My name is Harry Caines and I am a white guy living in Utah.
There is a very good possibility that every word I type in this column about race relations might be disqualified by the reader because of what I am and where I live.
I have lived two very distinct lives. In Philadelphia, a city of well over one million people, I did what most people from my background do. As a kid, I hung out on street corners and at recreation centers. All of my life I spent Sundays with my family, went to the Jersey Shore during the summer, and prepared to march in the Mummers parade on January 1st.
It was the white thing to do.
Then I had kids. And I lost my job. And my health went bad. I wanted out. The city was disgusting to me.
And that is when Cache Valley, Utah came into my life. Safe. So incredibly safe. And so noticeably white. Yes, there are those from different races in Cache Valley, especially Latinos, but this place is whiter than a blizzard in Finland.
This is fact: I live with a bunch of white people. Yet, I still feel like an outsider here. I talk differently. I go about conflict resolution and interpersonal communication in a much different fashion than the typical Utahan. I do not feel a commonality with many who are white and have lived here their whole life. We are culturally on two ends of a wide spectrum.
This all leads up to two weeks ago when Philadelphia Magazine published a feature piece entitled <a href=”http://www.phillymag.com/articles/white-philly/” target=”_blank”>“Being White in Philly”</a>. The article, using anecdotal stories by anonymous sources, caused a huge controversy in my hometown. Ironic, given that the column talked about how blunt opinions on race relations are often dulled or withheld to avoid controversy.
(Side note: Philadelphia Magazine is widely ignored or openly scoffed at by the majority of Philadelphians as being elitist. It caters to a more affluent readership that does not accurately represent the vast majority of residents.)
On its own, I thought the piece sucked. Whilst reading it, I kept thinking to myself, “And?”. It came off harsh and unenlightening. I could read the comment section on articles from Philly news sites if I wanted to indulge in anonymous race-baiting claptrap.
Yet, despite this unfortunate failure in execution, the column did initiate an organized public forum to discuss race relations in my beloved hometown. I followed the discussion on Twitter, safely tucked on my couch 2,200 miles away. Most of the Tweets were from well-educated minorities – a group that seemed to make up a disproportionate amount of the audience.
Did the forum, or by proxy, the column accomplish anything of substance regarding race relations? From the response of those in attendance, my summation would say no. But I doubt it really ever had a chance.
Then again, what do I know? I am a white guy in Utah. Persona non grata in a world that passes Utah from the left lane of the diversity highway, gawking at the jalopy we drive. Slow and steady wins the race war.
This argument is valid, as I often propose it myself. How can anyone who resides in such a rural, white and delightsome topography really know how those of different races in inner-cities co-exist? All the sociology classes in the world could not equal the education one could receive by driving through downtown Camden, New Jersey or standing on a street corner in North Philadelphia.
Changing attitudes on race – from both a white and black perspective – cannot be altered by symposiums. Classrooms have a minimal effect, if any. And laws? If you ever want to make things worse in this country, pass a law based mostly on good intentions.
We evolve into a better society that condemns and impugns our past through the most basic vessel available to us – one-on-one conversation.
It’s that simple. Not fast, simple.
We understand each other better sitting across a table with food or drink in front of us than we do sitting in a classroom. We recognize similarities better when we sit on someone’s couch more readily than across a desk on the stage of a large auditorium. If race relations in this country are better than at any time in our history, it is because many people broke away from the fear and ignorance of their elders and went out of their way to understand the world around them.
I graduated from South Philadelphia High School. I had to stretch my neck sometimes to see another white face down the crowded hallways. Blacks and Asians were the dominant demographic there. I often tell the story of me being the No. 1 goalie for Southern’s varsity soccer team, trying to communicate with a defense made up of Laotians, Vietnamese and Cambodians. Black kids, many of whom I would avoid when walking down the street, were now the ones I was hugging at our graduation ceremony.
The pessimists say race relations in America are tainted and embedded by centuries of inherent racism. The optimists say race relations are better now than at any time in the history of the world. I am an optimist.
I see a country that eschews ignorance. I see my children, who are of mixed races, judge people based on how they conduct themselves, not because of something they were born with. Despite real incidences of racism, by Blacks and Whites, I see most people tired of arguing over semantics and perceived slights. The days of fear are coming to an end.
If I return to Philly, and a black man mugs me for my wallet, he does it as an individual. He made the choice do so. When I was teenager, I might have felt acrimony towards all Blacks for the act of one. Not anymore. As I grow older, I become wiser. I learn. I pass on that wisdom to my children. They keep that wisdom in their brains and pass it on to the world around them. The racial divide and misunderstandings are bridged a little more.
It’s really that simple.