We the People

A rich white man just got what he wanted and people are surprised. Why? Perhaps you think he doesn’t deserve it. Perhaps you think he hasn’t earned it. So what? Taking is the foundation of America. This country was founded … Continue reading

Considering Charleston

Words usually come easily to me. I can be longwinded when I speak, and my writing is rarely brief. I blame the latter on my small handwriting. For the majority of my high school years, papers were handwritten, and I had to fill the page requirements like everyone else. Since my words took up less space, I got used to using more of them.

Words usually come easily to me, but then I watch the news. I see that the country I live in has some festering wounds. Slavery has left a legacy of disparity that is proving difficult to dismantle. I feel as though I’ve been tricked, or asleep, or in denial. When I was younger, I was certain that racism was endangered. I assumed it would die with the old-timers—becoming extinct in a matter of decades. But then the news of an event like the slaughter in Charleston hits me with a sucker punch. It’s 2015, and the assailant is young.

As a writer, I feel I should write something, but my reaction is one I find difficult to articulate. And whatever I could say in response to Charleston seems like a paltry offering when compared to what better minds than mine have written already—or even just stacked against the severe magnitude of the violence that took place.

I understand the history; it’s the present I’m struggling to grasp. Current events are making it clear: racism is a currency that is still in circulation here. When the conversation turns to Charleston, I’m ill equipped to make a response. What can I say other than I’m sickened and shocked? What will my words add? I have no solutions—no pithy rallying cries or hashtags.

Quite honestly, words leave me when I’m confronted with such atrocities. Considering Charleston, words fail me. All I’m left with is a confusing mélange of feelings: pity, sadness, despair, frustration, fear, anger. All my life I’ve been told (and believed) I can do and be anything I dream—that this is a land of equal opportunity. But hearing the news, I begin to wonder if we’ve irreparably ruined this world (or perhaps just this country).

In response to Charleston, the only words I can muster form questions: How can our country have come so far and still have so far to go? Have our methods of measurement been wrong? There’s a lot that can be said and even more that can be thought, but if we hope to make this world a better place, what can actually be done?

Racism isn’t new, but it’s modernized. I expected it would linger a bit, but I’m still caught off guard by its scope and size. Has it grown, or has it just been hiding behind political correctness and false smiles? How much of our progress is an illusion? How much of equality is a lie?

It’s not that all my hope is gone. I’m just realizing how much more I have to hope for.

You’re Allowed to Be Racist

What can I say that hasn’t already been said—more eloquently, thoughtfully, and with links to data? I don’t want to be another voice clamoring, but saying nothing. I don’t want to be another angry black woman if my anger is shallow, just for show, or uniformed. I don’t want to be too angry to think, listen, act, or see clearly. I already wrote a post called Racism Is Easy; I don’t want to repeat myself.

I could very easily become a pessimist or live in denial and doe-eyed, ignorant bliss. But it’s not even a matter of whether the glass of racial reconciliation and civil rights progress is half empty or half full. It’s the fact that at any moment, someone might knock that glass over, so I’d better carry a mop and a sponge.

What the recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island have helped me to realize is not that racism still exists (I already knew that), but how different the experience of racism has been among my family and peers. I have been lucky, though perhaps it has kept me naïve. I grew up in a tough neighborhood, but was rarely afraid there. The people on my block (even the criminals) were kind and looked out for everyone.

I went to one of the best private schools in the country. And even though I was the only black girl in my class until the sixth grade, I never felt “less than” or discriminated against. If anything made me feel inadequate it was my lack of corpulent wealth, not my color. I was too young to understand the subtler (or sinister) implications, complications, and consequences of being the only blackbird in a flock of doves. I felt special—and lucky. I’m still grateful and happy that I attended that school. I can see it for what it is and was—the imperfections and good intentions—the progress and the flaws. That’s how I look at America. I love it without pretending it’s perfect or incapable of wrong.

I’m certain racism has touched my life, but it hasn’t been malicious. Perhaps that man was mean to me because I’m black. Maybe he’s a racist; maybe he’s a jerk; maybe he’s having a bad day; or maybe all of the above. Talking to my brother and sister, however, showed me how differently members of the same family (even just a generation apart) can experience the world. I have never been called a nigger (to my face). Both my brother and sister (who, respectively, are seven and eight years younger than me) have been. My brother was called a coon as well. It broke my heart to hear that.

So now, with so many up at arms—some opposing and protesting against injustice, others opposing the opinions of the protestors—I’ve been hesitant to add my words. What can I say as someone who hasn’t fought (or been attacked) in the trenches of this conflict?

My initial reaction was sadness and confusion. I thought we (as a country) were further along than this. I felt caught in the middle. The neighborhood and churches I grew up in were predominately black. The classrooms I learned in (through college) were primarily white. Since preschool, I’ve had to straddle both sides. I can identify with both (even if I only resemble one). My family tree is black. My husband and in-laws are white. I feared speaking up would be a betrayal of someone—or would alienate or disappoint.

I also held my tongue because I realized pretty quickly that I had a lot to learn. Not just from textbooks, but personal stories. As I said before, my brother, sister, and I have all had very different experiences being black. They’re significantly younger than me. They’ve had racial slurs thrown at them; I haven’t. I needed to hear their stories to better understand their feelings and perspectives on racial (and gender) matters.

That’s the sticky thing about America. It’s not the same country, experientially, for everyone. My experience walking down the street, trying to get a job (or a cab), dating (when I was single) isn’t the same as that of every other black person—or even black woman—not in America, not in New York City. I have been lucky—no one has hurt me (or stopped and frisked me) just because I’m black. But others have experienced being black differently. It’s important that I not dismiss their stories—their reality.

My world is more diverse now. I have friends from different cultures and countries—and of every color. Some are genuinely trying to understand the recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island from as many perspectives as they can. Others are standing firm wherever they woke up that morning and are unwilling to consider another position.

Reluctantly, I admit that’s their right. This is a free country, isn’t it? You’re allowed to be racist, sexist, ageist, homophobic, shortsighted, incendiary, or uniformed. Free speech allows for the propagation of truth, spin, love, and propaganda. Just make sure you keep you biases contained so they don’t trample on any laws.

What I really wish, is that everyone could take a deep breath and listen to what the other side is saying—or yelling. It’s not easy to change someone’s mind, so can we at least agree to disagree respectfully—and peacefully? Some people will ignore facts in the face of feelings. Others can’t see the forest because they’re so bent on inspecting the trees. Some should know better. Others are still learning.

The thought that has been running through my mind most this week is this: “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10). I believe that. Racism is a disease as well as a symptom. I don’t want to minimize the actions of the benevolent and generous, but we are a country with a history of loving, lusting after, and idolizing money—where “greed is good.” We serve profit margins like kings. We chase after wealth like it’s the oxygen we need to breathe. Generations upon generations have crushed one group or another for land, resources, or fortunes.

Yes, we are a country with innovators, philanthropists, and industrial titans. But we also took advantage, benefiting from cheap (or free) labor—helping the poor with one hand while pushing them down with another. We built on the backs of the disenfranchised, abused the voiceless, hurled fists and insults at immigrants. We acted like we owned the place and all the “others” were intruders (quickly forgetting that only the Native Americans are native to this country—that everyone else is an alien or an alien’s progeny).

The recent events in Ferguson and Staten Island have brought up a lot of thoughts and emotions for me—not all of which I feel this is the forum for sharing. I feel blessed to have made it this far into my life without being the victim of explicit or hostile racism. I feel guilty for being spared—and sad on behalf of those (who like my siblings) haven’t been. I am disappointed by the venom that human beings are throwing at each other—the lack of respect for differing views, experiences, and opinions. I have been encouraged by those who empathize, who hope to be part of the solution, and who are able to converse respectfully—even with those who disagree with them. I have been humbled and inspired by the words of those who are adding their thoughtful, fact-based, opinions to the dialogue—illuminating what often goes unseen and unconsidered.

It’s true. Not everyone is being productive. Some are making it worse. Some see and are trying to solve the problem. Some are screaming, “Fire!” or “I can’t breathe!” Others are throwing fuel onto the flames or doing the smothering. Some are trying to hear and help the victim. Others are denying (or minimizing) the victim’s experience.

Even though I have a short temper, I couldn’t understand the looters. But then I started to think of it this way: It’s not too unlike a toddler’s temper tantrum. No, the behavior can’t be rewarded, encouraged, or reinforced. We teach children to channel their emotions in more productive (and socially acceptable) ways—to politely ask for what they want—to use their words. But that also presupposes that they’ll be heard—that they have the tools to pursue their dreams, meet their needs, and enjoy their freedom—equal to everyone.

A victim doesn’t become any less of a victim just because he or she isn’t (or hasn’t always been) a perfect, law-abiding citizen. Not everything is black and white—or black against white. Revenge isn’t justice. Anger isn’t a crime.

Sometimes the truth isn’t comfortable. Sometimes it’s obvious; sometimes it’s inscrutable. Facts and opinions are not the same thing. Just because you haven’t seen it on the news, doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

My being black doesn’t make my opinion more valid. Your being white doesn’t mean you “don’t get it.” Some people need to speak; everyone needs to listen. Those with an audience or followers would be wise to keep testing the truth—as well as their own integrity and wisdom.

I don’t have answers; I don’t even fully grasp the problem. But I do believe that emotions alone, while valid, won’t take us forward. We need thoughts and love and laws and actions. Yes, there’s still work to be done. Yes, change can be hard and slow, but it can’t be stopped.

I knew it on some level, but it’s become clearer to me in recent weeks: we’re not all experiencing the same America—even if we have the same color skin. It takes many perspectives to see the full picture. What I’ve learned and lived doesn’t encompass everything. So until I have more to say, I’ll keep watching and listening.

Racism Is Easy

Racism is easy. All sorts of prejudices are. Some expressions of xenophobia are dramatic—like slavery and the Holocaust. The ones where human has hurt human on the sole basis of religion, ethnicity, or skin color. There are those that (especially with historical perspective) we can confidently label as wrong. The ones that make us shake our heads in near disbelief—exposing the sinister extremes of what humanity is capable of.

But prejudice isn’t just lynching one group or putting another in concentration (or internment) camps. Racism is easy because it also allows for subtle discriminations that are made without deep consideration. It’s the group(s) you exclude in your framing of beauty. (Where is the line between prejudice and aesthetic preference?) It’s the food you won’t eat—won’t even try and label “disgusting” because it’s foreign. It’s the impatience you feel in trying to communicate with someone who isn’t fluent in your language—or assuming someone is of lesser intelligence just because they don’t eloquently speak your language—or have a heavy accent.

Racism is easy because it infiltrates social conventions and becomes vague—burying itself under more acceptable (less incendiary) explanations. Is it hard for me to get a cab simply because I’m black? Or are cab drivers seeing my skin color and assuming I live in another borough? Is that sales associate being attentive in the hopes of earning a commission or hovering in case I plan to steal something?

Racism is easy because it’s everywhere. It hides in the places people forget to look. It establishes a status quo of injustice and then backs away slowly hoping no one will notice. If I’m to believe The Butler (a film I’m giving the benefit of the doubt with regards to its catalog of discrimination), black service staff in the White House were paid less than their white counterparts as recently as the Reagan administration. That shocked me. I was surprised by the where and the when equally. How easy it must be for an intentional bias to become an unexamined unfairness—remaining effective while it grows dusty from lack of inspection.

Racism is easy, but it’s hard to avoid. It used to be that the average person could only spread their intelligence (or ignorance) to a discrete pool of people. Now anyone with a computer can propel words (for better or worse) to near infinite distances (especially with the exponential effect of others sharing it). It’s at once inspiring and discouraging. Some choose to share the positive. Others take pleasure in spreading venom.

This is why my personal policy is to not repost things that I find negative or offensive. I don’t want to help spread unsavory messages any further. I will not be the reason someone sees a bigot’s words. There is enough of all that “out there” for people to stumble upon on their own.

I believe in free speech. I believe truly free speech means that I’m going to hear things that wound my sensibilities—that disgust, disappoint, or frighten me. But just because someone is free to speak his or her mind, doesn’t mean I have to repeat what was said and fan the flame of that negativity. I’d rather help hate die from neglect than see it revived (and spread) by the indignation of its righteous critics. I see nobility in the fight for justice, but not in a war of opinions.