learned that the family that had lived next door to them for many years had moved, and now their old house had some new occupants. It was then that I got to hear my grandparents talk about the new “colored” neighbors. Now I had actually heard other adults use the term “colored” before and I knew that they were referring to African Americans, but this was the first time I had ever really noticed the true “difference” connected to the word.
As a kid my perceptions of race were rooted in knowledge gleaned from my father, brother other kids, and television. For me, this type of racism was subtle, manifesting itself in the form of racist jokes, or slang racial terms. But for a kid, this can all hold very little “true” meaning. After all, racist jokes were just jokes, and racial slurs were just words. In my world, none of the jokes or slurs had any sort of meaning associated with them. In fact, I never really understood any real difference between people back then; and I certainly didn’t understand the first thing about racism.
It was that summer before his eighth birthday that we found ourselves in a position where we had to explain to David the “difference” between “white folks” and “colored folks.” For several years, the “Smiths” had lived next door to us, and had been wonderful neighbors and friends. They were a young white couple with two adorable children; one of whom was a little boy named Gary who was the same age as David. The two of them were inseparable when David was here; spending hours playing together between the two yards. We often thought of the Smiths as part of the family. However, since David had visited last, the Smiths had moved to another part of the city, and a “colored” family had moved in to their old house. Even though we didn’t have anything against them, we knew that David would have a lot of questions about the new neighbors and we knew that we were going to have to answer them.
Needless to say, I was extremely disappointed upon learning that my good friend and his family had moved across town. It certainly wasn’t the greatest news I could have gotten, and I found myself immediately trying to find a silver lining to this cloud that had been dropped on me. When I asked about the new neighbors – specifically whether or not they had any kids – I felt my grandparents’ uneasiness spread through the room like a slow moving fog rolling in off a lake. I not only learned about the new neighbors that day, but I also learned about something else: difference.
In the past, whenever I had heard my grandparents talk about the “white” neighbors who had lived there previously, it was always in a warm, relaxed, friendly tone; almost like talking about our own family. Now, with these new “colored” neighbors, I heard something completely different. Despite the same nice words that were still being used, I noticed that the tones were definitely not the same. Unlike the warm, relaxed and friendly pitches I was used to hearing, these new tones were tepid, reserved and at times even bordering on judgmental. I could tell right away that there would be no mistaking these new neighbors for any of the other families in the neighborhood.
It was hard to explain to David who the “new” people next door were, and why they were different than us. Part of that difficulty lay in the fact that I wasn’t really sure why they were “different” myself. It just seemed to be the way it was back in the small town atmosphere of Casper, Wyoming. It seemed that “colored” folks just didn’t have the same set of social values that we did. It’s not that they were bad people or anything, just “different;” and it seemed to be important to recognize that difference.
Aside from the unfamiliar car parked in the driveway, the house next door looked the same to me as it had each year before; yet there was indeed something “different” about it now. The yard that I had spent so many hours running through, and the swingset I had furiously played on way past dark were quiet and lifeless now. Physically it was the same as I remembered, but now, hanging over the house, separating it off from the rest of the neighborhood, was an ominous, yet invisible, cloud. It was as if all of the “tones” from the people on the block regarding these new neighbors had erected a barrier around the house that you couldn’t see or smell, or touch, but you knew was there. It was an invisible fence, erected not by the owners of the house, but by their neighbors. A fence intended to keep those behind it in and out of sight, rather than keep others out.
The most unusual aspect of this separation for me was in the neighborhood’s designation of the “colored folks’” home as a “house.” While everyone else on street seemed to have a “home,” the place next door to my grandparents became the “house that the colored folks lived in.” It was as if as soon as the new “colored” owners moved in, the place went from becoming a permanent “home” to something different: a “house.” Through the application of this label, the sanctity and permanency of everyone else’s “home” could be preserved by presenting this other residence in a more temporary and less meaningful form of a “house.”
I was also very interested in the state of selective invisibility in which the new neighbors lived in relation to the rest of the neighborhood. Due to their “uniqueness,” the “folks next door” somehow managed to exist in a virtual paradox within the community. Despite their invisibility to the neighborhood as a true part of the community, they were often overly visible to the neighborhood as a curiosity. It was as if their home had become a fishbowl for the rest of us to look at when we wanted to, but we could pretend it didn’t exist when we weren’t interested in it. Folks in the neighborhood expended a great deal of energy watching and scrutinizing “the colored folks,” but when it came to interaction with them, it’s as if they and their house suddenly became invisible to the naked eye.
When I look back on that summer in Casper, Wyoming, where I first learned about difference, it all seems like a distant and surreal dream. I guess what sticks out most to me about that summer, is that fact that it sticks out at all. Living in Phoenix, Arizona, I was no stranger to different races and ethnic groups; nor was I ignorant to the subtleties of racism inherent within my immediate family. However, never before that time had I ever experienced racism that was so visible to me, yet so invisible to those around me. Ironically, it was my experience in the “wholesome” surroundings of the Wyoming landscape, rather than my life in the diverse population of Arizona, that altered my perceptions of race and racism.
Hearing my grandparents and the other neighbors talk about the “colored folks” on the block was somehow different, especially when my grandparents explained to me why “they” were different than “us.” Despite the fact that I lived in a relatively diverse population in Phoenix, I had never felt difference as I felt it then. Although they never knew it, it was my grandparents and their neighbors that first attached meaning to all of the jokes and slurs that had, until that time, been meaningless. Between the unspoken unification of the white neighborhood in the face of the unknown “colored” outsiders and the racial instruction from my grandparents, I was swiftly and ignorantly educated on the subject of racial difference. Unlike most knowledge in life, however, this is one education that I have since spent my entire life trying to unlearn.
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