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Archive for July 2014

Can We Talk?

Posted on: July 22, 2014

I wish we could find a way and a place where we as Americans could talk about race. 

The past couple of weeks have found me ready to throw up my hands and declare a pox on all our houses. It all started in an online discussion forum (doesn’t everything start in an online discussion forum?) about a woman of color at a particular enterprise who was “passed over” in favor of a white woman recruited externally.  The boards lit up, the comments were coming fast and furious. Then a white woman said what I had been thinking, which was, “This happened 15 minutes ago. None of us has ANY idea why one person got the job over the other…yet. So let’s keep the powder dry until we know what we are dealing with here.”  Well, thank god I didn’t say that out loud, because unfortunate white lady commenter was attacked with full artillery for her privilege, her racism, her ignorance and her insensitivity. And I’m thinking, “you got ALL that about this woman from a simple comment urging restraint?” Who’s judging who based on color here?

On the flip side, I saw a discussion about the Staten Island man who died after being put in a choke hold by the police. I saw the video, the unnecessary force. With my own eyes. A white commenter chimed in that the guy was resisting arrest, que sera sera. He saw no such force in that video, which blew my mind. What I found even more mind-boggling was his refusal or inability to acknowledge that, had the man been white and living in Darien CT, the police would not have taken him down like that in a million years. That, it seems to me, is pretty clear. But not to this guy.

Both situations just highlighted for me how far we still have to go in this country in dealing with our painful racial history.  It’s something we don’t want to talk about because it forces us to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. Specifically, that for a period of time in the history of this great nation that we love so much, humans were considered the property of other humans. The United States of America practiced human slavery. It’s a terrible, awful, unspeakable thing to have done. It is a blemish, a cancer, a stain on our history. And it occurred less than 200 years ago. Hell, it was only 70 years ago that Japanese-Americans–American citizens!–were rounded up like animals and placed in camps amid patriotic hysteria. And double hell, it was barely 60 years ago that Ruby Bridges, a child, received death threats for the terrible crime of trying to attend the same school as her white fellow citizens. When black people had to pass a test to vote, when civil rights activists were murdered with impunity. This is not ancient history. It is modern history, and its repercussions still reverberate around us and through us as individuals and as a nation.

The problem I see in these situations and others like them, is that when it comes to race, ours is not a SHARED history. Whites and People Of Color experienced these events in such different ways that we almost don't have a common language or framework in which to approach them. The POV of the white guy seeing no issue with the police response to the asthmatic Staten Island man is a very classic, "I have never seen or heard of this happening to me or anyone I know. Therefore I have trouble believing that this actually happens." And the white woman run out of the discussion about hiring practices. I don't presume to know what went on there, except to say that it is rarely fair or constructive to take structural, societal issues like racism and pin them squarely on any individual, especially one who seemed in full agreement with your concerns, if not the tenor in which they were expressed.

As I lament the lack of safe spaces to discuss race in our country, I am reminded of my father. My dad was, for probably the first 40 years of his life, totally racist; and I say that in the kindest, tenderest way. I say that with the standard white person disclaimer, "I mean, he didn't hate anyone or wish harm on anyone" as if he deserves a prize for not being violent and hateful. Great job! Here's your cookie, Dad! But he would have told you himself. He was just raised with a sense that white people were better than brown people. It was something he internalized from his earliest days. You may be poor and from a farm and looked down upon by others (ie, whites). But you are still superior to THEM. You know, them. It was so much a part of his upbringing that he didn't even notice it. Then we moved to the USA where there live many more "brown people" than in Scotland. His kids became friends with said brown people. He worked side by side with said brown people. He could no longer maintain his old, subconscious views because damn if they don't work just as hard as he does, and raise their kids with the same values as he does. But what gave my Dad the ability to change was the safe space afforded him by those coworkers who could just have (rightfully) said, "Eff this dude. He's an a-hole. It's not my job to educate this ignorant old man." But instead they listened to his "negro" jokes then pushed back on him to wise up. They challenged him every step of the way but never demonized him. We kids did plenty of that at home, starting fights if he used inappropriate terms for people. It's safe to say that it took a multicultural village of friends, family and coworkers to drag my father into the 21st century. And to his credit, he got dragged willingly, if no less confusedly. But get there he did. And it saddens me that these places, these spaces, these opportunities for whites and people of color to talk together, to interact, to learn from each other, seem to be disappearing in a fog of recriminations and intransigence. Where the crazy people, the most damaged people, the ones least open to acknowledging that I may not know everything there is to know about YOUR experience, on both sides seem to be controlling the dialogue.

It’s a damn shame, because I really do wish we could talk.


I’ve wanted to write a post about this, but this blogger did it perfectly. Read it. If you have a grand daughter, a niece, a young woman you care about. Read it.

“How to talk to your daughter about her body, step one: Don’t talk to your daughter about her body, except to teach her how it works.

Don’t say anything if she’s lost weight. Don’t say anything if she’s gained weight.

If you think your daughter’s body looks amazing, don’t say that. Here are some things you can say instead:….” Read on and do likewise.

“Mama, tell me a story.” Baby Sister says that at least three times a day. I used to love it because it was a great chance to casually introduce themes and topics like her first day with us after her adoption (you ate all the yogurt that Nanjing hotel breakfast buffet had!), school fears (you were nervous but that’s how you met your BFF Jilly Hooper!) or her heart surgery (you were so brave! And the first thing you asked for your first solid meal afterwards was a big plate of peas!).

Aaah. It was all so simple then. Food, folks and fun: the three key building blocks of children’s storytelling. Now, weeks later, I am running out of stories. Interesting ones at least. You and I may not be enraptured by the heroic tale of The Little Girl Who Ate Peas, but damn if that little yarn didn’t buy me three days of respite from story creation. Unfortunately, now that she is an urbane and sophisticated “almost Kindergartener” my little Story Urchin has had it with the daily gruel I’ve been slopping out lo these many days (please sir, may I have some more?). The Three Fs no longer cut it and the pressure is on to deliver something better than “Yay you! Yay peas!”

Thinking back to stories that Bambina ate up, I tried talking about books she used to love at each age, forgetting momentarily that my girls could not be more different if they tried. Bambina could discuss books for hours. “Mama, are you aware that JK Rowling’s inspiration for the name Dursley originated in….” Baby Sister’s reaction to book talk? “Mama, that boring.”

So I tried telling her stories of cool things she did as a baby. But that just pissed her off because I was apparently disrespecting her current, adult individuality. “Why you keep talking about babies? I’m not a baby! Stop telling baby stories!”

I tried many avenues of interest, each a deader end than the last, each found wanting in a variety of different ways. None considered a successful or worthwhile vehicle for satisfactory entertainment. Desperation obviously set in.

Which means of course that I have, as of this writing, told her no fewer than five (5) stories about poop and pee. Yes. Much like the desperate and lesser-light comedian who must resort to saying “fuck” plus something about tits when he senses the 3-drink minimum crowd’s enthusiasm ebbing, I have silenced the better angels of my nature and am now in full scatology mode for survival.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. That time I farted monumentally in 2nd grade to much embarrassment, shock and awe is a proven crowd-pleaser. As is the time I rolled down a hill for fun and consequently got covered in dog shite because, hello, it was 1978 in Scotland. Leash laws and basic “don’t leave animal feces everywhere” sensibilities hadn’t been invented yet. We were totally still littering in ’78. And not wearing seat belts. And eating a brand of jam whose mascot was a ragdoll in blackface. So leaving entire grassy knolls riddled with dog poop bullets was not even on the radar of human concern.

I’ve shared the story of when I was 2 years old and I fell into the toilet. I was so proud to be using the bathroom myself that I failed to note that if I didn’t hold the sides of the toilet seat I was going to go right into the commode. Which I did. To this day I can summon on command the disquieting and inchoate feelings generated by my little toddler butt cheeks submerged in toilet bowl water, legs trapped up in the air, as I screamed for my mum to liberate me from my porcelain prison. I can tell you every detail, how the sunlight shone through the window just so, and the look on my mom’s face as she crested the stairs to see only my legs and head emerging from the bowl, pulling me from the wreckage while repeating, ” I told you to wait for me! I told you to wait for me.” Baby Sister particularly likes that detail, mistaking (or is she?) my mom’s concern for disappointment. Like, not only were you stuck in a toilet which is gross enough without one more detail, you got in trouble to boot. Excellent! She gave that story a 9.5.

So you see my dilemma. If it bleeds it leads, which is no way to go through life, son. So help me out, friends. Tell me a story I can tell her. I promise I’ll change your name. Especially if it involves poop.

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