Men who don’t already know it may find that in prison they must belong to a strictly if crudely defined group in order to survive, a prison gang. Where I live, teenage boys tell of the difficulty of saying “No” to gang membership urged upon them day after day in the high school and the neighborhood. In J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter novels, “pure blood” wizards speak contemptuously, not only of “mud-bloods” (wizards or witches with non-magical parents), but also of “blood traitors,” meaning pure bloods or half-bloods who associate with mud-bloods. I have known the feeling of being regarded as a blood traitor (race traitor, actually) and have seen the hate stares. But let me share, rather, a less intense incident from my youth.
One day when I was in college in western Pennsylvania in the 1960’s, I was walking through town with an arm around each of two girls who were friends of mine (neither was my girlfriend), when an elderly man stopped on the sidewalk, stared at me in disbelief, and said aloud, “But you’re a white boy.” He seemed dazed. One of the girls was black. My response was adolescent and less than kind, which I later regretted, but clearly for the man my being white was far more significant to my identity than any sense of solidarity I might share with my college friends. It seemed he could scarcely imagine such a thing — that a white boy should be walking with one arm around a black girl.