SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch         Fall 2007        Personal Memory Ethnographies

Michael Swiderski

I Shouldn’t Have Been So Surprised

    In October of 1992, when my incident took place, racial tension in this country was at the highest it had been in years.  In March of 1991, 4 LAPD officers were indicted for beating Rodney King.  Five months later, the Crown Heights Riot in Brooklyn, NY, in which a white, Jewish man was not charged with harming two black children when he lost control of his car, caused a lot upheaval.  In the end 190 people were injured, including 152 police officers.  The following year, in late April of 1992 the LAPD officers were acquitted in the King case.  This set off riots that lasted several days.  The only image that remains in my head today of this riot was the beating of Reginald Denny, a white truck driver, which was captured live on TV by a news helicopter.  I was so surprised.

    I was 10 years old when I got my first taste of racial hatred.  I had just transferred from Phoenix to Peoria into a school in an upper-middle class neighborhood that was 99 percent white students.  The only kid that wasn’t white was Thomas.  He was black. 

From the first time I laid eyes on him I knew he was no good.  None of those people are any good. 

Thomas’s family had just moved from California about a month after me and no one wanted to hang out with him.  I didn’t understand why.  At lunch I was sitting with some of my “friends” and one of them pointed out Thomas sitting by himself at one of the tables.  I suggested that we ask him to sit with us.  A couple of kids looked at me and asked me if I was stupid.  I asked them what they meant by that.  The only thing I remember from their explanation was the word they used to describe Thomas, the n-word.  I can’t even write the word as I tell this story, but you know what it is.  I was so surprised.

    It was around this time that the bell rang and as we left to go back to class one kid poured his milk on Thomas’s head, “whitening” him up I suppose. 

I dared one of my friends to do it.  

To my surprise the teachers did nothing other than to send Thomas to the principal’s office.  Somehow, the teacher figured, it was Thomas that had started it.  They didn’t even bother asking if anyone had seen anything.  When I went home I told my mom what had happened at school.  She was disgusted that this could happen even in the area of town we lived in.  She told me not to listen to those other kids and to hang out with Thomas if I thought he was worthy of doing so.  The next day at lunch I bypassed my “friends” and sat with Thomas. 

How could he go sit with him instead of us?  We are his kind. 

We hit it off immediately to the chagrin of my old “friends”.  We hung out everyday at lunch until about a week later when everything changed. 

    I will never forget the smell of the lunchroom on that afternoon.  It smelled as if pizza, French fries, peanut butter and jelly, milk, soda, Doritos, ranch dressing, and ketchup had all been forced into a scented candle and lit.  My old “friends” came over to Thomas and I.  We were unsure what they wanted but they seemed angry.  One of them grabbed my drink, and proceeded to pour it on my head and called me an “n-word lover”, essentially “coloring” me up.  I was so surprised. 

    At this moment I remember lots of people talking but never actually hearing what they said; I was in shock.  Once the shock wore off I jumped out of my seat and pushed this kid, then he pushed back, then Thomas pushed him,

I couldn’t believe he put his hands on me,

and suddenly everyone got involved.  Eventually, the teachers got involved and broke it up.  We all got suspended for three days.  My mom fought it and got me back in after one day.  Unfortunately, this was the last time I saw Thomas because after this incident he never came back to school. 

I had won.  I never had to look at his face ever again. 

Honestly, I don’t know what happened to him.  I’m assuming that his parents got tired of all the crap and transferred him out of that school. 

Unfortunately, Mike was still there, but we never talked to him again.  I think he learned his lesson too. 

My dad was transferred later in the school year so I gladly moved also.

    My former friend (whose voice is represented in italics above) and I saw this event very differently: I was just trying to make a new friend and he was trying to prevent a black kid from integrating into “his” school.  I have heard it a million times that kids can be mean, but this was too much.  This was not just boys being boys.  This was racism.  For the only time in my life I was negatively affected by race.  I got a very little taste of what it’s like for some people on a daily basis.  I was so surprised.  

     Over the past 14 years I had never looked back at this incident and thought about why it took place.  For a long time I just thought this was a group of racist kids in a predominantly white neighborhood.  Looking back now it honestly doesn’t surprise me that this group of kids felt the way they did about Thomas.  This doesn’t make what happened right or justified.  It just makes it less of a surprise.  Maybe these kids that I have long hated were not actually racist.  Maybe they had just seen the same things I had as a ten year old…a white guy getting beat up by black men.  Unlike me, however, they turned their misunderstanding of the situation on the only person they felt they could blame, Thomas.  He was black therefore he was the problem.  My hope is that they have grown up and seen that racism has no place in this world. 

    That being said, I feel less angry about the situation given the volatile nature of the time the incident took place.  I wouldn’t have changed anything other than possibly to talk to the other kids about their views.  I probably could have seen it coming if I had been a little older or more aware of national tensions.  Maybe then I wouldn’t have been so surprised.


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