I was raised in a supposedly all-white Central Valley community, Oildale, where I heard little about racial or cultural differences until I began competing in high school sports.
That was a pragmatic introduction: You were faster or you weren’t. You scored more points or you didn’t. You won or you lost.
I had no idea how insular that was until an incident in Mainz, Germany, in 1959. I was having a beer with two U.S. Army track teammates, one black, the other white, at a local gasthaus, when a group of white GIs surrounded our table and one said, “We’re not prejudiced, but…” and I knew we were in trouble.
My DNA is profoundly mixed with roots in Ireland, Great Britain and Iberia, but also Native America, Scandinavia, Asia Minor, Siberia, Finland, and “other Western and Central European” regions. I’m also 1.2 percent Neanderthal. What that makes my various grandchildren I can only guess – American stew?
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We lost the fight, three of us against six of them. When MPs – all white – rescued us, one advised me not to start trouble against so many opponents. I thought he was kidding, so I replied, “Just because we fought back doesn’t mean we were looking for trouble.”
He ignored me. “You and your colored friend better get back to your barracks,” he said.
I ruminated about that attack for a long time, until the civil rights movement forced me to choose between idealized versions of the Nazis or the KKK or the Confederacy as embraced by so-called “white pride” groups, or with my own real-life experiences – good and bad – in our supposedly “mongrelized” or “hybridized” culture.
The choice was easy. I love America’s cultural richness. I am happy to be a hybrid, with all the complexity, ambiguity and potential richness that label entails, rather than to be a generic “white” as the term is now used. I look especially at the variety within my own extended family and am grateful.
Like many other “whites” I have recently had confirmed – thanks to a National Geographic “spit test” – that my DNA is profoundly mixed with roots in Ireland, Great Britain and Iberia, but also Native America, Scandinavia, Asia Minor, Siberia, Finland, and “other Western and Central European” regions. I’m also 1.2 percent Neanderthal.
What that makes my various grandchildren I can only guess – American stew?
I have stood with Latino- and Arab- and African- and Asian-American friends and relatives in times of stress – earthquakes, weather events, funerals – as well as in joyful moments that have convinced me that we are all kin in the deepest sense. It may be time for others to draw their own conclusion about the American experiment.
For me, it works – despite its lingering imperfections. And only we can perfect it.
Gerald Haslam’s Sacramento-based novel “Grace Period” won a 2016 Eric Hoffer Award. He’s a former Sac State Hornet. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.