When I arrived in New York City in 1983, I was almost seven years old and I’d never seen a black person in real life. I’d never seen one on television either. There were no children of color in my neighborhood, school or city. In kindergarten we had to memorize a famous Polish poem about a nice little African boy called Bambo who scurried up a tree because his mother told him he needed a bath and he was afraid of turning white. “Little black boy Bambo lives in Africa; such beautiful skin our little friend has…” That was the extent of it - the extent of my knowledge of what it mean to be black.
Poland was heavily ensconced behind the Iron Curtain back then and my parents were political refugees, coming to start a new life in a new land. This new land was full of new faces - brown and black faces, so many shades of color I didn’t know where to look. It was overwhelming, incredible, and very soon, completely normal, just another thing I got used too, like seven whole channels on TV and supermarkets full of anything you could ever ask for.
Back home we feared the government and those in charge; they were the enemy, they were the ones who had the dollars to shop in Pevex stores - stores where you could buy furs and imported PespiCola and Levi jeans. If you shopped at the Pevex, you were suspicious and lucky because you could afford luxury in a place where the average person waited on three-hour long lines for toilet paper and a rationed out pound of sugar. Color didn’t scare me; Commies and rich people did.
In America, my skin was white, but my voice was tinged with a heavy accent. I was a foreigner from a Soviet Bloc nation which in 1983 meant something scary.
By second grade, I stopped going to ESL classes. I was learning. I lived in the Glenwood Housing Projects in Brooklyn. There was a boy in my class who was nicer to me than anybody else. His name was James. He had a huge smile and beautiful white teeth, American teeth. We were paired up in Social Studies. Our job was to make a papier mache Statute of Liberty, and we worked hard. He was my first black friend, and then he became just my friend. I wonder what happened to James and where he is now.
It’s hard for me to write this, because I don’t really know what to say. But I think about color every day now; I think about Ferguson and race and riots and change. And all I know is no one around me is really talking about any of it, about how our country seems to be imploding, about how it’s sitting on some ugly little secret nobody white wants to mention. No one on my Facebook is mentioning it either, save for a few “activist” friends, and a writer I look up to. Are the others afraid to speak about their concern? Or are they afraid because they have none?
I’ve been afraid too; to say the wrong thing, to hurt feelings or be told off. Afraid even that I am writing the word “black” too much; that I am writing the wrong words. I am uncomfortable and I don’t know why. Or I do know why - the events in Ferguson gnaw at me late at night, because they are making me question who I am, how I think, and what my adopted country has become. So I write this despite my fear. I write this because my gut tells me that if I felt compelled to write about Robin Williams dying, I should be compelled to write about Mike Brown. Because in a way, they are about the same thing; senseless death.
I learned about Martin Luther King, Jr in the second grade too. We read about his life and then were told to draw something inspired by his story. I drew a picture of two white kids and two black kids holding hands on a green hill. My teacher beamed. She said I got the ‘message.’
All my life, I’ve prided myself on not being “racist.” This means, among other things, that I have black friends, that I am curious about African-American culture and history, that I have devoured An Invisible Man and all of Toni Morrison’s books, that I’ve cried during movies like Twelve Years a Slave, that my roommate in college was black, that I teach my children to celebrate and respect differences like skin color and faith while reminding them we are all part of the human race. There. I am doing my job. I am a white privileged person, I am a Polish immigrant, and for whatever reason, my empathy for the mistreated runs deep. I had nothing once. I had close to nothing. I worked hard. I reached for the fucking stars, and here I am now and I still believe that this is some kind of magic formula - hard work plus faith - and in the US of A, no matter where you come from or what you look like, the formula works. Maybe this is me being naive. Maybe this is me being optimistic. I am sensitive about coming off better than simply because I am better off. My eight year old son has a best buddy in school whose father is Polish, whose mother is African-American, and whose skin is brown, and none of that matters except for the fact that his buddy also really loves The Teenage Mutant Turtles. And I feel good about that. I feel ‘proud.’
But I don’t know what the fuck that means anymore. What does that even mean?
And there’s a bigger but. The but I can’t get out of my head, and why I am finally writing this blog.
Last Saturday night my husband performed at a charity concert in St. Petersburg, Florida. There was a crowd of 800 people, all of them white. They came to hear some Van Halen covers, to help raise money for a good cause, and maybe to get a picture with Patrick Wilson, who happened to be the drummer of this little band he’d formed with his brothers. My sons and I were ushered to the ‘VIP’ section. The venue was a sweltering and smelly brewery and God knows why the hell I wore heels and ‘VIP’ just meant plastic chairs and a thin blue rope. There were three rows of VIP seats. My kids and I sat in the third row because the first two were already occupied. They were occupied by faces I couldn’t place. Were they friends of the family? Were they friends at all? Were they lost? Who the hell were they? I smiled warily as I sat down, but it bugged me. It bugged me because the reason I was so thrown off was because the people sitting in front of me were African-American. And I felt like they were in the wrong place simply because of that. I caught myself. I felt shame at the thought, and I forced it away, pretended like the thought had never happened. Halfway through the concert a young man was brought to the stage, to talk a little about where the proceeds of the concert that night would go. They would go to his school, a school that gave out merit based scholarships to students in financial need. It was a rigorous program, 11 months out of the year, ten hours a day of learning - a program that got these smart kids who needed help, ready for college and beyond. The boy speaking was charming and eloquent, nervous and humble. On the stage, my husband beamed at him. In the crowd, I beamed at him. What a great kid, I thought. And then I realized the people sitting in the first two rows of the VIP section belonged there. They were his family, and they were also beaming. And I fucking died a little bit inside. Because me, consummate lover of humanity & just causes, me the ‘non-racist,’ had just had a very racist moment. And it scared the hell out of me.
In the middle of writing this, I take a break. I walk upstairs to say goodnight to my boys. I see my dad and stop in my tracks. I call out to him.
"Dad, when we first got here in 1983, were you afraid of black people?"
I expect him to say no. He was a defender of human rights, a freedom fighter back in Poland, imprisoned for his politics and then deported. But my father turns his eyebrows downward and looks sheepish as he nods his head yes.
"You were? Why?”
"I dunno. I’d never seen so many in person. I was afraid because they looked different." And then he quotes the Polish poem about Bambo. I am dumbfounded. My father is a radical-liberal-conservative. He is a conundrum. Someone who can spew bizarre ideology and then call my old college roommate his ‘fourth daughter’ because he loves her so much. He is not a racist but he is prone to stereotypical thinking. He tells me there were black Communist students from Cuba in Poland in the late 60s and him and his “white trash” teenage buddies would beat up on them sometimes. I widen my eyes in disbelief. I yell at him, why?
"Because we were fucking stupid."
He tells me back then in Poland if you were gay and someone reported you, you were imprisoned for three years. He tells me people were scared all the time. He tells me things I don’t want to hear. He tells me some of his best pals when he was a NYC taxi driver were African and Jamaican cabbies, “good hard-working people.” He tells me things that don’t fit the narrative. He tells me it’s wrong to judge someone based on their skin color because that is basic ignorance and he tells me when he first got to the States he was afraid to touch black people. "But then I learn."
After our conversation, I tell my father thanks and continue up the stairs before he stops me.”
"Why do you wanna know all of this, anyway? You writing another book?"
"No. I just wanted to talk about it."
He nods his head.
Later, I go back to this blog and I feel like crying.
I want America to dust itself off and be better than this. I want justice for Mike Brown’s family. I want the looting to stop. I want the police officers in Missouri and beyond to remind themselves why they took an oath to protect and serve. I want us to dig deep and stop being such fucking cowards. Mostly, I want fear to give way to dialogue.
We learn to love as much as we learn to hate.
It’s time we learn to talk about the things we don’t know how to talk about. Now would be a good start.