February 11, 2007

Bad, Bad Words


I left the B. Dalton’s on the second level of the shopping mall and was headed toward the escalators when I felt a large and heavy hand on my shoulder.

     Expecting it to be my dad, I turned around and found myself looking up, then up some more, into the shaded eyes of an enormous, stern-faced black man.

     “Why aren’t you in school?” he asked calmly.

     Now, I was a pale, dorky twelve year-old in a new and stiff jean jacket, a bad haircut and thick, owlish glasses. My first thought was, “Look at me—do I look like a delinquent? And I just came out of a bookstore, for godsakes!” But I was too terrified to be a smart mouth.

     “Teacher’s conference,” I finally squeaked out. “No school.”

     He stared down at me hard through his silver-rimmed sunglasses.

     “Teacher’s conference, eh?’ he said. He didn’t sound like he believed me for a second. I was near tears. This man was going to beat me up or arrest me or something. Why was I being hassled by one of the Green Bay Packers? Was it part of his requisite community service as a team member to walk around hassling dorks?

     “Well, study hard,” he said, before turning and walking into the bookstore himself. I heard him ask the terrified woman at the front counter where he might find the science section.

     I wasn’t absolutely certain he was one of the Packers, but what else could he be?

     Green Bay in the 1970s was, you might say, a fairly racist town. But the racism—how to explain this?—was accidental. Fact is, the population was about 99 percent white. Not just white, but specifically Northern European—Germans, Swedes, Norwegians. There was one Jewish family (the Glickmans, who ran the bakery down the street), one Asian man (James Lee, who ran Green Bay’s first—and for a long time, only—Chinese restaurant), and no Hispanics, East Indians or “Other” that I can think of. But we were in the strange position of being an extraordinarily white town with a professional football team. If you saw a black guy on the street, you could assume—and correctly so—that he was connected in some way with the Green Bay Packers organization. If you saw a black woman or child, you could assume that they were the wife or child of one of the Packers. (The very first black weather girl on local TV—Jackie Brockington was her name—was the wife of running back John Brockington.)

     Still, even though it was a town virtually free of minorities, as a kid I was surrounded by every kind of racial epithet you can imagine for every race you could name. On the streets, at school, in the stores.

     One common playground game was called “nigger pile,” and nobody thought anything about it. And let’s just say there were no tigers involved in “Eenie-Meenie-Minie-Moe.” The only decidedly racist schoolyard game I can remember was a later variation on “nigger pile” known as “Roots.”

     We were never given any indication—not that I can recall—that there was anything wrong with these words. They were just meaningless words, is all—like cuss words, but not as bad.

     Weird thing is, I had no idea what most of the terms I was hearing referred to. I had no clue what a “slope” was. (I was 14 before I knew Green Bay even had a Chinese restaurant, and only learned that because our neighbor started dating Mr. Lee.) Likewise, I was in high school before I knew what “kike” meant. The reason was simple—there simply weren’t any around. Nothing to point at and say “that’s a gook.” I think that’s the reason the terms were in such free play. There wasn’t anyone to offend. There wasn’t anything vicious about it, really; it’s just that blacks, Jews, Asians and Hispanics were more akin to aliens than to people of other races.

     Now, people get weird and uptight whenever race comes up. Nobody wants to be misconstrued. I remember about fifteen years ago (this is an aside), I was interviewing a man who told a very innocent, very funny story about a visit he made to a sideshow when he was eight. The star attraction at the time was a pair of Siamese twin infants (who happened to be black) joined at the head. Not knowing what “Siamese twins” were, he went into the tent and looked in the incubator.

     “At first I was disappointed,” he said. “I didn’t see anything weird about them. I mean, they were just black people—I’d seen black people before, and if that’s wh—OH MY GOD!”

     A few days after the story ran he called me. He wasn’t upset, really—he just insisted that I’d misquoted him. I hadn’t, but he was clearly worried about how that “they were just black people” line could be interpreted if taken out of context.

     So before you go taking things out of context here and writing your congressman, all I’m doing is describing a certain place at a certain time. I’m fully aware that we’re all much more “enlightened” nowadays.


     It still strikes me as telling that when I was a kid, although you heard the epithets everywhere, you didn’t hear jokes about Asians or Jews. The only ethnic jokes you heard were about Poles and Norwegians—again, because we had a lot of Poles and Norwegians in town. I could point to Dave Rubarski a few houses up the street and say “he’s a dumb Polack.”

     (The jokes, by the way, were pretty much interchangeable.)

     As a kid, however, I found myself in an interesting position in terms of race relations. Around 1973 or ‘74, the only black family in town that wasn’t connected to the Packers in some way, the Williamses, moved into the duplex across the street from ours. Mr. Williams was a small, thin, soft-spoken man who wore a suit to work. His wife worked too, and was very sweet. And they had a three year-old daughter named Monica. I remember her name because I used to help my mom babysit her a couple days a week.

     Both my folks, in retrospect, were surprising models of enlightenment. We had our new neighbors over for cookouts and football games. Both families helped each other out with yard work and the like. Mr. Williams and my dad even helped rescue some people trapped in two mangled cars after a particularly brutal accident on our corner.

     None of this sounds like a big deal—and my folks went about it in a manner that made it clear that it wasn’t. They were neighbors, so that’s what you did. But in context, I think it was a pretty big deal.

     I honestly can’t say whether or not the Williamses ran into any trouble in Green Bay. I suspect that they did, though, as they only stayed in town about a year.

     And that’s the thing—all that I’ve recounted here are the perceptions of a child. As I got older, and especially when the Hmong refugees began arriving in town by the thousands around 1980, I got to see first hand just how vicious things could become in Green Bay. When someone of a different race who wasn’t with the Packers appeared in town, there was bound to be trouble. I also got to learn what most of those terms I’d been hearing meant, and how they were used. It was pretty ugly—from the names to the rumors to the beatings.

     (Also around this same time, Green Bay’s minuscule gay population started making its presence known, which only complicated matters.)

     A decade later, much to the horror of the people who’d been living there all their lives (and who’d finally gotten used to the Hmongs to a certain degree), an influx of Hispanics began arriving.

     Nowadays, my old high school—which at the time of my graduation had one black student and one Jewish student, thus making it the most diverse student body in the city—is about 20 percent white. The tension in town is palpable on both sides of the equation, and all those meaningless terms—whatever language they’re spoken in—mean something now, and they mean something to the kids as much as the adults.

     I don’t intend to badmouth Green Bay. My family is still there, and I have a deep, nostalgic love for that town. What happened there is hardly unique.

     In fact, I have no point whatsoever to make here. I’m not placing blame anywhere. Like I said earlier, it’s merely an observation about childhood perception, and what can happen when you can finally point at what you’re referring to.

     That’s all.

     I’m starting to think that maybe I should’ve talked about toast instead.


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