I can recall an incident when I attended elementary school in the early 50's, that changed my life forever. That singular incident introduced me to the politics of group inclusion and exclusion. Robinson Elementary School located in Akron Ohio, where I attended school, was a mixed but predominately black school at that time. Robinson was located on the east side of this blue-collar working class city of about 200,000 citizens.
I suppose that I had enemies before that encounter, however, up until that experience I pretty much got along fine with everyone. We had begun a new school term and I was now in the 5th grade. I immediately noticed that there were a lot of new faces in this class that I had never noticed before at Robinson, and Robinson was the only elementary school that I ever attended. On this day I was shocked to learn that I had apparently passed the smell-taste and had been accepted into a group (that I had neither petitioned membership nor knew nothing about). How did I find out? I overheard one of my female classmates, Kathryn, tell other members of this phantom group that I, "was okay and that we could let him in". From that day on, everyone in that group apparently accepted me into the group. Odd?
Consciousness Of Kind
Kathryn's words were to stick with me for a long time however, even until this day. For on that day I was introduced to a process that takes place between humans and animals, that consciously, I never knew existed prior to this incident. I came to understand that what I had accepted before, i.e., that we were all human and a part of the human group and thereby were all accepted, was wrong if not naive. At that time I did not have a conscious awareness of the sub-groups, dyads and triads that existed all around me, even though I was certainly a part of some of these groups myself.
You mean, I thought, one person could say to a group of his peers that someone is okay, and all of the sudden you are in. Wow, what power? But it also made me think on the other hand, you mean up until now you knowingly and willfully held me out of the group. Further, I didn't even know that I had issues or differences with your group or that members of your group had issues with me. I did not know that you were watching me. Then I concluded, how dare you? Who do you think you are to decide first of all to keep me out, and who do you think you are to decide for me that I either want to be in or should be admitted? How dare you make those kind of assumptions?
In fact, I was rather satisfied, thank you very much, with my own set of friends, although I never considered myself to belong to a closed group, and besides I have never had any trouble making any new friends. As far as I was concerned, we were all a part of the human group, I simply had not met everyone one yet.
I then learned something about what theologian, Dr. C. Eric Lincoln in his book on the nation of Islam described as, 'a consciousness of kind'. In his book, 'The Nation', Dr. C. Eric Lincoln explained that a consciousness of kind was an awareness that we all apparently have with regard to things or people that we have something in common. We are often more comfortable with those who are like us. Conversely, he said, we experience discomfort when we experience people or people or things that are different, particularly people who do not see things the way that we do.
Similar to the bestseller, I'm Okay You're Okay, that was a must read in the 80's, the author concluded that a subconscious and sometimes conscious level we analyze everyone that we come in contact with. There is a verbal and non-verbal transaction and at the same time assessment of the other party or parties taking place. At the conclusion of the transactions between both sides, a conclusion is drawn about the other. Both entities decide whether the other is essentially okay or not okay and whether to prolong the relation or what type of relationship they will probably have if any. Most people usually take for granted that he or she is okay, its the other person who needs to be checked out. It is the other party who needs to prove their self-worth.
Being as naive as I was at the time, I neither understood group dynamics, consciousness of kind nor transactional analysis. This was important not only because of the former experience with Kathryn and my dismay which followed, but because of what I was to experience with my own group of classmates that I walked together with to school each day.
My house was approximately a half of a mile from the school. And when I attended elementary school there weren't any buses to take you there. So no matter how small you were, you walked. As other kids would pass by your house, you simply joined in and walked along with the group. By the time you reached the school, there could be a dozen or more kids walking to school together. One day I was asked, after months if not years of walking to school together, why I continued to allow Leonard O'Farrell to walk with our group? What group? When did I join a group? What was the problem? When was I empowered to decide who could or could not walk with us to Robinson? What was the nature of this group, other than we all walked to elementary school together? What was the problem?
Well you guessed it, Leonard was white and the rest of us were black. I was shocked again. For I understood now that people that I walked with (a group), included racist kids. For, of course I knew that Leonard was white, but what difference did that make to me? And why should it make any difference to them? Leonard was a kid like the rest of us, kind, smart, going to the same place that I was going and most of all a human, just like the rest of us. How dare these friends and acquaintances discriminate against someone just because they happened to be of another race? I was not a racist and based on my experience with Leonard, he was okay.
As we were growing up, my parents encouraged and taught us to stay away from bad people, but otherwise they never talked about racism, hate, inclusion or exclusion. Our neighbors were white and black, so nothing there would have taught me to stay away from white people, although in a few years I would be introduced to the problem of racism in America.
So what did I do about Leonard? Frankly, I did not fight or argue hard to keep Leonard in the group for I had already decided that if Leonard could not be a part of 'the group', I did not want to be in the group myself. Excluding people based on race was simply not in agreement with my 10 year old values.
And that brings me to the subject of my commentary that I have chosen to discuss in Part II of American White Supremacy: They Let Me In.