Once upon a time on a hot summer day, two sweaty boys ran into a house. One boy was black, one white. Inside the house a black woman pulled a pitcher of Kool-Aid from the fridge, along with two glasses from the cupboard. 

“You boys hungry, yet?” 

The boys nodded. 

“I’ll make y’all some fried bologna sandwiches, then. Go wash your hands.” she demanded. 

The white boy returned from the bathroom first, and sat at the kitchen table. “Ms. Ruby? Can I ask you something?” 

“Mmm hmm,” Ruby said, placing a slice of bologna in a skillet. 

“Do you feel black?” the boy asked. 

Ruby turned her head to the boy with a raised eyebrow. “What do you mean, Jimmy?” 

“I mean, we’re different people. I’m white. You’re black. I know what it feels like to be white. Do you feel black?” Jimmy asked again. 

Ruby removed the bologna and placed it on a piece of white bread, then added a slice of cheese, and another piece of bread. She placed the sandwich on a plate, grabbed a bag of Fritos from the cabinet, and took them to the boy at the table where she sat down next to him. Jimmy bit into the sandwich with his wide eyes fixed upon her. 

“Of course I feel black, honey.” she said sweetly. “But why are you asking me this?” Her son joined them at the table and she rose to fry up more bologna. 

“I dunno. My grandad told me that, well, that we’re just different.” Jimmy said biting into the sandwich. 

“How so?” Ruby replied. 

“He said y’all aren’t like us. That you’re not as smart. That the white man is destined to rule over all other races because of our supper, sup-, superior brains.” 

Ruby let out a little laugh, put the second sandwich on a plate, and brought it over to her son. “Did he, now?” 

“Yeah but I don’t know if I believe him. I mean he’s my grandad, so I’m supposed to. But he don’t know y’all like I do.” 

“Where’s your granddad from?” she asked. 

“Down near Gainesville” the boy said as he took a gulp of Kool-Aid that left a red mark on his upper lip. 

“Hmmm,” she said. Knowing. “Well, what do you think?” 

“Well I know Reggie here is smarter than me in just about every subject so I think … I just don’t know. I don’t feel like there’s any real difference between us other than our skin.” He said. “Oh, and you sure can cook.” 

Ruby laughed and messed up his hair. Jimmy smiled. “Well I can tell you this, sweetie, there’s definitely a difference. But like you said, it don’t go much past skin color when you get right down to it.”

“That’s what I thought,” Jimmy said. Then he belched. 

“What do you say, boy?” Ruby scolded. 

“Excuse me.” Jimmy replied, then turned to his friend, “Reggie hurry up!” 

Reggie finished his sandwich and the boys ran back outside to play the day away—as they did nearly every day that summer. 

****

This story represents the dichotomy of racism that I was raised with. On the one hand, we weren’t racist racist. I lived in a neighborhood that had black people, after all. We were always in each other’s homes and lives. We were on the same socioeconomic level. Went to the same church. But once a month I’d leave my home in the city to visit a rural part of Florida where life wasn’t as integrated. Where the “N” word was common vernacular—and almost never in an intentionally malicious way, but rather as “normal” nomenclature for black people. It was here where I began to understand the differences between white and black people. And where I was challenged to be proud of my heritage. 

I was taught that white people were explorers and conquerors. Courageous men who tamed the wilderness—along with any man or beast that stood in their way. Men who built lives for their families from the land. With their hands. Men who became industrialists, who wrote laws, set policies, and lead nations. White men. Men of honor and duty. And because I was white, it was my birthright to take whatever I wanted in this life—regardless of who was in my way. Especially people who were different. I was encouraged to be proud of my heritage. And my skin color. 

Thanks to my personal experiences, this idea of superiority never took hold. Even after we moved from the city to the suburbs—with way less black people—where we stayed until I left home for the Air Force at 18. 

Over the years I’ve often thought about how had I not come from a broken home at a young age that left us in an economic bracket that afforded me these important experiences, I could have easily been convinced that racism was a hill worth dying upon. I have since realized that we are not our bodies, or cars, or economic statuses. We are our souls, and our deeds, and it’s only via random chance that we land in the bodies we do. 

I’m now in my 50s, and have had plenty of time to think about and engage with the idea of racism. And I have a theory. 

First of all, I believe we are all racist to some degree. I mean, we have eyes.  And when we look through them, we see that no two people are exactly alike. But skin? With skin we have a way to place people into buckets of judgement because skin is the outermost facing feature we have as humans. As such, because we have eyes and can therefore discern skin color, we all hold some predispositions. 

And these predispositions go back generations. 

My theory is this—what if white people need to uphold the idea of ethnic superiority to justify the actions of their forefathers? No one wants to shame their families. No one wants to feel like they’ve lived a lie. So even a little racism must exist to keep that from happening—to keep us from focusing on the problem of generational, systemic racism. 

Thanks to our system, we learn to look the other way when we see black people doing the jobs that we won’t do. Jobs we consider “below” us. Or when we hear about kids on the other side of town who, because of where they were born, will almost certainly remain in poverty their entire lives. We’re comfortable. No one is burning down our homes (the police protect us from that). If we could just put all this stuff behind us so that we can get back to normal, that would be awesome. 

Sure, we say we care about Black Lives, but only to the extent that fixing the real problems don’t impede our collective pursuit of happiness. Things were fine before. Our lives were good. Predictable—with a bright and controllable future laid out before us. And it’s this comfort and illusion of control that keeps us from voting for real change. Some of us want to take the nation back to 1950. Some to 2008. No one is looking at 2030. Or 2050. Or 2100. 

To move forward, we must look forward. You say you care about black people and yet when you look around you can clearly see that the system is stacked against them. If you really care, vote like it. Stop settling for the status quo that doesn’t move the needle for people who need it moved most. 

As for solving racism, well, for this we must look back. Is there a way to solve generational racism? I believe there is, but it would require a massive commitment from the government. And as long as the wealthy control policy (or rather, politicians who craft policy), that’s unlikely to happen right now. 

Make no mistake, racism, even in its waning hours (which this current era feels like) is what we’re up against. Generational racism is the foundation for the system that keeps things just the way they are. 

And I was a breath away from falling for it. 

***

Jim

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Jim Mitchem

Writer. Father to daughters. Husband. Ad man. Raised by wolves. @jmitchem on twitter. First novel, Minor King, out now.

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