I am not especially well traveled. I have never crossed an ocean. This whole thing about Europe could be a scam, as far as I know – hopefully some day I’ll go there and I can let go of that concern. My cross-cultural experiences have been relatively limited, but have changed me, and keep me forever craving more.
I grew up in a white, lower middle class suburb of Chicago. My dad was an electrician, and we were very solidly working-class stock, in a suburb that then was mostly also working-class folks just getting out of the city. One of my elementary classmates had a father who was a lawyer – that seemed like another world. I was one of the first people in my extended family to go to college.
Re-evaluation Counseling theory says that everyone of us, as little ones, instinctively rejected the discriminatory treatment of other people based on their different race or ethnicity – or really any demographic difference. But the overwhelming, monolithic response of the prevailing culture – often delivered by loving, well-meaning parents who were simply trying to teach us “how it is” – mostly snuffed this outrage early in our lives. My outrage had been mostly snuffed by the time I got to high school. I was mostly numb to the evils of prejudice and bigotry.
I went to high school in the city and rode the subways with black people – cars mostly full of black people. I was a little afraid, and also very stimulated – these people were different. But I never got to know any of them. And my high school was mostly white, and my college. I started getting lots of new ideas in college. I marched with Dr. King when he came to Chicago, but was really still pretty intimidated by all that, and never got enough involved to develop relationships with people of color.
I was out of college before I had any extended contacts with people who were racially different from me. I had married. We were in Rochester, New York, where I was in graduate school, and my wife was teaching elementary school in the inner city. We joined the white social action group that supported and worked with FIGHT, the black neighborhood empowerment group. Between her work and this group, we started to socialize some “across the color line”. An evening with a bunch of her parents, where people brought out a whole lot of drums and other rhythm instruments and just made music together – us included – will always stay in my brain as one of the most culturally rich experiences I had ever had.
We developed more wanderlust. We lived outside of a little college town (where I taught) in the southern tier of New York State, and got to know some real rural people. We then moved to Nova Scotia (where I worked in a mental health center, and she taught school), and lived in a little hamlet where all the men worked as fishermen, farmers, or coal miners. The people there mostly accepted us, and we had many more charming evenings of homemade music, Celtic in influence, with people bringing out their guitars and mandolins and autoharps.
While we lived in Nova Scotia, we adopted our son. It made no sense to us to fight and wait for a child that lots of other people would be glad to adopt, so we told the adoption worker we were open to a child who was “hard to place”. One category of those kids up there, where there was a very limited pool of black adoptive parents, was mixed-race kids. Our son, who came to us at 6 months old because no home had been found for him earlier, is one-quarter black and three-quarters white Canadian.
We have taken very seriously our responsibility to provide our son with lots of experiences to support his black identity. What has been most striking to me has been how personally nurturing and enriching for me these experiences have been.
After we moved to Syracuse, I studied Aikido for a couple of years at a school that was extraordinarily ethnically diverse. The teacher was Burmese, the top 3 students were black, and there were lots of other Latin, Asian, and Middle-Eastern students. I loved it all, and they all loved my son. We developed a special connection with one black family – the father was a black belt at the school – that lived around the corner from us and had kids my son’s age. When Terry went through a brief phase of wishing he had straight hair, he suddenly had all these really cool black adults fussing over his great hair and showing him how to take care of it. He drank these experiences in hungrily.
When I moved back to Chicago, I relished the rich ethnic mix there. Latin people were everywhere, with their beautiful features and language. Black culture was very mainstream. Harold Washington’s election as mayor was thrilling. I lived in Oak Park, a lovely suburb just west of the all-black Austin neighborhood of Chicago – and internationally known for its efforts at conscious and rational integration. Interracial families cluster in this town, and I joined the Biracial Family Network, a support group for families like ours.
I was divorced at this point, with Terry and his mom living in Louisville, but I visited him there every third or fourth weekend and he spent Christmas, spring break, and summers with me. The biracial group became our social anchor in Chicago. Terry had a wonderful peer group of kids like himself, and we both had wonderful black adult friends. We stay close to some of those families, and always will.
One of the things we both learned from this group was that, while it is great for a biracial kid to know and affirm all their parentage, there is a point in adolescence where the culture will simply define them as black, and they had better be comfortable doing likewise. Terry has now made that transition beautifully. He knows he has Irish and other white blood, but his identity is now very solidly African-American. He is proud of that culture, and appropriately sensitive to and angry about racism. He likes himself. He’s doing great.
There’s a funny thing about being a white person with a black child – your own identity starts to get a little fuzzy. I had always felt some real affinity for black culture, as much as I knew it. Now we were immersing ourselves in it. And here was this son of mine, whom I love as I have never really loved before – who is black. Progressively, in subtle, unintended ways, black people stopped being “them” to me.
I worked during those years at a primarily black VA hospital on the west side of Chicago. One day, Terry and I and Eddie, a black psychology intern I was supervising, were at the Bud Billiken Day parade – the big Spring parade sponsored by the black daily paper, through the heart of the south side. Eddie looked at me at one point and said, “Look at those two white chicks over there – don’t they look uncomfortable in this black crowd.” It was only as an afterthought that he remembered I was white, and screamed with laughing apology. It was a wonderful compliment.
During this same period, a hole was torn in my wall of psychological separation from Latin peoples. A number of my friends were involved in political activities trying to influence our government to stop supporting the right wing dictatorships in Guatemala and El Salvador, where so many people were being murdered by government-supported death squads.
My attitude for many months was that I just couldn’t consider the possibility of emotionally opening myself to all this trouble and pain, too. There was too much to deal with right here at home. Let the radicals and do-gooders fight this fight if they wanted – it was way too overwhelming to me.
I’m sure my resistance was being worn away gradually. But then, one day, I spent an hour looking through a book of photographs documenting the killings in Guatemala. And suddenly, without intending it, that psychological distance which I had been relying on to keep me from caring too much about those little countries far away, melted. Those Latin people suddenly seemed like the neighbors that they are, and the pictures of their tortured, mutilated bodies broke my heart. I cried hard over that book, and turned a corner I could not reverse. The suffering of these people in our hemisphere no longer felt far away and abstract.
I still did not really know what to do to make a difference, and – much as I had feared – thinking about this situation was making me more frustrated and unhappy. Oddly though, I felt also liberated and expanded. I realized that I had been working hard at not caring about these people, and now no longer had to use up energy trying to stay numb around this. Also, identifying with these Latin people felt somehow wonderful. I value and affirm my whiteness, my strongly Irish roots. But being only white has always felt strangulating to me. Waking up to the parts of me that resonate with blackness, and now with Latin peoples, opened up exciting new windows in my mind and in my identity.
Shortly thereafter, some friends were at a meeting where they were told of a family of Guatemalan refugees who had an emergency need for shelter. No one in the room was able at that time to take them in. But several of them had heard me complain that my lovely big apartment was feeling pretty lonely when Terry was not around. Four days later, Margarito (30), Maria (29), Adolpho (7), and Regina (4) moved in with me.
These beautiful, incredibly brave and strong people stayed with me for six months. Margarito knew some Spanish and hardly any English. The others spoke only the Indian dialect from their region in the Guatemalan highlands. Through interpreters, I and others from our church community heard the stories of how Margarito to had been targeted for death because, as a Catholic catechist, he was teaching about human rights in the mountain villages, and had finally fled for his life. And of how, a year later, the others in the family, with the rest of their village, had run with only the clothes on their backs into the mountains, when the word had come that the soldiers were moving towards their village. They knew what was happening in other villages, where the soldiers claimed there were guerrilla sympathizers. They spent several months making their way through the mountains to Mexico, and two more years there in a refugee camp, before Margarito could locate them and save the money to have them smuggled into California.
During their first months with me, Adolpho drew a picture of the government soldiers, on an earlier sweep, bayoneting his nine-year old cousin, in front of the family. He drew many pictures of the helicopter gunships, shooting at the people making their way through the high jungle. He – and the entire family – would laugh heartily at these pictures. I knew this was their way of confronting and beginning to heal those devastating memories. But their strength, and exceptional intactness after what they had been through, kept amazing me.
Margarito and Maria would sometimes simply squat over their heels for long periods of time, saying nothing. I asked my friend Jean, who knew more about Latin culture and did a lot of the translating, what they were doing. “They’re just being – they don’t always need to be doing anything.” The closest I ever came to “just being” was when I meditated. This had taken a lot of training for me, and still often felt like a mental wrestling match, trying to get my jumpy mind to sit still. The ease with which these lovely people could simply sit, left me awed and humbled. In fact, that thread ran through all their behavior – a simple directness, a complete being there.
I have traveled to Mexico for a couple of vacations. I have been very impressed by the extent to which Mexican people I met there have this same focused quality. On one occasion, it came clear to me that people in these traditional cultures treat relationships with a reverence that we have largely lost. I went through culture shock when I returned to my corporate job. A company which had always before struck me for its warm, family-feeling culture now seemed like a place where everybody was trying to get something from you – support for their project, answers, connections, data, something – while never taking the time to simply encounter you person-to-person. I got glimpses of just how much we have lost.
And that’s where I end up with different peoples, different cultures. Each culture carries with it some special value, a special window on the world. Exposure to African-American or Latin-American (or Asian or Celtic) culture has the potential to stir aspects of my humanity that have not been cultivated by my white cultural experience. I see and discover parts of me that could have stayed forever lost – parts of my self that I find incredibly rich and fulfilling. I become more whole.
Real integration is not accomplished just by having an African-American family living next door. When I identify with the aspects of myself that are liberated by my contacts with people of different backgrounds, and progressively see these other people as my people… when I have thrown off the cultural numbness around discrimination, and once again personally feel the pain of racism and cannot completely rest while my brothers and sisters are being oppressed…. then l, not just the neighborhood, am getting integrated.