I live in a very nice town. A mostly middle income, mostly safe town. In July the fireworks display is second to none. At Christmas time the scene in the town center is like a Norman Rockwell painting. Our St Patrick’s Day Parade is the stuff of legends. The Marching Band are the State Champions! We have a Starbucks, 3 Dunkin Donuts, countless pizzerias, and a racism problem.
More than once at parades, at fireworks, at football games, I have heard conversations about the outsiders, ‘them’, the people who ‘aren’t from here’. There is always an underlying fear that ‘they’ might cause a disturbance. For a few years in a row, our band kids were kept from going to a football game at a high school in Newark, my city of birth, for fear of ‘trouble’.
Four years, ago at a home football game, just before the national anthem, a father behind me in the stands loudly said ‘Nobody better fuckin take a knee’. I stayed seated. And I seethed. The other team was mostly, if not all, black. I sat on the away side the rest of the season.
Some of my daughters’ friends and classmates freely use the N word. If they get called out they are quick to point out that it wasn’t ‘with a hard R’. Sometimes it is.
Recently a video circulated of three young, possibly drunk, local girls saying the N word on video, and making a vague threat, probably trying to be funny or controversial. The town message boards lit up. People were calling them out. Denouncing their behavior. There was a lot of finger pointing. A public conversation had been started.
This is a nice town, but it has a racism problem. It has always had a racism problem. Even in this mostly middle income, mostly safe town, people talk about ‘the better elementary schools’ based on where there are less renters, less lower income families, less people of color. People see two or three brown kids walking down the street and immediately think ‘they don’t live here’. I know, because I used to instinctively think that myself when I first moved here. And I imagine that the small number of black and brown kids who do live here are painfully aware of those thoughts. Painfully.
This is a very nice town. But it has a racism problem. I have called it out in my own back yard. Sitting around the fire pit having casual conversations when the casual racism slips in. My kids have schooled me in my own house. I’ve listened to them questioning the questionable things their white friends say. I’ve heard them talking to their black and brown friends about their personal experiences in this very nice town.
This very nice town has a racism problem. We are insulated. Segregated. Under-educated. And because of that, we are not exposed to enough black and brown history or culture. We are not exposed to enough black and brown people-, to know, to really know, that ‘they’ are exactly like ‘us’.
On Tuesday my daughter and I joined a group of young people protesting for black lives, at our town’s busiest intersection. A corner where lots of black and brown people drive through our very nice town. We walked up to the small, mostly socially distanced group on one of the four corners, just as a young black man and a black teenage girl were walking up together. He was FaceTiming someone as he approached. I only heard his side of the conversation with pauses between.
‘This is Nutley.’ he said loudly. ‘Nutley New Jersey!’ even louder. ‘Yeah… Look’ he said as he turned the phone around. ‘There ain’t a black ass out here! …Man! They’re doing this for us!’
It was a heartbreaking and proud moment for this town. This very nice town.