Talking to Kids about Race

This is my story about talking to kids about race over the generations.  It’s the story about a lot of small conversations.  It’s about the journey to unlearn racism that  never ends. I’m white and I grew up on the northwest side of Milwaukee.  I moved to Bay View as a young adult.  I have two sons and three grandsons, two of whom live nearby.

When I was very young I was at a shoe store at Capitol Court with my mom.  An African American man waited on us.  I had never seen anyone like him before and couldn’t stop staring.  I asked my mother out loud, “What is the matter with his face?”  My embarrassed mother whispered, “He’s just like us.  God just left some people in the oven a little longer.”  Hmm, I thought.  So he’s kind of like a burnt cookie.  Like me but somehow imperfect.

I wanted my conversations with my sons to be different.  I took them to Juneteenth day, Mitchell Street Sun Fair, Indian Summer and got them involved in the Boys & Girls Club where I worked.

When my oldest son Sam was in the 2nd grade, he had a homework assignment to do a presentation about his nationality.  We’re a bunch of things—Croation, Bohemian, and German—I was annoyed by having to pick just one and I didn’t like the idea of having the kids separate themselves by nationality and race.  So, I told Sam that we’re American.  Simple, I thought.  We discussed what we thought of as being American culture—hot dogs and hamburgers, baseball games and the 4th of July.  When he got home from school that day, Sam was really annoyed with me and said his teacher wanted to know if we’re native American and what tribe we belong to.  Not so simple.

When my younger son Ben was in the 2nd grade, his best buddies were two Mexican cousins.  We spent a lot of time with their families—school, soccer, church festivals.  One day, after spending time with their families, Ben asked me if he could “please, please, please be Mexican.”  Of course I had to say “no.”  It was hard to explain that we can’t choose what we are.  “We can’t be Mexican.  We can’t change our identity.”

When teenage Ben was riding in a car with an African American friend Jason, they got pulled over in Shorewood and were brought to the police station.  Ben swore they had done nothing and the police offered no explanation.  I talked to Ben about what happened.  He could drive a car through Shorewood  and no one would give him a second glance.  But it was different for Jason.  And I thought about what people mean in Milwaukee when they say “those neighborhoods,” the neighborhoods where “you’re not supposed to go.”  It depends on who you are.

Now I have conversations with my grandkids.

When Ezra was in 2nd grade, he told me that he didn’t like brown people  When I asked him why he said, “Kenny is mean.”

“Oh, so you don’t like Kenny,” I said.  “Are there any brown people in your school that you do like?”

“Oh, yes,” he said.  “I like to play with Trevor.”  “So that means you like some brown people.  What about Nathan?  He’s not brown and you don’t like him.”

“Yeah, I guess I like some brown people and I don’t like some white people.”  What I hoped he was learning was not to judge people by the color of their skin.

Just a few weeks ago I had a conversation with my grandson Noah who is a 6th grader.  He asked me why anyone would discriminate against people of color.  I explain that some people think that they’re different or not as good as white people.  “That’s crazy,” he said.

I still talk to my grown up sons about race.

After an incident at a soccer game that accelerated nearly to physical violence between adult spectators, Ben shared that he was sure that it was motivated by racism.  A Latina girl had accidentally knocked off a white girls glasses during the game.  We talked about how Latinos get stereotyped as aggressive.

At another kids soccer game, while the kids battled it out on the field, the adults of a Latino family were being targeted by the adults of an all white team with taunts like —“speak English.” The Latina mom understandably blew a fuse and unleashed a firestorm of cuss words which made everything worse.  Everyone stood around and gawked at the melt down spectacle, including me.  Finally, it was Ben who came up with a solution to the stalemate.  He simply invited the Latino family to move their lawn chairs and come and sit with us.

I was proud of him.  He may not have changed anyone’s mind that day, but he did something to intervene.  To demonstrate that not all white people feel the same.

People say that talk is cheap.  But so many of the big barriers in our society are built on conversations—the things people tell kids, or fail to tell kids.  People learn about race through conversations.  We learn who we are and who we aren’t.  We learn where to go and where not to go.

But conversation can help to tear down those barriers too.  I’m going to keep on talking with my kids and grandkids and I want them to keep talking to me.  We all need to keep talking.

Spies

The big bay window of the kitchen gave my grandparents the perfect perch from which to spy on the neighborhood.  As the sun went down and they finished the last of their pork shanks and sauerkraut, they would sit with the lights out and watch.  “Mr. Durr’s home from work late again.”  “Those Gitter kids don’t do a very good job at mowing the lawn.”  “The Westphal’s need new shingles on their garage roof.”

Grandma and Grandpa’s house was on the corner at the top of a hill.  We lived next door.  There were always eyes on us.  One Sunday morning, grandma invited us over for breakfast.  My sister shrieked with joy when she spotted her missing doll sitting in a blue and green flowered vinyl kitchen chair.  Mary Jo made a bee line for the doll but Grandma stopped her in her tracks.  “Oh no.  That’s my doll.  Some irresponsible little girl left her out in the cold and rain and now she’s my doll.”  And Grandma meant it.

My brother Joe, who always played that he was working, would move piles of bricks in a wagon from a spot in our back yard to a spot in my grandparents front yard and back again.  Grandpa supervised from the kitchen window.

As a hormone fueled teenager, I snuck my boyfriend into the garage for a french kissing lesson.  We’d just settled into a cozy spot in the corner on top of a paint tarp when the door flew open and the light clicked on.  “Boy you better go home now,” was all she said.  She was also clearly the “anonymous source” who reported me for rolling my skirt up way above my knees on my way to school and for smoking cigarets in the alley.

Eventually, I learned to watch for signs.  The glow of the ash from Grandpa’s cigar.  The rhythmic thumping of finger nails on the formica kitchen table.  The squeak of the swivel chairs.  I learned to be a spy too.

And when my own grandsons walked home from school by themselves for the very first time, my husband and I were there.  With our car camouflaged by a thicket of bushes a half block away, our eyes were on them.

This Started Out as a Love Story

Hard nutty cheese.  Musky red wine.  Candles drip on the lapis blue cloth on a table by the sea.  A black cat sits on my lap and I let it.

It is just you and me and the cat.  It’s dark.  The candles flicker in the warm breeze.  Our music is the roar of the waves as they wall-by-the-seacrash against the wall by the sea.  I am perhaps most in love with you in this moment.  Our hearts suspended together.  Breathing in peace, an ocean away from home.

Home.  Where bills need to be paid and alarms are set.  Where the light over the kitchen table dims our dreams.  Where expectations and household maintenance avert our gaze away from each other and the content of our hearts.

What I didn’t know then was how hard it would be to be with you again like that—with hard cheese and a bottle of wine.  We tried.  Romantic restaurants in other towns.  But a black cat never sat on my lap again.  And you never want any wine.  And the cheese just stinks.

Another Racist Day at the Soccer Field or Two Bad Uncles

My son, Ben, played soccer for a racially diverse club team more than 20 years ago.  The Croation Eagles had Latino kids, African American kids, and kids of just about every white European heritage possible.  Ben was one of the few members of the team who was actually of at least partial Croation heritage.  The BS the kids of color had to put up with was deplorable.  On numerous occasions I heard parents from opposing teams drop the N bomb and call the Latino kids spics.

The Croation Eagles team parents did our best to shield our kids but the slurs from the opposing teams continued.  And our parents weren’t always well behaved either.  One of the moms on our team actually screamed “You must be on the rag,” to a female ref at one game.

I really did think it was going to be better by the time my two grandkids played soccer. Last winter, Ben was coaching his boys Noah and Ezra’s 10 and 8 year old teams in indoor soccer through the local rec department.  During Noah’s game, one of the Latinas on Ben’s team, Breeza, accidentally collided with Vickie, a white girl from the other team, accidentally knocking off her glasses.  Vickie picked them up.  Breeza asked her if she was okay.  Vickie nodded yes and the game continued.  No big deal.  Noah’s team won.  The onlookers and players started heading for the door

Vickie’s uncle, a young guy of about 20 wearing a neck brace that we later learned was because of a drunk driving accident, started talking smack to Ben.  “So I guess it’s easy to win when you teach your team to play dirty,” with lots of cussing for emphasis.  It became clear that it was the “aggressive” Latinas like Breeza that he had a problem with.  Ben told him to watch his language in front of the kids and suggested they go outside the school to talk.  They did.

Vickie’s uncle immediately throws off his neck brace and pulls out a switch blade posturing for battle.  Shocked, Ben said that if he wanted to fight him he needed to lose the knife.  A crowd gathers around.  Vickie cries.  Her mother yells to the uncle, her brother, to quit and come home with them.  There’s lots of commotion but finally, the uncle stalks off.

Everyone was upset.  But if there was anything good about the situation, it was that I got to watch my son in action.  He stayed calm and coached Ezra’s soccer game immediately after the incident.  He talked to his sons about how men behave.  “Tough guys don’t use weapons and don’t start fights.”

He said really thoughtful stuff about how they should be kind to Vickie because none of this was her fault and not to let anyone else be mean to her either.  That Monday at school, Vickie told Noah that she was really sorry for what happened, that she didn’t want anything bad to happen to his Dad.  Noah hugged Vickie and told her that she didn’t do anything wrong, just like his dad told him to.

This spring, Noah and Ezra, now 11 and 9, left rec soccer behind and joined the fabulously diverse teams of the Club Deportivo Aztecas (Aztec Sports Club) along with Breeza and her friend Nonny.  These girls are a force to be reckoned with.  All last year during community rec soccer, all the boys whined that no one could get past Nonny.  And Breeza, I saw her take a ball in the face and just keep moving.

The families are friendly, sharing food and carpooling.  There’s lots of Spanish and English flying around and we’re all learning from each other.  The kids are respectful and the coaches are smart and caring.  It’s a poor team compared to some of the big clubs.  We have one field at local elementary school compared to clubs that have more than a dozen fields, a concession stands and bathrooms.  We don’t go to a lot of tournaments.  But the Aztecas are affordable and inclusive and we like that.  I thought everything was pretty hunky dory.

But then this happened at the Aztecas versus a big club game last weekend.

Nonny’s uncle lit up a cigarette.  Within seconds, a tall man I assumed was a parent from the opposing team demanded that he put it out.

“This is a kids soccer field.  There’s no smoking.”

Nonny’s uncle, a slight man with a long scraggly brown ponytail, said something like, “I don’t see any signs,” and suggested that he mind his own business.  And he put out his cigarette.

The tall guy, the kind of good looking well dressed and groomed guy that has the arrogant glow of privilege, wasn’t satisfied.

“When you’re a guest in our house you follow our rules.”

That comment sparked a conversation between Nonny’s uncle and Nonny’s mother in Spanish.  And then the shit hit the fan.

“Speak American.  You’re in our country, at our soccer field,” said Mr. Privilege.

“Hey this is my America too,” said Nonny’s uncle.

Mr Privilege said something like “you don’t act like it.”

It was like he lit a match.  Nonny’s mother unleashed a firestorm of cuss words.  This is what happens, I thought, when weeks and months and years of the constant drip, drip, drip of racial insults and stereotyping finally ignite.

And there was plenty of fuel flowing from Mr. Privlege…”You people this and you people that…”

One woman came over to take video of Nonny’s cussing mother on her cell phone.  Another woman gently walked up to her and asked if she was drunk or high.

There were so many people standing around gawking that it was hard to tell who was there to support Nonny’s family and who was there to watch the side show of a Latino family melt down.  Mr. Privilege stormed off somewhere to “file a formal complaint.”  It was whispered in the crowd that he was on the board of the soccer club.

Ben was the only person who came up with a way to end the stalemate.  He simply invited Nonny’s family to join ours.  To the gawkers, Nonny’s mom said, “We’re going to go sit with the cool people.”

Noah and Ezra’s other grandmother, Char, welcomed Nonny’s mother to our group by saying, “Nonny is so tall.  Where does she get her height?”  I intervened with “So now we’re going to call her (Nonny’s mother) short!”  People chuckled and a tenuous calm was restored through the rest of the game.

Up until then, the families of both teams had been interspersed along the spectators sideline of the field.  Slowly lawn chairs continued to be rearranged until all of the Aztecas families were on one side and the big club on another.

After a hard fought battle on the field, the Aztecas won!  6 to 5.  Of course, Nonny’s uncle couldn’t resist giving the finger to Mr. Privilege who shook his head and looked away in disgust.

When the teams came around for the ceremonial round of high fives, both sets of parents congratulated both teams although Nonny’s uncle needed a little encouragement.  I was grateful that the kids had been too busy playing a competitive game to pay any attention to what their idiot families were doing.

I’m sure that not every adult associated with this big club was in agreement.  And it’s true that Nonny’s uncle shouldn’t have been smoking and her mother should have tried harder to contain her rage.  But as Ben says, “tough guys don’t use weapons,” and I can think of no sharper weapon than the racism Mr. Privilege and the smug group of parents wielded on this fine sunny afternoon.

Disco Crash

I check my reflection in the mirror.  Stretch marks and a caesarean scar have put an end to my bikini days but with my sleek new black dress I look like any other slender 22 year old.  I load the boys into my used Chamois Gold 1973 Oldsmobile Delta 88 Royale, drop them off at my parents house, and head out to the Tropicana Disco to meet my friend, Sandy.

Under the swirling, flashing lights, we do the Hustle, the Bump, the Funky Chicken, and our own brand of free style disco to Donna Summer, the Bee Gees, and KC and the Sunshine Band.  But when the DJ plays Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” the perfect anthem for a newly-minted divorce`, I own that dance floor.  I belt out “Oh, no, not I” with all the conviction in the world.  But my disco zen is interrupted by a silly gaggle of weird looking guys jerking wildly with flailing elbows, clearly trying to get my attention.  I ignore them.

On my way home, a yellow Ford Pinto appears in my rear view mirror.  The guys from the disco pull up in the left lane along side of my Olds, beeping their horn, whooping and hollering, thrusting an index finger to the sky, mimicking Travolta’s signature dance move.

“What the_______” I think just as my car clips the bumper of a parked car.  The jolt ricochets my Olds into the left lane and as I close in on the car full of guys, their faces change from hilarity to open mouthed alarm.  I hit them full force in the right fender sending both of our cars spinning out of control.

When the Olds finally loses momentum, I guide it to the side of the road as do the four nerds in the Pinto.  They jump out of the car and run to ask if I am okay.  We are all shaky but okay.  I assess the damage.  The Olds took the hit pretty well and doesn’t look too bad except for a flattened fender, but the Pinto isn’t going anywhere.

“You guys were at the Tropicana tonight?” I ask for confirmation.

“Yeah, man.  We saw you,” says the curly haired one. “We were gonna buy you a drink but….” The other three pimply faced guys sort of shrink behind him like a bunch of 12-year-olds.  I yawn with impatience.  “So, how about we don’t sue you if you go out with us?” He asks.

“All four of you?”

“Yep.”

Certain they will never call anyway, I give the bold one my phone number.

But they do call.  I get Sandy to agree to go with me but she backs out at the last minute. I go anyway.  To get it over with.  They take turns dancing with me but my effort is flat.  They are all clearly nervous..having trouble with eye contact, fidgeting with their shirt collars, scratching their ears.  We have scant conversation shouting through the blaring music. I learn that they graduated from high school just a few months ago.

I stir the remnants of my screwdriver and mention that I have to get home soon to relieve the babysitter.  “Yes, I have two kids.”  The needle skips on the record, and everybody in the disco turns to stare at me with that look, that disco crash look. The “date” ends abruptly.  I drive myself home, the voice of Gloria Gaynor  and “I will survive” playing in my head with just a little less conviction.

I never hear from them again.  Didn’t expect to.  Even if I had found them charming and attractive, so much more than a few years separate us.  Their lives are college chemistry and spring break and new beginnings.  Mine is diapers and food stamps and a slightly damaged Chamois Gold Oldsmobile.

me and the boys 1978

A Tribute to Mary Jo

In a black and white photo of my first day of school, you can see Mary Jo in the background with her hands on her hips and a little jealous smirk on her face.  Me in the foreground with a matching pixie hair cut and a smart new plastic school bag.  My sister is three years younger than me which means I have always been a step or two ahead.  I rode a bike first.  Lost a tooth first.  Went to school first.

But when her turn came to go to school, to half-day kindergarten, she hated it.  She didn’t cry when mom dropped her off but she regularly escaped.  As soon as the teacher let the class out for recess, she walked the three blocks back home all by herself.

I was in the second grade at a different school, a Catholic school that didn’t have kindergarten.  We were serious in the second grade.  Serious about reading and math but mostly serious about our first communion.  That spring, my class was in church practicing for our First Communion ceremony which mostly meant practicing to assemble in an orderly line for the procession and sitting quietly in our pews.

I was concentrating hard on my prayers, trying not to be distracted by the boys who were snorting and punching each other in the pew behind me, when the black and white clad sister who was the principal came in and whispered something to my teacher.  Sister John pointed to me and I shrank with fear and guilt even though I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong.  I wasn’t talking or moving at all!

The stern nun beckoned to me with her curled finger and led me back to her office–the principal’s office, the scariest possible place on earth for a kid.  This was the place where parents were called.  The place from which some kids never returned to class!  I was wracking my brain to formulate a defense against the trouble I was sure those horrible boys had gotten me into.

But that wasn’t it at all.  It was Mary Jo.  At my school!  Sitting on a stiff wooden bench in the waiting area with her scrawny scabby legs dangling in the air, arms across her chest, and her face screwed up in a defiant sneer.  I was relieved that I wasn’t in trouble but also peeved that my sister had interrupted the transformative holy experience of first communion practice.

Apparently, my kindergarten-hating little sis had managed another one of her escapes and went home to an empty locked house.  My grandparents lived next door to us but Mary Jo didn’t dare knock on the door.  She was perpetually mad at Grandma for holding her doll hostage.  Grandma was trying to teach her a lesson for leaving the poor thing outside in the rain.

Determined Mary Jo had navigated more than a mile walk to my school crossing the treacherous Fond du Lac Avenue and wandered around the hallways until she was spotted.  “I’ve called your mother at work,” said Sister Principal.  “You are to walk home with your sister now.  Your mom will be there by the time you get home.”  I was allowed back into my classroom to collect my homework and Mary Jo and I set off for home.

“How did you get to my school?” I asked as she struggled to keep up with my brisk purposeful pace.

“I dunno,” she said.  “I walked.”

“You’re going to be in so much trouble,” I told her.  Mary Jo didn’t even flinch.

Mom flung open the door as we approached and rushed us inside.  Mary Jo got a hard hug and then a serious lecture.  Mom knelt down and held Mary Jo’s shoulders tight.  “Mary Jo, you are never, ever, ever to leave school again.”  Mary Jo sat in a tight knot and glared at me over mom’s shoulder.

I couldn’t help but admire the guts and outright boldness it took to do what she did.  It’s been that determined spirit that I’ve always respected in Mary Jo.  It shines whenever she’s up against a challenge.  It was there when she fiercely advocated for and supported her children through some challenging times, when she cared for her husband through a health crisis, when she went back to school and began a completely new career, and countless other times.  I stand with my hand on my hip, a smirk of understanding, and watch her with awe.

 

A Memorable Birthday

My birthday is January 8th.  Two weeks after Christmas and one week after New Years, in the dead of Wisconsin’s winter.  It’s usually not much of a celebration.  I’ve had a birthday gathering that was canceled due to a six foot snowfall.  A birthday when no one, not even my mother, remembered to send a card.  Oh, and then there was the year I turned 40.  I had an emergency tonsillectomy.  Yep, at best, my birthday has been just another day for my entire adulthood.

Except for last year.  I was turning 59, the last year of a big decade, and I had just quit a job that paid well but sucked the joy out of life.  It was time to get out of the god forsaken freezer we live in and let our friends, California Dave and his wife, Misao, show us a good time.

Dave and Misao live in San Jose and are wonderful hosts.  My husband, Tom, and I had visited many times before and they knew exactly what I would like.  The morning of January 8th we set out for a long hike in the red woods of Henry Cowell Park and had a picnic lunch.  Then on to wine tasting at Beauregard Winery.  Late afternoon we headed to Bonny Doon beach to watch what promised to be a glorious sunset.

As we started our slightly tipsy descent down the sand dunes with a blanket to find a comfortable viewing spot, something besides the setting sun caught our attention.  A paunchy middle aged naked guy with shoulder length white hair, who had a remarkable resemblance to my husband from a distance, was running laps between dunes, his junk flip flopping with every step.

“Hey, that guy could be Tom’s stunt double,” said Dave.  A humorous observation.  There were distinct similarities.  But seeing a naked guy wasn’t a big deal.  We’d been to this beach before and been exposed to similar situations.  This is a nude friendly beach but we’re not the type to indulge.

We had just settled down on our blanket to watch the sunset when Misao inexplicably got up and took off after Naked Guy.  Most of the time, Misao is pretty quiet and reserved but every once in a while, she surprises us.  Like the time she yelled “Heat it up, heat it up” at the craps table at Potawatomi.  Or the time she leaned over the balcony to blow kisses to the cast of Jersey Boys.  Or the time she scolded me for being impatient with my husband.  She later apologized for “going all Japanese on me.”

We could see that Misao and Naked Guy were exchanging a few words and then they turned and ran back to the blanket together.

“Oh, no she didn’t,” I said and had serious thoughts about running the other way.

“I hear it’s your birthday,” said Naked Guy whose wing dang doodle was at my eye level.

“Yes it is,” I said trying to avert my gaze.

“Well, happy birthday,” said Naked Guy with a shrug and returned to his jiggly lap running.

“Nope,” said Tom who had the same close up view I did.  “No way that guy could be my stunt double.”

I laughed so hard I snorted merlot out of my nose.  “If I was going to see a naked guy on my birthday, couldn’t it have been Antonio Banderas?”

Note:  A version of this essay with the naughty bits edited out aired on WUWM’s Lake Effect 1/7/16.  http://wuwm.com/post/essay-memorable-birthday