What’s it like to grow up racist?

I answered this question a few months ago on Quora at the request of my friend Fred Shirley. I think I hit some notes that reverberate. You tell me.

I was 12. He was 16, and we were pissing behind the church with some other boys.

This what he said to me.

“You're new here, PK.” He said this as he stole sidelong glances at my open fly. “Don't never let no nigger see you like that. A nigger sees some little white boy's dick, he ain't gonna be able to control himself.”

To ask what it’s like to grow up racist, Fred, is almost to ask what it’s like to grow up American.

I am not a racist. I did not grow up in a household where racist values were tolerated or encouraged. But I nevertheless grew up surrounded by subtle racist cues.

As a gay man, I have had to deal with internalized homophobia. Plenty of us do, even though we don't for a second believe the nonsense behind homophobia. I think that subtle, unintentional racism is much like internalized homophobia.

Black people in the United States have really only been full citizens since 1964. Even today, de facto segregation is the rule in very many parts of the United States. I spent my early childhood in a town that had a large black population that had been in place since at least the 1880s. No black kids were in my classes at school, though.

My little brother had a black friend, a boy in his class. He and his parents were the first black people I ever knew personally, despite the fact that my town was 40% black.

That's what it's like to grow up racist.

When I was five or six, there was some sort of disease scare in my town. Maybe it was polio. I don't remember. I do remember that all the parents rushed their kids to clinics to get innoculations ahead of schedule. Social barriers broke down.

I remember being afraid and not knowing why. I remember standing in line, my mother holding my sister's hand and cradling my baby brother in her arms. I remember seeing the line crowded with black people, being astonished by them, wondering what they were.

That's what it's like to grow up racist.

My parents were good people as people go. My father was a Baptist minister, and that's why I was out behind that church in northern Alabama. We'd just moved down from Ohio.

Two things make me remember that day. First, I was shocked that people would openly use a racist pejorative that I had been taught to never utter. Second, I remember a frisson, a thrill of unnamed, unknowable sexual anticipation as this older boy spoke of things I barely understood.

I certainly didn't understand that he was passing down to me the meme of black men as sexual predators. He was, though.

That's what it's like to grow up racist.

I didn't blindly take him at his word. It didn't take me long to figure out that he was actually quite the sexual threat in any case, himself. He wasn't ogling my fly that day for nothing. But that doesn't mean that his message, the same one I would hear from many others, didn't somehow internalize.

His father was a deacon. All the deacons showed up at my house one night to confront my father, the new pastor. I spied on the meeting, my ear pressed to dad's study door. The delegation demanded that he stop busing black children to Sunday school.

They told him he'd be fired if he didn't stop. I was afraid and wished he would.

That's what it's like to grow up racist.

What it's like to grow up racist is to live in a world where arbitrary things like skin color actually matter. To live in a world where “race” is a real thing, where it matters a great deal, whether you want it to matter or not.

What it's like to grow up racist is to see skin color as a thing, much more of a thing than nose shape or hair color, or handedness.

One can reject such nonsense out of hand as I certainly have. One can even fight against racism, as my father did, and as I have since.

But that doesn't mean that all the subtle cues one took on as a child are not still lurking somewhere.

Racism won't disappear until nobody has to grow up racist.

I'm sad that I won't live to see that day.

Written by

Writer. Runner. Marine. Airman. Former LGBTQ and HIV activist. Former ActUpNY and Queer Nation. Polyglot. Middle-aged, uppity faggot. jamesfinnwrites@gmail.com

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