I probably graduated high school with the lowest GPA possible—a combination of always having migraines and not-giving-a-shit in general. Oddly enough, by the time I made it to community college, I was (mostly) fine; my first semester ended with a 3.75 GPA! It was during community college that I began meeting and interacting with a more diverse group of people, including my future best friend, Bokani (this is also her pornstar name, but since she’s from Zimbabwe and they don’t have streets, she’s reduced to a mononym—JAY-KAY). I was able to maintain a fairly high GPA, thanks to “padding” my schedule with Music, Recording & Live Sound classes—topics I was greatly interested in, but didn’t plan to make a career of. Because of this, I was accepted into the University of Baltimore (UB) with a transfer scholarship of $2,500/year—not bad, especially since it was the only school I’d applied to.
I distinctly remember my parents warning me about “the dangers of the city” right before my first day at UB. Granted: my father has been a police officer in the city for over 30 years, many of which were spent patrolling some of the worst parts of “Charm City.” But UB is uptown, in an area called Mount Vernon that is—dare I call it—”gentrified” (although I don’t think it ever went to hell in the first place). Mount Vernon is known for being home to UB & Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), as well as a vibrant homosexual population. If anything, I was more likely to get hit on by a man than be robbed or killed. I understood my parents’ (overblown) concerns; but—perhaps subconsciously—I’m sure that they weren’t scared of me getting mugged by a fellow Caucasian.
It wasn’t until this point that I began actually befriending black people, both of the African and African American variety. I casually noticed that most of the white students simply came to school for class and left, while the students of color were the ones mainly sticking around for extracurricular activities. During my second semester, through a mutual love of motorcycles, I’d befriended a black girl in my economics class who was about to graduate. After the semester, she’d invited me to a graduation party at her Aunt & Uncle’s house in Edgewood, MD— a small suburban town in mostly conservative and slightly-rural Harford County.
Edgewood had received a bad reputation in the recent years, mainly because many tenants of the then-recently torn down Section-8 high-rises in Baltimore were relocated there. Additionally, there were reports of gang activity in the area, most notably MS-13. None of this scared me; rather, it was the normal social anxiety any introverted person experiences when entering an unfamiliar space, plus the sneaking suspicion that I would probably be in the racial minority at this party.
The aforementioned sneaking suspicion proved to be true; however, within two minutes of arriving at the party, I was welcomed and greeted more warmly than I ever had been in my entire life. Between the amazing food (of which I was gladly forced to take a plate home) and the fun games that we played, the party turned out to be one of the best I had ever attended. To this day, I consider her family part of my own.
This was an important turning point for me: becoming friends with people who were outside of my race, culture, and socioeconomic status had truly opened my eyes to the wonders of having diverse friendships. I can honestly say 100% that my life is infinitely richer and more interesting because of the company I keep.
“Play that funky music, white boy…”
Around this time, my musical tastes began expanding as well. Growing up, I mainly listened to classic rock; mostly Jimmy Buffett, U2, Pink Floyd, The Who, Jethro Tull, etc., i.e. “white people shit.” In fact, the only black musician I’d ever really been exposed to was Jimi Hendrix, who I had heard many times on 104.3 WOCT, the local classic rock station (that I absolutely loved before they completely fucked up the format). But when I received Are You Experienced? in my Christmas stocking when I was 11 or 12, was embarrassingly shocked to find out he was black. I was actively discouraged from listening to any “urban” music (expect a diatribe against that label in the not-too-distant future); I distinctly remember seeing Immature perform on All That (90’s Nick at Nite FTW) and enjoying their performance. As soon as I told my parents, I was promptly scolded and shamed for liking “that” kind of music. Rather than rebel like a normal fucking teenager, throughout my adolescent years, I completely closed my mind to any contemporary “black” music. And boy, did I miss out.
Hearing The ArchAndroid by Janelle Monáe for the first time in 2010 completely changed my world view. After getting fired from Lowe’s for crashing a forklift (for the billionth time), I worked for a few months at the now defunct CDepot on Loch Raven Blvd, a CD store that had an impressive supply of used CDs across many genres, but mainly catering to the “urban” (I fucking hate that word) genres of R&B, Hip-Hop & Jazz. The employees were allowed to take turns playing music from the opened CDs, and I forced myself to only select music that I’d never heard before. Thus, I exposed myself to such great albums like The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Comfort Woman by Meshell Ndegeocello, Life, Love & Faith by Allen Toussaint, and What’s the Time, Mr. Wolf? by The Noisettes. All are now considered favorites of mine, and have led to me discovering other great artists such as Robert Glasper, Kendrick Lamar, Lizz Wright, and Melanie Fiona, to name a few.
Despite this, I still wasn’t 100% conscious as to what racism was all about.
Continue Reading Part 3: Xander Becomes “Woke” >>