Race Relations

“In our sleep, pain which cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.”

I know very little about race relations, even today. I knew even less when I was a little kid.

Last night I took a walk to get some ice cream at the new ice cream store in our neighborhood. Not recognizing any of the flavors and fearing they were all “gluten free”* or made with some sort of hippie milk substitute (I shudder to think that that might be), I went with my standard favorite, vanilla. Of course, the word vanilla was preceded by two words I didn’t recognize and seemed out of place in the name of an ice cream, but I figured how could you muck up vanilla?

Thankfully, “Dr. Douchetastics Full Moon Fever Ice Cream Store”** did not.

As I have gotten older, vanilla has always remained my favorite flavor of ice cream and my love affair with it goes back. Way way back.

Sometime between first and second grade, we lived in Minneapolis, MN. The joy of no school in the summer was offset in Minnesota by two things, oppressive humidity and mosquito’s the size of Cessna’s. We learned to combat the heat with ice cream and the mosquitoes? Well, they were a losing battle.

Now, my neighborhood was straight up middle class and we had the good fortune to live right across the street from the municipal park that all the neighborhood kids played in, which made for an easy dash when the ice cream man that would drive by, playing that damn ice cream high treble music.. Of course, this being 1970-something, we were beginning to see black people move into the neighborhood. Thankfully, my family was raised to ignore skin color.

Family folklore has it that when we lived in Virginia, my parents closest friends were black. My mother likes to tell the story of how she and I went to the airport to pick up their friend at the airport. The story goes that we picked him up, he and my mom embraced, and he held my left hand while my mom held my right one as we walked out of the airport together. When I noticed everyone staring and asked why, he said “Well, because I am black and your mom is white.” I quickly retorted “What’s black?”

Over the next few years, I came to understand there was an aesthetic difference but that was about all my wee brain could comprehend.

When the first black family moved into our neighborhood in Minneapolis, I’d like to think my father summoned us for a family discussion over Cheez-Its and martini’s, kool-aid for my brother and I. And at this family meeting, I’d like to think my dad threw down some mad wisdom like “You will find many many different reasons in life to dislike people, but never let skin color or religious belief’s be one of them.”

My lack of total recall tells me the reality was probably just an awkward silence around the dinner table, eating cream chicken and white rice, with my father mumbling about black people moving into the neighborhood and to be nice to them.

Anyway, so it was the summer and I recall all of the boys, including the new black residents, playing at the park. With pods of kids, broken out more or less by age, playing a variety of different games all around the park. The black kids were closest to my age so, by default, they were hanging around with about seven of us neighborhood kids. Again, I KNEW they were black, simply because they didn’t look like me, but I had no idea about prejudice. As far as I was concerned, we were all just kids horsing around being kids…and then the ice cream truck came around. Because we lived right across the street, I flew back home and begged for some money to get some ice cream. My mother acquiesced and handed me a dollar bill and I flew back to the park and the line of kids at the ice cream truck.

I waited patiently for my turn so I could order up my favorite ice cream, vanilla. No Rocket Pop or Rainbow Push Up for me, I wanted ice cream. I got it and went over to hang out with the rest of the boys in my park pod, including the black kids. Now the black kids got their favorite ice cream, chocolate. The intricacies of metaphor and prejudice of our ice cream selections were going to be lost on me, but apparently not on them.

The older one boy chuckled at me and said “Vanilla, it figures.”
I said, “I like vanilla. It’s my favorite.”
Then the boy who was about my age chimed in “Why is it your favorite, because its white?”
“No, I just like the way it tastes.”
The older boy emphatically stated “Chocolate is way better.”
I took the bait hook line and sinker, “No WAY. You don’t know what you are talking about. Vanilla is the BEST EVER!”

This went back and forth for some time and, as I recall, became rather heated. I was steadfast in my defense that vanilla was the best ever. Eventually, the boys decided to head back home. I DIDN’T KNOW IT WAS A METAPHOR TO THEM! Clearly, the boys had been exposed to racism and prejudice so their argument was not one about ice cream.

I’m sure they went home and told their parents about some stupid mid-western racist boy who only eats vanilla ice cream. It’s true, at that time, I did only eat vanilla ice cream. I recall being really hurt and angry that someone couldn’t understand why I loved vanilla ice cream. Suddenly, I didn’t like them. Not because of their skin color though.

For the remainder of the summer I saw less and less of the two boys at the park and when we did see each other, there was always this undercurrent of disdain. When school started in the fall, they would get on the bus, grimace as they walked by me and pretty much ignored me. Thankfully, we were in different classrooms so we had not day to day interaction, aside from the bus. Recess was just a larger variant of the park pods we had in the summer, sans the ice cream truck, so I had no real opportunity or desire to patch things up with the boys. I’m not even sure I would have known how because the fact was, I still loved vanilla ice cream and was fairly certain there was no way to bridge the racial ice cream chasm that existed between us.

Now that I understand what that discussion was truly about, I’d love to able to get in a time machine and go back and tell the boys that the argument was really only about ice cream, but I’m not convinced it would matter all that much. Race relations are still a complex thing, now more than ever. And to this day, when I see someone eating chocolate ice cream, I think of those two brothers and our beef. You just shouldn’t judge people by their favorite ice cream flavor.

Over the years, I’ve certainly tasted more ice cream flavors, but vanilla still remains my favorite.

Christ, am I really an ice cream racist?

*- Fruity Pebbles are gluten free…so, yea. Apparently TONS of sugar is OK as long as there is not Gluten? COME ON PEOPLE!

**- Not its real name.