How to Eat Crow, or: That time I called my best friend The N-Word.
A couple of weeks ago I made a post on Facebook about brainstorming topics for my blog and Facebook LIVE videos. I asked if any of my friends had any topics that they wanted me to write/talk about.
My friend Harold (AKA internet personality, Fyutch) commented something about how he’d like to know more about what it was like for me to grow up in Flint (Michigan.)
I made a note on one of my many Stickies with that and other suggestions, and put it in the back of my mind.
After writing my last piece, with an update on my health, I started thinking about where to go next, and I remembered Harold’s suggestion.
Where does one start with what it was like growing up in Flint, right?
So, I went back to him and asked him what some of his top questions were, and he responded with:
how did you grow up in Flint? what hardships did you face? what did you learn from that?
Well, Hell, Harold. What have you gotten me in to?
There are many stories I could tell about growing up in Flint, and they would probably live up to every bit of sensationalism that surrounds the city — some well-earned and some not.
I could talk about the gang stuff, or the wasn’t-allowed-to-wear-the-Starter-jacket-I-got-for-Christmas-because-kids-kept-getting-shot stuff…
But I’m not going to. Not today.
What I’m going to talk to about is the time I learned a super valuable lesson about what the fuck not to say when you’re a white kid.
Or a white person.
Because that shit is foul.
But I didn’t know that then.
So, some background:
My family had always, as far as I had known and experienced, been from Flint. That’s where my mom grew up so, to me, that was forever.
I was born in 1982 – right around the time that Roger Smith started the great reorganization of General Motors and started sending all the jobs out of Flint, into union-free southern states and Mexico.
Well, not all the jobs. But it may as well have been.
Flint’s never been the same since.
But I didn’t know that, either, back then.
I attended Pierce Elementary School.
I took a look at their website while writing this, by the way, and it looks pretty nice, though it was last updated in 2015. They talk about after school programs and ice cream after lunch and all kinds of things.
This was not the Pierce Elementary that I attended.
We didn’t even have money for Science class! Our one team sport was kickball and we didn’t have jerseys, we just wore the same color t-shirt to games. HA!
Have you seen that movie, Freedom Writers? It’s the movie based on a true story about the white lady teacher who goes into a Long Beach, CA high school — she’s teaching a classroom full of kids, mostly POC, who are “bussed in” from under resourced neighborhoods and planted in the middle of an upper-middle-class-and-predominantly white high school.
No, not the one where Coolio did that one song on the soundtrack. The other one.
Anyway, there was a similar kind of program in Flint, and at Pierce Elementary.
Pierce was in what was known as a relatively safe neighborhood in Flint, and kids from the other side of town, AKA The North End (of Flint) were bussed in to give them access to better education.
(I gotta say I question our standards for better education back then, considering what we lacked at Pierce.)
I didn’t know all of this when I was a kid, either. I just showed up to school.
So, it didn’t necessarily seem strange to me that I was often the only, or one of only three white kids in my class.
Or that most of the friends from my neighborhood didn’t go to Pierce, and that most of the kids that I went to school with didn’t seem to live in my neighborhood.
I didn’t realize it might be strange that the majority of the songs we were singing in choir was stuff like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” and other African American Spirituals.
I just knew the songs seemed pretty and I liked singing with everyone.
I tell you all of this to hopefully provide some context into what I’m building up to tell you… and how I might have been so stunned by how wrong I was without knowing it.
I had a best friend named Tanya in second grade.
I loved hanging out with Tanya. She was sassy and took no BS from anybody.
I loved the way her hair, and the hair of the other girls I went to school with, made noise when they moved because of the pony beads on their braids. I wanted hair like that and I used to beg my mom to braid it.
I loved the way Tanya would say, “Oooh, honey child!” but I never did understand why she and the other girls said things like, “f’onna.” (A shortened version of, “fittin’ to” for you folks not in the know.)
Sometimes, even though I didn’t know anything different really, I did know that I felt a little out-of-place.
I knew that the kids I went to school with didn’t talk like my family talked, or talk about the same things that my family talked about.
I knew that I listened to New Kids on the Block, and all the bands my oldest sister listened to, like The Cure and Motley Crue, when the kids at school were listening to stuff like Michael Jackson and later, Dr. Dre and Snoop.
This one little boy Frederick used to drive me crazy. He found out my middle name was Jean and started singing, “Kelly Jean is not my lover…” in the hallway and I was utterly mortified and embarrassed because everyone started laughing.
But I didn’t really realize, in spite of all of these little things, that we were inherently different in some way.
That is, until one day, on the playground…
I don’t remember what we were playing, but Tanya pushed me or tagged me or something and I laughed and yelled something like, “That’s not fair, n****r!’ still thinking that we were laughing and having a good time.
Tanya stopped dead in her tracks. She looked back at me dead ass serious and said, “YOU don’t get to say that!”
Why not? You guys say it all the time!
“Because that’s what white people say to black people to put us down. That’s what they used to call slaves.”
That hit me like a punch to the gut.
I called my friend something THAT bad?!
This was, to my recollection, my very first time eating crow. I felt awful. I felt kind of like Tanya was going to kick my ass, but she didn’t.
Maybe she saw the look in my eyes and at 7 or 8 years old could already recognize honest remorse and pure humiliation and shame.
In any case, we stayed friends, and it never came up again. Tanya showed me some real Grace.
So, when Harold asked what types of hardships I faced and what I learned, as a white kid growing up in Flint, MI… this is what came to mind.
Remembering this made me feel more determined to show the kind of Grace shown to me by Tanya, to others.
People say dumbass shit all the time, and believe it or not, sometimes they really don’t know what they’re saying!
We can’t control the dumb shit people say — but we choose how we react to it.
We choose whether we make it a teachable moment, or throw down with anger, hurling words or fists and annihilating their spirit, pretty much guaranteeing that they’ll continue to say dumb shit and not learn a damn thing.
I don’t know the answer to all the world’s problems, y’all.
But I do know that we probably don’t understand half as much as we think we do.
I also know that we could really take a cue from the innocence and oblivious nature of children, who don’t necessarily realize that they’re the “only” this or that in their classroom until someone points it out to them.
We could learn a thing or two from the way kids handle their business on the playground. Well, sometimes anyway. Sometimes they’re just wilin’ out.
I still think about Tanya, Kellen, Mario, Jasper, Tameka, Frederick, Kristy… all those kids I went to school with at Pierce.
I know Kellen is doing well, we’ve reconnected on Facebook recently. But I haven’t tracked down anyone else.
Sometimes I think I’m afraid to know that maybe some of them didn’t get out of Flint, or didn’t get out of the North End and are still fighting to survive just like everyone was back then…
When you grow up in the kind of city where one of your best friends has a bullet graze her head in a drive-by shooting on the way to school in fourth grade, I feel like this is a reasonable trepidation.
Be kind to each other, folks.
Try to avoid eating crow, but when you have to, own it and apologize.
Thanks for indulging me.