Posted by: Mark Nielsen | June 25, 2008

My Son, the Paleface Minority

Graham’s been taking a swimming class this summer, through the Skokie Park District. The district’s park and services were rated among the tops in the nation, and it’s a really nice perk about living here.

He’s doing pretty well in class, though he has a bad case of nerves sometimes when first getting into the pool. He’s six. It’s understandable. Plus, unlike me, he’s not a jump-in-headfirst kind of guy. Which is fine… a little innate cautiousness ought to keep him from doing too many of the dumbass things his non-cautious dad did (and still does).

But the odd thing for me, when I look at him during class, is how absolutely WHITE he looks. Part of it is the genes: he’s fair-complected, like my wife (whereas I’m half-Italian, and thus have some of that olive-toned Mediterranean melanin in my skin). But the main reason he stands out is that he’s literally the only caucasian student, in a class of about twelve or fourteen kids.

His teenage teachers –most of them probably members of the high school swim team– are all white. But Graham’s fellow students are all various shades of brown: Indian, Mexican, Israeli, Chinese, Uzbek (Uzbeki?), Persian — who knows?!!! Skokie’s such a diverse melting pot of a town, one gets used to a “don’t ask, don’t tell” kind of mindset.

Not that I mind Graham being the only child of full European descent in class. I actually rather like it that my son has an opportunity at an early age that I did not have, to get used to the “browning” of the entire planet and the blending of its cultures. Maybe he’ll eventually come to “not see race”, as our pal Stephen Colbert playfully boasts he’s able to do. (“Oh, are you black? I didn’t know…”)

I grew up in a fairly lilywhite, newish suburb, where my upperclass Cuban friend Raul, whose father was a physician, qualfied as my one minority friend. He said “Ciao” instead of goodbye, his family spoke Spanglish in their home, but in dozens of other ways he was passing for white… or better yet playing up or down his ethnicity as it suited him. I don’t blame him, either. “It’s hard out there for a pimp”, as they say. 

Raul got married to Kelly, a stereotypical “white” girl in many ways (and I don’t mean that in either an insulting or celebratory way) from the richer part of town. Raul then went on to become an immigration lawyer, and as far as I know, they and their blended children are living a happy, culturally-blended existence in or near that same suburb where I grew up. I don’t know why he made all these choices, and it’s not for me to say, anyway. Yet why didn’t he become a corporate lawyer, instead of an immigration lawyer? Perhaps he chose to buck some of the cultural expectations of the environment and cultural heritage he came out of, even as he embraced others. Sometimes you just gotta pick a lane and move forward.

My point (now that I’m finally getting to it) is simply this: that awareness of one’s difference within a certain context can build character, and develop a sense of ownership about one’s background. It also gives ample opportunity for appreciation of people from other backgrounds. If everyone around Graham looked and acted too much like him, he might not be challenged as much to think about concepts like “privelege” and “nationality”. But instead, he’s internalizing these concepts in swim class, without even realizing it. He’s swimming and going to school and going grocery shopping in an environment where the business and politics of the world get played out right here in his own town now and then.

For instance, Graham knows what a mango is. (I’m absolutely certain I didn’t know this when I was six.) He’s partial to apples, grapes and strawberries, though. (How Northern European of him…) Thus, in the strange, multi-flavored stew that is modern America, he’s the potato.

Or maybe he’s the sweet potato, because he’s really sweet and kind and unprejudiced, which is a great gift. Plus… sweet potatoes are just more interesting than plain old white ones. And we all know how essential it is to be interesting, right?

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