Watching My Back: Part Three

My personal understanding of ethnic and national cultural identity started sometime after I dropped out of the University of Michigan in my Junior year and moved to New York, where I transferred into a school whose name and function embarrasses me now to no end. Barely into my twenties, the culture shock was quite profound. Indeed, the U-curve theory’s three-level of adaptation was, in retrospect, often repeated over the course of my seven year stay.

One aspect of social life in the ‘greatest city on earth’ that surprised me was the high level of racism and prejudice. Many years later, I began to define this as tribalism: a sub-cultural pattern of behavior that enforces group identity (through skin color, ethnicity, religion, or a combination of the three), often perceived as superior to another ‘tribe.’ This was very strong in the New York City area. A friend at the time who came up from Georgia (ironically, the state where my grandparents married before moving north) said to me, “this is the most racist city I’ve ever been in. At least where I come from they call you nigger, and you turn around and call ‘em cracker, and that’s that. You know where you stand. Here, they don’t say anything, but you know what they’re thinking.”

For seven years I had corporate doors slammed in my face. The usual suspects treated me poorly: cab drivers, receptionists, and hyper-vigilant security guards. My girlfriend’s mother ––and ultimately the girlfriend–– rationalized their own racism by concerning themselves with the fortification of their own ethnicity (they were Jewish, and I wasn’t). The last year there was particularly painful. Much of that period’s trouble stemmed from an inability to integrate. Ultimately I realized that I was given a choice if I wanted to stay in that city: a choice to return the urban hate I sometimes received and survive by ‘going with the flow,’ or to recapture my quaint, suburban civility. By choosing the latter, I also came to understand some aspects of the American Myth. One myth ––that New York was a great melting pot of liberalism–– was crushed soundly. Its urban machine certainly benefitted some over others: rich over poor, white over black, citizen over immigrant, to name a few. The line “if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere,” was just that: a line. It was only recently, from the 2010 U.S. Census, that the status of New York City as being one of America’s top five most segregated cities was presented as evidence of what I lived through––at least to my attention.
Being adversely treated during that time because of my skin color also sparked a lot of personal resistance. In so doing I began to understand more of my ethnic role in the greater society. While in New York I visited the Schaumberg Library up on 125th Street and Malcolm X Boulevard. I also took part in a demonstration or two, and essentially bought a “Black Kit:” a lapel pin with the three African red, green, and black stripes; two Malcolm X posters, his autobiography along with a number of other books (Ellison’s included); and a subscription to the City Sun––one of the local “black” newspapers. This was a period of recalcitrance that in the end was as enlightening as it was short-lived. Sure I was angry, but there had to be more to living than that.