Sunday, January 31, 2016

Childhood as war, and the lamentable and self-perpetuating logic of self-segregation

An African-American guy who was a schoolmate a couple of years younger than me from elementary school through high school died recently. I don't know what the proximate cause of death was, though I know he had had a stroke a couple of years before and never quite recovered.

I never really knew the guy all through school, though after the advent of Facebook I saw him post a lot there and came to realize that he was a very special soul with a keen intellect. So I got his number and went and had lunch with him, and we had a phenomenal conversation about many things we shared, from substance abuse issues to a kid with autism to...  Not long before he died, I took him to the funeral of another mutual friend, and we had another fine conversation. He was a special guy, though I think most people are if you are able to find time to talk with them,

The fact is, I've never really known that many black guys well. Part of it is because, and I have written about this before, childhood was a bit like war for me. I was skinny, with buck teeth, a geek, I didn't feel like I fit in. Then mom got me some braces and protected me from being skipped forward a grade, and puberty treated me well athletically, so that I was able to become a contributor to some high-powered sports teams, and briefly even a star on the track team, and I had some very pretty girlfriends. All this was very good for my ego, but it didn't fill all the holes.

I was never able to be much of a player at any of the mainstream sports, especially basketball, yearn and strive though I might (and I did). Aside from having some teammates on 4x400 relays in club track and field, the basketball court was the only place I ever spent much time with black guys.

For whatever reason, they didn't get placed into the advanced academic courses where I found myself: honors and AP this and that. Even in the era of integration, I was effectively in an almost entirely segregated school context. And whatever social, romantic and athletic success I might have had, the classroom was my home court. That was where I proved myself and fought to dominate. I don't think I was ever nasty about it, it was just home court where I fought off the demons of insufficiency that stormed inside me.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is this: childhood and adolescence were always proving grounds for me, and it was honestly difficult to make the time to know anyone particularly well, outside of the people I had known forever. Boys don't have deep conversations with one another, even when smoking pot and thinking that they are. We mostly jousted and jockeyed for position, formed cliques and bonds, told jokes to make one another laugh, and so on. And the gaps were particularly huge with people from social strata other than our own.

In this sense, I think, social networks are an pretty positive thing, because we get to see our peers let down their hair and share about what they care about. There is a lot of fronting and jockeying on Facebook, to be sure, but a lot of people being real as well. And if you push through the wall of the network and make time to get to know people, there are amazing things there.

But the Dunbar number still applies. It is very hard to get to know more than a certain number of people well within the context of 24/7/365.

In any case, this post has drifted, let me try to bring it back to where it started. My point is this: though as an educated white male in the South I would have objectively appeared to be in a position of strength as a child, I was in fact hounded and driven by insecurities, and thereby pushed into a sort of war mode. I felt myself inferior to black guys on the basketball court, which was a huge proving ground. I wasn't particularly good at talking to anybody. So I probably isolated myself and didn't develop relationships with people at all, and black people in particular. So that now, objectively considered, my life continues to be segregated, certainly more so than I would like for it to be. And this trend has self-reinforcing tendencies unless I try hard to break free of it.

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