In the fall of my junior year in high school I took Physics. I remember sitting in that hot classroom on the second floor of our high school sweating and trying to concentrate and praying the hot classroom wouldn’t allow a musty smell to attach to me. I went to school decades before schools even thought about putting in air conditioning. Our air conditioning was a small 1’x3’ rectangular window that pushed open. This tiny window benefited the two people that sat directly in front of it and no one else. As we waited for class to begin and Mr. Mandeville to start the class, the last few students slid in just before the bell rang. One student was a good friend I grew up with and everyday he would just beat the bell and pour into his seat with the same comment, “I’m buzzin’ like my cousin.” His eyes were still blood shot from his recent few tokes of weed. The Visine hadn’t yet got the red out. The frustrating thing about this friend was he stayed high, ALL THE TIME, but he managed to ace every test in Physics, and Calculus where I struggled with concepts, theorems, equations and formulas.
On one hot September afternoon, Mr. Mandeville began class with a question. “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one around will it make a sound?” We all debated his question and although I struggled in Physics, I enjoyed questions like this one. They really made me think and that training in problem solving was the most beneficial thing I got out of this class. My friend who was still flying high spoke up.
“Sound operates like a radio. You need a source that produces the sound and you need a receiver, something that receives the sound. Again, just like a radio, the sound waves are in the air but you don’t hear them unless you have a receiver to accept the sound. So if a tree fell in the forest but there was no one around to receive the sound there would be no sound.”
Mr. Mandeville stood at the front of the room and commended the analogy and clarity and we all just giggled knowing my friend was far from clear headed.
Growing up there was a lot going on around me that I was oblivious to. There were racial slights, mean comments, invisible (to me) discrimination, and blatant racism that I didn’t notice. There was literally racist fog that I walked through and it never registered on my radar. At 20 years old if someone had asked me if I was discriminated against I would have answered clearly that I was not and would have defended that answer to the edge of my own grave, but I was wrong. At that young age, I didn’t really understand what racism was, what it looked like, or smelled like so I just assumed it wasn’t there. Growing up in a White home I wasn’t trained to see it and recognize it so often when I was treated badly I assumed I did something wrong to cause the unjust treatment. Growing up in a White home for me meant my education in racism was about 20 years behind that of my Black peers. My Black peers grew up in homes where their parents pointed out the slights and mistreatment and identified it as racism. They were trained to see it, feel it, spot it, smell it, and label it and by doing so understood the unjust treatment they received had little to do about them and more to do with those who were doing it. This made it easier for my Black friends to walk away understanding they themselves were not broken.
Shortly after leaving the safe confines of my parent’s home I began to see things I never noticed before. I began to hear things I never heard before. I began to smell things I never smelled before. Racism began to be more and more identifiable to me. I had finally tuned in to its frequency and it was coming through in stereo. As my body, mind and ears picked up on it my response to it was anger and sometimes rage. The weight of an unfair system came crashing down on me and as a young man I wasn’t sure how to carry that burden. In my late 40’s I’m still not sure and there are days when I want to just put it down and have someone else carry it because the weight can some days just be too much.
I wish my parents would have taught me when I was very young to see racism. I wish they would have taught me to call it what it was and to hear it as it buzzed around me and surrounded me. I would have gladly sacrificed my innocence in exchange for my self esteem. My innocence allowed it to go unnoticed and undefined. My self esteem took the direct blows instead because other’s behavior was left undefined so I assumed it was me who caused them to act the way they did toward me.
Racism is not like sound. Although they are both around us very actively working, racism won’t be silent just because I don’t recognize it. It is present and weighted and will find a way to impact your children. The question is will you let it fall on them, or warn them it is there and present?