People who know me well know that I am intolerant about racism. Nothing makes me lose it more easily than seeing racism playing out before me.
Yet at the same time I recognize that all of us – and I don’t just mean white people, by the way – have some racism in us. I do, you do, we all do. Thus, I am always curious about the causes and effects of what appears to be a constant of the human condition.
It is against that backdrop that I noticed something on my most recent trip to Florida.
I was attending a spring training baseball game in Port Charlotte, Florida, with my dad. It was a beautiful sunny day, temperature in the mid-twenties, and the Blue Jays (prospects) were quite thoroughly thumping the Rays (prospects). It is a very civilized way to watch baseball: ten or fifteen rows from the field, close enough to be part of the action, but still enjoying a beautiful summer afternoon (well, it would be summer if it were in Canada).
There were perhaps three or four thousand people in the stadium, smiling, happy, having a good time. Most were probably retirees, primarily snowbirds, but a fair number also had young kids, presumably their grandchildren. Spring training is, at least for the fans, about fun.
Around about the fourth inning, I started noticing that I couldn’t see any black people in the crowd. I looked more closely, expecting that I’d just missed them. After a few minutes, I realized that the only African-Americans in my field of vision were either on the field, playing, or working in the stands as vendors or security. I couldn’t see any amongst the fans.
I’m from Canada, eh? I can’t recall the last time I’ve seen any crowd of people in Canada with no visible minorities, so I was taken aback. During the rest of the game, both when I was in the stands and when I was down in the concessions area, I looked for people visibly different from the bulk of the crowd. First, I was just looking for African-Americans. Then I started looking for Chinese, or Japanese, or Filipinos, or South Asians. Then I looked for people who were apparently Muslim, or Latino. I was expecting to find some, even just a few.
Nada. Not one, not anywhere.
It’s not as if there are no visible minorities in Florida. The state has 17% African-Americans, 20% Latino, and more than 2% Asian. In the case of Asians, most live in the central Gulf area, precisely where I was watching the game. Just on demographics alone, the crowd at the ballpark should have had several hundred African-Americans, another several hundred Latinos, and probably a couple of hundred Asians.
Instead, it looked like zero, zero and zero.
Do visible minorities not like baseball? You wouldn’t think that by looking on the field, where the players were pretty diverse. I can also picture crowds at Blue Jays games in Toronto, where the diversity of the crowd largely matches the diversity of the city. If you had no visible minorities at a Blue Jays game in Toronto, someone would likely call the police.
Now, I don’t actually care all that much that a bunch of white Florida retirees go to a ball game attended only by white people. It’s weird, perhaps, but it doesn’t make me upset.
But there were probably 500 or more kids in the crowd, mostly young boys and girls with their grandparents. What did they see? They are learning about the world, every minute of every day. That’s what kids do. It’s their main job. For those kids, this wonderful, fun afternoon of baseball with their family is a white people only activity. The players may be diverse, but baseball fans, to them, are white people.
(I find this concept strange. The two most rabid baseball fans I know are, respectively, Filipino and Trinidadian Canadians.)
If this were just about a baseball game, it would be interesting, but trivial. The problem is that this is not just about a baseball game. As I started to pay attention to this in Florida, I noticed other places that were relentlessly white. We went to Red Lobster. Every single patron was white. At the local Walgreens, no visible minorities. And so on.
I live in a city, Toronto, where there are visible minorities everywhere you look. When you walk down the street, you see a broadly mixed group. Further, if you go outside of the big city to smaller cities and towns, the same is still true. You might find that the percentage that is white is higher in small towns, but there are still lots of visible minorities.
Not so down here. For the part of the Gulf Coast that I saw the most, very few visible minorities were, well, visible, and those you did see in most cases were working.
This is not, I hasten to add, because visible minorities are not allowed to attend baseball games, or go to Walgreens or Red Lobster. That problem, which did exist at one time, is now largely gone. What we have left, though, at least in Florida, is a cultural and social separation, a type of ghettoization that is not always about income level. It is also about race, and the willingness of people to live, work and play side by side with people from other backgrounds. It is white people feeling more “comfortable” surrounded by white people, and black people feeling more “comfortable” surrounded by black people, and so on.
So come back to the kids at the ball game. What is the world they see? What is normal to them? The answer may be that their “normal world” is, in fact, a white world. When they form pictures in their minds of their lives going forward, there are only white people in those pictures. Blacks, Asians, Latinos and others are simply not part of their future, except perhaps as employees.
I realize that this may be just a snapshot of one area of Florida, with an unusual racial mix. That is certainly possible. I have been mining my memory for the many other places I’ve traveled in the US, trying to assess whether I’ve seen the same things there as well. I probably have, but I haven’t really noticed it so starkly as I did in Florida. (Of course, I haven’t noticed it before in Florida, either, but I’m sure it was just as true five or ten years ago as it is today.)
I have noticed it, though, in other places. In Thailand and the Philippines, for example, I have seen exactly the same ethnic homogeneity, many times, and realized then that those kids are being brought up to see the world a certain way: a world in which everyone is like them. Fifty years ago, I saw that in many parts of Canada, too, although I would be hard-pressed to find that very many places in Canada today. In England, I have vivid memories of all-white towns and events twenty-five or thirty years ago, but not in recent trips. No longer true, at least in the places I’ve visited.
People my age, and even for the most part people half my age, are arguably a lost cause when it comes to racism. Yes, you can soften the edges, and people will adapt, but their fundamental view of the world will always have a certain level of ethnocentrism.
That is not true of the kids. They will learn the world we present to them. They will internalize what is normal to them based on what they see as normal growing up. This is Child Psychology 101. We know this to be true.
In fact, we know this to be true in part because the older adult generations today were brought up seeing a non-diverse world, and they have internalized that non-diverse view of what’s “normal”. My generation grew up going to ball games where everyone in the stands was white. That’s the world we learned. There is at least some level of “the normal world is a white world” indelibly etched into our psyche.
If we want the kids in Florida (or visiting there), or the kids in Thailand, or the kids in Egypt, or anywhere else, to understand, respect, and benefit from the real diversity of this world, we have to give them an opportunity to see that diversity as a normal part of life. If we don’t, we will just grow another generation of adults that have real difficulty getting across the racial divide.
– Jay Shepherd, March 12, 2016