SBS 301 Cultural Diversity/Prof. Koptiuch Fall 2011 Personal Memory Ethnographies
I was the only white male in my first grade class in the late 1980s. That’s not something I have known until recently. I pulled my class photo and noticed almost instantly that I was the only white boy in my class. I even rechecked the names of the lighter skinned boys, double checking to see if any of them had so called “white names”, not a one did. I tallied up the races and found that of the sixteen boys in Mrs. V’s first grade class seven were Asian, two were Middle-Eastern, two were Hispanic, four were African-American, and then there was me, the white boy. Of course, six year-old boys did not play with girls in their class, even though half of them were white. Girls didn’t count as friends because they wore dresses, and had “coodies”.
Not until an assignment in a cultural diversity class some 23 years later would I come to the conclusion that I had subconsciously been pining for the approval and acceptance of every African American male I have ever met. How could this happen? And why would I need the approval of a group of people who white society bitterly suggests I have no obligation to? I can’t think of any good reason why I would need to answer to a minority group of people who have been dominated by a majority group anyone could easily identify me as being a part of, namely the “Caucasian Male” tribe. Yet as a kid, I concluded I wasn’t good enough. I spent the rest of my life, empathetically and perhaps with self-disdain, looking for the acceptance from a group I could never join. This is not discrimination; this was a 6 year-old boy’s reality.
I didn’t play with Basir or Jalil, the Middle-Eastern boys, because as a kid I remember thinking they smelled funny and talked weird. The two Hispanic kids, Alex and Jon, both spoke only Spanish to each other when they played. I don’t remember much about the Asian kids and why I didn’t play with them. My choices therefore came down to the four black kids in my class. Donnell was a troublemaker. Lawrence was a crybaby who wouldn’t share. And Carl I thought wasn’t very fun to be around. The logical choice came down to Wendell, a short pudgy kid who always seemed to be laughing.
I have tried to imagine what Wendell would say about this time in our childhood. Would he remember me or the setting? Does anything from that time stand out to him in his memory? Does he remember the grey skies of the west coast city where we lived and played, how they always seemed to be welcoming and pleasant and still cloudy at the same time. Hot days were rare and often intrusive. But the cool overcast days were inviting. I live in Arizona now but whenever I am in the city of my youth I feel that I am home because it has the weather of my childhood.
Does he remember the tall chain link fences that seemed to be a stringent barrier between us, the busy traffic and the always-startling sounds of the fire engines leaving their stations nearby? The fences that are everywhere else in the world don’t seem so big to me as those around our elementary school. Those chain link fences that separated the play grounds of the different grades and all of us from the world seemed so huge and insurmountable. I suspect they will always be that way in my mind.
I have thought about what Wendell would say… In the first grade, over at our elementary, we had a lot of Asian kids in Mrs. V’s class. I didn’t ever play with any of them though, not sure why. Maybe they never wanted to play with me. Maybe their folks told them not to play with the black kids. There were only four of us. I remember playing mostly with Donnell and Carl. Lawrence always seemed to be whining about something. I also remember this white kid, Luke. I never understood why he wanted to be my friend. To tell you the truth I think he was a little weird. But he didn’t seem to like playing with the Asian kids, and there were plenty of them to go around. Luke always wanted to be hanging out with me and Donnell, but the problem was he wasn’t any fun to be around. Plus, we were kids, and three’s a crowd. I guess he was all right, but he never came up with any games to play. And he didn’t know any jokes. Does that sound like fun to you? Now, Donnell, that guy was funny. Most of the time we just ignored the white boy but he always seemed to be hanging around. We’d ditch him but sure enough by the next day there he was trying to be our friend again. I guess we were his friends, I know he thought so.
I distinctly remember the day Wendell stopped playing with me and started playing with Donnell. There could have been many reasons for Wendell to stop playing with me, but as a kid it seemed to be because I wasn’t black. Concluding at that moment that I was different and somehow lacking has affected many of my choices into adulthood. I can look back at every other friendship I have ever sought to cultivate with an African American male and can see an interest and a pursuit far beyond a cordial friendship. Some of the time it yielded slightly less sour fruit than usual. Most of the time, however, it was an embarrassment. Somehow the feeling I had of rejection as a child had morphed into a desire for friendship with black males and then after years without success, that desire turned into indifference. But I still remember Wendell for he represents foundational awareness in a racially diverse world.
I will always remember the significant dates of American history as the determining factors of my racial identity. I will never forget January 1st 1863, the day President Abraham Lincoln issued the executive order entitled the ‘Emancipation Proclamation’. And I will never forget 1865, the year the Civil War ended in America. I will always remember the year 1954, the Supreme Court made a landmark decision about race and education in Brown vesus Board of Education case. I will also never forget and always remember that hot Wednesday in 1963, August 28th the day the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered to America his unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And for me ultimately I will never forget the year 1988; the year I learned how society truly saw me.
I re-remembered this pivotal moment in my life because upon searching my conscious memory I recalled incidences that were uniquely connected all back to this singular event from when I was six years old. My disposition has rarely if ever been focused toward cultivating friendships. I am not uncomfortable in acknowledging that I have no friends that are not otherwise connected to me in some type of ‘current’ institutional context. However, I have noticed many unique instances throughout my life where I have been the pursuant party in seeking to cultivate relationships with African-Americans in a way above and beyond any relationship I ever sought to cultivate with a white person. This is curious to me and I think it is because of this founding incident that I had when I was six years. I have perplexingly sought to make up for the disconnect I felt so long ago. Ironically, seeking to conquer an experience that can never be relived is what has made me realize that I am white.
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