Editorial License

Rob Hammerton, music educator etc.

Writing About What I Don’t Know

I don’t know what it’s like to go into a store and have all eyes on me.

Unless I’m wearing something entirely too neon for my personality, that is.

I don’t know what it’s like to be considered suspicious-looking just because I’ve arrived somewhere.

I grew up in a town where most people looked like me. My first, second and third public school teaching jobs were in towns where I could say the same thing.

The first grade was the first time I came face-to-face, literally, with somebody who didn’t look very much like me. I used to get all puffed up, thinking that I’d emerged from that experience looking pretty good, pretty low on the scale of zero-to-xenophobia. His name was Jon, he lived in our town, and he did not look at all like any of my redheaded British Isles ancestors. He was friendly to everyone, he was athletic, he seemed to like music and art classes about the same amount as any of the rest of us, and he was arguably the most popular boy in our grade. All the way through the fifth grade, he was probably still in the list of Top Five Most Popular Kids Born in 1966 Living In Our Town.

He was black. I was white. And, well, let’s be honest, so were about 98 percent of the rest of the kids in the future My Home Town High School Class of 1984.

I remember noting obliquely, nearly subconsciously, that he was the first black person I’d ever seen up close. (But only in the same way that I thought one of my other friends was the first Asian person I’d ever seen up close, and that one of the kids I didn’t care for nearly so much had the brightest red hair I’d ever seen, redder than mine even. Kind of a quick glance to assess details for identification’s sake. In the case of that red-haired kid, I wanted to remember, so as to avoid – but only because he was a bad kid. The misbehave-in-class kind of bad kid; the make-fun-of-you-on-the-playground kind of bad kid.)

That thought was quickly subsumed by the conscious thought that you wanted Jon on your kickball team. He was a talented player, … but he was also the first one to jump up and down and cheer and slap you on the back when you kicked one a long way and touched all the bases.

I remember consciously thinking, “Jon is cool.” And being absolutely genuine about it. He was. And not so cool that he didn’t want to be my friend at the same time. Don’t we go through life looking for those people?

I never thought to wonder what it was like to be him, though – short of wondering what it was like to be The Most Popular Kid in the First Grade.

I don’t have any idea where he is now. He’s one of the few Class of 1984 folks whom I have not seen in some form in the social media world, or at reunions, or anywhere else related.

But, based on my keeping up with the news over the last, well, forty-plus years since I was in the first grade … I can imagine that he probably does experience daily what I, as a white person, never will: being at an instant disadvantage just because of the color of his skin.

If the events of the last half month in Ferguson, Missouri have demonstrated anything, it’s this: no, we’re not living in a post-racial world, and yes, it is very, very often about race.

I used to tell the following story, starting with the phrase “this is as close as I ever came to feeling like a minority.”

During the summer between my acquisition of a music education degree and my first teaching job, I was one of three professional instructors of a summer youth band program administered by the Boston Police Department. The Crosstown Band was made up of thirty-five high school students from the Boston Public Schools – it was truly a concert band that marched from its bus to its concert site with a percussion cadence. We probably could have done parades had we gotten parade gigs, but we never did. But we could move from place to place and look good.

For six weeks, from late June to early August, we met every day from nine in the morning to four in the afternoon. I drove in from what is now known as MetroWest, the western suburbs of Boston, and joined my other two staff colleagues in working with our brass and percussion and woodwind players in the rather well-appointed music wing of Madison Park High School in Roxbury.

Madison Park is not that far from Boston’s Symphony Hall, geographically. But in most other ways, it is far indeed. In all the time I spent there, I definitely was quite aware that I was white, and most of the other people whom I worked with, or passed on the street during lunch break walks to the nearest fast-food joint, were not.

The Band was made up of three white students, two Asian students, probably six or seven Hispanic students, and the rest were black. Fairly representative of the city’s population, I judged. And the three staff members? White, white and white. We were pretty aware of how that looked, oh yes we were.

And after the first couple of days, I discovered something, to my utter horror. I had thought of myself as an open-minded, perceptive person. When I had attended UMass-Amherst, I’d taken the campus shuttle bus from my dorm to the middle of campus, that when that bus passed the graduate research center, it suddenly turned into a micro version of the United Nations general assembly, and I was right in the midst of it.  And my first little job out of college had been in a biomedical research company whose staff of scientists contained white, black, Indian, Pakistani, Irish, and (my personal favorite person) Vietnamese heritage – i.e., I lived in an environment that was about as diverse as statistical probability would put up with. The idea that I was having trouble telling a lot of those kids apart really, really made my heart hurt.

At least some of that had to do with was the fact that, then and now, I was and am pretty slow at matching up names with faces early in any experience.

At that moment, though, I wasn’t considering that; it just worried me greatly that they all looked alike to me.

Of course, two days after that, I knew everybody by name, instrument and pizza choice. But it was a tough way to begin.

So, in finishing this story, I used to say, “yeah, I found out what it was like to be a minority.”

That wasn’t really true.

Or it wasn’t the whole truth, and I sure wasn’t finding out what reality people of color deal with every single day. At no time did I feel like I was being threat-assessed when I walked in a room. At no time was I stopped and interrogated by a local police officer – whether I looked like I had the potential to be “up to something”, or not. (From time to time I’d sneak into my staff colleague’s office to pilfer a band score; but that didn’t count, I would judge.)

In fact, as I think of it now, the pair of police officers assigned to the Crosstown Band – who did their community liaison job beautifully; all the kids really liked them from the start, I remember – those officers were nothing but white, themselves. So if they were looking at me askance, it was because they weren’t sure what form of auxiliary percussion instrument I was carrying with me from the practice room to the stage. (It’s called a guiro … it makes scrape scrape noises. Yeah, one of those.)

In short, I was a mathematical minority … but I was experiencing exactly nothing like what black people experience every day (and according to a number of stories I have heard firsthand from a few church-affiliated and other sorts of friends and colleagues, that is not limited to what used to be called “the inner city”).

We have such work to do, with regard to race relations – hell, with regard to human relations, and don’t even get me started about how society appears to be regressing in its ability to treat women respectfully (too late – this blog has been down that road repeatedly). I freely admit: as much as I would like to be color-blind, as much as I fight consciously against the instinctive awareness of “the other”, of folks who don’t look the same as I do, that has been built into humans since before we were homo sapiens (is that one not of our tribe? Is that one here to steal our food, take our land, harm us, kill us? … caveman instinct!) … it’s still, nonetheless, a fight. I wonder if human nature will end up being too strong to overcome, collectively, in the end.

And I hardly know where to start. This month, the town of Ferguson has been blowing up … two years ago, it was George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin … this summer, it’s been the immigration issues that have exploded along this country’s southwestern border … and a few days ago, a member of the US House of Representatives actually suggested that the political party other than the one he belonged to was espousing immigration policies that amounted to “a war on whites”. (I get such a bang out of members of historically majority groups, or groups that have held the most power, in this country … Caucasians, Christians, straight people, men … explaining how persecuted they are. Walk a mile in the shoes of black persons, Muslim believers, gay persons, or women wearing anything other than a burlap sack, and find out what real mistreatment feels like, could ya? War on Christmas, my British backside.)

It just seems to me like we’re so far from being a post-racial society that the sentiment of “can’t we all just get along?” seems almost quaint and naive. I never expected to feel like Gene Roddenberry’s utopian vision of a Star Trek-ified future was embarrassingly Pollyanna, but here I am.

We’ve got to start somewhere.

I wonder where that is.

August 27, 2014 Posted by | civil rights, current events | , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment