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Differences that don’t matter

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Albert had a different color of skin than mine. At least, that's what our grade school class photos say. To tell the truth, I never thought much about it when we were kids. What I thought about was playing one-on-one tackle football with him.

Albert was always Bart Starr and the Green Bay Packers, and I was always Dandy Don Meredith and the Dallas Cowboys. I was taller and heavier; he was faster and trickier.

Advantage: Green Bay.

Albert and I roamed back and forth from his house to mine goofing around, sleeping over and eating whatever we could get our hands on. Mom especially liked it when Albert came to have dinner with us because he would eat absolutely anything. And love it.

"This is so good!" he would rave. "What do you call it?"

"Liver and onions," Mom replied, amused and surprised.

"Liver and onions!" he repeated, enthusiastically. "I love liver and onions!" He paused, eying the untouched portion on my plate. "Are you gonna eat that?" he asked.

"Nah," I said, scraping most of my share onto his plate. "You can have it."

Mom didn't seem to notice. I even got dessert — a rare occurrence for me on nights when liver and onions were served. I vowed then and there that Albert would be a frequent dinner guest — especially when we had liver and onions, corned beef and cabbage or squash.

Albert and I remained close through elementary school, but we sort of drifted apart during junior high. By the time we got to high school, we said "hi" in the halls — and that was about it. He became our high school's Native American version of Malcolm X; I was the kid in the letter sweater wearing a "Nixon's the One" button.

At the high school we attended, Albert wasn't just a member of a minority group; he WAS the minority group. And his teenaged radicalism didn't sit well with some. During one student council meeting, we were talking about Albert and wondering how we should respond to his request that we change our school mascot from Braves, which he said was offensive to him.

"Why doesn't he just go back to the reservation?" one exasperated council member asked. Others expressed similar sentiments, and for the first time I found myself thinking that maybe the color of Albert's skin DID make a difference.

Because I knew him better than anyone else on the council, I was designated to tell him that we had decided not to change the mascot (the clincher: We liked being able to obnoxiously sing "land of the free and the home of the BRAVES" at the end of the national anthem). I expected him to react angrily. Instead, there was hurt in his eyes when I delivered the verdict.

"So it doesn't really matter how I feel as a Native American?" he asked quietly.

"Sure, it matters," I said. "It's just that there are a lot more people who feel differently."

"And those people happen to be white."

"Come on, Albert. It isn't about that."

"Then what is it about?" he asked.

"Well, the other people on the council don't feel …"

"I didn't expect any of them to understand, or to care," he said. "But I really thought you would. There were never any of these dumb divisions between us when we were kids. We were just … kids. But now we're … I don't know … a white guy and an Indian."

I like to think that the world has changed and we've all learned a few things since then. But then I look around me and see the disturbing vestiges of those dumb divisions clinging stubbornly to attitudes, relationships and traditions, and I wonder. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a world in which our children and our children's children would be able to play together without having to worry about divisions — dumb or otherwise, real or perceived — based on race, religion or ethnicity. I think we already have such a world, as far as our children are concerned. They come by it naturally. They don't see skin color. To them, kids are just … kids.

It's only as we get older that we learn how to mistrust, hate and fear. That's when those dumb divisions start, as we strain at differences that don't matter.

And good friends become … you know … a white guy and an Indian.

To read more by Joseph B. Walker, please go to www.josephbwalker.com.

email: jwalker@desnews.com