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My own experience of race in Charlottesville

August 23rd, 2018

I grew up in Charlottesville. Where all the Neo-nazi shit happened a year ago. I played flag football and capture the flag as a Boy Scout under the Statue that was the trigger for the whole episode. But I’m white so I don’t have much experience of being the target of racism. For me, growing up in Charlottesville, I never thought of people’s race much.

My first understanding of race differences was in retrospect years later.  I think it was sometime during middle school (more on that later).  My first encounter with race, though I didn’t know it, was when I was in kindergarden and first grade. One of my best friends was a boy who lived just a few minutes down the road named R—.  He was black, but I don’t recall ever thinking about that until much later.  I’d visit his house, he’d visit mine, we sat together on the bus, things like that.  I don’t remember much other than his first name and being fascinated by the fact that the living/dining room of his house was all one big room and there was a step in the middle (split level) unlink my house.

I think the first time I realised there was something about different skin colors was about the same time he moved, a couple bought the house just behind my parents, a couple who were mixed.  Someone adult must have said something at some point, I don’t remember, but I do remember wondering why it was an issue.  They had three kids, two girls — M—— and L—— and a boy, J—–.  We played with them regularly and it was never much of an issue. We discovered a bat on the ground of their back yard one summer day and after poking it (thinking it was a wounded mouse or something,) it flew away, bumping into at least one of the girls head or cheek on the way.  One of the worst spankings I ever got as a kid was after my older sister and I got caught playing with matches with those three.  Oops.  My sister and I were doing a “fire safety demo”.  We had a wood stove at home at the time so had been taught the rules before, though we weren’t allowed to use the matches. So we took the matches and the neighbour kids back into the woods behind the houses and showed the them how to light a fire (the fire was in the hollow of a cinder block) and how to put it out and make sure it was covered with soil.  Worse beating I ever got, my dad knew before we even got home.  Don’t know who squealed.  That’s a different story though.

I got a better concept of race and the issues with race in seventh grade, in Ms. B—–‘s social studies class. I don’t recall all the details but we covered the civil rights movement of the `60’s that year.  I went to middle school in Jackson P. Burley and as part of the lesson Ms. B—– explained that before integration Burley had been the black high school.  Maybe I already knew that, it was written above the main entrance; Jackson P. Burley High School, but I remember it from her lesson. We also covered the race issues that took place in Charlottesville in the `60’s, especially around the destruction of the Vinegar Hill district. As part of the same term I remember we also talked about the way that black culture was at the forefront of popular culture, from Jazz to Hip Hop. I have a vivid memory of sitting in that classroom with those school issue blue and white headphones on and listening to 2 Live Crew sing “Banned in the USA” (if you must [youtube.com]) and Bruce Springsteen’s original “Born in the USA” (to be fair [youtube.com]). “Banned in the USA” was probably my first exposure to any form of rap or hip hop.  MC Hammer doesn’t count, but I think I heard Funky Cold Medina that same year. I associate that song with a girl that was being made fun of, oops.

Outside of black or African American friends or schoolmates I think the only other experience I had with minorities through middle school was, as far as I remember, one kid who was Arabic.  I think.  His name, H—– was definitely of Arabic origin but I don’t think it was ever discussed. I was not until high school. Looking back I hung out with a diverse group of kids.  There was my neighbour, M—–. Who was black. As was O—.  F—- was Taiwanese, G—– was half Polynesian and J– was half Arabic.  Being a college town Charlottesville was diverse for its size compared to other nearby parts of Virginia.

The most negative experience I had around race in high school was when M—— was followed around a video store I once worked at and then the manager actually followed us out of the store and around the mall.  Trying to see if M—— had stolen something. Which he had not.

I guess all of that shaped my view of race.  I knew the negative shit, the racism and hate was out there but people’s skin color was never part of any mental process for me when deciding how to deal with a person or situation.

There was one other big factor that shaped my views, not directly on race, but on the wider subject of bigotry while I lived in Charlottesville: Club 216.  216 was the only real club in Charlottesville for dance music and I got big into the Techno and Dance scene my last year in high school.  I spent a lot of time in and around 216 over the next few years, until I moved to Northern Virginia. 216 was run by the Piedmont Triangle Society, of which you had to be a paid member to get in. If you don’t understand what that means… It was a gay and lesbian club operated by a gay an lesbian society. So I spent a lot of time around gay and lesbian people. I was friends with a lot of guy and lesbian people. Some well adjusted “normal” people, some… less so. But this was also never an issue.  They were just good company and their scene was the best dance scene in town.  I have a lot of great memories of Friday and Saturday nights in 216. And road trips with homo- and hetro- friends to seek out better parties at raves across Virginia and the mid-Atlantic region.

So that’s my experience of race in Charlottesville.  I know there was racism, and other bigotries, but there was a lot of acceptance and diversity too.  In my life after Charlottesville I had a lot more formative experiences with regards to race; reading The Invisible Man, living in London and traveling around Europe. Visiting Japan (where J——- famously said “I’m white, I’ve never experienced racism” when the only empty space on the rush hour train was around the four of us – all four of us white gaijin. And, of course, I’ve ended up marrying a ethnic Chinese Singaporean, so most of my family is not Chinese and I live as a minority in Singapore.  Where most of my day-to-day friends are Indians. 

P.S. If anyone wants to understand Charlottesville’s history of race from a wider perspective check out The Charlottesville Syllabus [medium.com] on Medium.

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