La La How The Life Goes On

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.

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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.

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