In light of George Floyd’s vicious murder, I can’t help but reflect on the way racism has affected me and how if things were different I could be racist. What if my dad didn’t die and I stayed in that community where racism was rampant? What if something changed me along the way with all of that hate and I didn’t have my glass half full, see the best in everyone’s attitude?
I was raised on Cleveland’s east side in a neighborhood called Collinwood. From Collinwood High School and east for maybe fifteen blocks or so there was a very Italian neighborhood. (Movies have been made about this neighborhood including one called Collinwood starring George Clooney or To Kill an Irishman starring Val Kilmer)
As a young child, we swam at a public pool called Mandalay.
Black people were not allowed to swim here.
During the Summer, huge festivals at Holy Redeemer, the Catholic Church where the Italians went to school, were the highlight of the year.
Black People were not allowed to attend this festival.
My parents weren’t around that often and my three siblings and myself had free reign over our community. I remember swimming at the pool, which at only seven-years-old I often went to on my own when two young black teens rode their bikes near the pool and some Italian teenagers ran them off screaming N*gg*r. They carried baseball bats and chased those black people away. This was just how it was.
My family was poor. Poorer than most. My parent were addicts who often spent food money on other nefarious things. Needless to say, we could not afford to go to Holy Redeemer. I remember people assuming I was Italian because of my dark features and I didn’t want to correct them because of how I might be viewed. As an adult, I see how ludicrous and ignorant this was.
We went to Cleveland’s public schools. I remember kindergarten at Kenneth W Clement. I was one of three white girls in my class. I remember lining up to go into the building and black kids spitting on me and calling me honkey.
By first grade, I’d already had my share of physical confrontations.
In the ’80s the city of Cleveland was ordered to desegregate the public schools more so they bussed white kids in from the west side to even it out more. To the west side white kids, I was beyond trash. A bunch of black kids hated me because I was white and then the west side white kids hated me because I wasn’t white enough. I was in second or third grade when I got into my first real fistfight with a west side white kid who wanted to fight me just because.
Fourth Grade was going to be a total change for me. Cleveland had specialty schools and I was accepted into Cleveland School of the Arts. My sister Katie was already there and I knew it was going to be a needed change. Cleveland School of The Arts was 4th-12th that specialized in all of the arts.
There was a black girl on the bus, Willamena, who bullied me and I remember fighting with her as well. A High School across the street from our school, John Hayes, was extremely violent. I remember large chains hanging at every door. We were locked in with huge chains and padlocks so that the John Hayes kids couldn’t get in. Could you imagine that today? Locking students in so that other violent students couldn’t come in to fight them?
In 1990 my father died of a drug overdose. My mother, who was 31 became a widow of four kids and we moved out of Collinwood. The new city we moved to was much more diverse. It wasn’t black vs white. We were much more integrated. Instead of being as poor as we were, we now had my father’s SSI, that helped raise us. My mom was working and life improved. I had black friends. I had white friends. I also had a white girl that did not like me. Oh, she wanted to fight me all of the time. I remember in seventh grade, I decided you want to fight, let’s fight. And we did. Later she tried to escalate it again and do you know what happened? My black friends approached her and told her that they had my back and that if she messed with me again, she’d have to deal with them.
I remember when the black girls all took my back and it was something that stuck with me. It was such a change to my earliest experiences. They were my friends and somehow, luckily, I was able to be open-minded enough that I didn’t let my previous experiences change me. I was able to see past it, and I’m incredibly fortunate that I was.
My journey with racism is not unique. My early years, bred racism. It was everywhere. It was taught from all sides and in all directions. White vs black. Black vs white. It wasn’t one-sided.
As an adult, I’m forever grateful I had more positive experiences than what I experienced in my elementary days. I know people who lived in that neighborhood for far longer and racism was still embedded into them.
As an adult, I’ve had to actively look at the way racism has affected my life and I’ve had to consciously think about it and think better.
When racism is taught it’s like a disease and one you need to heal from. I was lucky to find black friends who quickly taught me about acceptance.
Acceptance became a much stronger voice in my world as my mom became open in the gay community. I had these experiences that made it so I learned to be accepted and to accept everyone for who they were not by the color of their skin or their sexual gender.
But I think about those days where the Italian guy chased that black guy from the pool. I think about if he stayed in that community for his entire life. How he is probably forty-five years old. Did he break the cycle? Did he get away from it? Did he spend the rest of his life dealing with racism? Did he teach his children to be better than that?
And it stays with me, that this world has to be better. To change and to be better, you have to acknowledge what has been done, where you fell in that racist scope and you have to be the change. Teach the change.
Our world is in a battle right now, one where years and years of oppression have caused immeasurable amounts of hurt and damage. Protests throughout the world are happening and it’s been sparked because of George Floyd’s murder. It’s also all of the ways I was raised. It’s decades upon decades upon centuries of racism. It’s going against racism that was taught and bred into people. It’s time for equality in income and healthcare and food and the justice system. It’s time for inclusion and for every school, and municipality to teach and reject racism.
It’s time for people to actually vote for change. I read an article this morning from President Obama that talks about the importance of voting locally. Do that! Be that!