When I was about six years old, my mom and I were on a walk a few blocks from our house. I looked up and saw a pair of white low-top Chuck Taylors tied together, hanging over a telephone wire.
I was confused. How would sneakers have ended up there? I asked my mom. While I don’t remember the exact words of her response, I do remember the meaning.
“That’s what [the Black Kids] do.”
Somehow, this response satisfied me.
The Black Kids did all sorts of things that seemed foreign to me. They roamed the neighborhood in big groups, without an overbearing mom watching their every move. They showed up at our front door on Halloween night, sans costumes, but covered in shaving cream. They played in the open hydrants in the park on hot days. They were loud and wild and a little scary. They did everything in groups. They talked to each other, but never directly to my parents or to me.
I didn’t think much about the Black Kids. They had little to do with me.
As a New York City girl myself, the way I thought about Black people wasn’t meaningfully different from how I perceived Hassidic Jews: they did theirthings in their way, and it simply didn’t affect me. I never thought about tolerance, because it wasn’t my job to tolerate these groups of people any more than I needed to tolerate trees, cars, or apartment buildings. They were there and I was there and that was that.
Clearly, we were different, but that difference didn’t require any deep reflection.
Teachers and school principals were always on guard when the Black Kids were around, ready to pounce in the inevitable breaking of school rules. Ice cream truck drivers and candy store owners would fix their gazes over my shoulder, being sure to maintain the appropriate level of surveillance. I noticed, and their meaning was clear: I should be careful too.
Growing up in an environment utterly bereft of shame for its us-versus-them attitude, I would never have even been tempted to say something as ridiculous as, “I don’t see color.” I’d never seen the script for tolerant white people. I didn’t even know anyone was out there pretending that things were the same for all of us.
There were very few Black adults in my life, even in supporting roles. But I often think of Mr. Burton — an enormous Black mortician in his mid-fifties who was a frequent customer in my parents’ camera store. I never saw Mr. Burton dressed in anything but a jacket and tie. I loved when he talked to me across the checkout counter. He had a soothing baritone, and a kind of wise way of looking directly into my eyes. He always made me feel calm — as though he would have a solution for any problem I could dream up.
And it wasn’t just me. Everyone loved Mr. Burton. And it wasn’t despite his being Black. It was because of it. He seemed to be a kind of envoy from a world I’d never visited. He had the kind of serious and dignified countenance that I now associate with Black religious leaders and community organizers.
It never — not for one moment — occurred to me that Mr. Burton might have had children who were Black Kids. Or that he’d been one himself.
When I was 12, our family moved to the “other side” of Staten Island. This was A Big Deal.
No longer would we reside in the more citified section of the borough, with its famous ferry and inspiring views of the World Trade Center. Now, our neighbors would be primarily first-generation Italian-American immigrants. Some owned family businesses. Some were connected to the Sicilian mafia. Many more wished they were.
The houses in my new neighborhood were bigger, and the cars were newer. The sense of entitlement was palpable. If it weren’t malignantly ironic, I’d say it was like my family’s version of The Jeffersons show open.
We traded the rich diversity of New York City for what turned out to be a troublingly bastardized manifestation of Italian-American culture. Influenced heavily by mafia glorification, I would now be surrounded by pseudo tough-guy guido types. They created their own social-ethnic hierarchy based on the exact location in Italy your grandparents were born, and where in Brooklyn they’d ended up. One of the recurring jokes was that those of us who were Sicilian must have had some African blood.
While I occasionally heard the N-word used, it wasn’t standard fare. It was used akin to serious profanity — on par with “cunt.” Bad because it was taboo— but not because of its meaning or history.
More often, I heard “tizzone” or “moulignan” (Italian racial slurs that seemed relatively innocuous because they translated to “coal ember” and “eggplant” respectively). Those words weren’t particularly vulgar; it never occurred to me that labeling people by skin color might be inherently offensive.
I always felt mildly uncomfortable when people made racist comments, but the feeling was like hearing a joke that was gratuitously dirty. It just wasn’t my style, but I’d be lying if I claimed my reasoning to be rooted in some broader understanding of justice or equality.
Midway through my time at an already-overcrowded public high school, New York City began to bus in Black students from the neighborhood where I’d grown up. In my fourteen-year old wisdom, I knew this was a bad idea. Our school had enough problems with our mini-gangs of wannabe mafiosos roaming the streets to terrorize anyone with the audacity to “dress gay.” The last thing we needed was for the Black Kids to be forced on us. It wasn’t about fairness — because by then, we’d learned about segregation and knew it was wrong. It was about practicality. The Black Kids would not mix easily.
There were protests in the cafeteria.
There were fights outside the school.
I was afraid for the city bus drivers who would be the lone adults trapped on buses with these wild teenagers.
I thought of those Chucks on the telephone wire. Would I see them on my corner?
The same year, the Central Park Jogger was attacked. I remember the story vividly. Some lunatic rich lady thought it was a good idea to go out for a run at 9pm in Manhattan. What happened to her was in equal parts sad and predictable.
What I don’t remember is that those convicted of the gruesome attack were Black boys exactly my own age. In fact, I don’t remember anything about Trump’s newspaper ad or the trial or the boys sent to Spofford. I know the truth, though. If I had thought about those boys, I’d have assumed they were guilty, and would never have considered coerced confessions or wrongful convictions. That’s not because I thought all Black people were violent criminals — it’s because I assumed cops played by the right rules.
It wasn’t until I got to college that I 1) had my first non-white instructor; 2) learned anything about American slavery other than that it happened, it’s over, and everyone should quit bitching about it; 3) considered that there is such a thing as Black culture other than rap music and basketball.
Through a scheduling quirk, I landed in a course where I read multiple slave narratives. I was scandalized. Never before had I cried while doing schoolwork.
How could my teachers have kept this story from me? I was sickened, outraged, and confused. I read more. There was a happy ending to this story, wasn’t there? One with Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, right? The more I learned, the more appalled I became. Families separated because of their skin color, the Jim Crow South, lynchings, mass incarceration — and on and on it went.
The pieces started to fit together. Of course Black people could not have the same trust in authority figures that I could have. They’d been screwed over for centuries by law and government. Of course they stuck together. That’s how they stayed safe. Of course they were angry. These people knew that their relatives had been kidnapped, chained, tortured, and murdered. I was traumatized just from reading about it. How the hell were they supposed to live like everything was fine now? Those shoes on the phone wires started to make a lot more sense.
But even as my personal awareness and understanding developed, I still had assumptions. There was a really attractive Black guy in one of my lit classes. I thought I wasn't supposed to notice. It would never have occurred to me to flirt with him, because I assumed he wouldn’t have been interested. I had Black friends, but I still thought interracial romantic relationships were reserved for rabble-rousers looking to make some kind of statement.
I still knew that the Black Kids were different.
As it turned out though, that’s the entire point. All the truths I knew are actually examples of white privilege. Black people do not share my reality. I can count on law and government in a way they cannot. I can easily move through this world alone; they must move through it together. Knowing that we are not the same is critical to the fight for equality.
I am strangely grateful that I did not come from a background that was truly racially-integrated. The shock I experienced in college African-American studies classes could only have been the result of total insulation from Black history and culture. And it is precisely that shock that informs my understanding of how racial injustice is a bedrock American truth.
I am not here as proxy spokeswoman for the Black community. But I do bring my own message for people like me: it is possible to transcend your racist roots. You can turn your back on that portion of your heritage — and even your family — that refuses to learn. You can answer the questions for your own children about the Black Kids, and you can do it with truth. A racist upbringing can be a valuable foundation for the work to be done — work that depends on facing the realities of the uniqueness of the Black experience. After all, those who saw unmasked racism first-hand can best understand its pervasive existence.