Journey to Racial Awareness

by Colin Stokes

I grew up in San Antonio to northern parents who didn’t feel at home there. I was raised Jewish in an overwhelmingly Christian culture. I was free of athletic competence in a football-oriented culture of masculinity. So I was tuned early on to the unfairness of exclusion, to sympathy with those on the outside rather than those in power.

All the same, I was showered with the benefits and propaganda of whiteness. I learned about slavery, the Civil War, and Reconstruction in Texas History class with the revisionist narrative: the Middle Passage was the worst part, the war ended with emancipation, and Reconstruction was a catastrophe driven by northern meddling. I was taught about civil disobedience with an extensive unit on Henry David Thoreau; the Civil Rights Movement was not covered in depth. I don’t recall any Black writers being assigned to me in English class, but I mastered European (male) art history, European (male) philosophy, and novels by white American men.

I internalized the hierarchy this implied, in spite of my conscious attempts to bridge differences. I had a Mexican friend in sixth grade named Efraim. I liked trying out my Spanish on him and how nice he was, compared to the sometimes mean white boys at my school. Once he invited me to his house. He lived in a part of town I’d never driven through, where the houses were one-story with weedy lawns and chain link fences and rusty shells of cars in the driveway. I couldn’t comprehend the gap between that and my custom-built, two-story brick house with landscaping and automatic sprinklers. He showed me his chickens and enthusiastically offered to give me one. My mom seemed against the idea. I sort of drifted from him after that.

In high school I got a ride from another white boy in the same advanced classes and extracurriculars as me. He was a devotee of rap and hip-hop, and played it in his Jeep every morning, the bass vibrating the seats. I had thought of rap as music not meant for me, like books in another language, but in the Jeep I learned to recognize and appreciate Public Enemy and De La Soul. Meanwhile, my mother encouraged me to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X. When I read his attacks on white people, I was exhilarated; I didn’t see myself or my community as part of that group of racists. I pictured them as black and white villains, long ago defeated, like Nazis. I didn’t see these stories as ongoing, or myself or my family as anything but an appreciative audience, admiring the courage of these historical figures.

I got into Harvard, at least partially benefiting from my father’s Harvard alumni status. Ironically, the campus was the most diverse community I’d ever been part of. But I had only one Black teacher (one of the only kind faculty members I encountered). I took a survey of American history since 1945 and a seminar on 1950s popular culture, both taught by white women scholars, and I don’t remember learning about redlining in either course. I never considered taking an African-American Studies class. I did read Toni Morrison, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison, which were on various syllabi, and which I loved.

Nonetheless, I had not learned enough about the nature of race and racism to avoid seeing my classmates of color through stereotypes and fear. I was so anxious about the range of differences around me that I had no empathy for the experiences or exclusion that so many of them must have been having. I still felt I was on the outside, as a middle-class public-school kid who had never rented a tuxedo (especially not opening night of a student play!) .

While I felt more and more inauthentic, I was thriving by all external signals. I couldn’t reconcile this outwardly high social status with my deteriorating self esteem. Then I felt guilty for not appreciating how good I had it. Only now do I see how whiteness was a factor in this vicious psychological cycle. I did not know how to exist in a genuine way when society artificially treated me as superior.

After graduating, determined to avoid hierarchical communities for my own sanity, I eschewed the corporate and academic paths and went into theater. In the dozens of professional productions I acted in over a decade, there were few actors of color. I don’t recall taking part in any conversations about racial inequity, even in the one show I was in that had a minority white cast: a revival of an obscure 1920s musical called Chee Chee. The Asian-American actors, with ancestry in a dozen countries but all playing “Chinese” people, were talented and warm; they compared notes on the roles they had all played in Flower Drum Song, The King and I, and Miss Saigon. The white director did not create space to discuss what the experience of this extraordinarily racist piece meant to them or its place in history.

My wife and I had our first child and we cashed in a whole lot of white privilege: the fixer-upper apartment we’d bought in Manhattan (with gifts from our parents—the accumulated dividend of generations of rigged financial systems) almost doubled in value, and we moved in with her parents rent-free in Brookline (with accompanying free childcare) while we looked for a place to spend our windfall. The preposterousness of my life began to be so obvious as to be funny. How did I deserve this? But I still thought of this “luck” as within a normal scope of random good fortune.

The first time race was an explicit component of my work was in the central office of a Boston-based education non-profit—though at the time, “race” was coded as “urban kids” and “diversity” and “socio-economic disadvantage.” The leadership and upper management (which would come to include me) were pretty much all white graduates of elite universities and graduate schools. Some of the educators (interestingly referred to as “front line staff,” or the ones “in the field”) were Black or Latinx, and a number of the entry-level and administrative staff were too.

I was self-conscious with Black colleagues. A few would reach out for mentoring in my skill set, and I would meet perfunctorily and not follow through. When white and Latino colleagues reached out, I didn’t hesitate. This pattern is excruciating to remember, because it hurt people very directly by depriving them of opportunity.

Over time, I did form professional friendships with Black co-workers who I came to respect enormously for their skill and expertise, as well as their different norms—their language, their gestures, their style of dress. I started to get a superficial familiarity with contemporary Black culture as a concurrent community that ran parallel with what I thought of as mainstream. I started to understand that I didn’t live in “America;” I lived in White America. Something started to click: that feeling of exclusion I had internalized may have been justified in my San Antonio childhood or even at Harvard, but in the greater society, I was in the club.

I also blundered badly. I had my first experience being called out, and I felt extremely vulnerable—but also somehow strengthened. One day I realized that I could add Black publications to my Facebook feed and educate myself in a much less public way. Trayvon Martin had been killed and the Black Lives Matter movement was beginning. I got a daily master class in the rage, despair, determination, and humanity of Black Americans. I was slowly replacing the white narrative with a truer one, and it was creating the soil for a new sense of myself to grow.

Still, I did not take any bold actions to dismantle racism I observed around me. I commiserated with colleagues of color who reported biased management to me, but I contributed nothing beyond sympathy.

How can I break this streak of complacency? How can I reorient my behavior to values aligned with what I am learning intellectually?

I am a “top predator” of our cultural hierarchy. This doesn’t mean I must be happy or grateful, nor does it mean I must feel guilty. It does mean that I am in a position the majority of humans are not: I have been granted full access to the inside of a treasure trove of resources, respect, and agency. There is plenty to share. I must not only open the door, but tear down the walls. That is the path to my own freedom.