“Don’t go to Burning Man if you ever want to run for Senate! A senator doesn’t wanna get caught anywhere near Burning Man! And you should watch out too if you really wanna to join that (Site) Council you’ve been talking about…” said a relative upon seeing my photos. I didn’t expect to hear a choir, but that’s what happened. Angels parted the clouds in song and I was at once able to articulate why I never fit in where I grew up.
Second grade. This was when McDonald’s was new and exciting, a real treat, and some families when they had finished eating would toss their trash right out the car window. Cups, straws, wrappings and little styrofoam boxes would scatter from the white crumpled bag while somewhere above us there lurked a Native American man on horseback, crying. My grandfather was a raging nonconformist. He ranted incessantly about our country’s racist past and Native American injustices in particular set him aflame. Having been exposed to his thinking (and infinite hours of television) I joined the fight against pollution. Sometimes I’d try to clean random trash off the sidewalks causing random adults to hiss, “Leave it be!” My grandfather often talked about how wrong it was to judge a person by the color of his skin. His words didn’t seem all that important to me. But it was around this time I began to notice that I was the only second-grader who played with the solitary black girl in our class. At first I thought she was avoided due to her giraffe-like height, but I heard the whispers and began questioning relatives, “Do you like black people? I do. Do you have black friends? I do.” It was explained to me that while it was acceptable, honorable even, to befriend black people, blacks and whites should never marry; It was unfair to the children. Perhaps it was my grandfather’s influence and my mother’s re-enforcement of his beliefs that molded my thoughts, or the knowledge that my father’s mother protected her black neighbors during the Boston Busing riots, but at six years old this business of whites not mixing with blacks sounded like crazy-talk to me. “But what if they love each other?” I asked. My poster said All You Need Is Love. “Doesn’t matter, ” they replied. “Children pay the price. It might not be right, but that’s life.” It was implied that we should just let it be. This thought came back to me again and again. Slavery: what if we just let it be? Only men have the right to vote or own property: let it be? Prohibiting consenting adults from getting married: let it be? It obviously made no sense. When certain company would leave our home my mother would huff around complaining about how narrow-minded so n’so was, how derogatory his language. A phrase I heard from certain individuals in high school was, “I know you’re friends with them, but you gotta admit, there are black people and then there are niggers.” I’d sooner drop the friendship than speak such hateful words. A close relative once told me that blond girls are nothing but trophies to black boys. The boy in question was one of the sweetest, most gentle kids I knew, but that didn’t matter. His skin was brown and he lived on the other side of the tracks, that’s all they saw. The measure of a girl or boy was based first and foremost on one’s appearance. But that’s what high school is all about, isn’t it? No. Because it wasn’t just high school. It was life and it was everywhere. Be presentable. Speak appropriately. Don’t get too personal. Stick to the right friends. Long-haired kids draw negative attention to themselves. It didn’t matter how hard I’d argue that these kids, cross-over friends of mine, were decent, respectable people. It became like Ground Hog Day, years of arguing for the minority, any minority. Black, Jew, Gay, Atheist, Vegetarian, Vegan, Buddhist, Deadhead, Goth, Punk, Lesbian, Thespian. It all came down to what it still comes down to today: We fear that which we don’t understand. Different = Scary = Avoid. It’s not in my nature to avoid nor is it my nature to judge a person without knowing a person. I grew sick of swimming upstream. Los Angeles was my homecoming. It was like floating in an ocean of strange except that strange was the norm. Live and let live. If the people back East thought I was a freak, they hadn’t seen the half of it in Hollywood. Drag queens walked down the street in peace. Trans-gender folk hardly got a glance. Horrible racial divides plagued Southern California and many other West Coast cities then and now, but in my freakish little community we were one big happy family regardless of skin color, sexual preference or how we chose to present ourselves.
At my daughter’s elementary school I sit next to a man whose ink winds down his neck, across his back, wraps around his arms and over his hands, and a woman whose blond hair sits atop a turban of dreadlocks. A skateboarding dad dressed in rock n’roll black rides his daughter to school. A goth mom includes the entire class of each of her three kids when invitations to their annual Halloween party go out. I’ve seen a man in a suit check his blackberry while a teacher with flourescent pink hair greets her first grade students. My Eastcoast nay-sayers might be surprised to learn we are engineers, graphic designers, lawyers, waitresses, doctors, artists and accountants alike, all of us parents who love our children and support our community. Racial barriers exist even here and I’ll always fight against them, but I’m thankful to call this little corner of Portland, Oregon my home. This is where I belong.