Katy Bourne


Racism & Me

POSTED ON December 02, 2014 | POSTED IN: My Blog | 4 Comments

Although I’ve thought about it about a lot, I’ve never written about racism. For starters, I wasn’t sure I had the right. But even more, I’ve been too afraid: afraid of creating more pain and anger, afraid of my own ignorance, afraid of exposing less than desirable parts of myself. But in light of recent events in Ferguson, it’s clear that we don’t have the luxury of remaining frozen. I want to talk about it. It may be hard. It may be awkward. But I have to start somewhere.

I grew up in Ponca City, Oklahoma, a small town in the northern part of the state. My family was not affluent. But I had a comfortable upbringing and my mother had the means to hire women to clean our house. There were two over the years, first Beverly and then Barbara. Both were black. I was an affable child, who was prone to loquaciousness. I liked Beverly and Barbara a lot. I remember following them around the house as they went about their duties and chattering away with them about any and everything. They were patient with me and extremely kind, even though I was probably exhausting. I recall particularly long days with Beverly. Maybe she doubled as a babysitter. I don’t know. At any rate, both Beverly and Barbara should have been paid extra for putting up with me.

One day, during the time that Barbara was working for us, I observed my mother hiding some of her jewelry underneath some clothes in a dresser in her bedroom. When I asked her about it, she told me that black people are known to steal. I vividly recall taking a beat to get my young mind around that. I ultimately accepted my mother’s statement as true but it didn’t change the way I felt about Barbara. And I was never concerned that she would steal anything, at least not from me.

My grandmother often made negative comments about black people. If we went out to eat and had a black server, that always triggered a string of remarks about everything from their untrustworthiness and laziness to their inferior status as human beings. What I observed from my grandmother was that when it came to race relations, it was an “us verses them” world and that people of color, especially blacks, did not deserve the same measure of respect as white people. My grandmother was more outspoken than my mother and her remarks always made me uncomfortable. But being a kid, I didn’t feel that I could challenge her. I wasn’t even sure how I would if I tried.

With both my mother and my grandmother, their assertions about black people countered my direct experiences with Beverly and Barbara. Still, in spite of what I’d experienced myself, racism slowly found its way into my sensibility.

The town I grew up in was situated near the White Eagle reservation, home to the Ponca Tribe. During my formative years, I spent much more time around Native American people than African American. Relatively speaking, the latter made up a small part of the population. With a few exceptions, I don’t recall anyone in Ponca City as being overtly racist or going out of their way to harm people of color, but that same sense of “us and them” that I’d picked up on from my grandmother was a social undercurrent in the community.

I made friends with some of the kids from White Eagle. I remember one kid in particular–TC. When I was in second or third grade, my teacher had me help TC with reading; presumably the stronger reader (me) could bolster the slower reader (TC). Initially, it was an awkward pairing, but we became casual friends. His mother occasionally made me beautiful beaded necklaces. But outside of school, I never spent time with TC or any of the White Eagle kids. When the bell rang at 3 o’clock, they promptly got back on their bus to the reservation, while the rest of us went off to our Camp Fire meetings and softball practices.

I knew black kids from school but did not have any black friends growing up. Although my interactions with black people had always friendly or neutral, I felt the need to be cautious around them. I thought that black people were angry and volatile. I don’t know exactly where that idea came from. When I was around 10 or 11 years old, I was way into basketball and often went to watch the high school team play. One night at a game, I got into some back and forth taunting with a black girl who was a fan of the opposing team. At one point, she came up to me, tousled my hair and flicked my glasses with her finger. It was annoying but harmless. Yet, I stood up and punched her. She promptly grabbed me by the neck and slapped the holy shit out of me, at least two or three times upside my head. Although I’d been the dumb ass who had initiated the fight, the incident only reinforced my beliefs about black people, anger and volatility. When I told my father about the incident after the fact, he was oddly amused. He asked if I’d gotten a “black and white” photograph of the altercation. Huh? If there was a teachable moment somewhere in that, it was lost on me.

I attended the University of Oklahoma for two years then transferred to the University of Iowa, where I eventually graduated. College exposed me to a diversity of people and a much broader perspective on a variety of things. As dope-addled as I was in those days, I slowly started to wake up. By the time I hit Iowa City, I knew that I had internalized some biases –both subtle and egregious– that were harmful and wrong. With this realization came a gnawing uneasiness with myself. By this point, I had several black friends but had never talked to them about race, prejudice or their own experiences. I initiated a few conversations, leading with how whites and blacks needed to band together in solidarity. Most of these discussions took place at the bar, after several glasses of whatever I was drinking that night. These talks did not go well. Mind you, I was deep into my alcoholism during this time, voraciously consuming liquor and poetry and pretending to be intellectual. But in truth, I was unskilled and clueless as to how to do much of anything, especially have a sensitive conversation about racism with people who had been impacted by it.

I moved to Seattle in 1988. This marked the start of what I believe has been a deep and fundamental shift in my awareness, both of the depth of racism in this country and also lingering racism buried in the corners of my own psyche. One afternoon, I was standing in a park in south Seattle. I was the only white person. I remember thinking to myself, “I need to get this right.” Although I was at a loss about how to proceed, my first steps were to observe how I interacted with people of color and what kinds of thoughts were attendant with those encounters. When negatives came up, I challenged myself to think about where they were coming from, to consider why I felt whatever it was I was feeling and most importantly, how I could change it. Granted, this was all an internal process. But it felt like a start and it felt meaningful.

When we talk about race in this country, the subject of white privilege often comes up. Admittedly,  it took me some time to get clear on this. I knew that I didn’t endure discrimination on a regular basis, but being a single mom struggling to survive (sometimes hanging on by my fingernails), I couldn’t grasp how I had any significant advantages in the world. After one particular conversation with my transgender son, who frequently calls me out on my cisgender privilege, and my good friend’s daughter Sarah, a rising social justice maven, I finally realized that my privilege is so hardwired into me that I don’t even recognize it. I move about freely, oblivious and damn well blessed. I never have the experience of someone clutching her handbag a little more closely as she passes me on the sidewalk or of a sales clerk keeping an especially sharp eye on me as I peruse through a store. While I have had some passing concerns about my sons and law enforcement, I’ve never once worried about either of them getting shot and killed by a police officer. I get it now.

It would be remiss to discuss white privilege without including class privilege, as the two are irrefutably intertwined. As I said earlier, my family was not affluent but I do know that I grew up with privilege. I had everything I needed and a range of opportunities available to me, including a college education. I was extremely fortunate. There is no doubt that this privilege, especially when I was younger, limited my consciousness. I did not lack empathy but I did lack real understanding. After my divorce and the crash of 2008, my circumstances changed drastically. The past few years have, at several points, presented significant challenges. While I don’t think any of us enjoy hardship, I am grateful for everything it’s taught me. Humility nullifies sleepwalking.

Like many other people, I am angered by the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson and am deeply saddened for Michael Brown’s family and the people of Ferguson. Once again, justice was not served and the divide is accentuated. Our collective wound continues to fester. We lament the severely broken system and demand change. There is no shortage of white people willing step up to express their outrage –and I’m glad for this–but white outrage can only go so far. It has to translate into something bigger.

James Altucher, one of my favorite bloggers and podcasters, frequently tells the story about a woman who brought her son to Gandhi, imploring him to tell the child to stop eating sugar. Gandhi instructed her to bring the child back in two weeks. The woman and her son returned two weeks later and Gandhi told the son to stop eating sugar. The woman asked Gandhi why he hadn’t done this on the first visit. Gandhi replied that he couldn’t tell someone else what to do if he’s not doing it himself. Before he could instruct the child not to eat sugar, Gandhi had to kick his own sugar habit first. Since the shooting of Michael Brown and the resulting protests in Ferguson and across the United States, we’ve shared a universal cry for justice and for the need to end the racism that is still so rampant in this country. I am in complete agreement. But before I can impact change out there, I need to be willing to take an unflinching look in the mirror. Like Gandhi, I’m of no help to any cause or other person until I’m square myself.

Am I a racist? I hope not. I want to believe that I’ve evolved. But I’m not sure if I’m the one who gets to answer that question. I am not colorblind. I don’t think that’s the point. I recognize that we are different but I don’t view those differences as inherently bad. I could rattle off a list of all the friends and roommates of color that I have (or have had). But I believe that white people do this as a default kind of response, the subtext being, “See? I’m not a racist.” It’s lazy and reduces those relationships to mere quotas. Having a black boyfriend or a Latina roommate doesn’t give me a free pass to avoid looking at my own shit.

When it comes to race and racism, I have to admit that for most of my life, I’ve been stumbling along ineptly. I’ve made many missteps. I don’t feel guilt but I do feel regret for my past ignorance. Self-reflection has been important but I know it’s not enough. It seems that dialogue is the critical next step. But once again, I’m stymied as to how to proceed. All I know to do is be honest, which is why I’m writing this.

Going back to my mother and my grandmother, I don’t condemn them, nor do I excuse them. I’m aware that they were products of their own upbringing and am sorry for how this shaped their world view.

In previous posts, I’ve mentioned Amp, an exchange student from Thailand, who is presently living with me. Amp recently had an experience where she, her sister and her sister’s boyfriend (also from Thailand) had difficulty getting served at a local restaurant. Amp believes this happened because they are Asian. This pissed me off and broke my heart. It also added to my impetus to write this post. When we tell our stories, we get to the grit of our human experience. Throughout the history of time, narratives have allowed us to deepen our understanding of each other and have been the springboard for important conversations. As such, I would like to wind this down with an invitation. Please tell me your stories about how racism has affected your life. You can share them in the comments or, if you’re more comfortable, send an email or private message. And if there is anything in this post that you take exception to, I welcome your feedback. Hit me hard if you feel the need. I can take it. In order to grow, I have to learn.

I told a friend that I was writing this post. She responded by saying that she feels that we’re at a standstill in this country and wondered if we could ever really make any progress when it comes to racism. I understand her weary view. As I’ve watched events of the past several days, I can’t help thinking about how many times we’ve been here before. Rodney King, Abner Louima, Trayvon Martin, Amadou Diallo and so many others come to mind. Our track record is appalling. But whenever I start to lose hope, I think about the wonders of human achievement: brilliant advances in science and medicine, achingly beautiful art and music and profound acts of courage and generosity. We are compassionate and luminous people. I don’t believe we’re here to fear and distrust each other. I believe we’re here to share the world and to work, play, create and love together. We have the capacity, the intelligence and the wherewithal to engineer enormous change. Our collective humanity can transcend.

I’m not willing to give up on us yet.

 

yin yang

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

4 responses to “Racism & Me”

  1. Kimberly Chavez says:

    I certainly feel that race relations have become increasingly more tense since the election of Barak Obama as President. I feel Obama had an amazing opportunity to begin healing relationships between all cultures. Disappointingly, I feel that he has instead baited ill relations between white people and all minorities. I have so many conflicting thoughts on this issue, I don’t even know how to begin.

    While I also was raised in Ponca City, my upbringing was somewhat different being a child of generations of prairie farmers. My parents decided when they were married they would make a life in the city instead. I know, hilarious, right?

    We were blue color white people, living a hand to mouth life, but we never went without any necessity, life was good. I didn’t know I was “poor” until I went to school. We lived on South 5th Street, and it was a few short blocks to “Attica” the black community on the south side. I never realized that they had their own grocery store, barber shops, clothing shops and schools until many years later. It is quite amazing to look back now and realize that we were right there on the cusp of major racial relation changes. Even though we had desegregation and other racial relation laws that were making big changes in so much of the country, little really changed in our little pocket of the world. School prayer had been outlawed as well, but I remember prayer everyday at Washington Elementary School.

    The first black child I knew was Rochelle from my 6th grade class. As my dad and I were out doing yard work one Saturday morning when I was 11, Rochelle happened to walk by and said hello to me. My father was taken aback at the sight of Rochelle in our neighborhood, asked if I knew him and stated he better not see him in our neighborhood again.

    I was quite aware of the generations of prejudice in my family, learned first hand from my grandparents. In fact, my grandfather spoke of an event of what was evidently the attempted extermination of black communities throughout Northeast Oklahoma by the KKK. I recall feeling horrified and saddened by the fact that black people – ANY people for that matter – could be treated with such cruelty and inhumanity. Even at seven years of age I knew it was a tragedy of huge magnitude. I swore to myself that I could never harbor evil ideas or practice such prejudice. It was naïve to believe that any human could achieve such high ideals, though I have tried hard to rise above it in the way I live my life.

    I left PC for good at 18. I’ve lived in the Southwestern US these last (almost) 35 years. 25 of those years were in New Mexico. Living there I was educated in what it feels to be the minority as a white person and prejudiced against. I became a “Chavez” a few years after I moved to NM, which brought even further prejudice as one look at me and it was perfectly obvious that Chavez wasn’t my father’s name. For several years, locals would speak Spanish to me, mocking my pronunciation of Spanish names and terms. While annoying, it was no cause for conflict. What’s really funny is when visiting Oklahoma my Chavez name inspires rude comments and ugly looks not only from community folks, but from my own family as well.

    After hearing all the facts details of the Grand Jury’s decision and how they came to that decision, I was in full agreement with the outcome. I had determined that I would not allow knowledge of past injustices to African Americans or family prejudices to get in the way of understanding of the facts presented. So I was shocked when following the grand jury’s announcement, the media and many organizations were crying FOUL. After all of these years as viewing the black communities as mistreated, misrepresented (by their own people even)and repressed, I found myself feeling outraged and sickened by thoughts that I would have likened coming from my forbearers influence.

    The majority of African American people I know are good, educated, successful and community focused as any person of any culture. And while all cultures have challenges with community members/groups, it seems only the black communities feel that it is the white people’s fault that they have community members that behave irresponsibly and shamefully and have a negative impact on their families, neighbors and leaders. The practice of prejudice and discrimination and injustice is just as ugly when it is committed against a white person.

    In the Southwest, we have many cultures, religions, and lifestyles with no one group being a overwhelming majority. (Well, maybe except for really old white people between November and May.) It is very easy to forget that there are any issues at all until you look at the National news. Even in the midst of the turmoil, unless you get into a particular small pocket of Phoenix, the subject isn’t a primary topic of conversation. Here in the Phoenix valley, everyone is talking about immigration.

    I really do want to understand why so many people are finding the ruling of the grand jury to be unjust. Can you elaborate on why you feel angered by the grand jury’s lack of indictment and why you feel that Darren White was in error in his actions in light of the knowledge of the facts? Truly, having tried so hard in my life to overcome the ignorance and hurtfulness of prejudice, I am feeling very conflicted and confused about the sincerity of what I’m hearing from both sides of the debate.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for reading this post and taking the time to respond, Kimberly.

      The role of the grand jury is not to determine guilt or innocence but to determine if there is enough evidence to go to trial. I do not agree that we have all the “facts” as to what happened that day and feel that the grand jury was not presented with complete evidence. The prosecutor who presented the case to the grand jury has strong ties to law enforcement. There is a conflict of interest right there. Because it was a grand jury, there was no cross examination to Wilson’s testimony. There is significant discrepancy between Wilson’s account of events and what witnesses saw. Also, Wilson’s testimony illustrated enough racial bias, in my mind, to move the case forward. Between a suspect procedural process, conflicting evidence and holes in Wilson’s testimony, there was ample reason to move forward with a trial. If Wilson is innocent, which you seem to believe, then he would have been exonerated by a jury of his peers.

      Darren Wilson shot and killed an UNARMED young black man and there has been no accountability.

      I think this is more complex than the blacks “blaming” whites for the behavior of other blacks. Historically-speaking, this country has a track record for systemic barriers & prejudices that make it difficult for people of color, especially blacks, to enjoy the same success has white people, or to fully access their right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as articulated in the Declaration of Independence. It started with slavery (without reparations). This set the precedent as to how blacks would be treated in this country. Throughout our history, the black community has suffered an array of injustice and indignities. voter disenfranchisement, segregation, racial profiling, limited access to education, due process under law, disproportionate incarceration and on and on and on. While some of these injustices have been addressed, many have not. The fallout perpetuates and the playing field is abysmally unequal.

  2. Mat Mande says:

    I am tired of hearing how racist we our in this country. It another example of how people today ignore the facts. The black population of the US is about 13% yet we elected a black president. How could that be possible? Look at the number of Mayors of major cities who are black. All people have prejudices and you’ll never get all of them to love everyone. Why are people afraid of large black men? They have seen many examples of thuggish behavior. 79% of black babies are born out of wedlock. A boy needs a father to teach about life. A single mother, especially one who is uneducated can’t possibly properly support a family. The kids grow up with nothing and want the same things that other people have. Michael Brown was a thug. He proved it beyond a shadow of a doubt when he robbed that grocery store as shown on video survaillance tape from the store. A 280 lb man is not unarmed when he attacks someone who is much smaller. He could have killed or maimed the officer. Guess which racist said this in 1987 in Newsweek. When I am walking down the street in Chicago ( his home town), if I see four black teens walking toward me I get scared and move to the other side of the street. If they are white kids I am not afraid. Jesse Jackson said that. He obviously had some life experience that made him say that. Economic hard ship has a lot to do with the problem but it is ultimately do to the breakup of the black family that has been aided and abetted by society. Kids need two parents.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for taking the time to read this post and for commenting. This is a tough conversation to have and I appreciate your willingness to engage.

      I believe we see things quite differently.

      The fact that we have a black president (or Supreme Court justice, mayors, etc.) does not mean that racism no longer exists in this country. In the case of President Obama, I almost think it’s been exacerbated. I’ve never seen a sitting president subjected to such odious and disrespectful treatment– the constant challenge to his citizenship, being called a liar while addressing Congress and now this ridiculous movement to block him from delivering the State of the Union address. If this is how the President of the United States is treated, think about what regular black Americans deal with on a daily basis. Need an example? Take a look at the Eric Garner video.

      You characterize Michael Brown as a “thug.” Is the subtext here that he deserved what he got? Would you use the same language if Michael Brown were a white kid? I don’t agree that the surveillance video proves anything beyond a shadow of a doubt. What I saw was an 18 year-old kid who was, admittedly, acting like a bully and a dick. But last I checked, we don’t execute people in the U.S. for being a dick or a thug or whatever. When I was 18-years old, I was deep into alcoholism and drug addiction, was wrecking havoc all over the place and breaking the law on a regular basis. Was I a thug too? Did I deserve to die? Luckily, I eventually got sober, cleaned up my life and became–in my opinion anyway–a decent citizen in my community. When you dismiss Michael Brown or any young person as a “thug” you are basically saying that they are expendable. You are also eliminating the possibility that this “thug” will eventually mature, grow out of their youthful stupidity and become a positive member of society. Michael Brown never had that chance. There is no conclusive evidence that Michael Brown charged Officer Wilson. He was gunned down in the street and there’s been no accountability.

      You used statistics to make a point about the “breakup of the black family,” which you attribute to the “problem.” If this is true, could you consider for a moment that this breakdown might be the result of relentless racism and the attendant economic inequality therein? You and I agree that economic hardship is a factor. Could we also agree then that the playing field has been historically lopsided and that you and I have benefited from privileges and advantages solely due to the color of our skin?

      Your comments about single mothers are flat out offensive to me. I’m a single mother and I’ve done a damn good job, in spite of significant challenges. And I’d like to add that a two-parent household does not necessarily equate to a healthy upbringing. I grew up with two parents, one of whom was an active alcoholic. I began drinking with her when I was 12-years old. I was a full-blown alcoholic by the time I started high school. Two-parent families are not necessarily better. They’re certainly not morally superior. Instead of judging single black moms, maybe we should give them a break.

      I might add here that several of my African-American friends are in long-term marriages and provide a stable environment– economically, emotionally, physically–for their children. Still, their children, especially teenagers and young adults, are subjected to incidents of racism and racial profiling on a regular basis. These are not kids pinching cigars from a 7-11 or, as you would say, “thugs.” The circumstances of the individual families are irrelevant when it comes to systemic racism.

      Racism is not necessarily overt hatred. It has many gradations. For example, when we make assumptions about someone based on the color of their skin that is racism. My post does not accuse all white people of being racist. The point of the post is to invite individual reflection. We can’t collectively have a productive conversation about race if we, as individuals, have not identified and dealt with our own internal prejudices. And this is true for all of us–black, white, brown or yellow. I grew up with a measure of racist conditioning. Fight at the basketball game aside, I never tried to hurt a person of color. But I do know that for many years, I carried around assumptions that were harmful and wrong. I also know that many of the benefits that I’ve had as a white person have come at a cost to people of color.

      If you don’t believe racism is a problem in this country, talk to Trayvon Martin’s parents; talk to my friend whose teenage son is pulled over for no reason; talk to the prominent local jazz musician who was refused service at a well-known Seattle hotel because he is black. Maybe you can’t see it because you don’t live it.

      Sometimes I know the people who comment on the blog and sometimes I don’t. In this case, I know you. To be honest, your comments shocked me. But I didn’t want to react in anger because then the conversation doesn’t progress. We clearly have a very different worldview but I do appreciate the dialogue. I’d like to close my reply with this from Krishnamurti:

      “So is it possible to listen, without any conclusion, without interpretation? Because it is fairly obvious that our thinking is conditioned, is it not? We are conditioned as Hindus, or communists, or Christians, and whatever we listen to, whether it is new or old, is always apprehended through the screen of this conditioning; therefore, we can never approach any problem with a fresh mind. That is why it is very important to know how to listen, not only to what is being stated, but to everything.”

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Katy Bourne is a Jazz Singer and Writer.