Me and My Racist Friends

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Most people who know me would probably say I am outspoken, opinionated and sometimes pretty stubborn. I try to be kind and respectful but I’m pretty sure no one would describe me as sweet or quiet. I’m ok with that. I often end up in lengthy conversations or even arguments with people over topics that I feel are important. When “topics” become people I’m a little less…not sure the word here… patient maybe, and no less quiet. I often am asked why I bother. Why do I spend time arguing with people who will “never change”? Why do I let it consume me? Part of the answer is that it is true that I occasionally should walk away and come back or drop it but I am stubborn. The other part is because how I grew up, where I grew up, and what I have seen has given me a unique perspective. I’m not saying I am special. You see, I have a secret that I was always too ashamed to admit. Now I am realizing that this is the exact time to talk about it and instead of being ashamed, I can start to talk about what I learned and be (proud isn’t exactly the right word) better and do something with it.

I am a member of Generation X. People forget about us. You often hear about Boomers and Millennials but our smaller in between population of Generation Xers is often forgotten. We are the latchkey kids. We basically raised ourselves. Our moms joined the workforce and our parents didn’t have a ton of money (not the money we ended up having when we became adults at least) so there wasn’t a big Nanny movement. We pretty much raised ourselves. For many of us that was a huge benefit. We learned a lot and became adaptable. We basically invented everything people use today including all of the technology you’re using right now. We were problem solvers. We had to figure out how to navigate everything on our own. Children born in the 60s and 70s grew up in the 80s and 90s. Weird times. The 80s and 90s could have been 40 years apart based on the differences between them. I could keep going because it is a pretty fascinating topic but that would be a different article. Bottom line is that we were often without guidance.

I graduated high school in 1994 from a public school in the Poconos. Sounds lovely enough, right? The Poconos. The “Mountains”. Lakes….so pretty! I wasn’t born in the Poconos. My parents moved there from the Philly suburb of Upper Darby to give their kids a chance at a better life and get away from some of the things that were tearing apart our neighborhood (drugs,etc.). So I was a teenager in the Poconos in the early 90s.

Two major things happened in the early 90s. 

1. The start of a giant housing and loan scam aimed to take advantage of low income people from New York and New Jersey (aka people of color) by promising a new and perfect life at a low cost in the beautiful Pocono Mountains. Look it up. It’s a real thing. 

2. Skinheads. Look it up. It’s a real thing. 

So here is what I think happened. I think that an extremely white and rural area which had been sheltered from the reality of black and brown people, were suddenly “threatened” by a very fast influx of people who did not look like them. I’m not saying that everyone there was a racist, but it was definitely the perfect breeding ground for racism. Some adults were very vocal but most were the perfect type of racist who just said racist things in the company of other racists. Others would purposefully go to town hall meetings and bring up issues that wouldn’t seem obviously aimed to shut down resources that would help the POC moving into the area and successfully living there, but…c’mon. They were.

Then there were those who saw an opportunity in the kids. 

What a better way to get rid of the brown people than to target the kids who had no parental guidance and let them know “what was really going on”? 

Tah-dah! Skinheads! A new family. A sense of belonging for kids who never felt like they belonged. An army.

I wasn’t a skinhead. I never joined the group. I was a kid who never felt like they belonged anywhere really. I guess I ended up being one of the kids who identified as “alternative”, whatever that means. I was the weird kid who somehow was friends with every single type of group. I don’t know that I truly had a core group of actual friends in high school. I think I had different friends for different purposes. I was the weird kid who watched everyone and paid attention but wasn’t sure where I belonged. I was the kid who sat on top of the file cabinets in art class and hid there for as many free periods as I could, painting and drawing and not sure of anything. I was the kid who went to all the parties. Jock parties, smart kid parties, popular girl parties, band kid parties, goth parties, skater parties, rave parties, artsy philosophy parties and skinhead parties. Yes, Skinhead parties. But I remember it as one single skinhead party. I remember just one. 

So rewind a bit before the party. When I say I was friends with everyone. I truly was. That included some of the skinheads and the people who also weren’t skinheads but hung out with them. I sort of watched these friends become skinheads. I don’t know the exact moment I realized it but things began changing. Doc Martens with white laces, flight jackets, bald heads (sometimes not just the guys), jeans, white t-shirts. I think this started in 1991 maybe. I watched them change and it was weird but (I reluctantly admit) intriguing. I would end up in these odd conversations which in hind sight I think were partially them letting me know what they were a part of and partially recruiting chats. None of it made sense and I could see the inner struggle in my friends trying to justify things as we talked it out. But they were being brainwashed and had that sort of glazed look mixed with hate that was kind of scary. They started carrying themselves differently. There was a new… I wouldn’t call it confidence but it was something like that. The feeling was anger and entitlement.  

I hated the thought of losing friends. It happened to me quite a few times growing up for various reasons and even talking to my friends who were joining these groups and realizing it was wrong didn’t make my desire to keep them as friends go away. It was really strange and twisted because my best friends growing up to that point were a black girl and a Puerto Rican girl. I had started to grow apart from the black girl prior to all of this. Nothing happened, we just made new friends and didn’t hang out as much. Edit: Maybe what happened in this story is the reason. I never had enough courage to ask. My other friend moved to New Jersey with her family. I was well aware of racism and the parents of my friends growing up treated me as one of their own and taught me a lot. Those were gifts I am grateful for. I was not in an ignorant bubble. I knew better. These people helped raise me. They brought me to family reunions and I did belong there. I was never given the impression I didn’t. 

So here I was talking to skinheads while still holding a lot of love for my friends of color. 

I justified it with things like “I’m learning what is going on” or “I’m friends with everyone” or “maybe I can help” but while some of it was true, the bulk of it was nonsense. I was fascinated by this new group and watching them come together and call each other family. I can’t explain it really. I was drawn to it. I did not believe a single thing they said (I really didn’t. I thought it all sounded crazy and stupid)  but I listened and asked questions and walked on eggshells so they wouldn’t catch on that I didn’t agree. But I wanted to talk to them and be around them. I can’t explain why. I don’t know why. The shitty thing is I never really asked what it meant to my “old” friends. I sort of hoped they didn’t notice or think anything of it. I pretended no one was watching.  

I wanted to understand more about the skinheads and this new family. I was confused why these people all believed what they said. Weird stuff like one of the more “revered” members of this particular skinhead group was a very tall and very muscular light skinned black kid (young man is probably more appropriate, maybe. He wasn’t in high school anymore). He had blue or green eyes but was not a white guy by any means. I asked a few different people in the group about him and got a few different answers. One was that he denounced his own race to support the white race because of his embarrassment toward his own people. One was that he was actually white but had some gene that gave him darker skin. One was that he was just a crazy mother fucker who was good to have on your side. It was confusing and fascinating. I felt like a bug to a bug zapper. I wanted to be around it but not get too close. I fully knew it was wrong. Completely. So why did I keep hanging around? 

I don’t exactly know. I’m still figuring that out.

So I ended up at this skinhead party. Have you ever seen the movie American History X? When I later saw that movie (I think it came out in the late 90s), it brought back a lot of memories from this party. It was essentially the same scene in the movie when the main character got out of jail and they threw him a party but in reverse. What I mean is that this real life party was after two skinheads who were members of this group (and I actually think I was at the house of one of their relatives or maybe even their childhood house) had been arrested for the murder of a black homeless man. I don’t believe I had ever met the men. I feel like I had seen them maybe at the school but I am not positive. I had certainly heard their names. I also don’t remember the exact time frame after the arrests and this party.  I remember I was listening and learning more about what happened while hearing hateful and racist songs and chants (Hail Hitler!) throughout the house and property. There were adults at the party. Not just out of high school adults. All age adults hanging out with kids who were in high school and younger. I started really listening to the conversations. Hearing about a murder and the support these people had for the murderers…I realized that I was in way over my head. I should not be here. I was scared but shamefully more scared about who might find out I was at this party. Not the police or my teachers. I wasn’t worried about any authority figure finding out. I wasn’t worried about my safety if anyone found out. I knew I was “safe”. How sick is that? I knew that even at the house of what I believed to be one of the actual murderers that I was safe. What was I actually scared of?  I was worried that other friends would find out I was there. I was ashamed. I was embarrassed. I don’t belong here but if people find out I’m here then where will I belong? Then the strangest thing happened (ok. Not the strangest. It was all strange). I almost literally and physically ran into one of those friends at this party. She was part of another one of my groups of friends. I grew up with her and we played together when we were little kids. I had been to her house. Her family was Jewish and she was here at this skinhead party. We just stood in front of each other for what seemed like 10 minutes but was probably less than 5 seconds.  I remember the look we each gave each other. I don’t know how I would describe it. It was just a look. I remember thinking, She shouldn’t be here either. Why are we here? What is happening?

I don’t remember much more about the party. I wasn’t drinking so that’s not why. I know that much. I think I wanted to forget so, over time, I did. I do remember at one point wearing someone else’s shoes or maybe it was a t-shirt. A friend who I think was the one who brought me there thought I needed different clothes so she gave me something to wear. I believe it was so that I would “look more like I belonged”. I remember almost getting beat up for wearing whatever it was and I think that was because the item belonged to the sister of one of the men who was arrested and later convicted of murder. I remember it that way. It was presented to me almost like that person was royalty so I should not be wearing their stuff and where did I get it. Something like that. It was insane. It’s pretty insane to write this down this many years later. The whole thing was insane. Truly.

I would love to say I 100% found my way again and stopped talking to those people (the friends who had been pulled in) but I didn’t. I think I started distancing myself from possible situations with the larger group and eventually so did some of the friends who were fully pulled in. 

I remember a couple of other things that happened around this time but I’m not sure of the timing of it with this party. I remember a large and very serious fight at the end of a school day that the news later called a “race riot”. I remember certain things about it almost like scenes of another movie in my head but that’s about it. I didn’t fight. I think I ran. 

I also remember a friend who was dating a black guy. Another guy (white guy) who I think had dated her before was giving her a hard time in the hallway outside of our Home Ec. class. Then he started giving me a hard time for being friends with her. He shouted at me loudly in the hall and called her “a N…. Lover”. I don’t think she was even there anymore. We were directly outside of the classroom and the door was open. Anyone inside would have heard everything. We were both shouting. He was relentlessly yelling at me and I was calling him a racist (I know. Hero of the high school, I was.). He continued the racial slurs toward me and about my friend and I yelled “leave us the hell alone” or “leave me or her the hell alone”. Not sure. Right after I said that, our home ec teacher popped into the doorway and asked me (just me) to step inside the room. She said she heard what happened. She said she was giving me a detention for profanity….use of the word “hell” toward another student. I knew in my heart she had heard the entire argument but tried to explain anyway. I had never gotten a detention in my life to that point. When I got home I told my mom what had happened. My mom was furious and called the school and was told it didn’t matter what happened and that the school does not tolerate profanity against another student. I served the detention. My eyes were opening but not wide enough.

By the time I got to my senior year, I had my own issues at home and had emancipated myself and was living with a friend and working while still in high school. I think things had phased out completely with my friends who were in the skinhead group. Just like that, they were no longer skinheads. Like it never happened. They started being more like hippies when the grunge movement started. They started “standing up for” the rights of others. Drugs and music became the new focus. No more skinheads in our world. It was almost like just a very sick and very dangerous identity crisis. No biggie. All better now. That was it. 

Most of the different social groups started hanging out together and our parties started looking more like a something from the movie Dazed and Confused. People started making more sense again. Sort of. Things felt more “normal”.

And people just stopped talking about the skinheads. Like they never existed. 

I know there are people reading this right now who remember some of this and, like me, probably tried to bury some or most of this and hoped it would never come up again. The reality is that it was always there and it never really went away. 

I see the fights between people I went school with on social media now and I know where they also stood during this time. Some healed and some did not. None of those friends were bad people. They were kids who were targeted. They were kids.  I believe it is a cycle that can be broken. I saw the cycle broken for many who opened their eyes. My eyes were open. 

I try to forgive myself because I was 16 years old but the shame is still heavy that I didn’t do enough. I don’t know if I didn’t understand the weight of it all or didn’t want to understand it. I was, in fact, a kid. I think what has bothered me the most over the years is exactly what I sound like now. Like the weight I carried about it was all about me and my shame and not about those this group attacked. My shame was 100% selfish. Why didn’t I try to talk my friends out of being a part of this group? Why did I act like it was all fine? Why was I at that party? I might have lost friends, but were they ever really my friends? Could I have saved us all a lot of guilt and could we have helped shut down this group? I didn’t know there was going to be a murder. I don’t think anyone did. At least, I don’t believe the friends that I saw change ever thought that would really happen. But what is the end game for a group of people spouting hate against other groups? What is it that they really are hoping and planning will happen? Why gather together in hate? What would have happened if I spoke out at that party once I fully understood what was happening? Could I have helped? 

I can’t go back in time. I also can’t claim to be who I am right now without admitting these tough realities and the fact that I did nothing to help. Not a single thing. I need to admit that it was easy to hide behind the privilege of never having to admit hard things or embarrassing things or downright horrible things. I was able to pretend I was never there. It’s easy to make yourself feel better by saying I was a kid then. But that was then. I’m an adult now. So now what? What do I do now?

As an adult I have consistently supported equal rights for all and talked with those who don’t agree. But it isn’t enough. I’ve never really sat with the reality that at one point in my life I saw the opportunity to be part of a group that was based on hating others who were different than us and called each other family. I was attracted to that at one point in my life. I didn’t join. I separated myself but the reality is that I was still tempted by that sense of belonging and curious about it all. That is how I know that this is real. Racism is real. Hate is real. And both of those things are 100% systemic. I was almost part of that plan. There are groups who need this agenda of hate to stay alive. These things (the things in this story) are still happening. Some are as blatantly organized as the skinheads and other groups and some are part of a culture that needs to change and heal. This is real. It won’t go away until we make it go away.

I truly believe what is happening now is a result of the same sort of systemic hate teaching that almost pulled me in. I see adult friends morally struggling right now. I feel like they want to do more and say more and heal and help but there is a fear. I think there is a fear of losing what has made them feel comfortable. A sense of belonging to a group who has a lot financially, politically, socially, etc. Speaking out might make them not welcome in those groups. They might lose friends, or customers or status. 

If Mary Whiteperson says Black Lives Matter at the Country Club that is owned and paid for by her rich white friends, what does that mean for her in that group. “All Lives Matter” is easier to say. Her friends will accept that. Of course, all lives matter. But she won’t dare call out black lives because no one wants to hear that. I mean, she just spent 30 minutes talking about what they heard about the background of the most recent “one”. No one will listen and they will stop inviting her to the luncheons.

Joe Whiteguy goes hunting with his buddies and they tell racist jokes all weekend and he feels like he belongs. Like they are his boys, his family. If he talks about what is wrong in the world and says Black Lives Matter, what would his boys think? He might not be welcome in that group. He will have to find a new hunting club. This one let’s him join for hardly any money. 

At least just think about it. Start there. 

If more people start and keep standing up for what is right and real then even more people will. It will continue until at some point, those who refuse to stand up for all humans during their time of need will be the minority. If you believe it now, say it now. Don’t wait until you are the only one standing in the room trying to change the subject while everyone is asking “what are you waiting for?”  Be part of this change. Black Lives Matter. It’s not an argument against other lives. It’s saying out loud that you include people of color when you think of humanity. It’s letting people know that their life matters and that they are equal to you. It’s saying “Your Life Matters to me”. I know in my heart that you understand what I am saying. I know you do. 

For those who are already there or getting there: This is why we need to talk. This is why we need to heal and be honest. We need to acknowledge the sheer madness that this is even a conversation we are having. How privileged are we to even discuss whether the lives of another group of human beings matter? Think about that for more than just a second. Who the hell do we think we are? 

Why is this a conversation? Why isn’t the immediate response “Of course, Black Lives Matter, what can we do to help?”

I have the privilege to be here today and tell this story. Now it’s time to own it, remember it and do something about it and be bigger than my own selfish shame. I learned a lot. That is power.  I’m starting with conversation.  No more silence. No more bullshit. What do you need to share? What is on your mind? How do you really feel? Why do you feel that way? Do you even know how you feel? Let’s talk. Who wants to talk?

I saw a few posts on social media lately that hit me. Here is the basic idea:

Imagine your child is sick and dying. Imagine that you don’t know for sure that they will die but statistically the prognosis for this illness is death.  Your heart hurts. You pray and you are hopeful but you are terrified and you go to bed every night wondering if this was your last day with them. You decide to talk it out with your friends and family and while you express your fears and your worries, you begin to share how amazing your child is. You know they will make a difference in this world and you know they have to survive. You tell the people around you that you want to find a cure for this illness because you can’t lose your child because they are special. Now imagine if the only response you get is this “I don’t know why you’re making this about you. All kids are special.” 

The parent here is black and the illness is racism. This mom or dad needs our help. 

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