by Justin Rosario
A week ago, I found lice in my daughter’s hair. The next day, I realized she had given it to me as well. To my great annoyance, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking, “Only dirty kids get lice!” despite knowing for a fact that that’s not true. Never mind that Anastasia and I are clean and wash our hair regularly, I knew that the dirty kid thing wasn’t true because I’d read about it more than once over the years. It’s a myth that was debunked ages ago. Yet, some part of me still believed it was true because that’s what I’d been taught as a kid and it was stuck in my mind whether I liked it or not.
And so it goes with my “belief” that I’m better than black people. I know I’m not inherently better but goddammit if that’s not how I was raised. To be fair, it’s an implicit bias but it’s still there, always just beneath the surface like a cancerous tumor I can’t quite cut out.
I grew up in a middle class, predominately Italian neighborhood. At the beginning, there were two minority families: The black preacher, his wife and two young children 4 houses down and us, the Puerto Rican Jewish Rosarios. No one gave either of us any trouble because he was a man of the cloth and my brother and I did not look even slightly Hispanic. In fact, my brother Matthew’s Jewish nose and darker skin made him look more Italian than some of the actual Italians. I just looked like a generic white kid.
That meant my brother and I integrated into the neighborhood with no problems. We played with everyone’s kids and were welcome into everyone’s homes. It was the kind of childhood Republicans get all misty-eyed about: Safe, quiet, neighborly and oh so racist.
It wasn’t a cruel racism like you find among Trump supporters but it was still racism. The word “nigger” was not all that uncommon and neither were the comments about how blacks were lazy, criminal or both. It’s amazing how little adults pay attention to what they’re saying in front of children. And, being the little sponges children are, we soaked it up and internalized it.
On top of this casual exposure there was the constant reinforcement of racial stereotypes on TV and the evening news. Blacks were often criminals being chased by white cops. They dressed like “thugs” and used a lot of slang. The news had (and still has to a lesser degree) a well studied habit of showing more black criminals than white ones despite there being more white criminals overall. The message was crystal clear if not explicitly stated: Black people were more prone to violence and criminal behavior.
Shockingly, all of this coalesced in my developing mind as a bias against blacks. Fortunately for me, being a Jewish Puerto-Rican gave me a certain degree of immunity to the constant stereotyping. The Puerto Rican side of my family was aggressively Hispanic. I grew up surrounded by the music, the foods and the culture, if not the language. When my father first moved to New York City from Puerto Rico as a 5-year-old, he was pressured to consider speaking Spanish in public a bad thing. As such, he did not teach his children to speak it at all, something he deeply regrets as an adult. Still, I knew I was Spanish and never considered myself not to be.
At the same time, my mother, while not aggressively Jewish, made sure we knew what it meant to be a Jew. We observed the Jewish holidays in our reformed way, we attended Hebrew school on the weekends for a few years, and we ate Matzoh Ball soup and blintzes.
The end result is that I’m not invested in being white as an identity and that means that I was never able to view myself as superior because of the color of my skin. And thank god for that! Instead of viewing myself as “better,” I’ve been taught to implicitly view blacks as “lesser.” It may sound like a semantic dodge but the distinction is very real and very important.
One of the most difficult things for white people to accept is the concept of white privilege; the idea that they’ve benefited in some way from black people being held back or systemically denigrated. They see accepting the reality of privilege as an assault on their (white) identity and refuse to acknowledge it. Not a small amount of otherwise rational white liberals have the same exact problem. They don’t even realize the implicit racism involved in their denial, it’s that deeply buried.
By not identifying closely with “whiteness,” I have no white identity to threaten with black equality. Without that deeply ingrained fear of lost status, it was much easier for me to understand what had been done to me. I was able to see it for what it was: Indoctrination. But more importantly, I was able to actively resist it, if not always successfully. I didn’t think of it in such discrete and concrete terms until many years later, but I knew that something was wrong with how I perceived black people and I didn’t like it.
That’s not to say I’m racism free. You never really shake something like that loose, much like the myth of lice and dirty kids. But I’m aware of how I’ve been programmed and that makes all the difference in how I see and interact with the world. One of those ways is that I’ve been talking to my daughter about racism since she was 4 years old, regularly explaining how some people think they’re better than other people because they have skin like hers. I read her children’s books about Martin Luther King Jr., The March on Washington, slavery and the like. As she gets older, we’ll move on to Jim Crow and the Civil War.
If you’re thinking this sounds like indoctrination, you’re goddamn right it is. Sooner or later, Anastasia is going to be bombarded with the kind of crap I got as a kid and I’m making sure she has the tools she’ll need to resist being programmed the way I was. I have a son, Jordan, as well but his autism has so far rendered skin color to be a meaningless distinction, count your blessings where you can find them. Should his development ever reach a stage where he actually notices skin color, I will absolutely have the same conversations with him.
We live in an extremely diverse neighborhood and our kids attend a school that is overwhelmingly Latino, black and Arabic. That wasn’t a specific choice on our part but we’re quite pleased it worked out that way. The last thing Anastasia needs is to be surrounded only by people that look just like her. That lends itself to insular thinking and the white nationalism eroding our democracy is where that leads us.
Will she be completely free of prejudice when she grows up? Probably not. It seems to be coded into our genes, but she won’t have been brainwashed into thinking blacks (or anyone else) is inferior.
MLK had a dream that one day little little black boys and black girls would be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers. My dream is that one day, parents like me won’t have to put so much effort into making MLK’s dream a reality; that nothing will interfere with the natural inclination of little children to pay no heed to color.
But until that day, I’ll keep counterprogramming my daughter to stave off the infection of American racism. It wasn’t my choice to become a racist, even an unwilling one, but it sure as hell is my choice if I pass it on.
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