No one is born a racist

If you were white and alive in the late mid-century, the odds were that you were prejudiced. My childhood neighborhood was all white and mostly Jewish. If a person of color was seen walking down the street, it was assumed they were a maid or a gardener. If that person was running, this was cause for a call to 9-1-1.

I hope you will forgive me for the use of the following term, but I feel it’s essential to this tale or I would not use it.

My parents used the term “Nigger” like it was just an ordinary word like say, cat. One of my earliest memories was at night when they put me to sleep. I remember them saying, “You be good now, or the Niggers will come and get you.” I wasn’t sure who these monsters were, but I wanted to be good.

Growing up, I didn’t understand. Why was “Colored Town” such a terrible? Why were these monsters going to get mand why were my parents so scared?

My First Best Friend

electric-football

It vibrated, and the men had magnets on them. You could “throw and catch.” After a few hours, you realized that it sucked.

When I was in third grade, my best friend was Charlie Devoe. We were inseparable. We did everything that best friends did in those days; traded baseball cards, made up grand adventures of Pirates and Dinosaurs and Spacemen. Life was pretty perfect. I had no idea that Charlie was “a Nigger”, he was just my friend. Some kids were fat, others had freckles, one kid had no legs, and some of us were white or tanned or brown. No one cared.

I had been given the mecca of all toys back then; Electric Football! This was a silly contraption only the cool kid’s had, and I HAD ONE!

Charlie was so jealous and begged to come over to play. I asked my Mom and she said, “Sure.” She had never met Charlie. I remember cleaning my room and getting the game set up, “just right,” and when the doorbell rang, I rushed to the door behind my Mom. She opened the door, saw Charlie, and said: “We don’t want any” and slammed the door shut. I yelled that this was Charlie and in her infinite racism announced: “I won’t have any Niggers in my house.”

I ran out of the house to find Charlie walking down the street crying, and I remember hugging him, telling him that I was sorry, that he was my best friend forever and that I loved him. We were friends for life.

In fourth grade, things got confusing. My parents were talking about “busing” and how horrible it was. They made it sound scary and evil. I was informed that “they” would be taking good white kids out of schools and busing in black kids from “Nigger Town.” Charlie and I didn’t care. It would be more friends.

The Fan is hit with Poo

Fifth grade started, and things were much different. I looked for Charlie and found him hanging out with a bunch of other kids. I ran up and was so happy. The biggest kid, James Hill, asked what a “Honkey” wanted with a bunch of black kids. I told him that I was Charlie’s friend and that I wanted to “hang out with you guys.”

For my trouble, I was pushed into the dirt and told that if I ever messed with the Black kids again, I would get my ass kicked.

Not being one to give up, I persisted in trying to talk to Charlie. He said he was sorry, but I just didn’t fit in anymore, like my mom wouldn’t let us play together. I was crushed.

During recess that day, I went to the group and pretty much demanded to be a part of it. James Hill said, “If you don’t go away, I am going to kick your ass!”. Using a word that was often used around my house, I said: “Fuck You!”.

Now, James had a good foot in height on me and outweighed me by a lot, and realizing that I had bitten off more than I could chew, I started to cry and ran away, with James hot on my heels.

Running as fast as I could, my crying turned to rage, and at that moment, I learned to fight dirty. Losing was not an option. I dropped to the ground and curled up into a tight ball. James couldn’t stop in time to avoid me and tripping; he flew face-first into the dirt. I got up, jumped on his back, grabbed his “fro” (complete with an afro pick with a closed fist on the end of the handle) and proceeded to pound his face into the ground over and over streaming a mixture of every obscenity and racial slur I had ever heard.

I didn’t get in trouble as I was “defending myself” and no one dared to mess with me for the rest of that grade or sixth. I was weird and brooding, and no one wanted much to do with me. My half-ass conversion from Judaism to Catholicism didn’t help that either I suppose. (Yet another ‘another story!’ moment)

The experience left me with the new determination that I must always “Fight to win at any cost.” I also secretly loved it. Seeds were sown that day.

My mother said, “I warned you,” and I hated her for it. If only she let Charlie play electric football.

Regret, Learning, Being Human.

I carried the scars of racism for a long time. In large part, I became my parents. I was a racist pig.

Years later, I dated a black girl. She was funny and kind and understood correctly “The Charlie Story” and what it did to me. She “taught me” how to bury the hatred of losing a racist friend and helped me come to terms with everything that had happened.

From best friend to racist, to interracial girlfriend, to respect and care for human diversity. It was a journey that was well worth it.

To this day I occasionally have nightmares about “The Niggers” and making friends is very hard for me.

I can’t get my head around the term “African American.” Until we stop labeling ourselves or each other, as a species, we are doomed to repeat a cycle of violence, distrust, and pain. Love. Respect. Be Human.

About the Author

The Orchid Thief

John Edward Laroche (born February 19, 1962, in Florida) is an American horticulturist who was arrested for poaching wild ghost orchids while working for the Seminole natives in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve in Florida. The subsequent trial brought him to the attention of Susan Orlean, who wrote an article for The New Yorker and the book The Orchid Thief about him. After the events of the Orchid Thief, he shifted careers to Computer Science. Notably, he went on to work for both National Geographic and the Smithsonian Institution designing school-age learning tools and online curricula.

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