Growing up in Brooklyn: My Complicated Relationship with the Black Community
I grew up in Brooklyn in the 80’s and 90’s. Park Slope to be exact. No, it wasn’t the same home to hedge funders and crazy stroller moms that it is now. It was a mixed ethnic neighborhood: Italian, Puerto Rican, striving mostly white gentrifyers and Lesbians. We all mostly got along and watched out for each other.
Black people were less common in my life, but they lived in the surrounding areas: Prospect Heights, Crown Heights, Lefferts Gardens. In those days, things weren’t safe in New York. My early memories and associations with Black people were not flattering. They were on the local news committing crimes. They were the ones who were depicted as thugs on television. When I was 11 years old, they were the ones who stole my bus pass, or made disparaging remarks when I walked by. On the super unsafe subways, I have memories of roving groups of black gangs menacing people. Black people were synonymous with fear. It pains me to admit this, but if I saw young black men coming towards me I would cross the street to the other side. Better safe than sorry.
Is this wrong? I don’t think there’s a simple answer to this. If you were to empathize with a young Jon Tesser, my fight or flight response to young black men made a lot of sense. I didn’t know any of them. They were literally an other to me. An other to be feared. I’m guessing that most of you would have reacted just like me.
When I entered high school, things changed quite a bit. My class was 35% black, so the fear went away for the most part. Most of these folks I considered friends, and race conversations rarely came up. There were a couple of moments where I did realize that my black friends were different than me. One was during the OJ Simpson trial. Black people at school all celebrated his acquittal. I was mortified. Something so obvious as his guilt was a source of difference.
Another area that I was frustrated about was affirmative action. I saw my black friends with their upper middle class lifestyle and lawyer parents getting in to Ivy League schools with B averages and lower SAT scores. Me? I did OK but I resented thst people who had my background could get in to a college just because they were black. To this day, I don’t believe affirmative action works how it’s supposed to — poorer, striving blacks should take precedence over upper middle class folks. But the issue is complicated, although at the time I just thought it was bullshit.
But this issue of blacks being different than me is very perplexing. I don’t feel the need to virtue signal like other white people do because I’ve always been surrounded by black people in my life (after those elementary school years of course). I worked alongside them in my dad’s office, I had black bosses who were my favorite people, and I had black friends at most other work environments. Saying that I stand in solidarity with blacks is weird to me as I’ve always been involved in the culture. I wrote about my time at BET but that was just a continuation of what I’d already experienced throughout my life.
So to me, Black people have always been…people. They’re not victims. I don’t need to virtue signal. They do shitty things, and they do great things. There’s good ones, and there are ones that I don’t like very much. This may seem like I’m saying “I don’t see color” but it’s actually the opposite. I see color and I shrug. Of course black issues are my issues. Of course black lives matter. Of course of course of course.
I wish others could have had a similar upbringing so that Black people cease to be an other and they just become people. We all have our stories to share and we are all human.
Does this discount the black struggle in America? No effing way. That’s some messed up stuff. Institutionalized segregation and messed up government policies meant to keep Blacks oppressed? What in the hell are we thinking here? But these issues for me are a no-brainer too — everything needs to change.
So my personal history of black relations is complicated. Fear of the other, mixed with a genuine admiration for my friends and colleagues, and some complicated feelings around some Black issues. But I don’t feel the need to apologize for any of this. I’ve lived and I’ve learned, and my unwavering support for the black community will always run deep.