I grew up in a white factory town until I was 10. My father had a small grocery store in Newark, New Jersey and his customers were all Black people. My parents had a term that they referred to Black people while they were in the house. They called them Schvartze’s, pronounced Schvat-Suh, and they claimed not to be racist. Yet they were and I was adopted into thinking that I wasn’t racist but, in the meantime, I was being taught racism.
I remember one night, when Eisenhower was running for president, I was with a group of my white friends and they saw a person of Color going into my house. One of the guys said, “what’s that “Jungle-Bunny” doing going into your house?’ I had never heard that term before and I told them that it was the man who worked in my father’s store.
Racism was rampant when I was growing up and it seeped into my mind’s eye and my attitude. Yet, I thought I wasn’t a racist. But I was one. I had no conception of what it was to grow up Black in the inner city. I did notice that the factory town I grew up in was almost all White and I heard the word “nigger” bandied about by the kids I hung out with.
I just received a book in the mail yesterday called “So You Want To Talk About Race” by Ijeoma Oluo and it is an eye-opener. I won’t go into a review of it at this time because I’ve only read three chapters of it. But it exposes me and outs me as a racist and calls into question my commonly held beliefs as to what is racist. I admit that I’m changing but I don’t really know, first-hand, the reality of being Black in the world because I’m White.
My parents moved into a suburban town when I was 10 and there were no Black people, that I know of, that lived there. Prejudice was rampant among the kids I hung out with and some of them were even gay-bashers as teenagers. At the time I felt there was something wrong with that but queers were queer, right? I got into hard drugs while I was in high school, beginning with the opiates. It took me to places that I never thought I’d go and I remember, one time copping heroin in Newark, New Jersey, which was only 7 short but eternal miles from Livingston where I lived.
This guy, Joey who I was copping with had grown up in Newark and we picked up this Black guy and his friend who were taking us to buy heroin. The Black guy turned to me and said, “Heroin is the great equalizer. Black or White, we become the enemy of society.” That really struck me and I’ve never forgotten it.
I remember times, when my friend and I were cruising the streets of Newark and we saw this unmarked cop car stop by a bar where a bunch of Black guys were hanging out front and the three white cops, dressed in plain clothes and long leather jackets flipped their coats open and two of them had shotguns and they lined the Black guys up against the wall of the bar and were frisking them. Why was this happening? I never saw this happen in front of a bar when all white guys were hanging out, that’s for sure.
In my racist mind, this was something I couldn’t process very well. I just knew that we had to flee that area because I didn’t want any attention drawn to us. After all, we were heroin addicts and probably had more of a criminal bent than some to those guys being frisked by the White cops that actually looked more like gangsters than the Black guys they were shaking down. Sometimes I copped in Harlem and was always nervous, more like afraid, but the drugs were running my life and I let my racism slide to get the drugs. Then there was that special night where 4 White kids, all about the age of nineteen, went to Paterson, New Jersey to buy drugs. We were all juiced on what we called goofballs (barbiturates) and wanted some heroin to straighten us out.
Three of the guys went off and I was waiting in the parking lot of a store when all of a sudden I was surrounded by 4 or 5 Black guys and they were asking me for money. I looked around for my associates (not necessarily friends) and they were nowhere to be seen. I broke bad with these Black cats and tried not to show my fear (and prejudice) but this was their land I was the trespasser and all of a sudden I was being hit and went down and they were kicking the living shit out of me. After all, I wasn’t giving up my dope money; I was just the dope isolated on their streets. They must have knocked me unconscious because all of a sudden there were cops all around and the Black guys were running.
The cops caught a Black guy and asked me if he was one of the ones who was beating on me. I didn’t have a clue and I didn’t really recognize him but I was so angry and full of hate that I said, “yes, that was one of them.” The cops took me down to the station and had the Black guy alone in a room, no lineup thank you very much. They asked me again if that was one of the guys and, to tell the truth, I had no idea but I pointed at him with one of my eyes closed and said yes that was one of them. The guys I went with were waiting at my car and even with one eye closed I insisted on driving home. I was furious and full of hate and that night I used the N word for the first time that I could remember and I blamed all Black people for what happened to me. Suddenly I was a full-blown racist.
I had to be hospitalized because the lower rim of my right eye was shattered and they needed to remove the pieces and place a plastic rim in my face. My head ached for almost six months because of the beating and I was full of hate. I testified in court against the Black guy who I wasn’t even sure was the one and he wound up being sentenced to three months in jail for something he might not have done. I’ve grown up a lot since then and I realize that I was taught racism undercurrents my whole life and all it took was that event to make it blossom. I had no idea what it was like to grow up Black in an inner city and be poor and oppressed because of the color of my skin. My understanding of my racism has grown and I have worked on my ignorant prejudices until I have come almost full circle on race hate.
I realize that we are all people struggling with our different crosses to bear and my ignorance has changed to enlightenment. Am I still prejudiced? Well, we don’t change ingrained belief systems overnight and I do the best I can with it. I pray that my mind doesn’t let me slip back into old thought patterns. I was my worst enemy and, over the years, I have changed the way I see things. Am I still a racist is the question I have to always ask myself. If I catch that ugliness creeping into my thoughts I send those thoughts packing. I meditate. I feel empathy. I do the best I can under the circumstances that have shaped me. I need to always face the truth about myself, what ever it may be.