This country was built on the genocide of one race and the enslavement of another. Genocide and Slavery are not just the American Way. This is the way of much of the colonization and empire building throughout the centuries. And yes, there are still outposts of slavery, there is still a slave trade in human trafficking that many pretend doesn’t exist, and there is oppression of all kinds around the globe. But America seems unique in our propagation of practices which unequally affect people of color. And the events of last week in three days are seeming to bring us to the brink of comprehension that we absolutely must address this issue. FINALLY. But what is the root of issue? It is VERY complex. However, I am in hopes that we are beginning to awaken and will start working toward resolution.
The problem we see resulting in the murder of black men by police (that’s the way I see it) has many roots. Of course slavery… but more recently, economic segregation, scapegoating and inequality. Power seems to be at the root of it to me. Those in power do not want to share it and thus find ways to subjugate [bring under domination or control, especially by conquest] others, those with the least power being the most affected, in keeping said power and wealth. As a white woman I have seen injustice in pay scales, working with men making more money than me for doing the same or lesser work. But I know that my privilege [a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group of people] and entitlement [the fact of having a right to something] blind me to the plight of those who are inexorably disadvantaged.
As it is coming more and more to light in many places in this nation, I am having my own awakening to racism. At Northland Rec Lab this year, I had the amazing experience of being with Dasha Kelly (http://dashakelly.com/) and Kima Hamilton (https://www.facebook.com/kimahamilton?fref=ts). Dasha walked us through several exercises related to writing but also to addressing our own perceptions, including our racist tendencies. She helped us look at expressing ourselves in new ways. And Kima did this presentation for us and I sat with tears, barely containing sobs. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=B4AntFF9M7s (His piece starts at 0:45 seconds. The sound on this recording is not perfect; seeing this in person was so much more intense. Standing 20’ from me, Kima’s presence was palpable as he spoke these words.) So relevant. So powerful. But as big as his impact with this performance was, his impact on me with a few simple words is what I keep close in mind from our interactions. With five simple words from Kima, I was dumbfounded into silence and immobility. I was shocked into a profound humility and a deeper understanding.
I’d approached Dasha and Kima with a simple question that had been running around my mind. I realized of late that I am often forgetful of the fact that I am fat when interacting with others. Though the America population is increasingly growing in individual size, I know that my weight calls me out as different. But I often forget and feel like I am skinny. I actually joke that I’m a reverse anorexic because I feel skinnier than I truly am. And I realized that sometimes I feel just like a human, not a fat human among average body type humans, not different… but the same. And I had been wondering if it was in any way similar in being black. Was there ever a time when you felt like you were just a human, not a black human? Because Dasha and Kima had opened themselves to these discussions as the only two black people among a huge group of whites (and one Asian), I explained this idea to them and then asked as we walked toward the Dining Hall, “Is there anything similar for you? Do you ever forget you’re black?”
Dasha seems like a sister from another mother to me. I just LOVE her vivacious, bold, funny, flamboyant personality. Her amazing way with words and her open, loving, welcoming style make you feel like you’ve known her forever. And she and I engaged in a quick conversation about this idea. We thought about possibilities and examined the idea commenting back and forth as Kima walked along with us in silence. When we arrived at the building, she turned to him and said, “What do you think, Kima?” And he looked at me, at least it felt like he looked directly at me, through me even, and said almost in an off-hand way as if it should have been obvious, “I never forget I’m black.”
It should have been obvious. I realized it immediately. Kima is a big man. A big, black man. A man with dreads. A man with physical strength and size. And that is what many see. That and only that. Forget his beautiful and friendly smile. Forget his loving heart that shines through his encouraging and considerate words. Forget his gentle touch on your shoulder as he walks past or his quiet, open face that listens intently to you… or watches, like a child seeing it for the first time, as Laura demonstrates methods in clay during her workshop. Forget that he’s human. It’s easy to do in this programmed place where we reside.
We see it nightly on our screens. Black man = Criminal. Black man = Danger. Black man = Scary. Even my friend here in Alexandria recently said that her black daughters were exclaiming concern over a “black man” outside their home. We are ALL being programmed to fear black men.
After that question to Dasha and Kima, I realized how crucial it is that I continue talking with People of Color to try to comprehend a bigger perspective. To expand my understanding and hopefully contribute to doing something toward reducing racism, my own and that of others. As I walked to the next workshop moments later, I had an emotional breakdown. I began to relive my past relationships with black people like an end-of-life, flash-before-my-eyes video. I began crying as I walked in the rain and by the time I got to the building, I was sobbing aloud. I remembered Bobby Whitehead. My mother occasionally likes to tell the story of how I came home from elementary school one day to let her know, “I’m going to marry Bobby Whitehead.” I remember Ivy Green, my best friend in 1st grade. We were fast friends. I remember Lavesa Peterson, my best friend in 6th grade. She lived in the projects behind the Kroger. I didn’t know what projects were but I remember seeing the difference in her home and mine. Not that it was a big impact then. I just wanted to hang out with my friend, I wasn’t evaluating her environment. But I remember being the one who was different in this world of black people. Lavesa got pregnant soon after and disappeared from my life. I thought back to that one time I went to the Society of Black Engineers meeting, again being the one person who was different. Why didn’t I go back? Was I afraid? Intimidated? Or just indifferent? I remember Deb Hudson and Wendell Harris, co-workers at Inland Steel who would challenge me and converse with me in open ways. It seems my whole life I’d been given opportunities but squandered them. I sat in that bathroom letting all this emotion wash over me, feeling the regret of so many years. As my sobs subsided, I thought to myself, “I don’t want to do that anymore. From this point forward, I want to work to find space in my life to interact with people of color. I have to work on this when I get an opportunity.”
I don’t know if I had any idea of what this would mean. But I committed to engaging with a new friend for whom I have a lot of respect based on the couple interactions we’d had of late. She’s a black woman who speaks her mind boldly, often surprising me with her comments. Her honesty and openness is refreshing. On several occasions, we’d talked briefly, both seeing a comrade I believe. A few weeks after Rec Lab, I found an opportunity to meet with her. I spent time listening to her story and was amazed by it. I was thrilled by the loving connection I felt to this woman and was happy to have found a friend, a sister, a woman with whom I can share and listen with both of us finding fulfillment. And I am hopeful that there will be from our friendship some progress on race relations. Every interaction brings us closer to breaking down those barriers that exist when people of difference do not collaborate.
Why is it that America seems to continue to struggle? I think part of it is due to the fact that we have never made amends for past transgressions. “History is written by the victors” says Howard Zinn. And his literary work was based on rectifying this by writing history from the perspective of the vanquished. His People’s History of the United States is worth a read. Here’s a *.pdf if you care to pursue it… http://www.thegoyslife.com/Documents/Books/A%20People’s%20History%20of%20the%20United%20States-%20Howard%20Zinn.pdf This work shows how, over and over in America, those in power have continued to quell the masses with small indulgences while maintaining and growing their power and status. The current state of American politics is that we will likely have the choice of voting for one of two millionaires, one beholden only to himself and one beholden to many wealthy donors and corporations. Where is the candidate truly representing the people? Not on the ballot in most cases. Some of us may take the opportunity to vote for another woman, Jill Stein of the Green Party, as a way of rebelling against the limitations brought by two parties very much aligned in continuing our capitalist, imperialist, militarized, and corporatized future. One owned by the few and supported by the poor, umempowered masses. One that is rapidly depleting and destroying our planet. And People of Color lose disproportionately in Climate Change too.
[Sorry, I just needed a bit of humor to keep from screaming. Get your bumper sticker here: http://www.northernsun.com/Destroy-Planet-Before-Jesus-Bumper-Sticker-(7280) ]
There are many roots to the problems causing the issues associated with race in this country. And I’m not sure where to begin but making amends for past transgressions would be a good start. Paying a $15 minimum wage to assure all workers get a reasonable chance at living without intense poverty. Giving People of Color more opportunities to do ANY job they want, get ANY education they want, live ANYWHERE they want. I know that politicians like to keep us divided, fighting amongst ourselves while they run away with all the spoils. They keep us in fear of each other, typically pitting Whites again People of Color, making them the scapegoats. This way, we’re not watching while they make more rules to benefit those who own our political system.
The Non-Fiction Book Club at Cherry Street Books is currently reading The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson about the migration of Blacks from the South to the North. The story follows three individuals but also speaks of the migration at large, the reasons behind it, and the ramifications for those participating. It addresses the misconceptions held by many, that Southern Blacks were more likely to be on welfare, caused more crime, had more children, thus making things worse when they moved North. None of these perceptions of the migrants was based in fact, but only on prejudice. Data showed that Southern Blacks were often smarter than Northern Blacks and even many Northern Whites. They were typically very productive citizens, even against all odds of finding equal employment, fair wages and affordable housing. And they paved the way for their kids to do better by giving them the advantage of growing up with more education, freedom and opportunity than they’d had in the South.
In the book, the South was often depicted as more easy to deal with than the North. In the South, the laws were written to legitimize the unequal treatment of Blacks. In the North, there were no laws but the practices were in place nonetheless. The mirage of freedom and equality in the North was much harder to dispel than Southern laws which could be changed with the swipe of a pen.
While we’re no longer lynching Blacks in public displays, the inherent racism in our present society creates a system that still stifles the ability of Blacks to progress, limits their access to success, and impedes their experience of justice. I know things are better for Blacks in many ways but we’re progressing much too slowly and of late we’re seeming to regress.
It is much more complex than simply Loving Your Neighbor Regardless of Color but this is a good place for many of us to start. To not “Love your neighbor” based simply on the color of her skin is truly ridiculous. There is no sense in it. Some say Racism is a mental illness and I must say this makes sense to me. Our current society is a culture of fear and in it, skin color is a marker for many negative concepts. But this is programmed perception and thus it can be changed. Prejudice is taught. And acceptance and fairness can be taught in its place. We can find ways to overcome ignorance, indifference, and inexperience. We can consider our own thoughts and ideas and find the irrationality. We can find opportunities to open our minds and create interactions that bring new ideas and perceptions. We can do this together.
The answers are complex but I encourage you to consider what you can do. If you are black, begin a conversation with a white person in your world and see what comes of it. If you’re white, invite a black person to coffee and see where you find common ground. At the very least, we all want…
- love and acceptance
- a better world for our children
- to have enough
- to BE enough.
Find a way today to give these things to someone else and goodness will surely come to you. What you reap, you sow. Sow some oats of Redemption. I hope for many conversations in the coming days and I hope even more for real progress on race relations in this country.