Growing up white in a black neighborhood
My mom and I moved to East Oakland in the 60s when I was seven. In four years there, I only remember meeting one white boy; he was Japanese and we called him a nip, the racial slur of the day. But Tanaka (we called him by his last name) was good at street baseball so he was always welcome to play with us.
I remember playing endlessly in the street with at least a dozen boys, all black, who often called me vanilla cookie or white meat. It was fine, we laughed about it, because we got along like brothers. I could field and get hits. That’s all it took to be completely accepted.
Some Saturdays we walked to a theater for the matinee. I always ran past the cemetery because Mr. Sardonicus might rise from his coffin.
My friend’s parents told us not to go into white neighborhoods in the hills or we could get in trouble. White folk didn’t want black folk in their neighborhoods.
I don’t think I really internalized that. My mom and I were so poor, we sometimes showed up at shelters and food lines, and I watched white volunteer workers be nice to everyone.
In sixth grade, I moved to my father’s middle class neighborhood in Orinda, just over the hill from Oakland. I don’t remember meeting another black person until I graduated from high school. Unfortunately, I talked and played like a black boy from East Oakland. Fitting in was really hard. It took years.
Over the decades it felt amazing to watch white people accept people of color. I never got over my sense of wonder when a black family moved to the whitest of neighborhoods as President and First Lady. I just knew everyone would be touched by how gracious they were.
And then…white people voted one way for President-Elect Trump and people of color voted the other. Was this what my friend’s parents told us in Oakland that I never internalized? White people still want what they had in Orinda?