A Circuitous Route to Understanding Diversity at Vanderbilt
At some point last evening, while watching the 2008 NBA Draft, my mind wandered to memories of my middle-school days and my friendship with Freddie Johnson. He was a Caucasian blonde-haired, lanky, but cool kid from the upper middle class side of Houston. I, on the other hand, was an African American kid of slight muscular build from the southside of the city – bused into school. In a happenstance conversation in the cafeteria, Freddie and I stumbled into a mutual appreciation for studio art and drawing. In fact, it was not until after our conversation that we realized we were in the same art class. I loved art. Still do. At the time, I wanted to be the 20th century Rembrandt. I had already read up on Cezanne and Dali at school. With interests such as Rembrandt, some kids in my neighborhood painted me as an idiosyncratic personality, so I stuck out a bit in crowds. And in a neighborhood of faces similar to mine – I was alone. I never met anyone with similar artistic interests until I started rolling with Freddie as a homeboy. Freddie stuck out like a sore thumb in his “cookie-cutter” suburban neighborhood with his similar interests. We quickly became best friends. We were a team. A crew. We rolled together in the hallways like Bo and Luke Duke from “Dukes of Hazzard”, except we dressed better. We talked about school, sports, girls and art. Everyone at school knew Freddie and James were buds.
Still, everyday at the end of school, he went to his neighborhood and I bused back to mine. I sometimes wondered if my neighborhood friends would accept Freddie if he had lived with us or if he came to visit. Were we “really” friends? March came around and it was my birthday. I invited Freddie and my buddies to my birthday party. I didn’t live in a house. I lived in an apartment on a side of town that most people would not choose to venture into anytime. Dig. All my African American, Asian and Latino friends came to my birthday party. But my party would be as cool without my homeboy Freddie. Right? Would Freddie show up? Did he show up?
Like a true homeboy, Freddie came through the door ready to give a “bro-hug.” The party was a blast. Freddie and I remained friends until we split for different high schools. We caught up with each other once in a while to see how the other was doing and then things faded like they normally do in this world. Cool. I never got to tell Freddie how much it meant to me that he came to my party. The action was more than a mere party. I never had a friend who was white. Freddie never had a black friend. A real friend. A friend beyond school meetings and school antics. A friend who could easily sit on your front porch with you at home and be a part of the neighborhood. That was Freddie. And you know what? We never talked about race. It would have been okay if we did talk about race, but it just never came up. We were homies.
Perhaps, our innocent outlook shielded us from the harsh realities of the world. Or. Maybe we were just more intelligent and more pious than most people and realized that racism is a sin. It is inhuman. It goes against everything that is humane and human about being human. It is not a “personal preference.” The “that is the way I was raised” excuse – is not an acceptable excuse for racism or prejudice. The “It’s a black thing; you wouldn’t understand” phrase is not an acceptable response to a thoughtful question about race. The “you can be friends, but you cannot marry one” is not an acceptable spiritual, intellectual and cultural belief. What is acceptable is that a kid from one side of the tracks can be best friends with a kid from another side of the tracks. That’s it. Period. Vanderbilt is a very fortunate place in this world – because students, faculty and staff all adhere to the “Freddie and James” belief: racism is not human; diversity is humane. You’ll find many universities and colleges trumpeting their diversity statistics, but those are just numbers. No one ever knows what 29% students of color actually looks like. I don’t and I’m African American. Instead, ask the admissions officer, how do people of different races/ethnicities interact with each other on campus and does the university implement anything to assist students in fostering interaction across racial lines? The commitment to diversity demonstrated through ACTION presents a clearer picture than percentages. If the admissions officer appears stumped, ask them if they’ve ever heard about two homies named Freddie and James?