Sunday, August 9, 2009

A Letter to Brian

I’m not black, I’m white.

Those words jar me. I don’t think in terms of color when the issue of humanity comes up, only when the issue of race does. This vision is thrust upon me, like an unwanted, smelly relative.

Race issues do only one thing for me; remind me that I’m white. Otherwise I walk through life not even thinking about the color of my skin, or anyone else’s for that matter. I suppose it’s easy for me, being Caucasian. But I also never thought of black folks as anything other than people. The Race issue, it’s like a bomb; no one notices it until it gets armed, or goes off. As a kid growing up in Toronto, I never thought much about these things. I loved everyone, black, white or green.

But the culture forced it on me.

One of my best friends growing up was a kid named Brian. He was the only black boy in a neighborhood full of Canadians and Italians, and he got his share of razzing. They used to call him “nigger-jigger” and all sorts of other nasty things. I may have said it a couple of times too, but when I saw the look on Brian’s face when I said it, I regretted the act immediately. He wasn’t a gangster, he wasn’t a punk, or a thief, or a drug dealer, or a trouble maker. He was just sweet old Brian, who always came calling on me to play, and inviting me to his house to eat mayonnaise and toast. He was a human being, and I hurt him. It hurts me now to write this.

To his mother’s credit, Brian never lashed out, never called us “white trash” or “honkies” or anything else. He never said a word. She taught him to face things with dignity, and to not lower himself in response to such cruel taunting. To be fair, as a kid I had no idea what that “N” word meant. I mean it; I was that innocent. I only knew that the kids thought it was funny, it was something to chant, something to bug Brian about. At the time we were fairly isolated from a lot of things, because there was no internet, no cell phones, no 24-hour news cycles, no swearing on television. No anything. We learned from the streets. And there was a lot of ignorance.

Kids used to treat Brian roughly, like he was some kind of second class citizen. I used to stick up for him, protect him. Sometimes I wasn’t around to do that though. The Italian kids would never share candy with him. They’d beat him up, leave him out of games, and taunt him. This was in the early 80’s. Only a few years removed from Martin Luther King’s assassination. Oh, how far we didn’t come.

One day, Brian and I were walking down the street. It was a beautiful summer day, the sky was azure blue, and the air was thick and hot. I had a bag of candy and was sharing it with him (Jelly Beans, Gummi Worms, sugar, etc…) when, down the street, a large German Sheppard had spotted us, and we started running towards Collins house (This made the dog chase us, of course) This kid Collin had the only house on the street with a large wooden fence around the front yard, and we got there panting and yelling for him to let us in. He did, but when I ran through the gate Collin suddenly slammed the door shut, locking it, and leaving Brian out there. There was screaming and yelling, and I fought Collin to open that gate, because I could hear Brian out there screaming that the dog was attacking him, biting his leg. By the time I forced Collin aside and opened the door, the dog’s owner had captured his beast and re-leashed him, but Brian was lying on the sidewalk, bleeding and crying. I looked at Collin, amazed, and almost as if I had asked the question out loud instead of in my head, he answered me.

“My father doesn’t allow blacks in the yard.” He said.

To be fair, he was young, and he was taking his cues from his father, who grew up in a much more racist culture, but it still doesn’t excuse it. Black or white, Brian was a human being, a human being, not a color, not a thing. He needed rabies shots after that. Can you imagine?

But Brian, sweet and soft spoken Brian, always came back out to play. He even forgave Collin, quietly. I’m sure he rankled with anger and emotion, but he never showed it.

He earned my eternal respect that day.

That was a long time ago, and a lot has happened since then, but I still think about Brian, and how I once called him that nasty word, and how he got locked out of a yard and bitten by a dog because his skin happened to be a different color. I think about him all the time when the race thing comes up, and that’s what it is, a thing. I will lend no credence to racism because it shouldn’t exist. I suppose this is my apology to him, for everything he went through and for his dignity in the face of it all. I always felt I should have done more to protect him, but I was only 11 years old. There was only so much I could do. Those kinds of things were just beyond me then.

But I know one thing now; Racism is the product of ignorance, and ignorance is the product of its culture, and I believe racism and ignorance are learned behaviors. But what can be learned can be un-learned, can’t it?

Brian, if you ever read this, I am so sorry.

(This post is in response to "Fun is Not Fun When You Spell It: Exploring Race Issues with Our Youth" by g.g. spirit ~ )


  1. Wow.
    What a heartfelt blog post.
    Thanks for sharing, I'm sure it was hard.
    kids can be cruel because that is the nature of the human condition.
    All the best,

  2. Well done! I feel honored to know that I inspired such a heartfelt, insightful and well-written piece. It is a shame that we all have to experience hurt based on something as arbitrary as skin color. Knowing that others, of all races, are taking the time and pain-staking energy to look inward revives hope that maybe one day our children's children may no longer have to deal with these issues.

  3. I grew up in the South (in the States) but was fortunate to have parents who taught that racism was wrong. But better than teaching with words, they taught by example through friendships and by never using derogatory language towards anyone because of color.

    So yes, teach your children that racism is wrong, but the best way to teach children is by setting a good example. Because no one is born a racist.

  4. I started reading your post and I couldn't stop. It was honest and compelling. The dog scene had me in tears. You are absolutely right that racism stems from ignorance, and it is a parent's responsibilty as well as that of society to teach our children that we are ALL created in God's image. My children are taught that the different races make the world beautiful just like the different variety of flowers.

  5. interesting...very honest, i dig that. the only thing i disagree with is this...

    "Racism is the product of ignorance, and ignorance is the product of its culture, and I believe racism and ignorance are learned behaviors.

    I don't feel racism is a product of ignorance. Racism is a product of POWER. specific power structures that are set up to oppress the non-dominant culture. Yes, it may feed off of ignorance, but we can't negate the POWER that it's built upon. Until we start dealing with the very real way in which we all buy into the privilege of whiteness, we won't get past it.

  6. David, I first read this post a few days ago and when I revisited tonight, I was dismayed to realize the comment I thought I'd left did not appear. Please know what a well-written post this is. Thank you for shining light on a moment of darkness. I hope someday Brian sees this post.

  7. Funny that the first time I click on your blog, I see a post about racism. I hate it. I've stopped dating men because of it, walked away from friends because of it, left online communities because of it... I hate it. I was raised by a woman who, though not living in the south, nevertheless took a stand in a southeastern Kansas grocery store one day in the mid forties, and with a glare at the cashier who'd been ignoring a black woman waiting to pay for her items while the cashier waited on white ladies first, said "I believe this lady was here before I was." and refused to budge till the black woman was allowed to check out and leave. I carried on that attitude of disallowing racism in my presence, and passed it on to my children, who are teaching my grandchildren as well. It's the legacy of my family I'm most proud of.

  8. That was quite touching, even more so because it was earnestly done. It's good to know that more and more people realize that things might be better if we place more emphasis in just being people - than on labels, weighed down by warped beliefs and hatred.

  9. Wow, a peice of painful reality re-visited from a new place... Touching and honest, sad as it is lifting.
    Rest assured, Brian knows you were his friend.
    I have a memory of referring to a black man walking thru our neighborhood in a less than genteel way, I was 8 & had no idea it was a hurtful thing to say - but the lesson hit quick and hard, as it did with you.
    We have a long way to go, but we continue to move forward - and thats good news for us all. Destination - Color Blind.

  10. Wonderfully written, beautifully put, precisely my own thoughts. Agree, twitter is a bumpy road in which we travel. Heartbreak, laughter, joy and rejection all part of the journey. Will be following your blog from now on :)
    All the best.

  11. I am glad I started following you on Twitter today (via ireadiwrite)
    because it allowed me to reach your blog and be able to read this wonderful (what seems to be) heartfelt story you've written.

    I have one suggestion, make it a point to locate Brian, try Facebook or something.

    I agree, racist/ignorance is a taught behavior, which can be unlearned or not-practiced.
    Thanks for sharing.

  12. Hi David,

    I am slowly working my way through your pages, and just discovered this piece. Thus far, in my opinion the most heartfelt and in your face piece of your's that I have read. It's difficult admitting wrongs we've done to other people and the hurt we caused them and ourselves for it. I agree, also, with what Tanya Moore said, that we as people should just be people instead of focusing on color. I'm really glad I found this piece and will contonue perusing your site. Thank you :o)


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