I am from a small town in southern Arizona. I remember this one boy, Shawn Taylor, with whom I had been friends my entire life. We first met in Kindergarten. For some strange reason, I had a habit of only hanging around with one person for months at a time. That first year of school, Shawn was it. We got along famously and I never told my parents that he was black. For my birthday party that year my mom brought the cake to my class so I never knew if Shawn would have come to my house if I had a party there or what my mom would have thought of him. Shawn’s parents must not have been military because he never left like all other military people do. After that first year, however, I did not see Shawn again until years later. Although we eventually ran in different circles, we had remained friends throughout.
It was our senior year and for the first time in years I had shop class with my friend Shawn. The shop classroom was small and over crowded with students. It was dimly lit with humming fluorescent arch lights. The shop class was more like a cave than a classroom. One day the teacher stepped out for a minute and the class immediately broke into groups. As I was kind of a loner, I just watched the class, when Shawn and his friend, who was known as a bully, began harassing one of the girls in class. She was obviously not enjoying the attention. The girl’s name was Heidi. Heidi was the kind of girl who didn’t even know I was alive. Although we had grown up together, she was always way out of my league. Not that I had a league. You see, I was a band fag for most of my school days. Throughout Jr. High I was in the marching band. I played trombone.
High school was a little better because I played guitar in the school jazz band and was part of one of the better rock bands in town. Heidi was a cheerleader and we traveled in different circles to say the least.
Now I am not any kind of tough guy, but I would stand up for the little guy and on top of that I had, after all, known Shawn my whole life. So I uncharacteristically spoke up and told them to leave her alone. At that point all attention was on me. No one else in the class would stand up to those two. They both came boppin’ over my way and asked, “what choo gonna du bout it white boy.” I couldn’t believe Shawn had just said that to me and I told him so. Growing up in a small town is a sheltered life in many respects. I was sheltered from a lot of the racial issues that were going on through out the 70s and early 80s. My parents never talked about it one way or the other. The only black kids in town were army brats and I did not hang around the army post much, mostly because I lived on the complete opposite side of town.
I told him and his friend, who was also black, “if ever I saw a better example of a couple of niggers I can’t remember.” It was then that I knew I had to think fast or get pounded. While the shock of what I had just said was beginning to wear off, I shot back with, “that’s right I said NIGGER, because if you don’t know what a nigger is, it is a totally ignorant person and that’s exactly what you two are.” I followed up with: “Shawn, you and I have been friends forever and you come up to me with that racial crap.” Everyone was totally silent. Just then the teacher walked back in and he was pretty amazed by how quiet the class was.
No one said anything else about this for the rest of class and I was actually in fear for my life when the bell rang. As we were walking to our next class and everyone else had cleared away, they came up to me and both apologized, sort of, and that was the end of that. I rarely saw Shawn again and when I did, it was more of a nod than friendship.
The next day Heidi came over during lunch and thanked me for standing up for her. She said she thought she deserved the harassment for signing up for auto shop in the first place. At first she liked the attention, but after repeatedly telling them to stop, she thought they would. She had even complained to her cheer coach who talked to their football coach, who did nothing.
At first it was just harmless flirting with the only girl in the class and a white girl at that, but grabbing her and even slapping her on the butt was going too far. She had told them several times to stop but to no avail. This had been going on every chance they had. In today’s world she could file sexual harassment charges, but this was a different time and she said she was too embarrassed to even tell her parents about it.
I felt so helpless, she said, and I thought that dropping the class was my only option. Then suddenly, Barry, you spoke up. I couldn’t believe you stood up for me. I thought they were going to pulverize you. I mean no one in their right mind would stand up to those two. She told me she never would have said the things I did. The only thing she knew for sure is that they stopped bothering her and for that she was thankful.
The reason this story has stuck with me so long is because for most of my life, I lived by two rules when it comes to how I view people. First, there is something to gain from everyone I meet. Second, do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Everyone has something to offer, if we take the time to find out what it is. It does not depend on physical appearance and many times does not depend on intelligence. What does matter is how you treat the people you meet throughout your life. Shawn was my friend. He had been my friend for as long as I could remember. Years later we hadn’t really changed; we had merely been socialized into who we were supposed to be. Peer pressure can be a powerful force in a young person’s life.
What may have made things worse for Shawn was how he was raised. Race was never discussed in my house. I know now that my parents were as racist as anyone from their era, but that was unknown to me until I married my wife who is half Mexican and half French. Shawn most likely grew up with the constant reminder that he was black, especially in Sierra Vista, Arizona. Sierra Vista was a very small, predominantly white town. This also came at a time in the history of the town, when we were dealing with the Miracle Mile problem.
Early in 1980, a black minister had brought his all black faith healing congregation to this area from Chicago because of the so called mystical energy gateway that was focused in Miracle Mile. Back in the 1800’s there was a church built about 40 miles outside of town where true miracles were purportedly happening. The town was not even there at the time. It was only an Army outpost to fight Geronimo. To make a long story short, the religious fanatics from Chicago were totally radical people. Some of the teenage kids from the congregation had a riot at the high school and beat up several police officers and stole a police car. Some of the older men detonated a bomb in town and blew up another bomb on the nearby highway. The Sheriff went to arrest the bombing suspects and it turned into a blood bath killing many of the men, women and children of the congregation. Needless to say this was the most outrageous thing that ever happened in our small town.
So as Shawn grew up with contrasting feelings, the issues of racism and white supremacy that made up the social constructs of his life would be much more thrust upon him than they ever were on me. Therefore, looking back I can see why Shawn acted the way he did that day. He was playing the role he was supposed to play just as I was. As my wife often tells me, I was very different from most people growing up. I never really noticed until she pointed it out a couple of years ago.
I did not have many friends because I chose not to. In fact, up until my junior year of High School, I could count the number of friends I had on one hand and not use all of my fingers. Later in life, I made a conscious effort to change and I did change. I am much more social now but I never forgot that day Shawn tried to intimidate me by attacking my whiteness. There was no doubt in anyone’s mind, including Shawn’s, that I was no match for them and I think it was more that I was trying to make a point about the racial barrier that had grown between us rather than defend the pride of a girl I hardly knew.
In my view of the world at the time, race had nothing to do with any of this and until they had played the race card, I had no point other than telling them to leave Heidi alone. They were attacking me with the most powerful weapon they had and to respond in the manner that I did, took them by complete surprise. To use such a “forbidden” word and then to frame it such away that did not involve color was so shocking that they had no recourse but to acknowledge that I was right and they needed to apologize, even if it was in a form that would allow them to save face. In the end, I doubt anyone truly grasped the point I was trying to make.
The point was and still is for me that while we can not be color blind we are all human beings. While we are biologically programmed to speciate culturally, we are all the same and we should be able to accept each other for who we are, not what we look like. In the infamous words of Aerosmith, “if you can tell a wise man by the color of his skin, then I say, you’re a better man than I.”
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