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IN THE NEWS
A Personal Experience within Community Cousins
By Jennifer Ball
I’M WHITE. I ADMIT THAT ONLY because it's not something white people have had to think about a lot. (Okay, it’s a stereotype, but one that I feel I can get away with, being white.) We haven’t had to think about it a lot because we’ve been insulated by numbers. We’re used to being the highest statistic, the biggest ingredient in the human melange that makes up California. Basically, there are just more of us to go around. To us white people, we are the default. When we describe other people, if they don’t look like us, we say, “the black woman,” “the Korean boy.” We rarely say, “He was a scruffy white guy.” It’s because we think whitely. We forget that not everyone shares our perspective. And many of us here in Southern California, perennially tan but still somehow white, have mostly white friends. We don’t hang around enough people who look dissimilar to us. We are afraid of difference. I always say, “People like to eat Mexican food, but they don’t want to see any Mexicans.” Maybe it reminds them that we’re living on what used to be Mexico. Hey, I’m not saying give it back to them. But we could share...
It’s only natural to discriminate. A child sees something with four legs. Is it a dog? Is it a chair? The ability to discriminate marks a step in a growing human. The trick is in seeing enough human permutations-enough different shades of skin and epicanthi of eye-while one is still a child that discriminating between groups of humans becomes irrelevant. One only discriminates between individuals based on one’s interaction with those individuals.
Race is a construct that exists only because we can see. If, instead, we could visualize our genetic code, we would realize there are so many other criteria with which to measure “race” to the point that race is meaningless. To a geneticist, it doesn’t exist. “Human variation is very, very real,” says an anthropologist in a 1995 Newsweek. “But race, as a way of organizing [what we know about that variation], is incredibly simplified and bastardized.”
If you compare the DNA of any two humans, we are much more closely related than ape siblings. “The most different humans on the face of the Earth are less different than two lowland gorillas from the same forest in West Africa,” says a molecular anthropologist in a 1994 Science magazine. This lack of diversity means that humans went through a very narrow population at some point in time, so our gene pool is very small. We are extremely related to one another.
But now that we know we are so close, what do we do? How do we reinstate ourselves with the family? How do we heal after the Rodney King trial, the riots, Proposition 187, even O.J. Simpson? What can one person do to combat racism? That’s exactly what a woman in North County asked herself. And her answer was “Community Cousins.”
I’m a member of Community Cousins, let me admit my bias. I originally joined because I like parties. Diane Bock (Caucasian American), the president and originator of Community Cousins told me over the phone that they were going to have a kick-off party with a petting zoo and musicians and a juggler and I can’t even remember what-all. And it was going to be in her backyard. She was going to invite complete strangers to her backyard! I was stunned.
I had read about Community Cousins in the Las Madres newsletter (a publication for new mothers). It said that it was an organization that would match families of differing races for friendship. At the time the idea seemed completely contrived. My husband called it family dating because we were to fill out a form and then we would be matched with another family who was as similar as possible to us in all aspects except one: race. Diane envisioned the cousins as exchanging clothes, sharing recipes, going to events together. In the literature that she distributes, she writes, “Over the months, the two families will get acquainted. A thread of friendship will be woven through their lives. Community Cousins has no specific requirements, but there are an infinite variety of simple means by which the two families may extend a friendly hand to each other. James Boswell wrote, ‘We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over.’”
Sounds like a tall order, but interestingly enough, the people who have joined Community Cousins have done so because they are interested in meeting others. I have never walked up to a group of people at one of the parties and felt excluded or somehow that I shouldn’t join the conversation. This is rather amazing I think, because in almost every other aspect of my life there is a kind of convention of conversation, rules you cannot break, people you should not address until they address you. Of course, these are rules I like to break, but the punishment is that I often get ignored. For instance, I went to a fancy magazine opening a few months ago and the posturing and jockeying for position was swift and intense. The magazine’s editor was a friend of a friend. I’d met her before with my friend Charissa at a party. I went up and said, “I’m Charissa’s friend,” and she said, “I’ve never heard of that person.” End of conversation. With Community Cousins, this would never happen. There is no group that will ostracize you. We are all there to meet each other, and, having formed friends, to have a good time. I enjoy the group because of the absence of power plays.
But I don’t want to give you the idea that it’s always easy either. Initially it’s hard for people to open up and make conversation. Sometimes you feel like you’re prying. What do you do for a living? Where do you live? are both personal questions to strangers. Because race is often so tied to economics, and a variety of economic levels (of all races) are represented, one is hesitant to start the conversation off in such a typical vein. And really where we live and what we do for a living are such small parts of ourselves. They say nothing about our hopes, our dreams, our ancestral histories, the myriad of interesting things we know and do. So where do you start? Bock has spent time thinking about how to build a relationship. “Brick by brick” she describes barriers coming down, and with a little help, new foundations can be formed.
For the kick-off party, Bock had made special name tags for everyone. They included a piece of information based upon what we had filled out on the initial survey. Mine said, “Ask me about painted furniture.” Curt Spiller (African American) had a name tag that read, “Ask me what my favorite book is.” Being a writer, I asked. He said, “The Bible, but I didn’t know I was going to have to expound on it.” I laughed and said, “I know. I don’t really have a lot to say about painted furniture either. When people ask me I feel like an Amway salesman.” A little awkward, and yet, here we were already talking on a kind of conspiratorial level, having a shared moment, and we really knew nothing about each other.
During the course of the party, we were to find out information about everyone else in order to win a kind of human scavenger hunt. “Find the three people who have been on a game show” was one of the instructions. I had a head start on that one, having been on several game shows myself, so I set out to find the two other people. I have very strong opinions about game shows (and certainly not all positive) and I saw a potential for discussion. I discovered that Curt had been on Jeopardy. He had not had a wonderful game show experience. He was disappointed because he’d come in second. (In my vast game show experience I have found that you can never win enough.) He had won a trip to Puerto Rico, along with several other prizes: coupons for fifty tins of tuna fish, silver polish, Ragu and chocolate soda, and he even had one can of soda left. But what stuck in my mind is that he said if he’d come in second on the show that taped before his, he would have won a tanning booth. “Now what would I have done with a tanning booth?” he’d joked. This was one of my first eye-openers. I would never have thought about race in terms of winning a prize on a game show.
Curt met Diane Bock at Orpheus Park in Encinitas. He remembers, “She was standing with a group of women. She nodded at me like she knew me and I spent the rest of my time trying to figure out where I knew her from. I was there with [my son] Drew. Right before we were both about to leave, she came over and started talking to me about Community Cousins. My initial reaction was a very favorable one. There’s a lot of people who start things and they don’t seem committed. It’s just a nice thing to do at the time. I see how committed Diane is to Community Cousins and the people that I know in it are generally committed.
Curt responded to Community Cousins partly because he’s been stopped by the police around his home and he thinks there needs to be more positive communication between races. “I’ve experienced a couple of incidents here in Encinitas. One morning I’m going to the gym. It’s pre-dawn. I see a police car. I knew he was going to follow me. And he did. He ran my license plate number and my name came up. So then he walked up and apologized to me and told me he thought I was Hispanic.”
When I was a graduate student at San Diego State, during one of our teaching workshops I learned that we are all racist. Everyone. (This is probably why schools get faulted for political correctness.) But I did undergraduate work in theater and I’m well-versed in trying imagery on for size. Okay, I was racist. I went with a Taoist philosophy for a moment. Sat with the idea. Was one with it. It occurred to me, why wouldn’t I be racist? I’ve grown up in a predominantly white society, had few friends or even acquaintances who look unlike me, and even when I lived in Manhattan, the quintessential melting pot-or is the salad analogy a better one?-my interaction with other ethnicities was along the lines of saying hello to the Jamaican doorman, going out to eat Chinese food, activities which only serve to intensify stereotypes. I don’t want this for my children. And that is where I think Community Cousins serves an invaluable purpose.
Some adults still feel at odds with the group, who come but are nervous about the formality of the concept even if the environment is frivolous. But the kids play together without regard. They don’t need ice breakers. My daughter is famous for saying, “This is my friend.” And when I ask her what her friend’s name is, she says to her friend, “What’s your name?” Children are very open to fun. She doesn’t appear to think about the color of a person’s skin the way-I hate to admit-I still sometimes do, a habit that is hard to break. She referred to a boy as “the boy with the transformers.” (Transformers being those plastic toys that morph from a person to a space vehicle.) I almost said, “You mean the black boy” and stopped myself. That was not the salient characteristic in her mind. Different skin color was a given. The transformer was the part that had made an impression.
Our cousins are the Estradas (Hispanic). Leticia (Letty), Narciso, and Victoria. (This is not their real names. They requested that I change their names because Letty was once passed over for a promotion after speaking up about minority issues.) Letty and Narciso both recently graduated from college. They’re about ten years younger than my husband and I. They both worked while they went to college. Letty is a nurse, Narciso a youth development worker. Both their professions involve abused and troubled kids. Occasionally they live in the home of one of their parents, though they just recently bought a condo. Their daughter Victoria is almost three. She is very blonde, like her father was at a young age. It irritates Letty when people ask her in grocery stores where Victoria got all that blonde hair. Letty and Narciso have a Latinate look: black hair, darker-complected skin which contrasts nicely to Victoria’s fairness. Letty thinks people think she stole her child. Sometimes she’s tempted to tell them that Victoria’s adopted just because that would confuse them, two Hispanic people adopting a white child.
I know how
stupid people can be sometimes. My daughter has a hemangioma, a strawberry
mark that is now hidden by her bangs. It’s very faint, but at one
time quite prominent. Unbidden, a woman looked over the carseat that
was attached to my shopping cart.
“Oh, it’s such a shame. Such a beautiful girl.”
I give her
a look. “It’ll go away. 50% are gone by age 5.” I’m making
this up, but I know it’s something like that. “Anyway, if it doesn’t
go away, we’ll get laser surgery.”
“So is she going to pay for it?” my husband asked. I can easily believe people questioning Letty about Victoria’s looks. We are an inquisitive people. Anomalies stick out. The trick is making such things less anomalous. There are many families in Community Cousins that are of a mixed composition. Sandy (African American) and Diane (Caucasian American) Barnard are such a family. Diane Barnard thinks that “it’s so common now to have mixed marriages, we’ve never had anyone say something rude to us. I don’t see people give us funny looks, or maybe I don’t pay attention. Now, wherever we go, we see mixed couples. Only before we were married did someone make a rude comment. We used to be members of another group, Image, a group for multiracial families. We thought it would be fun for our kids to meet other kids, to meet people who are open and normal like we are.”
Going to a party where there will be complete acceptance is pretty nice, I think, knowing that no one will make you feel uncomfortable. And I feel the same way. Believe me, I can clear out a playgroup kitchen by merely mentioning that I did a performance art piece on Chinese foot-binding. Like the sound of a vacuum, people are whooshed out of my sphere. The first (and only) time I attended a particular playgroup, I was asked to keep my daughter’s picture from being taken with the other kids because it was a group picture that was going to go on the host’s pediatrician husband’s wall and she said, “He doesn’t know your daughter,” in a tone I imagine the DAR must have used to Marian Anderson when they told her she couldn’t sing at Constitution Hall. It doesn’t always require a difference of skin color to be shunned, though I imagine that it might happen more often.
My cousins are very accepting of me. They’re my cousins. Family is family. Bock’s term “Community Cousins” is a clever one. Think how many times you’ve used the word “cousins” to describe people who are related to you but by jerry-rigged means, cousins of cousins, in-laws of cousins, some standard deviation away from kissing cousins but still family. It’s a kind of catch-all word that imparts belonging. My cousins bring me mangoes and make me eat them with lemon and salt and chili. (Okay, they didn’t make me eat them that way, but I figure, if that’s the way to eat mangoes, I should try it.) The lemon actually cuts the sweetness while the chili provides a little kick and gives the mango a more complex flavor. My cousins also introduce me to words like capirotada, a mixture of nuts, bread, raisins, whatever you find, a pudding that you get on Christmas and special days. Narciso was likening this term to something I had cooked, but I latched on to the conceptual idea. I’ve always viewed myself as a mixture of nuts and creams, a little heavy on the nuts. (A rimshot here I suppose.) Community Cousins is a capirotada. We are a mixture of personality and tradition and looks. What is special is that we are united by a desire to meet people who are different from us.
My cousins are a source for me. I know I can ask for a translation and get the real scoop. We share books like Chato’s Kitchen by Gary Soto and Susan Guevara, about a low-riding cat who invites these mice for dinner, thinking of course that they’ll be dinner, and they bring their friend Chorizo along, a wiener dog who wears the red beret of the Guardian Angels. It’s a wonderful children’s book with many levels of meaning, especially if viewed through the eyes of a friend who speaks Spanish. Though I’ve taken Spanish lessons on two separate occasions, I have only come away with token phrases, usually grammatically incorrect. I want my daughter and son to learn Spanish, especially while they are young, because learning is so much easier when the brain is flexible. I think knowing another language makes you understand your own better. How words evolved. And according to a recent issue of Time magazine, “. . . midway through the 21st century whites will no longer make up a majority of the U.S. population. Blacks will have been overtaken as the largest minority group by Hispanics.” I believe that Spanish will be a critical language to know. I’m sure this is offensive to some, but it doesn’t change the facts. There may come a time when whites aren’t the highest statistic anymore. It’s something to think about.
According to an article written in the Union-Tribune about Community Cousins, the group least represented among the cousins is Hispanics. Knowing how one hates to be the spokesperson for one’s race (except for me, I love to speak for whites), I still asked Narciso why he thought this was true.
“I’m studying sociology now and I think it depends on one’s economic level. For example, we’re really stable as a family, a two-income family. A majority of the families are-there’s so many different kinds of Hispanics, some are well-off and some aren’t-but if we’re looking at the ones who aren’t well-off, their immediate need is to provide for the family. And the ones that are well off should be a part of Community Cousins.” Narciso laughs. “I guess that’s all part of your upbringing and ideology. I started off as a teenager, I joined a gang and then I grew out of that. I’ve reached a stage where I went to college and became educated. Part of my make-up is to help people.”
Letty thinks that some Mexicans feel distance from their roots. “For example there was this one manager that they hired to run the clinic I was working at. He had a totally different perspective on the people that we were serving, there’s all colors, some of them legal, maybe illegal, you don’t ask. He was Mexican but he had this bumper sticker on the back of his car that said, “Rush is right.” And he would call himself by the Americanized form of his name. We call them ‘tokens.’ It’s a derogatory term. Like ‘sell-out.’” Letty pauses. “That’s a pre-judgment. Sometimes I don’t blame them. It’s hard.”
Letty and Narciso heard about Community Cousins through mutual friends of the Bocks, and Letty explains that they joined because “I thought there was a problem with people not knowing each other of different cultures. I could see in my own life that you tend to make your own stereotypes because you don’t have friends who are different. It doesn’t always even have to be race, sometimes we just get set in our ways. For example, you go to church, everyone dresses the same-like you say [she means me], ‘That’s scary.’
I ask Letty the question that I’ve asked several of the cousins, whether or not they’ve had any kind of small revelation after being a part of this organization. It’s not something I want to push, because it suggests that you were previously less than open-minded, but I think that it is an important step in the process of perceiving people as individuals, not as groups.
“I had a preconceived notion, not of [Diane Bock’s] color, but of her economic status. I was talking to her about a resource center, Chavez Center, in Oceanside and that those kids don’t have any books. They had computers, but they weren’t updated and they didn’t have software. She was really concerned. I was surprised. We talked about children not having a voice in the community, especially [those at] the lower economic level. I had started this group to make a youth commission for the city of Escondido. I worked at it for four years. I told her about that and she was interested. I wanted to know if she would write a letter of support to the mayor. And she did. But it wasn’t an agenda for Escondido.
“I told Diane that I could probably help her get some people [for Community Cousins]. You won’t get people to join unless you know someone, what things attract that culture. The first thing I would do is put the Community Cousins pamphlet in Spanish. I’m not sure if she’s done that.”
I don’t see my Community Cousins as often as I used to because they moved to Temecula. But we call and write. And email. Narciso has a web site. [http://www.csusm.edu/public/igles001/psycho.html] His home page is called Huero’s Cyberbarrio. It has Aztec graphics running down the side. The term “la raza” is prominent. Narciso explains to me that it is a Mexican term meaning “the race.”
“The implication is that it is a mixture of Spanish blood and the indigenous people’s blood and even the African slaves’ blood that came with the Spanish. ‘La raza’ is a unique blend of races. Some people don’t acknowledge it like that, especially about the mixture of African blood, but if you’re speaking of the Mexican culture, that implies the mixing of all three races.” “So what’s ‘Huero’ mean?
“This is more of the Mexican culture. You give each other nicknames. If you’re Mexican, you’re more brown skinned, but ‘Huero’ means white one. I had this as a nickname when I grew up. Even Victoria calls me ‘Huero’ sometimes, but she doesn’t really know what it means.
“I’ve always wanted to make a political statement kind of web site, throw in all this stuff. I don’t know if you’re aware of the uprising of the indigenous people at Chiapas [a state of Mexico]. I think it was in 1994. It was a revolt by the native people because the government didn’t provide what they had promised: education, land, work. The land they were living on was the land they wanted to work. .Emilio Zapata was a revolutionary figure back in the early 1900s who lead the Mexican revolution. Pancho Villa gets more of the credit, but Zapata was doing more of the work. He was out there with the people and they related to him because he looked more indigenous. He was the one who said something like, ‘those who work the land should own the land.’”
“But your web site says ‘Zapatismo.’ Is ‘ismo’ an affectionate term?” “No, ‘ismo’ is like ‘ism,’ a movement.”
It is Diane Bock’s hope that someday Community Cousins will be a kind of movement, available nationwide. Bock has put together a comprehensive manual to send to individuals interested in starting a Community Cousins organization in their neighborhood. She’s had eleven requests, and, according to the Community Cousins’ web site [groupweb.com/cc/cousins.htm], there are Community Cousins’ chapters being started in Dallas, Texas and Olivia, Minnesota. In the manual, Bock covers such things as how to obtain non-profit status and the importance of creating an advisory board. The current board for Community Cousins includes a judge, a child psychologist, a social worker, a CPA, an artist, and an entrepreneur/publisher.
Bock also covers how to sign people up, how to match them (matches are based upon three criteria: geographic location, family composition, and interests), how even to throw parties. Community Cousins was started by Diane and her husband Larry Bock (Caucasian American), a venture capitalist who has started several biotech companies, one of which is in San Diego. This, however, is a venture of love, started by $10,000 of seed money from the Bocks, plus some other monies from charitable sources. The money has covered hiring musicians for parties, printing newsletters, postage, and all the things that are needed for running an organization. Bock trusts that eventually a corporation or granting institution will step in and provide future funds.
The numbers of families involved is now above one hundred. As of May 1996, there were 47% white, 25% black, 11% Latino, 15.5% Asian and 1.5% Middle Eastern. There is also one Native American family. Seventy-five percent of the cousins have kids and 89% live in North County.
Bock writes in her package: “The goal of Community Cousins is to facilitate inter-racial friendships and allow every individual the opportunity to make that ages-old discovery that we are all more alike than we are different. And integral to that, I believe, is becoming genuinely acquainted-and coming to care about-at least one person different from yourself.” I asked Diane Bock if she could name a specific time when her attitude changed after having involved herself with Community Cousins. I think of it as a little moment when you realize that you have in fact forgotten that we are closer than simian siblings, and allowed skin color to mean something. When, despite all your good intentions, you suddenly realize that you have been guilty of judgment by something other than personal experience.
Bock recalled, “A number of years ago I was listening to the radio about a policy that the police department had, a written policy, [concerning] black men driving through Torrance. If they acted at all suspiciously the police could pull them over. Statistically it seemed like a logical policy for the police to follow. I felt I could understand it from both points of view. I just felt that black men couldn’t take it personally. But now that I have a friend who has had that happen to him three times I see it differently because it’s happened to someone that I care about. And it is a personal thing, the lights come on, you’re pulled over. No one deserves that. I find that if you come to care about somebody in that other group, the ‘we’ and the ‘they’ get all mixed up and suddenly the whole picture is different.” Having asked my cousins why there are few Hispanics in Community Cousins, I also wanted to get Bock’s perspective, knowing that she has thought about this issue a lot, and tried to derive solutions in order to be all-inclusive.
“I can’t give a lot of sound projections about why Hispanics are under-represented in Community Cousins because we’re still statistically small. For some reason we have a lot of people involved with computers, a lot of people in medical and biotech fields, and all these game show people. I don’t pick the people. They come to us. I put out brochures in churches, doctor’s offices, whatever. I can’t exactly say why we’ve had more from certain veins. Friends tell friends, so it’s understandable that there would be little bursts. The language thing does make it harder. It’s hard to make generalizations-and that’s exactly what I don’t want to do. It’s kind of an ironic twist, because I’m always asked this question, but I want people to see people as individuals. It can only happen one person at a time.”
Indeed, I am reminded of my own prejudices and how easily they can come unbidden. Recently, at the Encinitas Street Faire, I took my daughter to one of the inflatable bouncing tents that proliferate whenever there are children around and parents with money to spend. Apparently the attendants weren’t segregating the older children from the younger. One mother complained to an attendant. I glanced inside and my first reaction was a disapproving, “Oh, yeah . . .” when I saw a nine-year-old boy bouncing alone in the tent. He was black. When I watched him, I realized that he wasn’t being particularly rough. True, he was older. But I know that my immediate reaction was to his color. Somehow that stuck out and made me think that he was causing trouble. This isn’t something that I want to admit, but I feel that I must because I think we all have these moments, no matter what color we are, when our gut-reaction causes us to do or say something that in retrospect doesn’t make a lot of sense. It is only by confronting these reactions that we can defeat racism.
Bock says, “Without personal acquaintance, people often generalize and stereotype other groups of people. The best way to overcome these barriers, which are often unconscious, is to promote personal contact on an individual level among people of different groups. The odd thing is when you try to be hospitable and friendly, people don’t want that because they feel indebted that they might have to do something back. I think that’s a real loss to our society. What I’m hoping people will do is to give of themselves-and be willing to allow others to give of themselves as well.” Community Cousins costs nothing. Bock feels strongly about this. There is no political agenda, nor is anyone allowed to pass petitions or the like. It is not religiously affiliated. “I’ve always believed that most groups, if they want you to join, they want something from you. I’ve always tended to avoid groups,” admits Bruce Gaffney (African American). He met Diane Bock at Discovery Zone when they were both there with their respective children. “She said she had a group of people that got together and did things as families over the weekends that was culturally and racially diverse.” Bruce says that their family sees their cousins as often as two to three times a week, to as infrequently as every other month, depending on their schedules. “We go to dinner, we go dancing, to fund-raisers, each other’s house. The kids are pretty close. [The ages range from] 5 to 12. Sometimes we take their kids to the movies, or they will take ours. Took my cousin Dale on a prison tour, right in the belly of the beast.” Bruce is an investigator for the United States Probation and Parole. “Over the years I’ve been real suspicious, of course in my business I meet a lot of con men. So my revelation might be that I’ve become more trusting of other people. If I had one desire, it would be that Community Cousins would become nationwide with chapters in all fifty states.”
“The purpose of Community Cousins is to allow people to become genuinely acquainted with each other,” reads the manual. Bock elucidates, “When I first thought of the idea for Community Cousins, I typed up the concept and mailed it out to a number of existing organizations, hoping that some group would take it on as a project. I did not plan to implement it myself. I had two small children, a slew of responsibilities, very little spare time, and no experience with this sort of endeavor. I was invited to attend the Racial Harmony Task Force meeting of a group called ReBuild L.A., but the experience was somewhat deflating as I realized that every person there-including me-was spouting some idea or other and it was dreadfully obvious that no one was planning to do anything. My husband gently threw down a challenge to me. He made me understand that no one else was going to step forward and carry the torch. If I wanted it to happen, I would have to do it myself. Interestingly, of all the families Community Cousins has enriched, mine has gained the most. We have made friends that I cannot imagine being without. The rewards for myself and my family have been tremendous.”
Because Bock thinks the idea is one that will appeal to others, she welcomes publicity. “It can serve to encourage the general population by letting them know that there are good things developing.” Publicity also gets more participants, and sometimes people donate professional services, grocery stores donate coupons, and more. One morning, the possibility of a news crew sparked a flurry of phone calls from Bock, trying to get ahold of me. “Channel 10 wants to film us this morning. Can I tell them to come to your house?” Lisa Lake (African American) showed up with a cameraman (Caucasian American) and filmed a group of us painting flowerpots and eating snacks. She asked meaningful questions like, “So do you get together and talk about race?”
“No, I come for the parties,” I said. They cut my section, possibly because it didn’t fulfill their agenda: Races can only come together and discuss race. And certainly there is a need for that. But what Bock stresses most of all is that Community Cousins is for friendship. I remember reading somewhere that a common complaint of African Americans is that white people never want to discuss race, and it’s possible that’s true. It makes us feel uncomfortable. But there should come a day when, having discussed it, or even not having discussed it, we get past it.
We have had
one focus group where we tackled race issues, though this is not the core
of Community Cousins, but a side interest, similar to those wishing to
take Spanish or French lessons, which are also offered within the group.
Adrian Barbour (African American) asked us, “What does it mean to be an
American?” which we anonymously answered on index cards and then passed
in. I thought this incredibly easy. “To be born in America” I wrote, thinking
it a trick question. As answers were read, however, I realized my tunnel
vision. I’d totally forgotten about the citizens who study up and take
tests for citizenship. They too are Americans, absolutely. But the most
comprehensive answer was the one that maintained that an American was any
resident of North or South America. They are Americans in the strictest
sense of the word, and I was reminded of how Europeans always refer to
the U.S. as “The States,” never as “America” because, as one European pointed
out to me when I was there, that there are several Americas and we are
a little presumptuous to try and claim them all for ourselves. I suppose
claiming things is in our nature. I too claim to be white, but I admit,
I’m not completely white. I’m 1/64th part Indian, and who knows what else,
but in a society which forces one to constantly check off a little box
specifying race, I’m reminded that not only are we forced to marginalize
parts of ourselves, but to marginalize others who don’t match the status
quo. Community Cousins is a nice way to welcome the family back into the
fold. For those interested in Community Cousins, please call Diane Bock
at (760) 944-CUZZ, fax her at (760) 632-1128 or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.