Growing up in a town where everybody is like you is, in one way, a limiting experience. You don’t know what to say to or do with people who are different from you. On the other hand, growing up in such a town is also a liberating experience, since you are not constantly having to negotiate cultural boundaries. When I grew up, I realized that I could go all day without thinking about racial or ethnic matters, as if everybody in the world was like me. But the black people I knew (and others) could never go a single day without taking into consideration that there were other kinds of people in the world than themselves.
The things people said, the jokes they told, wouldn’t pass muster today. They shouldn’t have passed muster then, either, but the past is what it is. I heard a lot of jokes about black people. But then, I heard a lot of jokes about Polish people, too. I didn’t know any black people – or Polish people, come to that. I did know a fair number of Kentuckians. I heard a lot of jokes about them, too. And all these jokes, about black people, Polish people, Kentuckians, were very similar. Sometimes, you could just switch out the targeted group in the punchline without affecting the joke. The problem with this kind of humor is that it’s demeaning to other groups. But it’s not just white people talking about black people in ignorant and hurtful ways; it’s any insulated group talking about other groups in ignorant and hurtful ways. In Africa, one black ethnic group will tell the same jokes and hand on the same stereotypes about another black ethnic group that I heard growing up in my small, all white town. It shocked me to hear it. But it’s how groups talk about each other when they don’t know how to talk to each other.
I was curious about black people. I grew up in the Civil Rights era. I saw lots of confrontational things on TV, I heard lots of people say many things. I tried to process them as best I could. Some of them frightened me, threatened my sense of stability. But my parents remained calm, and tried to talk fairly about what was going on, so I just kept watching and listening.
I remember one trip my mother took me on back to the suburb I had attended first grade in. She wanted to visit an older friend, the wife of a local doctor or dentist. We had lunch at a table set with a fair cloth and lacey placemats. I felt a little uncomfortable with the sense of formality, but that was the way things were done in her world. We had chili, I recall – with noodles in it. I thought the noodles were out of place. Anyway, while we were eating lunch, my mother’s friend was talking about conditions in the old home town. The elegant hostess said, in a worried undertone, that “the colored” were moving into the area. I had no experience with “the colored,” but something in her expression sounded very, very wrong to me. As if she’d said “invading Martian bloodworms” in that dignified, worried tone. In addition to feeling that my nice hostess was somehow possessed of some not-so-nice attitudes, it piqued my curiosity about black people.
About the only black people I ever saw growing up were at the State park just outside of town. The swimming pool in that park was my childhood joy. And the park was just an hour south of Indianapolis, so many city dwellers came to camp and swim in the park, too. There were lots of little black boys there, in the changing room and in the pool, but I didn’t know any of them, and was too shy to strike up a conversation with any.
The first black person I ever had a conversation with was a train porter. My Cub Scout den had gone to Indianapolis to catch a day’s train ride, just for fun. My father had given me a quarter to buy myself some refreshments and I got to sit with my friends while the adults sat together a ways off. It was a big adventure for me, and being able to buy my own refreshments and handle my own money was part of that adventure. The porter came by with a rolling cart of snacks and soft drinks. I ordered a Coke and paid him my money. He was courteous and efficient. I wasn’t aware of him as a black person so much as an adult, with whom I was having an adult interaction. After he went his way down the car, though, I reflected on my first interaction with someone of a different race. “Well, he’s all right,” I thought to myself; after all, he had treated me with the respect due an adult customer. And I set that experience over against all the stupid talk I heard from other people.
When I went off to college, I was looking forward to meeting different kinds of people, and there were plenty of black people my age attending ISU in the fall of 1971. It was hard to get to know any, though. Those were the days of “Black Power,” and many of the African-American young adults in attendance had turned their attention inward, exploring their own identity. They had little interest in me – just another white kid – and I couldn’t figure out how to approach them. I made only a couple of black friends in college, then, and I can’t say the relationships went very deep. We didn’t hang out, like I did with my other friends. There was a strain to our relationships, like we were walking on eggshells all the time.
So it was that the first black people that I really got to know and to work with were ones I met in my late twenties, when I was an inner city pastor in a white neighborhood of Indianapolis. And I got to know them through Scouting, not the church. As an old Boy Scout myself, I had gone down to the Council to volunteer, as a means of doing youth ministry. Our district was about 70% urban black and 30% white Appalachian. It was an interesting demographic to work with. But as a member of the district committee in various capacities, I found myself serving on committees with black people, going into black schools and churches to talk about Scouting, organizing camporees with both white and black Scouts in attendance, even setting up Scouting displays at the annual Black Expo. And I had one experience that stands out among all the others.
We were conducting a fishing derby of sorts at the Cannery, an old factory with a nice terrace overlooking White River. The boys were supposed to be fishing down below (most were throwing rocks in the water, I think, but they were enjoying themselves). Meanwhile, most of the adults – leaders and parents – just sat on the terrace and chatted. It was a lovely day. And in the midst of this leisurely chat, I suddenly realized, “I am the only white person here.” It was an interesting realization, and I turned it over in my mind. We were comfortable with each other. We had things in common (kids, Scouting, jobs, schools). We could just be folks with each other. I liked it.
A few years later, as a graduate student in Terre Haute and (again) as a volunteer Scouter, I got to know several black Scouts and Scouters quite well. Once again, Scouting had brought us together, and we could go camping with each other, play cards together, be friends.
So, how do I feel about the town where I grew up? Well, the past is a foreign country, they say, and they do things differently there. I feel no need to defend or denounce the good folks of 1960s Spencer, Indiana. They were as good and fair-minded as they knew how to be. Nobody tells those old, hurtful jokes anymore, at least not in my hearing. And that’s something. People have made room in their minds for other kinds of people. We’re a better people now in many ways.
And yet, in other ways, we’re not. Some of the things I see in the news now are just as ugly and distressing as anything I saw in the mid-60s. I am outraged at each injustice. But I am disappointed, too. I thought we’d grown out of all that. But some of us haven’t, I guess. And the way to finally outgrow the past is to do what we have always said we do, but so frequently don’t: treat people as people, with the respect they deserve. Bullies in police uniform (like the killer of George Floyd) are still bullies, and they do their departments no credit. They should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Likewise, jackasses who take upon themselves authority they don’t have and hurt people in doing so (like the killers of Ahmaud Arbery) need to be punished, too.
But at the same time, we should all try to dial down the angry rhetoric. When everybody is shouting, nobody can hear anything. And it is in our actually talking with each other that we grow.