Today we celebrate the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King. But what I think about most is that day in April when he died. I was about 650 miles away from Memphis, Tenn., where he was gunned down, and truth be told, about a million miles away from giving a shit about it.
As a 12-year-old white kid growing up on the south side of San Antonio in 1968, I was steeped in white privilege long before white folks even knew what white privilege was. A lot of white folks still don’t.
On that fateful day, I was playing with my best friend, Billy, at his rattrap apartment complex that sprouted up behind the neat clapboard house I called home. I remember Billy meeting me outside his second-floor apartment and telling me we couldn’t go in because his mother was all upset over some guy who’d gotten shot, and it was all over the news. I was upset, too, but only because I’d really wanted to go inside. Billy’s mother, Mitzy, was kinda pretty, and I kinda had a crush. Details about the more important events of the day were of no interest to me then. I didn’t know who’d gotten shot, and didn’t figure it out until a few years later.
As a future newsman, it’s appalling that I didn’t know, even at that tender age, but worse still, I didn’t even know about the whole Civil Rights movement. I was oblivious, and I think that’s how a lot of folks were, even some who were a lot older than I. If I read the newspaper at all, it was the comics or the sports page, and by the time the TV news came on, I’d be outside horsing around, maybe throwing a rubber ball off the garage door and catching the rebound, making like I was a shortstop.
Of course I knew there were people with different colors of skin, but I was sheltered, didn’t think too much about it. In fact, I can recall just one black kid in my entire elementary school, which back then accounted for the first six years of my education. That black kid was so unique, in fact, that I can still remember his name, though Isaac was no friend of mine. I remember Isaac swinging on the monkey bars during recess one day, and some of the other kids making monkey sounds behind his back, just giving Isaac a little jungle love. I probably didn’t understand what was going on, not really, but I suppose I knew it wasn’t nice. But I didn’t care. No one did.
Lucky for Isaac, he didn’t last long at my school. I guess his family moved on, because one day he was just gone, and we were back to having just two colors: white and brown. “Meskins,” we’d call the Hispanics, and I don’t know what they called us, though I suspect it might have been more creative. There was some mixing, but there was also a feeling of “us” and “them,” and I remember one Latina who ran in the same circles as the white girls being called “a high-rate Meskin.” Her name was Anna, and she was pretty, though I never told anybody I thought so.
Oh, and there was Manuel, he of the custodial staff, who wore a khaki uniform just a shade lighter than his skin. Everybody knew Manuel because he was the guy who would come into the classroom to scatter that pink sawdust crap after one of us kids had puked up his lunch all over the floor. I was that kid one day.
Fire drills happened several times a year, but one day we had a special fire drill. When the bell rang three times in succession, signaling the start of the drill, we noticed that they’d set up barriers at some of the exits so that our usual escape route was blocked — like what might happen in a real fire. Manuel was stationed in a doorway, barring our egress with a long-handled mop. One of my classmates shouted, “Out of the way, you taco vendor!”
Manuel just smiled and shook his mop. Everyone laughed, and the teachers must have overheard, too, but nobody got in trouble.
See, that’s how it was in those days. I was never taught to act superior because I was white, but conversely, I can’t recall ever being taught that others weren’t inferior, and while I didn’t participate in any of the racial crap that I’ve highlighted here, I also didn’t do anything to try and stop it. It was like swimming across a river, and racism was just the medium through which we moved. Where racism was concerned, I wasn’t a deep thinker, and maybe my parents were a little like that, too. For me, it took moving off to college — a privilege they never enjoyed — before I truly understood that some of the shit I’d been exposed to wasn’t quite natural.
Could be that in 2017, there still aren’t that many deep thinkers, certainly not as many as I once believed.
Concerning the 1960s, I was still just a youngster and might be excused for not knowing that in other parts of the country, people were burning crosses, lynching people and cracking heads during protest marches. And I might even get extra credit in some quarters for eventually rising above my lily-white upbringing.
But the thing is, I don’t want to be excused, and I don’t deserve extra credit. The cold truth is that even at age 12, I damn sure should have had more awareness of national issues, and I damn sure should have known that it wasn’t just “some guy” who had been shot on April 4, 1968, it was Dr. Martin Luther King!
Ignorance at any age is appalling, especially when it’s yours.
And something else that’s appalling is having the president-elect of this country, during the very week that we celebrate the birth of Dr. King, publicly mocking Rep. John Lewis, one of the true heroes of the Civil Rights movement, who risked his life and had his skull fractured for the just cause of freedom. This country has taken a huge step backwards from that place, hard-won by King, Lewis, and other heroic men and women of color.
White privilege is when you don’t give a shit about any of that.
Mothers and fathers, you know best how to raise your children, but consider this: If they are to overcome, first they must know that there is something to overcome. Don’t shelter them. Don’t let them be the ones who are sitting in their living rooms 40 years from today and thinking to themselves, “I should have known.”