Racism & Me

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