I grew up in rural Ontario Canada and the only racially diverse people I knew were three children around my age: two black boys named Michael and Gordon, and my older brother Sky, who was half Native Indian. All three were adopted and stuck out like sore thumbs in our very small town.
Still, I never contemplated their physical difference for more than a minute or two. I had a crush on Michael for at least a couple of years…he was a kind and thoughtful boy, and his skin color made no difference to me.
I know now that Sky encountered prejudice and discrimination regularly, being referred to pejoratively as “chief,” which instigated many, many scuffles and fist fights. But where we lived was, at least from a naïve perspective, relatively untouched by the more dramatic quest for civil rights and equality which culminated in the lynchings and protests so visible in the US in the 60s.
So I was in for a pretty big shock when I went to visit my grandmother in Lawrence, Kansas the summer I turned 13. My grandmother’s brother Earl and his wife Audrey had adopted two black children named Steve and Ginger. Steve was a few years older than me. He was handsome and athletic and kind and I was a little in awe of him, my older American cousin. We got on famously and one day he suggested that we go see a matinee together.
When we mentioned this plan to Grandma, she looked horrified.
For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why she was objecting. She loved Steve and she had no problem with us hanging out. I didn’t think she would be concerned about his driving; it was afternoon and it wouldn’t be getting dark until well after our return.
When it finally became clear that her concern was coming from fear about how people might react to seeing a black boy with a white girl at the movies, I was astounded. She said that while we knew that we were cousins, others would not. They might think that we were dating and many people still objected to inter-racial dating in Kansas, even in 1985. And so she was very frightened for our safety.
Until that day, the possibility that I might endanger myself by simply going somewhere with a person of color would never have occurred to me. I had never encountered this type of prejudice personally, and in spite of what I had studied in history class or seen on the news, I had never actually seen how racism impacted a boy like Steven’s day-to-day life.
I was stunned.
In the end, we went to the movie. And no one bothered us. But my world had been altered by the very real fear that I saw on my Grandmother’s face.
I lost touch with Steven over the years, but he has always held a special place in my heart. His adoptive parents died in a house fire, and he and Ginger never really found their way to a settled home situation after that. I have thought often about Steve and what he faced just because of the color of his skin and the geographical location of his upbringing.
And while I know it likely would have been much worse 20 years earlier, I was appalled that we had to consider such things among cousins and friends. In 1985.
And in 2011. Because fear of difference still exists. And racism still affects people of color every single day.
Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I am reminded to be grateful for courageous people who have gone before, who have taken terrifying risks and challenged the status quo in order to eliminate fear.
Fear based on something as simple and unchangeable as the color of one’s skin.
And so I dream too.