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Two Old Friends on Growing Up Black and White in Lincoln, Nebraska

(Photo courtesy of Sara Gilliam)

Eric and I grew up three houses apart in a fairly affluent neighborhood in Lincoln, Nebraska. We went to different elementary schools, but beginning in 7th grade our paths crossed more regularly, especially in the summertime when we’d bike together to the pool for endless, unsupervised afternoon swims or play made-up war games (I know, what?) in his backyard.

Recently, mired in misery about the state of our country, I set out to hold a conversation with Eric. I wanted to know how he was grappling with America 2016, especially as a father. It turned into a more straightforward interview, frankly, because his answers were so good I just wanted to sit back and listen or, in this case, read over Facebook messenger.

Sara: Growing up in Lincoln, Nebraska —  how did your parents talk to you about being black?

Eric: In some ways, growing up in an overwhelmingly white town like Lincoln is unique, and in other ways, it’s just like everywhere else. When I was in maybe first or second grade, I remember first really feeling different [because of] other kids telling me that I was darker than everyone else. And I’m not even particularly dark-skinned. But I’m just dark enough for little six- and seven-year-old white kids of German and Scandinavian ancestry to notice. The biggest thing for me internally was probably the hair. I hated my curls. I used to brush my hair in the mornings before school, hard, over and over and over again to try to get it to lie down flat and straight like the other white kids in school. I went through much of elementary school very conflicted and ashamed of being different — without really talking to my parents about it — because I probably didn’t know how to verbalize and explain the feelings. Even though they worked with the local chapter of the Urban League and NAACP and had the bound book version of Eyes on the Prize prominently displayed on the coffee table, I never brought my concerns to them so they didn’t much know what I was struggling with.

Sara: We both transferred to the same high school, Lincoln High, but we existed in very different social worlds. I remember thinking back then that you must have been so happy to hit LHS, which was at the time the most diverse school in our city. I also remember thinking something else, which is hard for me to put into words. You’d grown up near me in an upper-middle class part of town. You had access to great schools, extracurricular activities, vacations and so on. Whereas especially at that time — about 20 years ago — Lincoln’s black population tended to live in poorer parts of town; race and class lines aligned in Lincoln, as in much of the U.S. So I remember finding it interesting that at LHS you mostly hung out with black students, when in some ways you felt more “like me” culturally than “like them.” Does that make sense at all? What was it like for you, finally being in a school with more than one or two other black students?

Eric: Both (my older sister) Kathryn and I grew up around wealthier white people in a safe neighborhood, and both of us chose, with no prompting from our parents, to leave Southeast (an affluent, fairly homogenous school) and go to Lincoln High. I never asked Kathryn, at the time, if it was for the same reason as me, but I know it was: to be around more people of color who understood us. And to get away from the white people who we lived near who didn’t understand.

But yes, even by self-selecting to be around more people of color, we were always between two worlds. We were the wealthy, privileged, “high-yellow” black kids. We were not fully accepted as authentic even from the other kids of color we befriended. What ultimately ended up making things easier for me was getting involved with advocacy — Rainbow Club, African American Caucus, the Mayor’s commission on Multicultural Education and so on. I think I would have ended up doing this regardless because of who my parents are and how they taught us to value justice and fight for equality, but it was validating in a sense. It was hard for black kids to question my blackness when I was fighting for our cause so vigorously.

Sara: So then you moved to the East Coast. Why New York City?

Eric: I applied to several colleges, all of them on or near the coast. You could say it was the next logical step from leaving Lincoln Southeast to attend Lincoln High. I wanted to leave the Midwest and spend more time around more people like me who knew what it was like being a minority. Also, both of my parents are from the Bronx. I could go to college in the dorms and still be just a train ride away from grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, etc.

Sara: What is your life like today in New York?

Eric: My wife and I live in the one of the most diverse and cosmopolitan places in the world. I can’t see myself going back to the Midwest permanently, but it’s a balance between environment and resources.

Simply put, black people tend to like to live around black people to avoid white racism. I remember the hurt and the confusion and the isolation that I felt growing up around people who didn’t really know me or see me or believe in the validity or the truth of my existence.

The problem is, years of segregation (both self-segregation of people of color and classic white flight — white people leaving an area when people of color move in) have left most of these urban concentrations of people of color like my hometown of the Bronx as monolithic swaths of blackness: underpaid, under-resourced economic black holes.

Black and brown people have almost no inherited wealth to sustain us or our tax base in our neighborhoods. So we live in areas with underfunded schools, which in turn tend to be failing schools. My family lives in a Mitchell-Lama medium-income housing complex. You may have heard of “the projects,” or public housing. This is public housing’s middle-class brother — apartments and co-ops that are banded by income. You have to make over a certain amount to qualify to buy in, but there’s also an income ceiling; you can’t be rich and live here either. Fifty thousand people live here.

Eric with his family. (Photo courtesy: Sara Gilliam)

Sara: Let’s talk about Carter. You were a stay-at-home dad with him until he started kindergarten last year. How did you approach his entrée into the New York City school system?

Eric: This is the dilemma of the black parent: send your child to a school in a white neighborhood where he’ll be called a nigger thoughtlessly by some child of a mild bigot? Where they’ll touch your daughter’s hair because she’s exotic? Where they may never be told, “You’re not one of us,” but they’ll never be prom king or queen either because they’re just not enough like everyone else?

Or send your child to a school where that racial divide between the “normal” and the “other” doesn’t exist because we’re all others, but the teachers and administrators are overwhelmed and overcrowded and dealing with kids with mental health and substance abuse issues? Where the violence of the poor inner city spills into the school hallways from time to time?

A bad black school or an unfriendly white school? New York is just as segregated as any other place. More segregated, in many ways. So, you bargain and compromise. You try to find a middle ground. We applied to private schools. They’re pricey, but we’d rather pay more for a good education and try to support Carter’s psyche and self-esteem ourselves than send him to a school with bad (or overburdened or helpless) educators who can’t or won’t stimulate him academically just so he’d be around peers who wouldn’t judge him racially.

We applied to gifted and talented public schools. Took a test. Luckily he passed, and he got into a great elementary school in Manhattan. But we know we still have to be vigilant. Even smart, talented educators can fall victim to implicit bias. And there will be questions that he’ll be faced with that they won’t be able to answer. We probably won’t either as parents. Nobody has answers for some of this. But we’ll try. And we’ll tell him no matter what school he goes to and what his teachers or classmates say, that we always believe that being black is an important and a good thing. It doesn’t make you better or worse, but it does make you you. It’s the story of your ancestors and your descendants. It’s how you got to where you are, and it will shape your life going forward.

Sara: I’ve been so mad lately. Furious, even, a word I rarely use to describe myself. And yet, when we’ve chatted on Facebook or I’ve read your posts, you’ve been so rational and calm. How do you manage that?

Eric: How do I stay calm and sane through all these sad moments and small moments and big moments of racial strife and indignity? I think that came mainly from perspective. We’ve talked a lot about Lincoln and about New York. Growing up, I always had both. I saw things from the perspective of a city full of people of color and a city largely without them. I saw how those two environments each had their own strengths and challenges, their own beauties that nourished and their own pitfalls that blinded and corrupted.

Society trains us to be racist. Those kids in my elementary school who shunned me for being two shades darker than “normal” didn’t really know any better than but to think that way because that’s what their cultural programming taught them. That’s movies. Books. TV. Schooling. I stopped being upset at white racism and started realizing that those are just white people who haven’t yet had the chance to unlearn their racism. That it’s false and constricting, both to them and to us. So I always try to be patient. To teach.

It’s a commitment. One that I recognize not every person can or should do (or be asked to do).

I’ve seen plenty of my friends just getting so sad and upset. And they post about it on Facebook or Twitter. They release that emotion through venting. Through going back to that safe space, that community that knows already and can comfort you in solidarity.

And sometimes they’ll cross digital paths with that racism again, with someone who wants to play respectability politics and say, “Oh, well if Alton Sterling had only done ______ he’d still be alive” or “It’s not Black Lives Matter, it’s All Lives Matter” or “Cops’ jobs are hard; you don’t realize how bad it is out there.”

I get it. I understand. I’m not mad at you if you do get mad. This is all tiring.

I just personally made the commitment to always try to give of myself and my time as an educator. Even to people who don’t “get it.” I’ll be that one black friend you can always ask any question of, no matter what. I’ll be the one dude to go back on your “All Lives Matter” post to try to calmly explain to you how it’s invalidating and racist to diminish our movement and our reality. I know I might never change your mind and wake you up and get you to see how you’ve internalized all this subtle, subconscious implicit bias and racist anti-black pathology without knowing it…

But maybe I will, and you will have that epiphany.


Sara and Eric in junior high. (Photo courtesy: Sara Gilliam)

Sara: So what is the role for white people who have that epiphany or those who have been passive activists for years and now want to get involved in the struggle for true equality?

Eric: The single biggest thing that can change this American world we exist in is both the simplest and the hardest: white America acknowledging that things are different because of the way the system itself is structured. It’s a jarring and damning thing to accept because it means you have to either start working to dismantle the system of privilege that surrounds you or you have to accept it.

The moment of awakening forces you to become an ally because the alternative is to accept the system and thus remain a part of it.

It’s not an easy thing for a white person to do, which is why I personally try not to get too upset with those who can’t/haven’t done it yet.  It forces you to notice how many of your fellow white people haven’t done it yet and are still acting in subtly racist ways and trafficking in white privilege.

And the past few months are the perfect example of that.

White privilege is first and foremost the privilege to not know, to think that things aren’t that bad, because if things aren’t that bad there’s no need for anyone to do anything to fix anything because nothing is broken. It’s a luxury of ignorance the black community doesn’t have. Alton Sterling and Philandro Castile aren’t the first two black people killed by the police unjustly and extra judicially. They’re just two of the most recent, out of thousands and thousands, stretching back centuries.

We know the other names. We recite them like tattoos on our own bodies.

Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. John Crawford III. Akai Gurley. Renisha McBride. Amadou Diallo. Sean Bell. Eula Love. Emmitt Till. There’s more and more and more.

That’s why we made Black Lives Matter. And Cease Fire (The Interruptors). And the Urban League. And the NAACP. And all the other organizations before them and after them.  We made those groups to protest and agitate and demand change because we see these actions of violence and degradation of the black body. They happen in front of us. They’re living history.

We don’t have the luxury to ignore reality. White people, by and large, do because it’s not THEIR reality.

So these past few weeks, my friends of color and a few of my white friends who, like you, have already taken the time to befriend someone of color and really listen and really learn and really believe — who have the humility to accept that their reality might not be everyone else’s reality — these people took to social media to vent their sadness at two more deaths. Because to them, to us, Black Lives Matter.

And they vented their frustration and rage and anger and urgency at the wicked system of institutionalized racism that allows this to keep happening, because if Black Lives truly do matter then we have to stop this from happening.

Many of my other white friends were silent. They said nothing. Or they played Pokemon Go.

Their silence was deafening.

Sara: So where do we go from here?

Eric: We keep talking about this. We talk with people we know and talk with people we don’t know. We try to be patient with each other and listen to each other.

Sara: I agree. The moment we stop talking, we start to lose everything.


  1. Donna Jones says

    A great interview. I grew up in North Omaha and lived in Lincoln while in college. Living in Lincoln was very different than living in Omaha. North Omaha was predominantly Black although my schools were racially mixed. It seemed to be a curiosity as well as fear among white students particularly those from small towns that had never interacted with a Black person before.

  2. Wonderful post. I lived in Lincoln long ago, and attended both LHS and Univ of Nebraska. I am lily white, but was aware of prejudice against ‘blacks’, even those with light skin, like Eric. I also lived for 10 years in NYC, appreciate the difference between the two towns superbly captured in the interview.

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