The reason that we were outnumbered by blacks at theaters nearby our home is that then, and for most of my years in Brooklyn, we have lived in neighborhoods where whites are the minority. I regarded this as neither undesirable nor desirable. It was just a fact. Not surprisingly when I played basketball in one of the local schoolyards, which I did frequently before blowing out my knee in my 30s, I was in the minority.
It was an especially eclectic crowd at the courts nearest to home. The neighborhood had a few whites, but also a sizeable group of Native Americans, who had been in construction in New York City, and were frequently, it seemed, on crutches. They had grown up near Montreal, and when they learned that the spouse and I were going in that direction for a vacation, they were quick to give advice about the places for food and drink on the way to Canada. There was also a group of Puerto Ricans that had been established in the neighborhood for quite some time having come to work at the then-functioning, nearby ExLax factory. There were blacks with relatives in the Carolinas and some Argentinians who had migrated to South America from Italy before coming to the United States. As I said, an eclectic mix.
One day playing basketball, an argument broke out. I am not sure what triggered it, but soon I heard one kid yell an epithet at the other, “You’re white.” “No, I am not. You’re white.” Both were high schoolers. I knew one of them, whose mother was Puerto Rican and whose father Native American. I did not know the other one, but he looked to be mixed race white and black. As the argument went on, I looked around and realized that I was the only white there. For a moment, with the “W” word being tossed around, I wondered whether I should be concerned but decided not to be. I was older and a fixture in that schoolyard and had done favors for the families of some of the other players. My guess is that I was not so much the white guy, as the old guy. I am not sure how the argument was settled, but it did not escalate into anything major. This was not a typical incident. Although I played basketball for countless hours in the neighborhood, I don’t remember another time when anything intended as a racial epithet was hurled.
These incidents may have made me aware of my race, something that does not happen often to this white person, and probably not to most other whites either, but none made me feel deeply uncomfortable. Sometimes while jogging, however, I did feel threatened. I would often use my running for commuting and sometimes that took me through parts of New York where my skin color made me stand out, including the South Bronx, then considered to be an especially dangerous neighborhood. I did feel conspicuous, and I sometimes heard what I only hoped were sarcastic remarks coming in my direction, but I soon learned behaviors that seemed to defuse any potential problems. Almost always there was a mother with a baby in a stroller on the sidewalk. I would look intently into the stroller as I jogged closer, and when nearby I would smile and then look the mother in the eye and smile even more broadly. Almost always the mother smiled back, and her smile seemed to make others on the block relax. I would also look for young kids, usually boys, on the block. The ten-year olds often made veiled racial remarks, but my response was to urge them to race me to the corner. Most took up the challenge, and seeing me with a kid running neck and neck up the block also seemed to make others relax. (The kids invariably won.)
These methods almost always worked when I ran in “bad” neighborhoods, but for some reason, I found they did not work to defuse any tensions in parts of Harlem, and mostly I stopped running there.
My running led to another incident that was not overtly racial but once again led me to think about my whiteness. I was running through a lily-white, affluent suburb north of New York City. I was not running in fancy running clothes, but, as was my wont, in cast-offs with hair that most would have thought needed a cutting. Why affluent communities can’t afford sidewalks I don’t know, but as a result I was jogging on the side of the road. I was coming up to a nice car at a stop sign with a young woman in it. She saw me and the slightest look of panic came over her face. And then I heard the car locks click shut. I was amused. In the thousands of miles I had run, I was not aware of this happening before, but then I thought, I bet a lot of young black males have heard that clicking sound many, many times.