I grew up in Arizona. I love my home state, but I will be the first to admit that it does not have a great track record in terms of race relations. Over the last couple of years, Arizona’s race related issues usually centered around immigration, though there have also been movements to ban Ethnic Studies in public schools. Seemingly contradictory, Arizona manages to be both the birthplace of Cesar Chavez and SB 1070. The state is no stranger to controversy; this is the same state that did not recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day until 1992 after Governor Evan Mecham rescinded the national holiday on his first day in office in 1987 (Governor Mecham also made news on his last day in office when he became the first U.S. governor impeached and removed from office in 59 years).
Though I was shielded from racial politics as a child, it was around the time of the Rodney King verdict that race began to enter my consciousness. I feared rioters coming to my neighborhood. While 1992 marked a turning point for me, it wasn’t until 1994 – the year my elementary school got a new student – that race relations became personal and not something distant like the LA riots. Our new student was Black, the first “minority” in our class with the exception of a white South African. He was not like the people we saw on TV; he was just like us – coming from a similar socioeconomic background and lifestyle. For a class of 11 and 12 year-old kids, this new guy offered us an uneventful introduction to race relations in our upper-middle class suburban neighborhood. There were no US Marshals in front of our building or protests in the street. He was just another student in the class and life went on for us.
Reflecting on my childhood I often ponder why it seemed like a non-issue in my classroom. The most important question is one I may never know: how did the new student actually feel being the only Black person in the classroom? In retrospect, there was probably much more going on than was acknowledged, but as a sixth grader I was unaware of the issues. I can only hope that my understanding of the situation was objective and I hope that we treated him just like everyone else, but I suspect now that probably wasn’t the case.
In the end, race is not about a riot, nor is it a holiday or a month. It is the everyday interactions we have with the people around us and how we each experience those interactions. What may have seemed like a non-issue in my eyes may have been vastly different to someone else’s eyes.
by Michael Kosak