I am about as white as they come in America …
Let me start off by saying, I am about as white as they come here in America. My family tree roots all come from Northern Europe and the UK, and my DNA testing has conclusively proven that I am not as Korean as I once thought I was, after all.
But life has taught me that race matters. In fact, I have come to believe that race is the single most defining characteristic of what it means to be American. It does not mean that we are all racists — we’re not, at least as how it is commonly defined — or that everything we do has to be cloaked in racial overtones — it doesn’t — but what it does mean is that white privilege is real and that those who are not white have suffered and continue to suffer in ways many, if not, most Americans don’t realize is happening and would, if they knew it was there and why, be willing to correct. What Critical Race Theory does, in my mind at least, is open the doors to this kind of world.
How I got there …
Four events have had the greatest impact on my views on race. The first concerns the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and is told in these stories and posts in The Ebenezer Gospel, which I will find and repost soon. The second deals with my personal experience with racism in Scenes from a Monterrey Park Restaurant, which will also be told in a separate post that is forthcoming.
The third event happened when I was a teacher at Clayton Valley Charter High School in Concord, California. I was teaching a photography class, a course which had a unique circumstance that teachers concerned with classroom management will no doubt appreciate. The course required students to borrow school cameras and take pictures oftentimes on campus but outside the classroom itself. The course also required students to develop and process their film in a darkroom that allowed for roughly ten to fifteen students (about half the class) to work inside. My job — besides teaching a thing or two about photography and the arts — was to single-handedly manage a class of thirty or so mostly freshmen and sophomores (i.e., 14 and 15 year-olds) across the campus, in the classroom, and in the darkroom all at the same time.
Needless to say, strict rules were put in place. One year there was a group of four boys — as I recall, two were African American, one was Hispanic, and I can’t remember the fourth — who hung together and were always trying to get out of class or goof off — anything other than what they were supposed to be doing. One of their tactics was to ask to go to the bathroom … together. Now any classroom teacher worth their classroom management salt could see where that would lead and I prohibited it. They could go one at a time and even then could not abuse that privilege. Anyway, to make a long story short, one of the African American kids broke the rule and was given a detention for it. His father requested a meeting with his son and me.
At the meeting, the father proceeded to remind his son in front of me of what I considered to be “the talk” that black fathers gave to their sons teaching them to live in a white-dominant society and how to avoid the severe consequences that might follow if they did not, the clear implication being that I was the white power structure being confronted. He also instructed his son that he could go to the restroom whenever he needed to.
In my mind I did not see race as an issue in this situation at all. What I saw was your typical squirrelly teenager trying to get out of class. I still see it that way but I have never forgotten the incident — was I, in fact, injecting race and white privilege into the mix? Would I have taken the same action if the kid were white?
The fourth event also took place at Clayton Valley Charter. I was doing a routine English class observation and happened to walk in on senior class project presentations. Students had to propose a research topic, do the research, write a paper, and make an oral presentation. One of the students happened to be a very prominent athlete (who for now shall remain anonymous). His father had played professionally and was now a top executive in the league. The student was literally the Big Man on Campus, and had excelled in several sports all throughout his youth. He was heavily recruited for college and everyone had little doubt that he would soon be playing professionally and making more money than all of his teachers combined. And, everyone was right.
The oral presentation was about the business of sports but it was a single sentence at the end of class right before the bell rang that has captivated me ever since when the conversation drifted away from sports and his observation of what it was like to be the only black kid in school (before moving to California).
They say history is written by the winners, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Like I said, I am as white as they come in America and so I guess that makes me a “winner” in some convoluted, misguided sense and I’m going to take advantage of that. One of the members of my family tree was one Robert Cobb Kennedy. As told in the Nat Brandt book, The Man Who Tried to Burn Down New York City, Kennedy was one of three men recruited to take, shall we say, “extraordinary measures” to bring victory to the South in the Civil War. One was to kidnap Abraham Lincoln and exchange him for a Northern surrender. That, we know, didn’t work. Kennedy’s mission was to commit multiple arsons throughout New York City to bring about surrender. It was only partially successful and Kennedy was caught and executed. The third of these American terrorists was John Wilkes Booth.
The other day I was doing some genealogy research and came across my entries for Robert Cobb Kennedy. There was a new entry from Find a Grave, a service which assists in locating burial plots. Kennedy was hanged and died on March 25, 1865. He is buried at Cypress Hills National Cemetery in Kings County (Brooklyn), New York. Accompanying the entry were six virtual “flowers” dated from 2011 to 2022, along with comments such as “God bless you, sir. Thank you for your service. Doe Venice” and “God bless the memory of your service.”
Almost one hundred sixty years later, this should not happening in the United States. Today we give thanks, for the legacy of Martin Luther King and for the advances in the struggle that would permit one of his successors at Ebenezer Baptist Church to now twice be elected to serve in the United States Senate. We’ve come a long way, but there is still so much to be done, and I pledge to do my part to tell the stories and uncover the real truths in our family tree. Only then will history be written by the winners.