I was born and raised in Italy, at a time when the only “diversity” we knew referred to people who had been born in different regions of the country. I remember the shock of moving from my native Milan to the town of L’Aquila, where my northern Italian accent, coupled with my diminutive size, made me the target of bullying from the local boys. Luckily for me I was pretty fearless and accents can be changed; before long, I felt at home in this rural college town nestled in the Apennines.
My parents loved to travel and moved uncharacteristically frequently, relative to the Italian standards of half a century ago. After Milan and L’Aquila, we also moved to Rome. In between, we traveled to various countries, always preferring the intimacy and immediacy of a car and trailer to the luxury and insulation of hotels and cruise ships. Some of my favorite memories involve hanging out with the locals in exotic places ranging from New York to Cappadocia. Partly because of those early experiences, and partly because of my parents’ model, it never occurred to me that people should be seen as anything other than people.
When I had just turned 13, my family embarked on a summer trip to the US. We loaded our car and trailer onto a transatlantic ship, arriving in New York a week later. We spent a full month traveling across the continental US, to arrive in Santa Barbara, where my father was spending the summer as a visiting professor. When my parents showed us our apartment in Goleta — a quintessential Southern California College enclave — I thought we had landed in paradise: palm trees, a large pool in the middle of the horseshoe-shaped apartment building, skateboards and nearby beaches. Even our first experience with a noticeable earthquake could not truly shake me.
My three brothers and I did not speak any English when we first arrived. I remember struggling to make myself understood with other neighborhood children, including the awkward time two girls ran away crying to their parents when we pointed to their bike saying “bici” — the Italian colloquial word for “bike,” the pronunciation of which regrettably sounds like “bitchy.”
It was in this context that we made friends with two black children who were living in the same apartment complex. We used to play in the pool for hours, or hang out behind the building looking for lizards or kicking a ball around. Within a couple of weeks, I felt I had become good friends with the older brother, who must have been roughly my age, while his younger brother played with my younger brothers. By then, even with only a few basic English words in my vocabulary, I felt that he and I had figured out how to communicate.
One afternoon, as he and I were playing, he looked at me and asked me in simple, slow words: “do you think I am a negro?” I was a bit perplexed by this sentence. Clearly, this boy’s skin was dark, and back then the only Italian word used to describe a black person was “negro” — a slight variant on “nero,” which is the literal translation of the color black. We rarely saw black people, and I had no understanding of the concept of racism, let alone the nuances of racial connotation in English. So after being slightly befuddled, wondering why he was asking me again about something so seemingly obvious, I said “yes.” My befuddlement grew considerably when he lunged at me and started hitting me. I kept asking “why?” but he just kept punching. One thing I had learned during my bully encounters in L’Aquila is that once in a while it’s fine to fight back, but when fights break out for seemingly stupid reasons it is best to get away, so I did.
Many years earlier, my father had been a Fulbright scholar at Johns Hopkins University, and my parents had lived in Baltimore for the better part of a year. So when I burst into the apartment and told my parents what had happened, they realized the unfortunate misunderstanding in which I had unwittingly found myself. Later that afternoon we marched over to the neighbors’ apartment, where, from what I could gather in my minimal English, my parents warmly explained to the boy’s parents what had happened, and that I had no idea about race issues, and that this was just a matter of miscommunication. Sadly, that boy refused to play with me again for the remaining few weeks that I was there.
Fast forward about 13 years. I am attending a relatively mild bachelor party at a seedy establishment on the outskirts of Boulder, Colorado. In two days I will be married. My fiancée’s parents wanted to have the wedding reception at a very expensive, fancy restaurant, and I felt stupidly guilty about the cost, so I had invited only a small group of friends to the reception, while casting a much wider net for the bachelor party. By now I have lived in the US for almost ten years and my English is nearly flawless. However, clearly I have failed to learn other critical aspects of the American way.
One of the attendees was the keyboard player of the small band in which I played guitar. Really, “the band” is just two friends of mine who already played with the keyboard player and invited me to jam with them a bunch of times. The keyboard player and I had not seen enough of each other to be considered best friends, but I liked him and wanted him to be at the bachelor party. Later in the evening, as he was getting ready to head home, he came up to me and said something along the lines of “hey, I am sorry to miss your reception tomorrow but I want you to know I am not mad, because I understand that you couldn’t invite someone like me.” I was slightly perplexed and wondered quietly whether there was some law in Colorado against keyboard players at weddings, but kept the puzzlement to myself, thanked him, and hugged him good-bye. Later in the evening I mentioned what happened to one of our mutual friends/players. She looked at me as if I were an ignorant child and told me “he felt that you could not invite him because he is black.”
In my defense, I have distant relatives in Sicily whose skin is probably darker than his, but in retrospect I realize that he clearly had some “African American” features, whatever the hell that means. Either way, at that moment I felt like shit, very much as I had felt like shit thirteen years earlier in Goleta. And I felt that people in this country were totally crazy.
Fast forward 27 more years. I just watched a video of Freddie Gray being dragged like a broken doll into a van, where his precious life will soon be snuffed out like a candle. Ironically, just the day before I had received my “Black Lives Matter” bracelet in the mail, now loosely wrapped around my wrist. I want to weep, thinking that Freddie is exactly my daughter’s age, and only a few years older than my son. What would I do if that was one of my children? The sad reality is that if that was one of my children, his legs would not be broken and neither would his neck.
I now live in Harlem — a place that, before moving to New York, I used to associate with ghettos, drugs and violence, where being white at night was just a bad idea. Many of my friends, especially those from abroad, clearly still think of Harlem in the same way, to judge by the looks on their faces when I tell them where I live. They probably think that I must have a gun at home and never walk out after dark without police escort. In reality, it’s a lovely neighborhood. I have been in this area for about a year. My biggest disappointment has been realizing how many white people are moving into this area; but seeing how I am one of them, I guess I can’t be too critical.
When I first started coming to New York for work a couple of years ago, I had been living in Boston for nearly 25 years. I remember the energy I felt when I first started coming into the city, surrounded by people of every imaginable language, religion, culture, sexuality, nationality and taste in fashion. Then I started noticing, each time I got back to Boston, how white Boston is. White, that is, until you head down to Dorchester or Roxbury. According to the US Census Bureau, about 25% of the Boston population is black. But in my quarter of a century there I don’t recall going to restaurants or bars and noticing one black person in four — except for one year when I dated a black woman, and then we’d go places where I was the only white person.
When my family came to this country almost exactly 40 years ago, I was color blind. When I started to lose my color blindness, I felt horrible. I felt that something pure and good about me had been stripped away. I wondered why people were so stupid as to attach labels to others and to judge them on the basis of those labels. I used to think that I grew up that way because there was no racism in Italy, but later learned that Italy in my youth was simply homogeneous, and that my homeland actually harbors some of the worst bigots and racists, as a lot of Northern Africans and Eastern Europeans can attest.
I started to resent this culture that tainted my thinking and even my subconscious. If I am walking down the street at night and a couple of young men suddenly appear in front of me, chances are that if they are black my heart will skip a small beat — more so than if they are white. When that happens, I quickly feel ashamed. It is amazing what decades of being exposed to media about black crimes can do to your brain.
But today I am learning to embrace my lack of color blindness. Pretending that people are all the same is naïve, and simply being accepting of all colors, creeds or sexual preferences is not enough. I am learning that being black or Latino or Asian or gay or Lesbian or Jewish or Muslim or in many cases simply being a woman, means that you will encounter challenges that I, as a white man, will never experience. You will be stopped by the police more times, you will be threatened by strangers for no reason, you will be passed over for promotions and make less money. The only time in my life I felt discriminated against was when I was living in Switzerland and got stopped by the police for no reason other than my car having Italian license plates. But license plates and accents are relatively easy to change, unlike skin color.
Being color blind can be just a convenient excuse. People who are not prejudiced need to do something about these problems. Simply saying that we are all equal human beings is not enough. I am not a demagogue and have no interest in politics and activism. But I can live among people that are different from me, eat in the same restaurants, ride the same buses and subways, help strangers with directions, or offer to walk an old lady across the street. I can read articles and books about racism and other forms of inequality. I can educate myself about the pernicious social and economic disparities that have resulted from centuries of slavery and discrimination. I can give to charities and causes that support equality. I can offer my friendship to anyone interested, and strive to expand my social network to be more diverse. I might even be able to find some ways to apply my professional skills to the problem.
But I will never again pretend to be color blind.