How Do We Experience Race? An Intergenerational Tale of Los Angeles vs. Chicago

On Monday I ended up in one of those conversations with someone where I was trying to explain the difference between the racism I experienced while living in Chicago and that which I experience in Los Angeles. I'm always trying to put my finger on the "why" of this, but for me Los Angeles has been more about name calling and racist comments. Chicago was always about driving while black--to the point that when I moved to Los Angeles, friends remarked that I noticeably tensed up when I saw an LAPD squad car.

Given Los Angeles' history of police brutality and racial unrest--Watts Riots, Rodney King, Los Angeles riots, OJ trial anyone?--I expected more driving while black issues here. I expected more of the outright staring and body language hostility from white people that exists in Chicago. Part of the difference is surely that I live in Hipstervania, and the first 10 years of my existence in this city were spent almost entirely in South Los Angeles--the area formerly known (but rebranded!) as South Central. There were no white people around anywhere, unless I counted a teacher I was observing on a school campus. I was never pulled over once. In fact, I rarely saw police during the day.

The person I was talking to couldn't believe racism is worse in the Chicagoland area. So, I recounted to her an experience I had while riding in a car with a friend's mom--who is black--in the northern suburbs--on Sheridan Road in Glencoe, to be exact. It's a mostly white and well-off area, the kind of place with quiet, leafy streets and an adorable village-style downtown. 

She answered a couple of phone calls while driving her white, chromed out Cadillac--don't trip, this was before laws prohibiting talking while driving existed so she was within her rights to do so--and sure enough, we were pulled over by the police. The officer claimed that he'd had a report of a stolen cell phone that fit the description of the phone my friend's mom was talking on. Never mind that she'd been holding the phone against her right ear, making the phone pretty much invisible under her hair to any observer.

I remember the cop grilling her about whether she had proof that the phone was hers--a receipt that she'd bought it perhaps. It was infuriating, but when you're black in America you learn to keep your cool during police interactions like this and just be as obsequious and factual as possible.

The person I told this story to--who is white--couldn't believe that something so racist could happen in modern times. I assured her that yes, it could--it does. I don't know if it would happen in Los Angeles if I spent more time in the Valley or small, mostly white enclaves like Montrose or La Canada Flintridge. I don't know if it would happen if I had darker skin, if I was male instead of female. Probably.

It got me thinking about how my sons experience racism. Right now, like me, they've experienced mostly racial name calling and statements. Last week, for example, a kid in my fourth grader's class told him, "Because you're black, you look like poo." That's pretty typical stuff for them. But the video above with two black men discussing intergenerational racism made me wonder, if in the future I tell my sons that story about my friend's mom and her cell phone, will my boys be able to relate to it, or will they, like the person I spoke to on Monday see that kind of racism as a little unbelievable?

I certainly pray my sons never have the kinds of experiences that make what happened with the phone and my friend's mom seem familiar to them. The reality, of course, is that because they're black and male in a country that criminalizes and pathologizes black males, they will. It's sad that I accept as a given that when it comes to race in America, much worse is probably coming for them, isn't it?


nick said…
What planet are some white people living on if they really think blatant racism has disappeared? As long as there are racists there will be every form of racism. Yes, I also hope, Liz, that your sons don't have those kinds of experiences, but I suspect sooner or later they will. A colour-blind world is still a long way off.
sippinwineman said…
People cannot realize that these events DO HAPPEN as they're reported. Now, your sons seem to have experience more crap than I did at their age, but still. . .

"Success isn't measured by the amount of times you've fallen, but HOW you s you've overcome, but by the grace you pick yourself up" -Somebody. I don't know. lol
Liz Dwyer said…
Well, if you admit it exists, you also have to examine how you participate/benefit from it. Many folks don't want to do that/don't care.

For some reason, I'm reminded of this great article on hipster racism in the U.S. --it's a great on-point read on the denial of subtle, insidious racism.

That's a great quote. My boys experience less than I did. Living in a less diverse part of the country and having a black mom and a white dad--heck, a trip to the grocery store with my white dad STILL results in stares. Maybe if we lived in the Midwest and they hung around him a lot they'd get the same reaction.
Tod Ewing said…
The pain and complexity of race continue, the emotional landmines and psychological strain continue. I responded to a blog today about white parents adopting Black children which of course has many dimensions. One question that comes in my interview with Oak that is on this site is how do I pass on important racial knowledge to my younger black brothers and sisters without passing on my baggage at the same time. How do I inform without poisoning? The only thing I have come to is that I have to be honest but it is the spirit in which I share my experiences that is so important and will impact whether in poisons or informs. Unfortunately we live in sick society so we have to strengthen the spiritual identity of our young. That is the primary armor we must give them. Just some random thoughts. God bless you Liz.

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