American boys and men get schooled on American “Race Relations” via the most powerful pedagogical medium known to humanity—Osmosis.
I only have a six or so memories of my father. My mother severed the relationship with him when I was about five years old due to his alcoholism. One of the vivid memories that sticks in my mind was when I was four and playing around in our apartment backyard. Dad called me over. He held a rifle in his hand, which I did not even know he owned. His voice spoke with a deep, ominous, and deadly serious tone, which made me look up to his face with rapt attention. In doing so, I saw him cradling the rifle. As he looked towards the hills in the distance, I heard, “Frankie, if THEY come over here, we are ready.”
The Watts Riots/Rebellion (depending on your perspective) had just lit up in Los Angeles. Black folks were angry. White folks were afraid—and angry that Black folks were angry. My Irish-American father was ready to shoot dead some Black men if their fiery protests wandered a little too close to his son.
I did not know it at the time, but that incident was one of many “baptisms into violence” that graced me growing up as a White American male. We receive messaging daily regarding “race relations,” violence, and acceptable expressions of masculinity. As our curious and innocent eyes look up to the males around us, we get schooled via the most powerful pedagogical medium known to humanity—Osmosis.
Another incident where I learned about “race relations” with my Dad was regarding the Native American community. A real deal “Indian” Pow Wow was going on at a local park. He drove just me and him there—special time alone with Dad. I was maybe three and a half or four. I heard the big drums booming as our car pulled up to the Pow Wow. I saw “them” dancing in the distance, heard the amazing singing and drums, and I got excited. I started to run in that direction, when the deep voice behind me reeled me in like a leash on a dog. “Don’t go there. They may eat you. They are savages. They eat little boys.”
I do not know if my father was being humorous in his own mind to himself, like we as fathers sometimes do with our sarcasm around our gullible little kids. I have no idea. We never went any closer to the Pow Wow in progress. I was mesmerized by the amazing music. But, we just sat at the other side of the park (Was he chugging a beer in that brown paper bag?).
From that innocuous visit to a Pow Wow in the park on a fine L.A. summer day, I was taught some profound lessons: Indigenous people are “savages” who eat the children of White people. If on that day, my Dad’s intention was to scare me from dealing with indigenous peoples, he failed miserably. When he exited my life, my single hard working mother lived in the poorest L.A. neighborhood apartments. These happened to be mainly populated (at the time) with Mexican people (not “Latinos,” MEXICAN), most of whom had strong indigenous roots. They were my only friends I grew up with their kids, eating homemade tortillas in their homes, and spending many summer nights in sleep overs. I became an “honorary Mexican” kid, the funny White kid next door who loved Jalapenos, understood Spanish, and was called “Paco.”
At age 18, I did a 4000-mile solo bicycle tour of the Western United States, specifically to travel through the Native American reservations in the West. When I ran out of money in Wyoming, I ended up working on a ranch near Yellowstone park for a couple of years, where my best friend and roommate was of Cherokee heritage. I camped in Anasazi Indian ruins, made friends with a White Mountain Apache youth, and got ran off a desolate dirt road on the Blackfoot reservation the proverbial truck full of laughing and intoxicated “Indians.” I got addicted to Fry Bread.
I never wavered in appreciation and respect for the cultures of the Indigenous peoples of America. In all those miles and months, I spent among the “Indians,” I never saw them cook or eat one White child. If, for some odd reason I had needed any more evidence to question my Dad’s wisdom when it came to life, well, there was yet another strike against him.
On that same day he took me to the Pow Wow at the park, he had brought a new “toy” for me; a “‘Milton Bradley’ Ant Farm.” We walked over to the sandbox in the playground to find some ants to capture and put into the “Ant Farm.” [A weird and cruel ass “toy” —imprisoning creatures to watch them try to build shit out of sand to escape the plastic prison your kid drops them into—nice job Milton Bradley!].
Anyway, in the park’s sandbox, I discovered a large bunch of Red “Fire Ants” —a hill of them! “Put some of those in there,” Dad said. I did of course. “Here are some Black ones, put those in there too.” I, of course, did that also, being a compliant child. We then strolled back to the car leaving the grounding sounds of the Native American drumming and singing behind us, to my childish disappointment.
As we drove home in the car, I began to really LOOK at what was going on in there, and see through the plastic walls of the Ant Farm. The Red Ants were tearing the Black Ants to pieces, in a one-sided war for supremacy for the domain of the confines of the Ant Farm. I got scared, sad and I started crying. He said “Stop crying, there only stupid ants!” I learned from my Dad not to cry when you are scared or sad.
Via OSMOSIS, I there learned another important lesson from my Dad that day (intentional, or not? I know not). I learned that different “colors” of the same species do not seem to mix well. Through the horror of seeing the large Red Ants take their mouth pinchers, crushing and ripping the Black ants to pieces (as they fought back futilely), I learned there are inherent disparities between classes and “colors” that can lead to violence in a social setting. The Watts rebellion in microcosm.
That lesson of Dad’s did not stick well either. Most of my teaching of Qigong and Martial Arts has been among communities of color. My romantic partners, closest friends, and co-workers have always been people of color. My work as a social activist over many years has been exclusively working among youth within communities of color. I have spent the last year traveling in extensively in Africa doing research for a book on the history and impact of White Supremacy. Though I am Irish-American, my perspective on ancient history would be classified as “Afro-Centric.” Politically I support Black Nationalism, i.e., the teachings of Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Dr. King, etc.
Dads teach American “Race Relations” via Osmosis. Yet, so do Moms. Perhaps, I should not critique my Dad’s “race relations” education as being ineffective, as much as I should praise my mother’s osmosis training for more profound power.
Mom had just gotten home from a long shift at the factory she worked at. We were living in a shitty apartment, with virtually no furniture. I was about five or six, and sitting on the floor watching our broke ass black and white television. The evening news with “Walter Cronkite” was on. I started crying when I saw the black and white images playing out on the black and white T.V. screen before me.
On the news was footage of one of Dr. King’s protests, and the Black marchers were being bitten by German Shepard’s, beaten by White cops with Billyclubs, and hoses turned on them by White firefighters. I was scared and sad (again). As mom was in the kitchen fixing something for dinner, I cried out, “Why are they doing that to those people, Mommy?”
She turned and looked at the screen. A tear came from her eye; a long pause. “I don’t understand why, Frankie, it makes no sense to me. They are just people. Why can’t they just treat Black folks like people.”
Mom’s teaching on race relations via osmosis stuck—like Superglue. Because that same question still haunts my spirit to this very hour. Still, after all these years, I have never been able to find, from Africa to America, an answer to that question that makes any sense to me either. Like my Mom, I just don’t get it. So instead, I fight it.
It is up to us as fathers (and mothers) to send the moral and righteous lesson on “race relations” in America. We do that by getting our own heads straight on these issues, and living out our righteous convictions. If kids growing up with KKK parents can get their children on board with hate, can we not pass along (via osmosis) our values of love, acceptance, and inclusion?