October 19, 2014

Dozed all morning, read the Sunday Times, etc. Visited a friend’s baby, whose name is Frank. He chewed on my watch for a while. I’m glad I own a watch that is palatable to a baby. And also waterproof.

We spent the afternoon & evening at a marching band competition, one specifically geared toward “high-stepping” marching bands, which is a style of marching band that, in the South anyway, is primarily associated with HBCUs and predominantly black high schools.

I was never in the marching band – I play no instruments, which people seem to find confusing, given my lifelong dedication to music – and I don’t recall ever attending a football game when I was in high school or college. But M was in the marching band, and in any case I love marching band competitions.

The best high school marching band in Durham is widely known to be the Hillside High marching band, which is an excellent example of the high-stepping style, with its multiple dancing drum majors, emphasis on the drum line, and breaks in certain songs in which the entire band kinda bugs out dancing & then pops back into formation again. I had seen Hillside (and smaller crosstown rivals Southern) in parades, but this was my first high-stepping competition.

And it was awesome, of course. I insisted on going early enough to see the scrappy smaller 1A schools, which might have only 2 tubas & a handful of each of the other instruments. I’ve always loved an underdog. But it also makes the buildup to the 3A & higher schools even more interesting. At this comp, Hillside was given a run for its money by the 71st High School band from Fayetteville, so, um, go see them march any chance you get. You know, if you’re in Fayetteville on a Friday night in the fall.

The show was also interesting to me, sociologically, in that M & I were among only a handful of white people there. This wasn’t particularly surprising – the bands were integrated, but the sad state of self-segregation in American high schools means that many of these schools are 90+% black, even if they’re from communities which are, like Durham, much more racially balanced.

But that wasn’t what interested me. To be frank, what interested me was that after 6 years of living Durham, I felt entirely comfortable being one of the only white people in a crowd of 500+ people, a situation that probably wouldn’t have been the case at any time before I moved here.

It’s not that I was raised racist – far from it. My parents are pretty quintessentially mainstream American liberals. They’re Unitarians, had careers in academia, care deeply about the environment, etc.

But they didn’t engage us kids in a lot of self-reflection growing up. And they didn’t start marching on behalf of causes – primarily climate change – until after they were retired & us kids were long since adults.

Plus as a family, we’re all kind of shy, so our collective circle of friends with whom we socialized regularly probably totaled under 30 people, plus all the other [white] Unitarians whom we saw at church.

So I grew up meeting plenty of Asian graduate students. And I grew up with a reasonable number of black classmates (or at least after we moved to South Carolina from Indiana). But our actual social circles were pretty darn homogeneous. 

And I was a nerdy kid who liked to read fantasy & science fiction, and who listened to Rush (and later a lot of metal), so I wasn’t immediately enamored of mid-80s hip-hop in the way that so many of my friends were, and thus never had even that vicarious immersion in black culture that so many of my classmates did.

(Public Enemy was a different story, but you don’t get much more cloistered white upper-class liberal than having Public Enemy be the only hip-hop band you like.)

In college I took African-American literature classes, and women’s studies classes, but it was all pretty academic, and either I wasn’t hearing it (which wouldn’t surprise me), or the concept of white cis-het male privilege just wasn’t being talked about.

The 20 years after college have involved a slow, mostly positive trajectory towards actually understanding my place in the world, understanding my [absurdly large] privilege, coming to terms with it, figuring out how to start trying to counterbalance it, etc. 

But I’m still a shy person who has maybe a couple of dozen close friends, and then a much larger circle of vague acquaintances. And yeah, a lot of them look a lot like me. I work in the tech industry, for chrissake, and I listen to a lot of indie-rock and metal. 

So while I’ve had friends & acquaintances of many races for years, my overall social circles have still skewed whiter than American society as a whole. Which means that my politics have, sadly, been more progressive & integrated in the abstract than has my day-to-day life.

Which is not to say that I’m a bad person, or latently racist, or anything. I mean, I benefit from massive amounts of privilege conferred by a hugely racist society in which I live, but as an adult I’m at least aware of that & am trying hard to counterbalance it when I can.

But it is to say that before I moved to Durham, sheer personal unfamiliarity (mixed with generic free-floating white liberal guilt, I guess) might have made me feel pretty awkward to be one of a half-dozen white people in a stadium full of black people. 

Now that I live in Durham, my circle of friends is probably only slightly less lily-white than it was. My wider circle of vague acquaintances, though, is much more racially diverse. And my day-to-day life is entirely integrated, to a much greater degree than anywhere else I have ever lived.

And it’s that last fact that has actually made all the difference to me, I think. It’s not about having a few friends of different races. It’s about being so immersed in a multiracial environment on a day-to-day basis that you start to lose that insidious, unwanted, unconscious [built-in] sense of your own features as “normal” and other features as therefore somehow “not-normal.”

This shouldn’t even be a revelation, yet somehow on some level it is. On its surface, school integration was about equal access to quality education (something we still struggle with enormously within a system where property taxes fund so much of education). But of equal or greater benefit was just the opportunity to have that blessed & crucial experience of desensitization to otherness.

October 19, 2014

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