You might know of the original sin
And you might know how to play with fire
But did you know of the murder committed
In the name of love – yeah
You thought what a pity
Dream on white boy
Dream on black girl
And wake up to a brand new day
To find your dreams have washed away
There was a time when I did not care
And there was a time when the facts did stare
There is a dream and it’s held by many
Well I’m sure you had to see
It’s open arms
INXS, Original Sin
All of this recent talk about -isms has got me remembering an experience I had as a young woman. Barely.
My senior year in high school, my parents decided to retire and move to small town Wisconsin. I had just turned 17 and they offered to keep up the house until I graduated in June, but instead I opted to take early graduation in January. I got a job at a local fast food joint, lived in their house for the next couple months until they were ready to sell it, and then got an apartment with friends.
I had spent the last ten years or so living in relatively wealthy, very yuppie, very white Chicago suburbs. In my high school, by the time I graduated we had two students that were black. I’m pleased to say that they were both my friends. Not that I went looking to be their friends because of their skin, but perhaps it was simply because having come from elsewhere they were both a little more open minded than most. I don’t know. Neither were close friends, so take it for what you will.
In any case, once I was settled into my apartment, most of my friends were also my co-workers. As a result, the demographics of my friends expanded a lot in this time. I don’t think I was really aware of it, or thought much about it, but looking back I can see it. My best friend and roommate was a thirty year old hispanic man. Most of the time we had one or more temporary roommates/couchsurfers. One was a guy I stayed close to for years afterwards; a native american/korean war orphan named Chang that had been adopted as a young child and then raised in the same affluent suburb where I went to high school. His adoptive parents were asian, so he was most aware of the korean half of his heritage. Another frequent visitor was a divorced, thirty year old black man from LA; my friend Randy.
It was an open secret that Randy had a thing for me. I thought he was a great guy, but I had no romantic feelings for him. We’d hang out, play nerd games, whatever. Sometimes I would see him a lot, other times he would drop out for days or weeks before showing up again. But one day, late that summer, Eddie came home on leave. This was during that early time when we were still seeing each other casually and so I had a party to welcome him home. All of my current friends and quite a number of my high school friends came out for that one. It was a good night.
Until, that is, Eddie climbed into my lap and Randy stormed out.
A day or two later I talked with Chang about all of this and he informed me that Randy felt it was a racist issue. That whether it was conscious or not, that the reason I didn’t want to be with him was because he was black. My reaction was no way! He’s my friend and I value that friendship, but I’m not attracted to him. We had a long conversation that day; Chang explaining how I did not, could not, understand what it was like for them. That it did not really make me a bad person, but that the way I was raised I had certain subconscious assumptions about what was attractive, what was not, and that this was what he was talking about.
For weeks and months afterwards, I thought very hard about all of this. Trying to dig out anything in my subconscious that could possibly have led to this place. For a while I decided that until I – and the rest of the world – could learn color blindness, that there would be racist undertones. I worked hard to try and reach that point.
Along the way, that also struck a different cord in my head as well, though. Because I knew there was value in cultural diversity. Because I thought the world would be a much poorer place if everyone became the same. Because for all this, I still felt that attraction should be a feeling, first and foremost, and analyzing the hell out of it, trying to justify whom I did, or did not, feel attracted too was just not quite right. But I kept at it because I could not stand the possibility that there was unconscious prejudice coloring those feelings.
Eventually I let it go. There were plenty of really good reasons for me to not be attracted to Randy. I was seventeen, he was thirty – not that age itself really matters, but we were in very different phases of life, then. He was divorced, had kids back in LA. I could not relate to that. Physically, skin color aside, he fit none of the attributes that I was normally attracted to; he was tall and lanky, and otherwise pretty average looking. I am, and always have been, a bit vane. If that is the right way to put it. Physical attraction is, for me, physical. I have known some incredible people over the years that I have been great friends with but never thought of as romantic alliances. (And there have been other occasions where similar, sudden breaks in friendships have occurred, as a result.) Perhaps I flirt too much with my friends. Perhaps that gives off vibes that I do not intend. Or perhaps – and I am finally coming to grips with this – perhaps it is not my fault at all, that occasionally, I have a friend that wants more from me and cannot accept the fact when it’s not happening.
Looking back now, I am pretty comfortable with the belief that they were wrong. In this case, Randy let his prior experiences with racism color his perception of me. I don’t blame him for that. He had certainly seen things in his life that I could not begin to relate to. I hope that he has since found himself a good life, a happy life. And I hope he does not look back on our friendship with the same bitterness he felt at the time. Something I will probably never know.
I have also settled pretty firmly into the perception that cultural variety is the ultimate good. That skin color is irrelevant; people are people regardless of skin, culture or species. And respect for individual persons matters. But that means there is also value in recognizing that we cannot be part of every variation. This is my culture, my in-group, my extended family, and those others are not. Not that those others are bad, or have less value, or less right to pursue their own lives. Merely that I cannot be everything at once and that’s not just okay. There is tremendous value in the Ten Thousand Ways but I can only live one of them. And that is the way it should be.