Mark Naison: All in the Family: Crossing Racial Boundaries in America's "White" Working Class





This weekend, I had an experience which reminded me that racial boundaries in the United States are being redrawn in some surprising places.

The adventure began when my neighbor in East Hampton, John_____ invited me to come to an Easter Sunday gathering at his home. To someone prone to make judgments on appearance, John might seem to be the last person you'd expect to host a multiracial gathering. A crew cut navy veteran in his late forties, John works in a lumber yard, drives a pickup truck, serves in the East Hampton volunteer fire department, and counts hunting and fishing as his major recreational activities. John grew up in East Hampton and almost all of his friends are blue collar workers and small businessmen whose labor creates the basis for the upscale resort communities that dominate the local economy and whose children have gone to the same schools as his 17 year old daughter.

When I got to his house, there were a group of about 25 people congregating in the living room and on the porch, drinking beers, downing wing and chips, and keeping the children and babies amused. Although it took me a while to figure out who was related to whom, I quickly realized that this family gathering, filled with heavy set people who had never had the time or money to set foot in a health club, was far more racially diverse than any party I had been at in Park Slope, the Village and The Upper West Side.

First were the mixed couples, which spanned an incredible range of ages and ethnicities. John's older brother, newly moved here from California, was married to an Asian woman --clearly as a result of a second marriage. His niece, the product of the first marriage, was there with her Mexican American husband . His brother in law was there with his Mexican American wife who he had met in East Hampton after his first marriage fell apart. And John's drop dead gorgeous blond haired daughter was there with her African American boyfriend,who was sitting comfortably on the couch playing with the younger children as though there was not a hint of tension surrounding his presence

Then came the children. Half of the children there were biracial. One woman in her late thirties, a neighbor of John's had two biracial teenage daughters Another woman there, who I think was John's sister in law, had a ten year old biracial son an an eight month old infant whose father appeared to be white. In no way did that I could perceive did anyones apearance or racial identity affect how they socialized, ate,spoke, or made physical contact with other people at the party. The children moved from toy to toy and lap to lap without the slighest thought that they would get anthing but unconditional love and everyone took turns holding the babies.

I have spent time in Puerto Rican families were easily sociability cut across the racial spectrum, but I had never experienced it before in a white Ameircan household.Clearly people in this white working class family- and community were choosing partners, and bringing up children, as though"whiteness" was no longer their dominant criteria for love, friendship and sociability. Something powerful and even beautiful was happening here that offers hope for the future of our nation.

But to fully appreciate this potential, we must challenge the notion that reform and social change come"from the top down" and that it is the wealthy and the educated that are the main sources of enlightenment, tolerance and racial brotherhood in our nation

The people at this party were working class to the core. They drove pickup trucks and old cars and wore clothes bought at K Mart or Wal Mart. Virtually all of the women were overweight and the men had faces and bodies that bore the mark of lives spent in manual labor.

Yet they were doing more to break racial barriers in their daily lives than any group of professors, social workers, or people working in media or business that I had ever met

Maybe it is time for us to stop funnelling money and power upward to the top 1% of the population and look to America's working people for the spirit of comradeship, cooperation and mutual aid that we need to survive as a nation in the challenging years to come.

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