As a five year old Army brat living in Fort Campbell, Kentucky, someone came up to me and asked, “Do you have any white friends?”
I stared at them in thoughtful confusion.
“Um, um, um... Uh, no? Why?” I replied.
They half-frowned, shrugged, and walked off.
I only have a fanny pack full of memory fragments from my early childhood, but that taught-to-me realization that all my friends were indeed black and that that actually mattered to some people is one that has stayed clink clanking around in there like loose change, for all these years.
***Jump cut to my first year in wrestling.***
“Yo! Cuban was talkin’ about you and was like, ‘Jason has the gift.’ But I was like, ‘Nah, nah, nah, that motherf***er is theee Gift.’' Jermaine “Jaz” Jones said to a nineteen year old me in an abandoned carpet store turned wrestling venue in the all but abandoned town of Whitesville, West Virginia.
Hmmm. The Gift. That sounds kinda cool. I thought.
“Jaz, why the f**k are you dressed in a sheet?” I said.
Jaz had the kind of smile that could make babies feel jealous. He smiled the biggest, brightest smile I had ever seen and said, “I’m about to expose some racist motherf***ers and, at the same time, get some...HEAT!”
I raised my eyebrows and stared.
Jaz gave me a closed-mouth, sideways smile, winked, and pulled a pointy topped, white mask over his full late-’60s style afro and tucked an unopened package of crackers under his sheet-robe.
There wasn’t a big enough audience to play a regulation game of basketball, but the “crowd” - as we still had the chutzpah to call it - was silent as Jaz made his way to the ring in his new costume. Someone from the timekeepers table passed him a corded microphone, that was attached to a karaoke machine, between the middle and bottom rope.
In his best Foghorn Leghorn voice Jaz said into the mic, "I heard Whites-ville has gotten a little dark lately…”
A small, awkward “woo” came from the crowd.
“Well, I say, I say it’s time we make Whitesville whites only!”
It wasn’t everyone, but enough members of the audience cheered to make me think to myself, ”Holyf***inghellinahandbasket, Batman!”
Jaz began to laugh his always extra-enthusiastic laugh into the microphone.
The audience responded with confused silence.
Still laughing Jaz grabbed his mask by the pointed tip and pulled it off to reveal his natural hair and light-skinned - in case you were wondering why his hands didn’t give him away - African features.
Boos came from the bit of the crowd that had cheered before.
“What? Y’all are more mad that a black man is standing in this ring than you were that a Klans-man was?”
“Screw you!” A woman yelled.
“Sh*t, lady, I ain’t trying to get your brother’s sloppy-seconds!”
Some of the folks that had just been sitting in mixed silent horror and confusion that whole time laughed and cheered hard.
“You know what? I got something for you!” Jaz said as he reached into his sheet-robe.
The air was sucked out of the room briefly, as the audience wondered what he was reaching for...
Out came the crackers.
Ninety-five percent of the roster, which I would guesstimate was ninety-five percent caucasian, peaked through every crack and crevice of the locker room walls and entrance curtains. Many howled with laughter.
“Here you go: saltines for my Saltine brothers and sisters!” Jaz said as he opened the package and started tossing crackers into the crowd.
Some of the audience were still upset, but the rest seemed to find this whole bit amusing.
Jaz’s opponent came out and they had a regular, old fashioned ‘rasslin’ match that seemed all too normal for the build up into it.
When he returned to the locker room, Jaz looked at me and said, “Did you hear that heat!”
I looked at my friend with a facial expression that said, That was f***ing insane, bro.
Aloud I said, “Just so you know, all of West Virginia isn’t like this.”
Jaz turned his head sideways, gave me a supernova bright smile and, with a big-brotherly tap on the shoulder said, “I know, Gift, I know.”
***Flashback to high school.***
“Rebel flag my little white d**k! When you and all your redneck-clique friends wear them like gang colors, it should be called the f***ing conformist flag.” I would say as a sixteen year old skater kid, hanging out in Oak Hill, West Virginia.
“‘The South will rise again.’” My friend would add. “Pff. I’m going to put an American flag in the back window of my truck with the words ‘The North will win again’ underneath it.”
I would laugh hard and say, “Sounds like a g***amn slogan for a viagra commercial, ‘When you pop this little blue pill, you little p***yfied, pudding-peckered pr**k, the South will...ahem...rise again, guaranteed!”
***Jump cut to the present.***
How the f*** do I write about becoming a preteen white supremacist? *Insert record scratch* I ask myself as I write this.
You just f***ing do it! Answers a coach-like voice in my head.
I must say: it shall require steadfast diligence to navigate the choppy waters of nuisance between open-book honesty and seeming justification of abhorrent behavior. Says a more refined voice in my head.
He means be careful or you’ll f**k this up. Says a more grounded communicator in my head.
Okay, then. F**k it, let’s start.
When I first saw the stretched out version of the Battle Flag of Northern Virginia that is commonly called the Confederate Flag, I was told, “That's the Rebel Flag.”
I thought it was exceedingly rad to have a flag specifically meant for rebels. I mean, I had been disobeying authority ceaselessly and with great enthusiasm for the whole of little existence, so it was like it was my flag. Plus, it looked cool; red, white, and blue, like the American Flag, and a big “X” - the coolest of the letters, just ask pirates -, and stars - the coolest of two dimensional shapes, just ask flag designers around the world.
I didn’t associate the Rebel Flag with racism, at all; as an eight-or-so year old White kid, no one thought to tell me about the Civil War or Slavery or the Civil Rights Movement. To be fain, if they would have, I probably would have just been aggressively not-listening as I waited to tell them about what happened on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
The Nazi swastika (as opposed to the ancient Indian ones) came next. Once again they drew me in with a badass X in the middle, but with some nice sharp angles coming off them to make S's not completely unlike those of the Kiss logo. Once again, I didn't associate it with racism. Once again, no bothered to tell me about the war and genocide it was associated with.
Where did I see the "Rebel" flag? Essentially everywhere I went. On shirts, in yards, on walls, in windows…
Where did I see swastikas? Everywhere graffiti was to be found and as a complete Nazi flag on a wall a friend's dad's house.
My family had moved back to West Virginia after my dad left the army and I went from all Black friends to no Black friends.
My elementary school had approximately three African American students.
The holler (for the Un-Appalachian: holler is immigrant descendants’ corruption of the word hollow, meaning a valley between mountains) that I lived in had one Black family.
***Flashback to my last year of elementary school***
In the Holler, at around eleven years old, I sat on the rooftop of an abandoned, all-stone building in the woods that we called the “Bomb Shelter” with a girl who has now made a lifes out of being beautiful. She and I passed a jumbo black permanent marker back and forth to make our marks on the already well-marked-up building.
"JASON WUZ HERE" I wrote and handed over the marker.
She thought for a minute, smiled, then started writing.
I wasn't watching, at first, but noticed that she seemed to be writing an awful lot.
I looked over her shoulder to read the carefully penned words, "THE KKK IS GETTING BIGGER AINT YOU GLAD YOU AINT A N-"
When she finished writing the R, she laughed.
Oh. I thought. I guess racism is funny.
***Jump cut the following Summer.***
“Look, Mom!” I said, as we perused the merchandise stands of the yearly Fourth of July celebration in Fayetteville, West Virginia.
“What?” My mom asked.
I pointed to a shirt for sale. It was a black, kid-sized shirt with “The original ‘Boys In The Hood’” printed on it along with the image of Ku Klux Klansmen and a burning cross.
I laughed, made air quotes with my prepubescent hands, and said, “Boys In The Hood”, then laughed some more; I had learned that racism was funny after all.
To my mom’s credit, she rolled her eyes so hard that one might have thought she was doing an Undertaker impression.
***Jump cut back to the present.***
So, how does one go from an essentially colorblind preschooler, to a preteen racist, to a teenage and beyond anti-racist?
***Flashback to middle school.***
I was already seated at the lunch table when one of my fellow classmates, a new kid, a friend of a friend, sat down across from me. I didn’t know him well, but - thinking that he would find it funny or, at least, take it as regular, good natured guy-guy s**t talking - I immediately made a stupid, racially insensitive joke that doesn’t need repeating but was based on ignorant African American stereotypes.
Of course, he didn’t find it funny.
He grabbed his lunch tray with both hands and slammed it back down on the table so violently that it made the contents of my own tray bounce into the air, then stormed off to find another table to sit at.
I was in shock. Not only had I seen how angry my sh**y “joke” made him, but I actually felt how much it had genuinely hurt him.
Part of me wanted to force myself to become defensive, to exclaim that I had said much worse things about my friends and their slutty mothers, to yell that I didn’t actually mean anything by it, to tell him that he was too sensitive, but my empathy circuits had overridden my ego and, instead, I just sat there feeling like someone had reached inside my chest with both hands and wrung my heart.
Oh… I thought. I guess racism really isn’t funny.
***Jumpcut back to the present.***
Thanks to my friend and rival, Roger Malcolm, who uses it as the name of his finishing move, I finally have had enough practice pronouncing cognitive dissonance to say it in a conversation with a bit of confidence.
Back when I was forming into a real boy, I didn’t know what cognitive dissonance was but I sure as sh** felt it.
How could racism be funny to some people, but so genuinely hurtful to others?
If racism genuinely hurt people, as I had seen with my own eyes and felt with my own heart, how could people who seemed so nice to me participate in it?
How could I, someone who constantly daydreamed about being a hero - about standing up to meanness, have been actively participating in something that had been revealed to be so villainous?
“Cognitive dissonance occurs when a person holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values; or participates in an action that goes against one of these three.” - Wikipedia
A more raised-in-West-Virginia way of saying it is: you’re all torn to sh** and f***ed up inside by some believing some sh** that doesn’t fit together with some other sh** you believe; or doing some sh** that goes against the sh** you think you believe .
***Flashback to middle school.**
I was all f***ed up inside about that incident at the Fayetteville Middle School lunch table.
Shortly after it happened, my family ended up moving to the next town over and I began going to a school with significantly more African American students and, subsequently, significantly less racism.
Because I had moved and because the classmate, whom I had made the sh**y joke to, was new, and not a friend, I could never recall his name, but I always remembered him, that moment, and that look on his face.
That learning experience started me down a thought-path of realizing how f***ed up it was that me and my friends idolized Black athletes and musicians but could make jokes that put Black people down.
When I learned that the “Rebel Flag” made people feel like I had made my classmate feel, I said f*** that flag.
When I learned that the Swastika made people feel like I had made my classmate feel, I said f*** that symbol.
***Jump cut to 2020***
When I started writing this I didn’t know that classmates name, but during the writing process I decided I should find out. I messaged the friend who was actually friends with him back then.
“Hey man, random as f**k, I know, but what's the name of the black dude you used to hangout with a bit in 6th grade's (FMS) name? I made a shitty racist joke to him, back then, that I thought was funny and just busting his balls, but - of course - he didn't find my stupid ass funny. Anyway, if he's still around, I would like to apologize all these years later.”
My friend said he couldn’t remember but that he had looked in his yearbook and came up with the names of two different people it could be. I vaguely recognized both names but couldn’t put a face to them. I searched the names on Facebook and, through mutual friends, I found the right guys and, after checking my etched-in memory against now grown-up facial features, I found the right guy.
I nervously sent a friend request. He quickly and kindly accepted it.
I took a day to work up the nerve, then messaged him. He quickly and kindly replied.
We had a hard-to-have conversation where I apologized. He quickly and kindly accepted.
We discussed breaking the cycle of inherited racist culture.
I offered to make an atoning monetary contribution, wherever he felt would be best. He assured me that wasn't necessary. I said I still wanted to. He kindly accepted.
We exchanged numbers and made plans to catch up over drinks in the future; I only drink on special occasions and I’m looking forward to that one.
***Jump cut to the end.***
Closure is so important to the human mind, as is reconciliation. I am immensely grateful that I got the opportunity to give one of my sh**iest stories a better ending, and slowly restore some of long held beliefs about myself with true-to-belief actions.
I’m also grateful that fate seemed to gather a conspiracy of circumstances beyond my control that formed together to create voice inside my young heart that gently explained, Look kid, you don’t have to be satisfied signing along with echoing ignorance; you can choose to rebel against a culture that doesn’t align with your values and you can create a future tradition that’s simply better than The Heritage U Got.