The first racist thing I remember hearing is my dad calling the NBA “Blacksketball.”
That sort of mega-witty racial humor permeated Milwaukee when I was growing up. I didn’t know anyone who would admit they were racist, but I sure did hear a whole lot of racist jokes, on my dad’s side of the family especially. He and his brothers tended to be pretty chill about it, but his brother-in-law was the first person that I heard use the N-word.
My uncle, a nearly always angry man, likely a few drinks in, was sitting in his chair next to the stack of Playboys he didn’t feel the need to hide when a whole bunch of kids were coming over. I couldn’t have been more than eight. He was talking about how dangerous the city was then, and he spat the N-word out of his thin lips, sticking it against my small eyes.
No one said anything, not to him. He hated black people, sure, but also women, and gays, and kids, and poor people. I tried to stay away from him. Still do.
From those young eyes, Milwaukee was an interesting place, racially. When I was young, black activist Michael McGee was threatening to throw burning tires onto the freeway. I remember looking up at overpasses when we drove under them, scanning for black people who might try to kill me.
I remember watching the local news, half Packers updates and summer music festivals, half horror stories of black violence, and knowing which world was mine.
We grew up in a fairly diverse neighborhood, but the white kids never really played with black kids. We were taught to be color blind, but also felt the tension of the adults when there were black people around. We were taught to never say the N-word, but to remain silent in the presence of someone who did.
I could have been a white supremacist then. Had I been more impressed by my uncle’s anger, had my parents said nothing in the car rides home and away from him. I could have grown into a racist, one of those sinewy, angry white guys who blame black people for everything, who believe in the goodness of Christian whites while living wholly absent of goodness. If I’d been raised by my uncle instead of my dad, maybe, probably, I would have been.
My dad wasn’t racist though, not capital ‘R’ Racist. He was Milwaukee racist, and even then he smoked too much weed to try hard at it. He mellowed, too, as I got older, as he grew less angry at the things he didn’t have, as he smoked, I imagine, even more weed. He was too young to be a real hippie, but still listened to all of their free-love music. Some of that rubbed off on him, and some of that rubbed off on me. Hate always felt like an obvious wrong answer.
My dad died when I was in college and that still hurts, and this is as negatively as I’ve ever allowed myself to remember him.
When I moved out of Milwaukee in 5th grade, I spent a couple years in the suburbs playing the part of the edgy kid, because once upon a time I went to school with black people. After a few years, I stopped being the edgy kid, and started being a suburban white kid. I got OK grades, I guess. I spent long weekends at my friend’s house listening to him and his older brother make Jew jokes, and making things that blew up in different ways.
I learned to juggle, played video games for hours, and though I didn’t try hard at much, I seemed to be doing fine. One time, two girls asked me out in the same week, though they were the only two girls all year.
Honestly, I was mediocre as fuck.
I didn’t have 4Chan and Reddit. I didn’t have gaming communities of other mediocre-ass white dudes who read too little and jacked off too much. Guys who were, like me, not doing anything special and were still annoyed that we weren’t being treated like we deserved.
I didn’t have internet jokes and frog memes and Facebook groups to share the jokes I shared with friends, those jokes that felt powerful because they were so offensive. I didn’t have the pushback to those jokes, people telling me, you, young idiot, are either a racist who thinks that’s funny or a good person who doesn’t. Social justice Twitter would have just confirmed for me what the assholes with the Nazi haircuts were telling me on their internet shows, that other people just don’t get me, that they want to take things from me, that PC culture is trying to keep me from being a real man.
I read Garrison Keillor’s The Book of Guys, which is about as close as I got to all that. It’s a book of stories about how hard and special it is to be a man, but I didn’t read it until I was a little older, and I was in a better place, and had a pretty awesome girlfriend who told me it was kinda dumb when I told her she should read it.
I could have been an alt-righter. I could have talked publicly in a way that almost sounded smart about how other cultures get to celebrate their heritage, so why not me? And I’m not racist, I’m post-racial. I’m done with the guilt. I would’ve gotten the dumb haircut. I would’ve made shitty jokes when it was just me and the guys who I knew “got it,” and would talk about how people don’t understand humor or irony anymore, and anyway free speech and stuff.
It would have been easy for me to only know white people my whole life, and to carry ideas of what everyone else was like, and how surely no one was as good as me and my bros.
I hate to think of where I could have gone then, with that community in place, selling the very sweetest smelling lies possible, that I was special, that I was powerful, that my feelings of weakness, awkwardness, ineptitude, rejection were all someone else’s fault. That other guys like me had my back as long as I had theirs.
I could have stood in Charlottesville. I could have said I wasn’t racist, that I was just “pro-white,” that I was a nationalist, that I was only fighting what feminism and affirmative action had unjustly taken from me. That I wasn’t racist, but everyone else was racist against me. I could have said it. I could have believed it.
I have been, at a few times in my life, the sort of person who becomes an active racist. The frightened, confused child, the teen struggling for meaning and feeling powerless. The difficult truth is that the path is easy. Embracing white supremacy means never having to say sorry, never having to feel bad. It means empowerment, entitlement.
I thank God for the influences in my life that pushed back on those messages.
Tom Rademacher is the author of 'It Won't Be Easy: An Exceedingly Honest (and Slightly Unprofessional) Love Letter to Teaching', which City Pages excerpted as a cover story earlier this year. In 2014, Rademacher was named Minnesota's Teacher of the Year. He is currently a middle school English teacher. A version of this story first appeared on his Tumblr.