Community Cousins tries to build bridges

People related to you by jury-rigged means

Diane Bock at Leucadia home: “Over the months, the two families will get acquainted. A thread of friendship will be woven through their lives. As James Boswell wrote, ’We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed.'"
  • Diane Bock at Leucadia home: “Over the months, the two families will get acquainted. A thread of friendship will be woven through their lives. As James Boswell wrote, ’We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed.'"
  • Image by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.

I’m white. I admit that because it’s not something white people have had to think about. (Okay, it’s a stereotype, but one I can get away with, being white.) We haven’t had to think about it because we’ve been insulated by numbers. We’re used to being the highest statistic, the biggest ingredient in the melange that makes up California. To 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 don’t say, “He was a scruffy white guy." We think whitely. We forget that not everyone shares our perspective. And many of us in Southern California, perennially tan but still somehow white, have white friends. We don't hang around people who look dissimilar. We’re afraid of difference. People like to eat Mexican food, I always say, but they don’t want to see any Mexicans. Maybe it reminds us that we re living on land that used to belong to Mexico. Hey, I’m not saying give it back. But we could share.

It’s 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 forward in human growth. The trick is to see enough human permutation as a child—enough different shades of skin and epicanthi of eye — that discriminating between groups becomes irrelevant. Discrimination is based on interaction with the individual.

Race is a construct that exists because we can see. If we could visualize our genetic code, we would realize other criteria with which to measure “race.” To a geneticist, race doesn’t exist. “Human variation is very, very real," said an anthropologist in a 1995 Nos-sw-rdt “But race, as a way of organizing [what we know about that variation], is incredibly simplified and bastardized.”

Comparing human DNA shows that humans are more closely related to other humans than ape siblings are to each other. “The most different humans on the face of the Earth are less different than two lowland gorillas from the same forest in

West Africa,” said a molecular anthropologist in a 1994 Science magazine. This lack of diversity means that humans at one time went through a peritxl of narrow population, so our gene pool is very small.

Now that we know we’re more related than different, what do we do? 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 what a woman in North County asked herself. Her answer was Community Cousins,

I’m a member of Community Cousins, let me admit my bias. I joined because I like parties. Diane Bock (Caucasian-American), the president and originator of Community Cousins, told me over the phone two years ago about a kickoff party with a petting zoo and musicians and a juggler and

I can’t even remember what all. It was going to be in her back yard. This woman was going to invite complete strangers to her back yard! I was stunned.

I had read about Community Cousins in my Las Madres newsletter, a publication for new mothers. It said Community Cousins matched families of one race with families of another race for friendship. (My husband called it family dating.) We were asked to fill out forms, and we’d be matched with another family, one that was as similar to us as possible except in one aspect: race.

Diane envisioned cousins exchanging clothes, sharing recipes, going to events together, in Community Cousins' literature 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, lames 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.’ ” People who join Community Cousins do so because they’re interested in meeting others. I have never walked up to a group of people at one of the parties and felt that I shouldn't join the conversation, which is amazing, because in other aspects of my life, a convention of conversation reigns — 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, I often get ignored. I went to a fancy magazine opening a few months ago, and the posturing and jockeying for position were swift and intense. The magazine’s editor was a friend of a friend. I’d met her at a party with my friend Charissa. I went up and said, “I’m (Clarissa’s friend,” and she sakl, ’Tve 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, form friendships, and have a good time.

But don’t get the idea it’s easy. It’s difficult to open up and make conversation. Sometimes you feel like you’re prying. What do you do for a living? and Where do you live?are both personal questions to strangers. Because race is often tied to economics, and a variety of economic levels of all races are represented in Community Cousins, members hesitate to start a conversation in such a vein. Where we live and what we do for a living are small parts of who we are. They say nothing about our hopes, our dreams, our ancestral histories, the things we know and do. So where do you start? “Brick by brick,” Bock describes barriers coming down, and with a little help, new foundations form.

For the kickoff party, Bock made name tags that included a piece of information based on what we’d filled out on our forms. 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 him. 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, but we were already talking on a conspiratorial level, sharing a moment, and yet we really knew nothing about each other.

Over the course of the party, in a kind of human scavenger hunt, we were instructed to find out information about everyone else in order to win the game. “Find the three people who have been on a game-show” was one instruction. I had a head start, having been on several game shows myself, so I set out to find the other two. I have strong opinions about game shows, not all positive; I saw potential for discussion. I found out that Curt had been on Jeopardy and that he did not have a wonderful game-show experience. He was disappointed about coming in second. (In my game show experience, I’ve discovered you can never win enough.) He’d won a trip to Puerto Rico along with several other prizes: coupons for 50 tins of tuna fish, silver polish, Kagu, and chocolate soda (he even had a can of soda left). But one thing stuck in my mind. He said that if he’d come in second on the show taping before his, he would have won a tanning booth. “Now, what would I have done with a tanning booth?" he joked. Before Community Cousins, I never would have thought about race in terms of winning a prize on a game show.

Curt met Diane Bock at Orpheus Park in Encinitas. “She was standing with a group of women,” he remembers. “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 about to leave, she came over and started talking to me about Community Cousins. My initial reaction was a favorable one. A lot of people start things, and they don’t seem committed. I see how committed Diane is to Community Cousins, and the people that I know in it are committed.”

Curt responded to Community Cousins in part because he’s been stopped by the police around his home; he thinks more positive communication is necessary 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 pulled me over. 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 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 imagining myself in different circumstances. 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 didn’t look like me, and even when I lived in Manhattan, the quintessential melting pot, my interaction with other ethnicities was saying heUo to the Jamaican doorman, going out to eat Chinese food—activities that can intensify stereo-types. I didn’t want this for my children, and that’s where Community Cousins serves an invaluable purpose.

I’m sure some adults still feel at odds with the group, members who come but are nervous about the formality of the concept, even when the environment is frivolous. But the kids play together without regmi; they don’t need ice-breakers. My daughter is famous for saying, “This is my friend.” When I ask her what her friend’s name is, she says to her friend, “What’s your name?” My daughter doesn’t seem to think about the color of a person’s skin the way—I hate to admit — I sometimes do, a habit that’s hard to break. My daughter referred to a boy as “the boy with the Tiransformers.” (Transformers are plastic toys that morph from a human 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 made an impression.

Our cousins are the Estradas (Hispanic). Leticia (Letty), Narciso, and Victoria. (These are not their real names. They asked me to change them because l>etty was once passed over for a promotion after speaking about minority issues.) Letty and Nar-ciso recently graduated from college. They’re about ten years younger than my husband and I. They both worked while in college. Letty is a nurse; Narciso, a youth-development worker. Their professions both involve abused and troubled kids. Though they just bought a condo, in the past they sometimes lived in one of their parents’ homes. Their daughter Victoria is almost three. She is very blond, as Narciso was at that age. It irritates Letty when people ask her where Victoria got all that blond hair. Letty and Narciso have a Latina look: black hair, darker-complected skin, which contrasts nicely with Victoria’s fairness. I jetty believes people think she stole her child. Sometimes she’s tempted to tell them that Victoria is adopted just to confuse them—two Hispanic people adopting a white child.

I know how stupid people can be. My daughter has a strawberry mark on her forehead, now hidden by her bangs. It’s faint, but at one time it was quite prominent. Once in the grocery store, a woman walked up and hovered over the car seat that was attached to my shopping cart.

“Oh, such a beautiful child." She saw the hemangioma. “What’s that?”

I explained.

“Oh, it’s such a shame. Such a beautiful girl.”

I gave her a look. “It’ll go away. Fifty percent are gone by age five." (I was making this up, but it’s something like that.) “Anyway, if it doesn’t go away, we’ll get laser surgery.”

“How much is that?”

“Did she offer to pay for it?” my husband asked after 1 told him the story.

I can believe people questioning Letty about Victoria’s looks. We’re an inquisitive people. Anomalies stick out. The key is making such things less anomalous. Many families in Community Cousins are of mixed composition. Sandy (African-American) and Diane

(Caucasian-American) Barnard are such a family. “It’s so common now to have mixed marriages,” Diane says. “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. 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 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."

It’s nice to go to a party where no one will make you fed uncomfortable. Believe me, I can clear out a playgroup kitchen just by mentioning that I once did a performance-art piece on Chinese foot-binding. like the sound of a vacuum, people whooshed out of my sphere. The first and only time I attended one playgroup, I was asked to keep my daughter out of a group picture. The host, whose husband was a pediatrician, explained that the photo was going on his office wall, and “he doesn’t know your daughter,” she said in a tone I imagine the Daughters of the American Revolution must have used in 1941 when they told Marian Anderson she couldn’t sing at Constitution Hall.

My cousins are very accepting; they’re my cousins. Family is family. Bock’s term, “Community Cousins," is clever. How many times have you used the word “cousins” to describe people whd are related to you by jerry-rigged means — cousins of cousins, in-laws of cousins, some standard deviation away from kissing cousins, but still family. It’s a catch-all word that imparts belonging. My cousins bring me mangoes and make me cat 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 cuts the sweetness while the chili provides a kick and gives the mango a more complex flavor. My cousins also introduce me to words like capirotada, a mixture of nuts, bread, and raisins, a pudding that you get on Christmas and special days. Narciso was likening this term to something I cooked, but I latched onto the concept for another purpose. I’ve always viewed myself as a mixture of nuts and creams, a little heavy on the nuts. Community Cousins is a capirotada. We are a mixture of personality and tradition and looks. We arc united by our desire to meet people who are different from us.

My cousins are also a source for me. 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 they’ll be dinner. But they bring along their friend Chorizo, 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 Spanish-speaking friend. Though I’ve taken Spanish lessons on two occasions, I came away with token phrases, often grammatically incorrect. I want my daughter and son to learn Spanish while they’re young; learning is so much easier when the brain is flexible. Knowing another language makes you understand your own better and teaches you how words evolved. I believe Spanish will be a critical language to know in the future. According to a recent issue of Time magazine, “...midway through the 21st Century whites will no longer make up a majority of the U5. population. Blacks will have been overtaken as the largest minority group by Hispanics.”

The Union-Tribune reports that Hispanics are the least represented group in Community Cousins. Most people dislike speaking for their race (except for me, I have to speak for whites), but I still asked Narciso what he thought about the low representation of Hispanics.

“I guess that’s all part of your upbringing and ideology. As a teenager, I joined a gang and then I grew out of that. I went to college and became educated. Part of my makeup is to help people.... I’m studying sociology now, and I think it depend* on one’s economic level. For example, we’re stable as a family, a two- income family. I "here’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,’’ Narciso laughs, “should be a part of Community Cousins.”

Letty thinks some Mexicans feel distance from their roots. “This one manager they hired to run the clinic I was working at, he had a different perspective on the people we were serving — all colors, some of them legal, maybe illegal, you don’t ask. He was Mexican, but he had this bumper sticker on his car that said, 'Rush is Right.’ And he would call himself by the Americanized form of his name. We call [these kind of Mexicans) ‘tokens.’ It’s a derogatory term. Like ‘sell-out.’ ” Letty pauses. “That’s a prejudgment. Sometimes I don’t blame them. It’s hard.”

Letty and Narciso heard about Community Cousins through mutual friends of the Bocks’. Letty says they joined because “I thought there was a problem with people not knowing people 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 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 I’ve asked several of the cousins: has she had any kind of revelation since becoming part of this organization?

“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 site was interested. I wanted to know if she would write a letter of support to the mayor. And she did.

“I told Diane that I could help her get some people [for Community Cousins]. You won’t get people to join unless you know what attracts that culture. The first thing I would do is put the Community Cousins pamphlet in Spanish."

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. His home page is called Huero’s Cyberbarrio. Aztec graphics run down the margins. The term la raza is prominent. Narciso explains it’s a Mexican term meaning “the race.”

“The implication is that it is a mixture of Spanish blood and the indigenous peoples’ 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 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 southern state in Mexico] 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. Kmiliano Zapata was a revolutionary figure in the early 1900s who led the Mexican Revolution. Rancho 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 movement, available nationwide. Bock has put together a comprehensive manual to send to those interested in starting a

Community Cousins organization in their neighborhood. She’s had 11 requests for the manual so far. According to the (Community Cousins’ Web site (groupweb.com/cc/cousinsbtm), there arc Community Cousins chapters being formed in Dallas, Texas, and Olivia, Minnesota.

In the manual, Bock covers how to obtain nonprofit status and the importance of creating an advisory board. (The current board in San Diego includes a judge, a child psychologist, a social worker, a CPA, an artist, and an entrepreneur/publisher.) Bock also discusses how to sign people up, how to match them (matches are based on geographic location, family composition, and interests), even how to throw parties.

Community Cousins was parted by Diane and her husband Larry Bock (Caucasian-Americans), a venture capitalist. Community Cousins is a venture of love, started by $10,000 in seed money from the Bocks, plus monies from other charitable sources. This covers hiring musicians for parties, printing newsletters, postage, and everything else needed to run an organization. Bock trusts that eventually a corporation or granting institution will step in and provide future funds.

The number of families involved is now above 100. As of May 1996, the racial breakdown was 47 percent white, 25 percent black, 11 percent latino, 15.5 percent Asian, 1.5 percent Middle Eastern, and one Native American family. Seventy-five percent of the cousins have kids, and 89 percent live in North County.

“'The goal of Community Cousins,” Bock writes in her manual, “is to facilitate interracial friendships and aUow 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 Bock if she could name a specific time when her attitude changed.

“A number of years ago I was listening to the radio about a policy that the police department had,” Bock recalled, “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 1 have a friend who has had that happen to him three times, I see it differently, because it’s happened to someone I care about. And it ;sa 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.”

What was Bock’s perspective on why so few Hispanics have joined Community Cousins?

“I can’t give a lot of sound projections as to why Hispanics are underrepresented 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 — that’s exactly what I don’t want to do. It’s 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.”

At the Encinitas Street Faire last December, I took my daughter to one of those inflatable bouncing tents, the kind that proliferate whenever children are around and parents have money to spend. 'The attendants weren’t segregating older children from the younger. One mother complained. 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 he wasn’t being rough. True, he was older. But I know my first reaction was to his color. It made me think he was causing trouble. This isn’t something I want to admit, but I have to. 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 sense. Only by confronting these reactions can we begin to defeat racism.

“Without personal acquaintance, people often generalize and stereotype other groups of people,” Bock continues. “The best way to overcome these barriers, which arc 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, has no political agenda, no religious affiliation, and no one is allowed to pass out petitions. “I’ve always believed that most groups, if they want you to join, they want something from you,” admits Bruce Gaffney (African-American). “I’ve always tended to avoid groups." He met Diane Bock at the 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 on weekends that was culturally and racially diverse.” Bruce says that his family sees their cousins as often as three times a week and as infrequently as every other month, depending on their schedules. “We go to dinner, we go dancing, to fundraisers, 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 department.) “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 50 states.”

“The purpose of Community Cousins,” states Bock’s manual, “is to allow people to become genuinely acquainted with each other.* Bock elaborates. “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. 'ITie rewards for myself and my family have been tremendous.”

Bock welcomes publicity and the chance to expose her idea to others. “It can serve to . encourage the general population by letting them know that there are good things developing.” Publicity gets more participants and it generates donations, from professional services to grocery-store coupons to food at potlucks. One morning, a news crew’s arrival sparked a flurry of phone calls to my house from Bock. “Channel 10 wants to film us this morning. Can I tell them to come to your house?” KGTV’s 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 such as “Do you get together and talk about race?"

“No,” I said, “I come for the parties.” They cut my response; perhaps it didn’t fulfill their agenda — that races can only come together and discuss race. A need does exist for that, but Bock stresses that Community Cousins is about friendship. I read somewhere that African-Americans often complain that white people don’t want to discuss race. It might be true; it makes us uncomfortable. I hope the day comes when, having discussed it or not, we get past it.

We have had one focus group tackling race issues — though race is not the core of Community Cousins, more a side interest, like Spanish or French lessons, which are also offered within the group. At the race-issue forum, Adrian Barbour (African-American) asked us, “What does it mean to be an American?’’ We answered anonymously on index cards. “To be born in America,” I wrote as my answer, thinking it a trick question. When the answers were read aloud, I realized my tunnel vision. I’d forgotten about the people who study and take tests for citizenship. They're Americans too. The most comprehensive answer maintained an American was any resident of North or South America. They are Americans in the strictest sense of the word. I was reminded of how Europeans refer to the U.S. as “The States,” never as “America.” Asa European once pointed out to me, there are several Americas. We are presumptuous to claim them all for ourselves.

I claim to be white, but I’m not completely white. I’m l/64th Indian and who-knows-what else. In a society that forces me to check off a box specifying race, I’m reminded that we not only marginalize parts of ourselves but marginalize those who don’t match the status quo. Community Cousins is a way to welcome the family back into the fold.

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