I said I would discuss the visions my peers and I had of a racially and ethnically mixed future. These ideas have affected my perceptions of recent behavior among younger individuals that I consider extreme and divisive. I wondered if this was something unique to myself or an open-mindedness held by my “generation”. I say that last term loosely, because we are considered Generation X yet most of us are caught somewhere between them and those that follow. The events of my age cohort, plus personal experiences, have likely created a unique outlook on these issues…
First, let’s start with my home life. I was raised in a Caucasian suburban household by Caucasian parents from Caucasian families. One side came from rural, working-class Western New York… the other were middle-class transplants from New York City out to the country. One common tie between both was high intelligence and a focus on education. Both parents were college educated and so were my maternal grandparents; although my paternal grandparents weren’t, they were both smart individuals and my grandfather was a jack-of-all-trades and generalist. I lay this out to show that the first things my families taught weren’t racism or division, but to be open to learning and to think critically about everything. Despite starting my life in a predominantly Caucasian culture, I never thought about race or ethnicity until much later. The color of someone’s skin or the accent of their words were no different than their height or whether they were left-handed.
Flash forward to growing up in a suburb of Washington, DC where the demographics were about to experience a major shift. All through the 80’s I’d grown up knowing mostly Caucasian kids from my neighborhood but being just as friendly with anyone. Despite being bussed to schools in poor Black neighborhoods, my interactions were mostly confined to my gifted programs and I still was ignorant of any divide. A friend was a friend, regardless of their race or ethnicity; by the time I was in Middle School, I had friends who were Black, Asian, and Indian and that was just who they were.
The late 80’s, early 90’s saw a serious shift, not only in my environment but in my experience. Prince George’s County changed from 37% to 51% Black almost overnight as families moved out from Washington, DC. Unfortunately, instead of blending together, a great “White Flight” occurred, with areas that used to be mixed suddenly dominated by African-American residents. Many of these were working class or poverty-stricken families, and with them followed negative changes. Shopping centers began catering solely to Black clientele, youth participation in gangs and drugs caused crime to rise in quiet suburban neighborhoods, and a venomous attitude toward Whites created a hostile environment. A new cultural movement taught African-Americans not to mix with Whites, but instead to look down upon them and cling to the African cultures that were stolen from them.
At this point, I was being bussed into a school that was 90% Black. Peers who had long been friends would no longer talk to me because of the color of my skin. I was physically attacked in my own neighborhood because a new Black gang had moved in and were asserting their dominance over the remaining White kids. In my High School I sat through classes, the only Caucasian student, as a Black guest speaker would spit vitriol toward Whites the likes of which Malcolm X would cringe at. We even had one teacher who liked to play Spike Lee movies on half days, just to kill time. I watched as other students refused to stand for the National Anthem but would jump up and roar loudly for “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, apparently ignorant of the “every” part of that title. Until I found my place and friends, I even experienced physical assaults on my person all because my race offended someone.
You would think this would drive any sane person to the same extremes being doled out. Instead, the end of High School sparked a new trend: alternative cultures. I ended up finding my place with a motley crew of artists, druggies, metalheads, punks, and other outcasts. Although still primarily Caucasian, there was room for everyone to smoke a cigarette and talk about the detritus of life. I met one of my best friends at that wall, an African-American woman who became my twin in so much and remains so to this day. This environment showed that we could all unite together under a single culture, regardless of race, sexual orientation, religion, etc. and sparked a new vision of the future. I wasn’t the only one who saw it, as many of these same people are still my friends today and hold the same beliefs.
As college opened up, I began to embrace the alternative lifestyles that were open to everyone. I was not a White suburban kid, I was a pagan metalhead and my friends joined me regardless of their skin tone. Alcohol (and more) flowed free at social gatherings and I found that race didn’t matter when you were working minimum wage jobs and just wanted to have a good time. My worlds expanded to areas long thought off limits racially. I would spend all night at a music festival in Baltimore, chill at a friend’s house in the tenements on Eastern Avenue, and ride with some people to pick stuff up on SouthEastern DC. Sure, I recognized the difference between my race and those around me, but to those hanging together and partying it didn’t matter. We all walked, talked, and dressed alike, no one giving a second thought to that individual of a different skin tone.
During this time, the 90’s roared on, with Hollywood and music reflecting our vision of the future. Crime, goth, and cyberpunk movies showed blended cities, where the working class and poor consisted of all races and ethnicity. The only divide was between the haves and have-nots, and my circles envisioned a society where we railed against the corporate masters… not each other. Music blended, with rock and rap, country and pop, and electronica invading everything. There was no white or black music, anyone could rise in any genre and all music could find its mix. Our language reflected this, with no “Ebonics” or “AAVE”, but instead a language we referred to as “DC” or “PG”. Dialect was not based on skin tone or ethnicity but on location and experience. When we looked to the future we knew we had a lot of bleak problems, but racism was not supposed to be one of them.
Move on to today, and suddenly racism is back in the topic. A half-Black President brings the worst out in people, sparking more outrage and lies from opponents than any previous office holder. Courts in southern states defend perpetrators of race-based crime, when you thought they’d learn their lessons decades prior. In the midst of this, many younger generations become so outraged they retort with similar behavior, creating further racial and cultural divides in the name of “holding on to their heritage”. They claim people aren’t allowed to talk or act like them, because it’s “appropriation” and deride those who don’t agree with their vitriol or isolation. Worse, they claim that the sins of European colonization past preclude any Caucasians from having valid complaints or opinions… and in so doing, end up guilty of the same behavior they rail against.
What happened to that vision of my age cohort? This blending of races, ethnicity, etc. into a singular entity. We were separate based on beliefs or finances, never on the color of our skin or our heritage. Yet suddenly the divide comes back and we stand here, confused at the behavior not only of the racists that lied dormant for decades but also at our own younger peers who seem to oppose a blended society as vehemently as White supremacists. Is there hope to move past this momentary set back and return to a unified path? My hope is that our vision isn’t dead but simply waylaid by other issues. Resolve those and once more the concept of Black, White, Asian, etc. culture will fade and we’ll go back to joining as a singular, global society. Oh, it won’t be perfect, full of environmental disasters and corporate greed, but it will be our own little dystopian utopia as far as race is concerned.