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

Those People

I fell off my bike earlier this week. Actually, I technically fell on my bike. The ground was uneven (and perhaps there was an oil slick), and before I knew it my bike had capsized with me on top of it, but still sliding forward. (Thanks a lot momentum!) Fortunately I wasn’t seriously hurt. Even though my palms, arms, and hips slid across the pavement, my hands were protected by my biking gloves, and I was wearing long sleeves and pants. No abrasions, just tenderness and swelling where my hipbone contacted the ground and my ankle to upper shin hit and slid along one of my bike’s pedals.

The fall felt like it was happening in slow motion—slow enough for me to experience it and have a lot of “Am I really about to fall? Oh no!” thoughts, but not slow enough for me to prevent it. Once on the ground, I quickly tried to get myself up and out of the way of any oncoming cars. Fortunately, I had slid towards the curb and there wasn’t a lot of traffic. As I stood and searched my body for blood and then my bike for damage, I recalled how my husband and I had run to the aid of a deliveryman when we saw him fall off his bicycle. There had been heavy rain that day, and he’d mistaken a severe pothole for a harmless puddle.

After my fall, I looked around to see if anyone was showing concern for me. I saw plenty of people, but with the exception of one woman who made peripheral eye contact with me, everyone acted oblivious to (or unaffected by) my accident.

The street wasn’t teeming with people, but there was enough foot traffic that I expected someone to notice and respond to the black woman in a hot pink track jacket that went sliding across the pavement on top of her bright blue bicycle with yellow tires. When I received no sympathetic questions or helping hands, my first thought (and I’m not proud of it) was, “I can’t believe none of those people came to help me. Is it because I’m not one of them? Is it because I’m black? Those people are heartless. Those people are racist. I bet I would have gotten a more sympathetic response in another neighborhood—one with a different demographic.”

In that moment, I realized how easy it is to generalize and find oneself following a line of negatively biased thinking based on assumptions. It just takes one experience explained from a prejudiced perspective to lay the foundation for bigotry and make a situation us versus them. I was letting the actions of a small slice of a population color my view of the whole group. I recognized myself as a minority in that situation and let that explain my experience as opposed to looking for alternative likelihoods.

As part of my second round of thoughts, I remembered that the men of that particular group don’t touch women they aren’t related to. And perhaps the women, most with children in tow, didn’t want to abandon a youngster to help an adult. Perhaps if I’d stayed down someone would have come to help, but I’d gotten up relatively quickly.

Having looked myself over, I realized I wasn’t gravely injured, and since my bike was still functional, I gingerly remounted and pedaled away slowly—apprehensively and wondering what had really just happened. Had anyone felt any concern or sympathy?

Maybe no one helped me because I didn’t appear to need help. Or maybe, just maybe, they consciously or unconsciously didn’t want to help someone like me—black, female, and/or not of their religion. Perhaps I was one of “those people” in their eyes. You know how those people can be. Best to not get involved with one of them.

Whatever the reason, the part is not the whole. The actions of a few cannot be used to stand for those of the group. I had to remind myself of those truths. Even within a seemingly homogenous population—whether it’s dominated by one culture, ethnicity, or religion—there is diversity. It is unfair to extrapolate what the viewpoints or behaviors of all will be based on those of a few. All I really know is that whoever witnessed my fall didn’t come to my aide. As for the characteristics or attitudes of “those people” as a group, my experience doesn’t give me permission to assume.

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.