I turned on the TV and there was a black boxer fighting a white boxer. I had the sound turned down and was blasting a Jimi Hendrix record while I was watching the fight. I had never seen or heard of either fighter before and didn’t know a thing about them.
I found myself enthusiastically rooting for the black boxer to win. The only thing that distinguished one fighter from the other was the color of his skin.
I realized this was proof. There could be no more doubt that I too was a racist. Will counseling or therapy help? Am I a bigot or just prejudiced?
I thought back on my past and what led me to this fork in the road.
When I was born, in 1949, my mother, father, older brother, two uncles and their wives all lived in a three-bedroom house in West Philadelphia with my grandmother and grandfather. My father worked at the shipyard, and six months after I was born he was able to buy a house only a few miles away from my grandmother. We were the third black family on an all white street of 70 row houses. For the first five years of my life I played primarily with white kids. By the time I was ten there was only one white kid left. His name was Francis.
Francis was Italian. He was neither big nor strong and one of the slowest runners on the block. The slowest was a black kid named Billy who always got caught while the rest of us got away; eventually Billy did a lot of time in jail. In a role reversal Francis was the only kid on the block without a dad. He lived with his mother and his grandfather, and in spite of the white-flight and block busting around us they never moved away. He attended an all boys Catholic high school, never had a cool nickname or wore a weird hat. Francis loved to play stick ball and dance. While most of us were listening to Smokey Robinson and the Temptations, Francis was into Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Maybe that’s why he had no rhythm! People in the neighborhood might mess with him because he was wrong, but we never let anyone mess with him because he was white. He was one of us!
We went to the movies every Saturday (it was only a nickel), and when we role played Cowboys and Indians afterwards most of us wanted to be the Indians. I must admit it was partially due to their skin pigment, but mostly because the Indians wore hipper and much more functional clothes. How are you going to sneak up on someone wearing pointed toe high heeled boots and a big white cowboy hat? Francis always wanted to be the cowboy. He was usually out numbered 10 to one, and the cowboys routinely lost on our block, but that’s who he identified with! Francis was the first kid on our street to enlist into the military (most of us were drafted). Francis was also the first friend I knew that died in Vietnam. He’s on The Wall. His last name is Daniels.
I realize now that Hollywood, and TV in its infancy, had a major impact on who my friends and I rooted for and our color consciousness. My favorite western movies were always about Custer’s Last Stand and the Civil War. Although not that great in history class I knew that no matter how Hollywood would try to change the story and make a sympathetic ending, Custer and Johnny Reb would get their just desserts. Hollywood also put out a movie called Logan’s Run that was about the future, but had no people of color in it. Whose future was that? It surely wasn’t mine. Don’t get me started on the movie Zulu: a heroic tale of 120 British soldiers against 5,000 Zulus. Why don’t they make a movie about the preceding battle where the Zulus defeated 1,200 British troops or Toussaint L’Ouverture in Haiti? Tarzan used to be my favorite character. But as the years progressed many of his antics became disturbing as well!
On TV there was Rochester and Amos and Andy. And wow, how my mother would swoon when Nat King Cole sang his songs. Anytime a Negro would appear on TV we would break through on the telephone party-line and call all our friends and relatives.
Sports were a whole different story. Willie Mays, Jackie Robinson, Wilt Chamberlain (who lived on the same street as me in Philadelphia), Bill Russell, and Joe Louis were heroes during the game, but zeroes when it came time to buy a home. The American Dream was not for them, and the American public was only colorblind when they were on the field. Once the game is over it was Jim Crow all over again! But I digress.
As I sat there rooting while the black and white boxers competed I realized that too much has happened, there’s too much history, and even with therapy I will probably never be colorblind. Maybe my kids will—who are part African, American Indian, Hispanic, Irish and Asian. But the images and experiences of the past are still strong, and stay with me today.
To be honest I don’t see anything wrong with cheering for people that look like you, speak like you, and share the same ancestry or culture. We should appreciate each others’ uniqueness and not be threatened by our own loyalties. Being colorblind may be an unrealistic mountain to climb, a bridge too far that doesn’t really matter. For most of us living in the Bay Area we should applaud our attempts at diversity and our desire to make it a reality. That’s why we live here, and we shouldn’t beat ourselves up! Sometimes when you try to achieve the impossible–like a colorblind society, there’s nothing possible to achieve!
Meanwhile there was a break in the fight. The two boxers went to their corners where they were splashed with water and attended to by their trainers. I turned up the sound. The white fighter’s handlers said, “Champ he can’t hit you, he can’t touch you. You’re winning every round.” The fighter responded through swollen lips and a half closed eye in a Brooklyn accent, “Well somebody better watch that referee!” The TV camera switched over to the black fighter’s corner where they were talking in a language that was neither English nor Spanish. My allegiance immediately switched to the white fighter, and all my anxieties vanished. I may not be colorblind, but I’m an all-American sports fan!
Winston Burton is a Berkeley resident.›