Growing up white in America
I spent my first 14 years in a totally white part of North Eastern Ohio. Geauga county. Named after the Geauga Indians that lived there until European diseases wiped them out. Along with other tribes. Went to school from kindergarten trough part of 8th grade in a big brick school built during WPA. It is where I had my first life lesson.
There was a kid who rode the same bus as I did in first grade — Mack Wilder — who would tease and bully me no end. Including grabbing my lunch box when we got off the bus and trowing it on the ground, knowing my thermos would brake. Half way through the year my family moved to a new house that my parents had built and my bus and rout changed. So no more Mack Wilder. I still hated him though. But he was no where to be seen the next year. I eventually asked another kid what happened to him and was told that he and his mother left and moved to Cleveland to live with her sister. That his father drank a lot would would beat them both constantly. My anger toward him just deflated, right then and there. I actually began to feel sorry for the kid – the same kid the bullied me.
We had Amish kids in class but that was all. Everyone came from more or less middle class families. A lot of them lived on farms. Some actually worked the farm, others just lived on one and used the barns and other buildings as giant play houses. My aunt and uncle and grandmother on my father’s side, along with my cousins, lived on the west side of Cleveland. Between Clark and Dennison Av. A very white blue collar area.
I was aware of different ethnic groups but mostly from their caricatures on television but I was more aware there were kids whose last names I could not pronounce. [Not that mine was all that easy. I only became able to spell it correctly by the time I was in 4th grad.] And I was in Jr. High before I knew my father was of Finnish decent. He never thought of himself as anything other that American since he was born here, in Pittsburgh Pa. I was aware of Black people but had never meat any. Even in Cleveland as they did not go downtown then or ride or drive the buses. But I knew of the situations down south from the television and radio news, which my parents watched religiously. I knew of president Kennedy sending troupes to Alabama, though I don’t think I really understood why or why the people there had such a reaction.
Which brings me to life lesson number two. In 1963 – when I was 14 — my father decide to move us all down to Florida. We wen initially down through Western part of Virginia then the eastern side of North Carolina and Georgia and stopped in Port Charlotte on the West Coast. At that time Port Charlotte was a Golf and Water Front community just the other side of Peace River lagoon from Punta Gorda. Both white as the driven snow. And nearly everyone there — especially in Port Charlotte — was a white upper middle class northern transplant. [I would find out later this was typical of most communities on the west and east coasts of Florida.]
It’s also where I came smack up against bigotry and racism. Not the in-your-face kind that was presented on the news from Alabama and Mississippi or North and South Carolina. No this was the dog whistle kind, though the term was not used then. The under-your-breath kind. Terms like “Those People” and “Not our kind” and “They.” I had a friend there in the Jr. High and we would hang out at the bus stop waiting for the bus after school. When president Kennedy was shot I — and most all others — was in a state of shock. They even brought a TV int our class room to watch. Pretty unusual for that time period. I saw my “friend” at the bus area but he was not who I imagined he was. He was jumping up and down and singing “Kennedy is dead. Shot in the head. Kennedy is dead. Shot in the head.” There was a set of monkey bars there and I told him if he did not shut the hell up, I would wrap him around those monkey bars permanently. Our friendship came to and end that day. You see I knew with out having to ask or even guess much why he was happy.
I knew… You see both my parents were vehemently anti-racist. My mother having had a set to with here father over a Jewish boy she had a crush on and my father about his sister and mother’s attitudes. Though I had never been exposed to racism, it was explained and pointed out in great detail.
I also found out about religious bigotry. There was a Catholic church right near by were a number of us would go to shoot basket ball. One of the few sports I could do at all. I could not hit, catch or throw a baseball. And I could not run fast enough for foot ball and could not catch a pass if my life depended on it. There was a girl that came there too and she and I would play and I guess I had a bit a a crush on her. [though for my life I cannot remember her name]. One day a group of older boys came by and told me quite pointedly that since I was NOT Catholic, I should not be playing or seeing her … again … ever.
I left and she understood why.
We left Port Charlotte soon there after and went to Miami. I knew a little already about Miami as a girl in my class up in Ohio had vacationed there with her mother and told the whole class about it. [With pictures and everything]. Stayed at a motel and then went briefly back up north and then returned to Miami. We were there for about a week when in the midst of getting a house, my father had a brain hemorrhage and died.
My mother moved us temporarily up to live with her parents outside of Philadelphia in Lower Bucks County. They lived in a development that was like most of the others there. Lilly white and upper middle class. No minorities in the school or anywhere. We stayed there until August of that year and my mother decided to move us down to Naples Florida. Another west coast community made up almost entirely of northern transplants. At that point my mother had decided to open her own kindergarten, instead of nursing. She was an RN had her license in Florida but hated hospital nursing and Florida did not at that time have any public health nurses, which she had done in Ohio.
Life lesson number three. That first year we were dirt poor. Nearly all my father’s estate went into making my mother’s business go. We ate fish that my brother would catch, chicken backs and necks from the cheapest grocery store and what ever was in the unlabeled cans we bought. Breakfast was oatmeal and powered milk. For a former middle class family, pickens were pretty lean. I would collect pop bottles and turn them in for change. I covered all of north Naples doing this and my bike tires got very thin. So I would wrap them with tape to keep the tubes in side, which became very well patched. But I knew this situation would be temporary and it was. Once my mother’s kindergarten took off, things got much better and I began to get baby sitting jobs. In my Junior year of HS, I got a part timer job as repair technician.
I was pretty geeky and loved radio and electronics. But my father gave all my electronic stuff away before we moved, so I would scrounge behind TV shops for discarded radio and TV chassis in town, tie them on to my bike and take them home. So the TV job was a double blessing.
Life lesson number four:In my Senior year of HS, I was — as everyone else — required to take a social studies class that included what was called Americanism VS Communism. A patently propaganda course stating America’s position. I got in to a discussion with the teacher — the first actual Black man I had meat. It concerned what would happen if there was a nuclear war. What would the outcome be like. He assigned me to read a book called Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, write a report on it and give the report in class. I have to say this teacher — more than any other impressed me. He had a deep wisdom about him and it showed through. His only criticism was that the report should have been longer and a bit deeper. We also had quite a few Seminoles who attended the HS there. Until the county built a new school closer to Immokalee. The Seminoles were pretty cool though I knew few of them.
After graduation I decided to go into the Air Force since I had been in CAP for a brief period. On my way to see the recruiter I was in a bad accident on my motor scooter which landed me in the hospital for 6 weeks. After further recuperation I got a job at another TV shop. I had been rejected from the military because of my leg, which had a pin in it and my hearing, since I had tinnitus. This was a one man shop and one day we both went to the black area of town. Across the railroad tracks. The first time I had been there, to pick up a TV from an old black lady there. An old B&W table top set. This would be my next life lesson. He — the owner, Jim — told me that this lady did not have much and could afford little. Do the best you can. The picture tube is quite week. Try the rejuvenater on it and maybe a picture tube brightener. He would try to find a better one for her. I don’t think he charged her much, if anything for it. The other places I had worked in town, you did not see black go in. Neither of the larger ones, that is for sure. I think he was the only one who would do service calls in the black area or even had blacks come in. It was a small shop. I don’t think he had a racist bone in his body.
After my settlement from the court case from my accident went through, I went up to Cleveland to stay and go back to school. I enrolled at Cuyahoga Community College in electronics and got a student assistant job in the Physics and Chemistry department. This was the downtown metro campus and the mix of people who worked, taught and went there was quite large. By that time I was heavy into the anti-way movement as well, though with a deferment, had no risk of seeing anything outside of Cleveland at that time. I was in charge of keeping things going in the physics lab and eventually also keeping their DEC PDP 8i mini computer up. But I spent most of my time in the chemistry stock room, with the lab technicians. My days of being in an all white community had ended. I don’t think I even noticed since everyone there was on the same page philosophically, politically and economically. We were all mostly getting by for the college didn’t pay anyone very much. Nobody I could remember ever thought about our and others ethnic background, it being such a mixed bag. We had an ethnic food day for lunch and I brought some Pulla. There was Lebanese and Italian and Polish and lots of things. All very good, I remember. Larry Smith, one of the technicians — Black guy — brought some corn bread and black beans he got from his mother. The corn bread was sweet, I told him in Florida it was not sweet. He said his mother came from Chicago or some such.
I left Cleveland after two years there for reasons left to another diary and lived in Central Florida with my family. Going to what at that time was call Florida Technological University [now UCF]. The feeling there was very different. Where at TRI C in Cleveland everybody mixed with little thought, at FTU they didn’t much. Most kept to their own group as it were. Blacks, whites, what ever. Each with their own areas, so to speak.
I noticed this as well when I visited up in North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Nobody called it the Black side of town, but it was there just the same. If anyone called it anything, it was “the poor area,” not meaning the economics either.
I was in many 12 step groups in Florida later on and there were separate groups that had black people and ones that were nearly all white. It was like a hidden almost invisible form of segregation.
I noticed this up here in Cleveland now where racial segregation is kind of a subset of economic segregation. Divided along both economic lines and racial lines.
I also noticed that in the last 30 years or so there has been a slow resurgence of cultural identification as well and maybe resulting in some bizarre form of segregation along cultural lines. This is odd to me since except for those who have immigrated here, most were born here. My father refused to learn to speak Finnish because as he said and told his sister and mother, he is American since he was born here.
As one person pointed out in a comment, there are those who relate to a particular group regardless of their ethnic background because that is how they were raised. That whiteness or blackness or any other -ness appears to be a belief or state of mind or attitude, as much as or more than ethnic origin. That maybe being rich or poor has as much to do with what one believes one is, as actual reality.
I think too that how one is treated has as much to do with how one perceives one’s self and how one behaves. I have seen people at work whose overall behavior and attitude toward their fellow workers and who they are willing to associate with change markedly once promoted.
Capitalism by it’s very nature pidgin holes people and expects certain rigid behavior based on economics, gender and race. It needs and requires some group to always be on the bottom. A rigid hierarchical system.
Blacks currently still occupy much of that bottom area but at some point another group will be required to take their place. There will be a continued effort though to keep white people on the top for quite some time.
Where do I personally fit in? Well being a geek most of my life. A disaster at sports and only marginally artistic, when I find out — I’ll let you know.