Sophomore year of high school I was two years advanced in math, so my class was comprised of like, one other sophomore, a handful of juniors, and then mostly seniors. In New York at the time they had these standardized tests called Regents
Exams, that you had to pass in order to graduate with a Regents Diploma. I don't know if this was true, but the pervasive atmosphere was that if
you didn’t get a Regents Diploma you might as well not graduate, the other diploma was thought to be essentially worthless.
There was this older Puerto Rican girl who sat behind me who
I didn’t know that well but we had smoked weed a couple times together at
lunch. She knew I was really good at math and just straight up asked me if she
could cheat off me on the Regents because she wanted to get that Regents
diploma. I couldn’t see a single, substantial issue with letting that happen,
so I did it. She cheated off me and she passed her regents and she was really
happy and I felt good I had helped her graduate.
In return, she invited me to her birthday party. That
weekend, me and my best friend Juan showed up at her mom’s apartment not
knowing what to expect. We walked in and there were her and these two guys we
had seen around school but didn’t know, a couple pizza boxes, and so much weed
smoke. Me and Juan were definitely PUNKS, and these guys were like, rap dudes or whatever. Is there a succinct noun for that? Like, they wore white, ribbed, tank top undershirts and baggy Mecca jeans and had
cornrows and those beaded Puerto Rican flag necklaces that everyone used to
wear back then. I knew black kids, Mexican kids, white kids, Jewish
kids, Indian kids, but I didn’t really know any Puerto Rican kids, or know much about Puerto
Rican culture beyond Big Pun yelling “BORICUA” and that the US was bombing
Vieques for Airforce drills thanks to a Crudos interview in MRR.
Anyway, these two dudes were definitely the sort of
blustery, hyper-masculine teenage boys with stringy muscles who strut around
and make noise at school and act hella tough. I did that too when I was on St Marks place
or in a pack of teen drinkers outside No Rio, but in school I was meek and
passive where they were loud and confident. My masculinity was
constantly embattled whereas their’s seemed self-assured and confident. I went to a big high
school, but I remembered both of these dudes from seeing them around the hallways because they were cool looking guys who, though they dressed differently from me, nailed whatever aesthetic they were going for so perfectly that it was almost impossible for a fashion conscious person like myself not to notice. But the point of all this, honestly, is just that they
were basically just two pretty normal teenage boys.
Anyway, we smoked a ton of weed, ate all the pizzas, which were slightly undercooked and doughy, but had a delicately flavored sauce and the perfect amount of cheese—objectively flawed but ideal for a "blunt to the dome" kinda night. There was a little stilted awkwardness when we first got there because we were practical strangers walking in on three best friends, but that eased off as we all got so blazed and soon everyone was having a good time.
were watching Dirty Dancing when we walked in. I expected these two, tough
masculine (non-white!) guys to be making fun of it a lot more than they did. In
fact, one of the dudes (I’m sorry I don’t remember any of these people’s names,
but this was like, fifteen years ago and I have smoked a lot more weed since
then) mouthed almost every line. I don’t think it’s crazy to find it novel that
a hyper-masculine guy has memorized all of Dirty Dancing, but I also don’t
think I would’ve been as shocked had this been one of the affluent Italian boys
who drove Escalades their dads bought them and pretended to be gang bangers.
Because for me, even though my best best friend was Mexican, my “crew,” while
majority white, was incredibly diverse (thank you New York), I still saw many
people of color as two-dimensional archetypes, rather than fully fleshed out
human beings. They were characters from New York Undercover or from a Mobb Deep track or a
fucking Ralph Ellison novel, even, but they were not people. The fact that this
tough, masculine dude knew all the lines from Dirty Dancing, even shed a few
tears at the end, is certainly notable, don’t get me wrong. The shock of
walking into this rugged, kinda thugged-out girl’s birthday party and seeing
just three friends hanging out, eating pizza and watching a movie might be
legit too. (What was I expecting, though, the Gin and Juice video?) But in my
retelling of this night—which WAS a cute night where people from
different backgrounds had fun and smoked weed and ate pizza and watched Dirty
Dancing—I found myself emphasizing that these PUERTO RICAN GUYS were watching
DIRTY DANCING and one of them EVEN MEMORIZED SOME LINES?! And I found myself
telling it mostly to other white people, white people who had much more
homogenously white upbringings than I did. And it was this thing that I did and
Like, why did it gotta be crazy to me that a Puerto Rican guy could like a really good movie? I guess because I saw Dirty Dancing as a "white people thing." But then like, when my punk friends who weren't white liked "white people stuff" I wasn't shocked because they were punks and also because I saw them as fully-formed, complicated people who had a plethora of interests that might seem out of the ordinary to some small-minded square, but not to me. And like, the fact that I was way into rap music and like, reading Black Feminists didn't seem suspect or weird because like, I am a fucking extraordinarily sensitive and intelligent individual and I'm just trying to make sense of the world, right? BUT THESE TWO PUERTO RICAN DUDES LIKE DIRTY DANCING?!!?
And as the years went on and I'd find myself telling this story, the narrative began to change, as narratives often do.
Suddenly these kids were Latin Kings. They were drug dealers. They were stick up
kids. And here I am bumbling white punk, gaining access to their sensitive
side or whatever. And like, I knew actual gang members in high school, which made it easier for me to fill in realistic details. I was friends with some folks who were in that world. But the thing is, I didn’t actually know if these two guys were in a
gang. They just "looked like they could be," whatever that means. (We know what that means.) And it made the story better, right?
So why not exaggerate. Hyperbole never killed anyone.
Except that kind of hyperbole just did kill someone. You get
what I’m saying?
I’m saying the kind of logic that makes it seem like benign
hyperbole to change these two normal teenage boys into gang members in a story
that I’ve told in order to improve the dramatic tension or whatever is actually
the same pernicious misconception that allowed an adult man to turn a
teenager buying a bag of skittles into a menacing bad guy who needed to get
dealt with. It allowed six adult women to let that adult man walk free. I made the same fundamentally racist logical leap as those people, the consequences just weren't as bad when I did it.
And I like to think that I’m one of the good white people! It feels good to think that. But check this out,
this is next bit is important: I am still racist. And other white folks, y’all
are still racist too. And creating this “us” and “them” mentality where “us” is
non-racist regular white people who don’t judge anyone based on skin color
(although maybe we are pragmatic
about certain issues, or maybe we do a certain voice when we imitate certain
brown people to other white people, or maybe we change normal teenagers into
gang members when we tell a story) and “them” is the racists, (who are like,
people who live elsewhere or maybe your shitty libertarian Uncle, but it’s
never you or anyone you’re actually close to)… creating that mentality helps to further
entrench your racism, it helps to obfuscate your own racism so that you never
have to deal with it. AND THAT IS FUCKED UP, OTHER WHITE PEOPLE! Cut it out!
So instead of doing that, try just dealing with it! Be
critical of why you think certain stuff, why you find certain things funny, why
you draw certain conclusions. Accept the criticism of other people in your life
without getting defensive. If the goal is to not be racist anymore, actually
work on that goal instead of just pretending that the racist shit you do or
think or feel is okay. It isn’t that hard.
Also realize that no matter how completely you wipe out racism within yourself, you are still complicit in a white supremacist culture and unless you are working actively to dismantle and destroy it you're still part of the problem. ;)