Wes Fleming / by Michael Falco

Who is Wes Fleming?

Wes Fleming was born in West Germany in 1969. His father was an officer in the US military so the family moved often. After living in the United States for a brief period, Fleming moved back to Europe (this time to Belgium) when he was seven and lived there until he was 14 when his family moved to the D.C. suburbs of northern Virginia. He has been in Virginia since and considers himself a Virginian. Fleming obtained a Master's degree in history and taught for many years in colleges as an adjunct professor. He left teaching to begin working in IT. He, his wife and his daughter relocated to the Richmond area Mechanicsville) from northern Virginia because it was a place they could afford to buy a home. In his free time, Fleming enjoys riding motorcycles.  

Excerpt from interview with Wes Fleming by Whitney Dow, 2017

Fleming: [15:00:40] So this is where these kinds of things get awkward, because I don’t want you to think I’m an asshole, but I also want to be honest with you and be as open as I possibly can because that’s how these kinds of projects succeed. So I’m going to share with you something that makes me kind of an asshole. We lived in an apartment building for three years, a large apartment building, part of a complex. And because of our proximity to a four-year college in northern Virginia, there were a lot of foreign kids that lived in these buildings, I mean, just tons and tons of foreign kids, which from a diversity standpoint was fantastic. We got to, you know, talk to people from lots of different cultures. We got to experience all different kinds of languages and foods and attitudes and all those kinds of things.

But my building in particular, we had a lot of kids from India that lived there. And the ones that lived in the apartment above us for over a year like to about drive me crazy. They were noisy all the time. I called the police on them numerous occasions, reported them to the building management, all this kind of stuff. There were between seven and ten of them living in a three- bedroom apartment, which I can understand. You know, college is tough. Northern Virginia is incredibly expensive. If I didn’t have a family, if I wasn’t married with a kid at home, I might have lived in an apartment with four or five or six other people. But because my experience over the course of three years living in this apartment building, almost every interaction I had with these Indian kids that lived in the building was a negative one, even to the point where I found myself being harder on my Indian students in my own classes simply because they were Indian.

And I was talking to my wife about this one night. And I realized, holy shit, I’m a fucking racist. And I didn’t know how to deal with that, because I was making judgments on these Indian kids because they were Indians, not because they were the asshole kids that lived above me. And that experience started to affect how I felt about myself, because I don’t want to be a racist. And that’s one of the big reasons why we had to get out of that apartment. That’s when we started talking about buying a house and moving out of that densely populated part of the city, because I didn’t want to stay in a situation that kept reinforcing these new ideas that were developing in my personal life. And I damn sure didn’t want to penalize kids in my classes who were trying to learn and earn a degree because they looked like the people in my building that I had a problem with.

So that little microcosm of poor interactions between me and a group of Indian kids that lived in the apartment above me really had a big effect on how I wanted to proceed in my life. Now, it would be easy to say, you know, after that I decided to move to the whitest place I could find in the world. But I kind of miss that diversity. Even though being in that proximity with those particular kids caused me personal problems, I know from an intellectual standpoint that not all Indian kids are assholes. That’s just the way it goes. And you know, not all white kids are awesome. So that was a really educational experience for me in that I was able to kind of identify when I started thinking like a racist. And I was really bothered by that because up to that point I had never really experienced that kind of emotion on my part.

You know, growing up in a military family, you think about—your discrimination is based on rank, not race. Officers’ kids don’t play with enlisted people’s kids. That’s the discrimination in a military context. So to find myself—when the elevator opens, and there’s three Indian kids in there, and I let the door close and I wait for the next elevator, and I realize, Jesus, I’m a fucking racist—and I was humiliated. And I had to talk to my wife about it because I couldn’t keep that inside. But I made sure that my daughter was never around because I didn’t want her to hear me saying shitty things about the Indian kids in the upstairs apartment when they weren’t making noise, you know? If somebody’s making noise, you say shitty things about them to your family. That’s just the way it goes.

But I didn’t want her to hear me being racist. It broke my heart to think that she could even have a father like that. And that really made me look at myself in a pretty harsh light to try to determine why I was developing those feelings. Clearly, I think you could see I spent a lot of time poring over this in my own mind, in the time since then especially. And even now, several years later, in a completely different social context that I live in, I still catch myself sometimes when I hear, you know, Indian folks speak English with a particular accent that is pretty easily identifiable. And when I hear that accent, I can still feel a twinge from those kids in the elevator, in the apartment, in my old apartment building. And it really bothers me. And I wonder if that’ll ever go away. I really hope it does. Period. Next question. I don’t know.

Interview Transcript