The street I grew up on was a cul-de-sac called Tobylynn Circle. Parallel to it was Ashley Court, another cul-de-sac, and houses on both shared backyards separated only by a drainage ditch. When I met Shawn he was on his yard’s side of the ditch and I was on mine and I don’t know which one of us hopped over first but we were immediate friends. We were both eight and lived in adjacent homes so it would be stupid to not be friends although I don’t think either of us thought about it that way. He invited me to his house and I met both his parents. Shawn and his family had just moved to the neighborhood. They seemed nice, but I felt a little uncomfortable with the way his mother asked, “Do your parents know you’re here?” I’d been to other kids’ houses and no one’s mother had ever asked me that before. I felt uncomfortable, though, because I said “Yes” even though Shawn and I had just met ten minutes earlier and I hadn’t thought to tell my parents where I was. Years later I’d realize there might have been a subtext to her question that was “Do your parents know we’re black?” I knew Shawn and his parents were black but I don’t remember giving it much thought beyond that. As a white kid in the suburbs it was easy to be naïve, to think racism was an old problem that no longer existed, or that, like smallpox, it was confined to small, enclosed places. I’d been brought up on Sesame Street so I was used to puppets and people of all colors living in harmony. And before Shawn there were no people of color that I knew in the neighborhood which caused me to develop some weird ideas. Once I asked my mother if I could have hair like Shawn’s because I’d seen his father using a hair dryer–the first time I’d ever seen anyone use a hair dryer–and I thought, “So that’s how he gets his hair all curly.”
I gave Shawn’s skin color, and my own, a lot more thought when he met my friend Troy who lived at the bottom of the hill, on Tobylynn Drive. As soon as Troy saw Shawn he froze then stepped back, then turned to me and said he had to go. I knew what racism was but until then it had been an abstraction. It was something I’d never, or at least thought I’d never, encountered. Shawn and I didn’t talk about it, and later when Troy told me I had to choose between playing with him and playing with Shawn I just quietly accepted it and spent a lot of time after that with Shawn because he was fun and we had some things in common, like a love of the Japanese monster movies that were on every Saturday, and he didn’t try to boss me around. When Shawn wasn’t around I still played with Troy and would keep my dislike of having to keep my friends separated at the back of my mind.
Somehow it never really became a problem, probably because Shawn and his family moved away a few months later. They arrived some time before Easter and were gone before school started. While I missed him he eventually became yet another in a string of short-term friends who moved into the neighborhood and then moved away. Troy and I would be friends for years but, looking back, I think we were only friends because we were close in age, and without a lot of other kids in the neighborhood it would be stupid to not be friends. As we got older, though, we would drift apart. What friendship we had would simply fade away and would not be missed.
As for Shawn, well, it’s awkward for me to talk about this because I’m so white I’d be mistaken for a marble statue if I didn’t wear clothes, and white guys have dominated conversations for so long that I’m reluctant to add my voice to the din. I wish I still knew Shawn so that I could talk to him about this experience, if he even remembers it. It’s likely it wasn’t his first experience with racism and even more likely it wasn’t his last and there have probably been those who make Troy look restrained. At the same time I don’t want to reduce Shawn to a stereotype or stand-in. It wouldn’t be his, or anyone else’s, responsibility to tell me about white privilege and how I’ve benefited from it without realizing it, without being aware it exists even though it has shaped who I am. He was–let me rephrase that. Even though I don’t know if he’s still alive I hope he is so he deserves the present tense. He is a person, and while his skin color may be part of who he is, while it may or may not be part of how he sees himself, he’s an individual. He doesn’t speak for all people of color any more than he speaks for all guys named Shawn.
That may seem obvious but it took me a long time to realize it. Even after that early experience with Troy and Shawn I still clung to the racism-as-smallpox view. If you had asked me, although no one did and I didn’t ever bring it up, I would have said that since we were the same age and lived in the same neighborhood there wasn’t that much difference in our experiences. It wouldn’t have occurred to me that there are differences in our backgrounds and family histories that shape how we see the world. There was a portrait of a relative of mine who fought for the Confederate side in the U.S. Civil War that hung in my grandparents’ house. He wasn’t a slave owner but defended the right of others to keep slaves. For a long time I didn’t think about it, although now I think of it as a part of my heritage I’m not proud of. I don’t know how Shawn would think about it but his perspective might be very different.
It’s been a long time since Shawn and I knew each other and the conclusions I’ve come to here have been the result of talking and, more importantly, listening to other people. I don’t know if my views would be any different if I hadn’t known Shawn, but I still think of them as having started with him, having started with us being friends.