Two Old Friends on Growing Up Black and White in Lincoln, Nebraska
(Photo courtesy of Sara Gilliam)
A few weeks before the 2016 election, we shared a conversation about race between Sara, a white woman, and Eric, a Black man, who had grown up as neighbors in Lincoln, Nebraska. In light of the many race-related horrors that have transpired since the election, including the present moment, we reached out to Sara and Eric to find out what’s on their minds. Their original conversation follows this update.
What’s changed for me since we worked on this interview is that I no longer question my role in the movement. Years ago, I remember asking Eric, “Should I be posting ‘Black Lives Matter’ on social media?” I was afraid of co-opting the fight. I wanted to be respectful of the movement and acknowledge my privilege. I’ve learned a lot in the last few years. I recognize that to deal with the cranked-up racism and xenophobia perpetuated by the Trump presidency (but certainly by no means limited to rhetoric from the White House), we all have a significant role to play in the fight. Silence is complicity. White allies have to call out the bullshit in our own communities, and we have to show up for protests and elections and political hearings and concerts and rallies and art openings. And yes, we also have to acknowledge the power of social media and show up there, too. I joked recently with Eric that I’m feeling radicalized, but in truth that is not hyperbole. I feel these injustices—these lives lost—acutely too, in my heart as a mother and a friend and activist. I refuse to let hatred and racism bring down my country.
(For what it’s worth, I see these shifts happening among my middle-aged white female peers, too, and on a surprisingly short timeline. The progress from non-racist to anti-racist, from “I’m a good person, isn’t that enough?” to, “Being a good person is not enough.” People are challenging their friends and relatives in ways they wouldn’t have five years ago. Yes, there are Karens ten-deep in many parts of the U.S., but there are also a lot of people who are waking up and want to be and do better. I am encouraged by this
What I think about as I look back on our words is the depth of the struggle. The permanence of the struggle. How things that seem to change end up remaining as they are. There is a theory we have discussed that racism is the cornerstone of America. That America cannot exist without it, because it is written into our very fabric. That the words life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness were never meant to extend far beyond the self-interest of the white men who wrote them, and that the freedoms we fought for and won in the 250 years since then were pulled through obstinance and clawed back as quickly as they were won. We hope that we can be as good as we claim to be, but we don’t really know.
There are two great and always present themes or patterns in America, and we as a people always organize ourselves into two large groups around them: the movement to expand liberty and equity and access and agency and basic humanity to all, and the counter movement to oppose that expansion and restrict those privileges to the few. To expand the franchise or contract it. The labels and names of the groups in this push and pull have changed over the years. The existence of the groups has not. Whenever we feel we’ve made a breakthrough and made the country better, we always have to deal with the backlash and the retrenchment. It often fills me with fear and sadness for my son, Carter. That we didn’t do enough to give him the world that will value him. The same feeling I’m sure my parents felt for me. And their parents felt for them.
At the same time, I know things are changing. As Dr. King said, “The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I am inspired seeing our young people take to the streets again to demand their rights. I am inspired that so many of them are white, as their allyship is crucial to realize our dream. I know Carter will join them soon.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
Sara and Eric, What a wonderful interview. We(family) lived on S. 30th. when you the younger kids in the neighborhood. However, we knew your parents. Your choices in schools I think did well for you, as well as your wonderful parents. Thank you for sharing during these very trying times on so many levels Eric I wish I could spend time right now with your folks. We all need to talk /talk/talk.
I grew up in Lincoln, went to LHS too. My parents never stated or gave any us kids any negative or derogatory about people of color. But you knew the area they lived in. I remember a neighbor my grandparents had on So 10 st, the nicest people and looked after my grandparents. Yes. He was a different color. But we never noticed. I bowled with ladies for years and became best friends, never noticed color. When I became a county official, I was the first and only administrator for the county that belonged to Affirmative Action Program. I hired two ladies into my office and they were fabulous and accepted well with my staff. I never had a problem with discrimination. One of the ladies became involved with computer programing and furthered her field by working with state computers. My other employee passed away. We were good friends. I have neighbors of color, origins. You name it. We treat each other with kindness and respect. As I have gotten older and dealing with covid 19 and staying home, we still wave or talk in distance. Is there prejudice in Lincoln, it is here, I am sorry to say. I pray that my community will be responsive to the needs and respect others. I pray that they can come together without riots and destruction of my town, and work together and never stop talking.
Thank you! Well said!
I am proud of you for the growth you have made in your lifetime.
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