Saturday, March 10, 2012


Senior year, high school. I guess nowadays, I should stipulate a very public school. The previous summer, for reasons that are inexplicable to me, my friends decided it would be funny to start calling me a wop. I'm not sure how they knew I was half Italian; my name wouldn't have told them because that particular heritage came from my mother's side. I don't suppose it matters; it wasn't a secret, it wasn't like I tried to keep it from anyone. The taunts weren't constant, but often enough to sting. There was one person in particular who seemed to get a big kick out of it. He was Irish, maybe full Irish from his name, maybe his glee had something to do with the way the Irish had been treated.

In any case, it was a peculiar feeling. When I was in kindergarten and 1st grade, I was fat, not obese, but hefty, and I can remember being made fun of then. The only thing that saved me was a girl in my class who was even bigger, so she got the brunt of the comments. Then in 2nd grade or thereabouts, I slimmed down, and it all stopped, at least for me. I guess we were the main targets people could actually see, as I grew up in a VERY white neighborhood. As a matter of fact, for years there was a clause in the homeowner contracts saying the houses couldn't be sold to blacks. At an elementary school reunion I attended a few years ago, the sole Chinese student in the class told us a few stories about what his family went through growing up in our hood - ugly, despicable stories, all unknown to the rest of us.

When I was in the 9th grade, the lily white junior high school I attended went through a big change. The previous summer, some kids had burned down their own junior high, so the students had to be bussed to various other schools. This caused a huge influx of a new, extremely diverse student population. This turned out to be advantageous, because the high school I was going to attend the following year was one of the most diverse in the city, so this preliminary mixing of the cultures was an introduction to a world I didn't really know or understand. Despite the lack of different cultures in my hood, I guess because of the way I was raised, I never really thought about "looking down" or discriminating against other people. It wasn't unknown to me (this was, after, the Sixties), but I tended to side with underdogs in any case, and definitely sided with the civil rights movement.

Anyway, one beautiful October day around lunchtime during that senior year mentioned above, I had taken one "wop" too many. I was incensed, embarrassed for myself AND my mother AND my grandparents AND I suppose my pride was taking a beating. I wasn't exactly a fighting kind of guy, but I had tried "reasoning" with my tormentor, and he just didn't get it. So I took the pre-packaged pie-like dessert treat out of my sack lunch from home, throwing away the rest of the food. I went into the cafeteria and smeared the thing with katchup. Then I went to the quad where the guy was having lunch with a bunch of friends, most of whom I knew. Without hesitating, I walked toward him; I could see his smile start to turn into something else as he realized he didn't really know what was coming. I smashed the ketchup smeared pie in his face as hard as I could and walked away. I believe the quad suddenly became very quiet, but I didn't really know because I was shaking and too oblivious. From that point on, he left me alone.

So: have you ever been the "victim" of prejudice? Or, conversely, have you ever been the one to perpetrate the prejudice? When did you first realize that prejudice was rampant in this country? And what do you think is the state of race relations now? Can I get any broader with these questions??? Feel free to be as narrowly focused as you wish!


My school experience was almost completely suburban or rural, and running through the high school yearbook it's hard to find someone who seems Jewish or Asian, let alone someone who is black or brown. And the lower grades were much the same; all Anglo, not much sense of the difference of lineage, although people were aware that, for instance, the Sbaffi family in my rural town were perhaps a generation or two out of Italy, I never heard discussion that wasn't in a self-deprecating mode, Mike Sbaffi maybe offering an Italian Joke. 

On the other hand, especially in that town, Polish jokes and Irish jokes were popular, if invariably trumped by some racy or scatological element. And given that I had at that age an unfortunate resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman, it was an advantage to have a stable of jokes to rely on. And given that my father ran a bar, it seemed like jokes were fairly easy to come by. And further, I suppose it's not unlikely that in the midst of the jokes I spouted to curry favor were some that offended someone I may not have even known was Polish, though I would have desisted in humiliation if I had been called on it. I'm pretty sure I offered an Irish joke to a boy with a speech impediment who happened to be Irish and had only me as a friend, and tend to think he didn't feel belittled - partly perhaps because he was too young to drink, and I think they all involved drinking.

A telling episode there, though, was probably my first exposure to actual bigotry. A rumor spread through town one summer that a black family was moving into a decrepit house near the substation. Several people who never came to the bar showed up expressly to advertise their determination to pack up and leave the next day should it be true. It turned out not to be. But I probably noticed from that point that my mother especially tended only to use denigrating, and in today's terms, emphatically politically incorrect terms for almost every possible ethnicity that could be imagined.

It was in college, and not before, that it became a point of contention. I had met a black girl named Ashley, the second black I had spent some time getting to know (the first being an exceedingly tall and scholarly looking boyfriend of one of the gaggle of Catholic school girls that frequented a card-playing group in the cafeteria.) She was cheerful, thoughful and kind, and we talked about music and religious kooks between us and among a group of six or seven who tended to hang out on the quad in good weather. No one at school would have dreamed of saying anything unkind of or to her. But my mention of her to my mother was enough to get a running argument going which was part of the larger narrative of rebellion and disaffection that were the themes of my approach to twenty. It didn't matter that there was no romance involved for her - it just wasn't appropriate. 

But that said, I ended up spending most of my life in almost exclusively white company, and apart from rampant local racial profiling of Latinos based predictably on a continuous parade of stories about gang violence in our county, I have continued to have the sense of bigotry as a remote phenomenon. Something you see on the news.

Is it not so for you?

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