I often think it must be easier to be a white guy, but truthfully it ain't easy being anybody. — Sherman Alexie
There were upsides to growing up in Willits in the 1980s — an enduring appreciation for Mötley Crüe’s first album, all the free shade leaf you could smoke — but there were downsides, too. I’ve been thinking about one of those downsides this week, what with the news and the commentary and all.
When it came time for me to go out and see the great wide world, I was handicapped. Willits was and mostly still is an overwhelmingly white town. Not completely, but overwhelmingly. Carlos Amador was my best friend in second grade, so the bone-dumb 18-year-old version of myself thought he had things pretty much squared with La Raza. Eddie Yee and I sat in the same classroom for more than a decade. A few years ahead of us, Tallchief Comet was a figure of remote, awe-inspiring cool.
In other words, I had a few reference points. But there were zero (0) black kids in school the entire time I was there. This messed up my head for many years after I moved to the city.
It wasn’t that I felt any hostility from or toward anyone. My heart overflowed with love and peace and rainbows. Because of this, I wanted to put myself on record and let my new neighbors know where I stood. Hey: Slavery? Racism? No way! Count me out!
This messy impulse manifested itself in a few different ways, some healthy, some less so. To fill the gaps in my education I read W.E.B. DuBois (thumbs up!) and Booker T. Washington (respectfully, sir — thumbs down!), which is something every American should do anyway. I read Ishmael Reed and Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston. All that was to the good.
After that, though, we quickly move down the spectrum of shame. Example: For a blessedly short period of time I actually owned — and, more embarrassingly, occasionally wore — a dashiki. Worst of all, of course, was my hilarious-in-retrospect overcompensation whenever some poor emissary from black America and I found ourselves in the same room. There were a lot of puzzled smiles, a few abruptly terminated conversations.
It all lasted way too long. Some part of me knew that in my own way I was being just as racist as the racist racists, but I couldn’t figure a way out. And I write this, in part, because I think it’s not altogether uncommon for some young white kids, those who may be pure of heart but thick of skull, to find themselves in a similar position.
Then one day I was idly reading a magazine (Harper’s? The New Yorker? I’m not sure) when suddenly, out of nowhere, a sentence flew up off the page and gave my ass the kicking it needed. I can only paraphrase that sentence now, but it was something very close to this: “America will be beyond race when it finally realizes that black people are just as boring as everyone else.”
I’ve since tried and failed to track this sentence down. Might have been written by Henry Louis Gates. Might have been John McWhorter or Stanley Crouch. Almost certainly was not Cornel West. But I definitely remember the effect it had on me at the time. It was like: Oh, right. Maybe I can just calm the fuck down a little bit.
I don’t think Humboldt County in the teens maps exactly to Mendocino County in the ‘80s, but some of parts of it are close enough. Tip to the kids: Everyone grows up as a little person in his own little world, and taking in all of America can be a long, slow, painful process. Some don’t make it.
If you find yourself puzzled by people you don’t know, people you never met, puzzled by their own backgrounds and their own little worlds and the things specific to their person, then a bit of well-crafted, general-purpose cynicism can be your friend. Want to find common ground with someone? Don’t only reach up. Reach down.