Sunday, July 10, 2016

Starting a Conversation

The events of the last week....
The deaths of the last week....
Where to start?

I currently have too many thoughts in my head and trying to organize them all in a way that makes sense to even just me seems nearly impossible. There are emotions. On all sides. But why are there sides?

I think I learned about racism in sixth grade. David, a black boy, liked to snap the straps of my bra, which infuriated me to no end. And yet I didn't tell on him (which says more about sexism than I was aware of and is a completely different topic). I glared at him and he laughed. Our teacher, Mr. Black (a white Mormon), pulled me aside one day. He said that David reported that I told him to "keep his black hands off me." I was horrified. I cried. I didn't understand completely what it meant, but I understood it was terrible. I understood that I shouldn't feel that black was different or that being black was wrong. I was devastated that someone would blame me for thinking that way.

When I think about it more, there were other things that happened that pointed out to me that being black was different. My parents never said that black people were less. Not in those words, but in others. Our white, elderly neighbors were robbed late one night when they arrived home. The robbers were two black men. That's all I know. I only know this because that was how it was reported to my parents who related it that way to me. We moved because "too many black people were coming into the neighborhood." (Also - we had the luxury and the privilege to move away.)

I always knew that having a black boyfriend would irritate my parents. I wanted one, I never got one. I wasn't really that brave.

My parents moved to a small town in Oregon when my brother was a baby. We were having lunch in a restaurant near a window. Outside, in the parking lot, were a couple of young black men. My two-year-old brother looked at them and exclaimed, "Those men are dirty!!" He had never seen a black person before. I tried over and over to tell him that was the color of their skin. He shook his head. "No. No, they're dirty." I looked at my mom and told her she should not have left Southern California because now she was raising a racist toddler. She laughed.

Why am I telling you these things? It's not to tell you that my parents are bad people. They're not. It's to tell you that, as white people, we have some pretty fucked up ideas about people whose skin is a different color. And it's not as easy to label someone as being "bad" for thinking what they do because the messages feel so subtle sometimes. I wasn't told that my family didn't like blacks or that they were inferior. I wasn't taught to hate them. The message was simply that they were undesirable to live next door to.

All of this is to say that I understand the complexities of racism. I understand how it's sometimes hard to acknowledge when one is behaving in a racist manner. That it seems preposterous to call some behaviors racist. I know there is a learning curve. I also know that denial perpetuates the violence. I know that we can't continue the way we have. I know that there is injustice in the world. Grave injustice. I know that large sections of the population in my country are hurting. They are suffering, they are losing people they love, and they are dying. They are dying because they're black. They're angry because they're dying. I know this has to change. I know we have to do better.

Social media is the most useful tool when used responsibly and the greatest divider when it's not. It becomes a platform for people to spread hatred and to show the worst of humanity. The ugliest parts of themselves that we wish didn't exist.

There are a couple of things I've read in the last couple of days that gave me what Oprah always called "an aha! moment." These articles helped to put things in perspective for me in a way that I could relate to. As a woman, they made so much sense and I'm hoping that sharing them with you will help my white sisters understand and start a dialogue that helps us to move forward in helping our black sisters and brothers.

The first was an article about a BLM group meeting in the Nashville library. When it was discovered that the group was only open to persons of color, they were told they couldn't use the library as a meeting place anymore. The question was raised that white people might like to help and isn't it discriminatory in a reverse sort of way? But then the author gave the perfect analogy. Suppose a group of rape survivors decided to meet for support. A man approaches and says he wants to help them through their trauma. He is not a rapist, he has never hurt any of these survivors. But he's a man. He represents the gender that violated them. He won't understand, his help isn't welcome.

A second article compared racism to rape. We hear (and say) the same things about both.

"If she wasn't drunk..... If she hadn't worn that..... If she didn't flirt with the other guy....."
"If he kept his hands on the wheel.... If he just kept quiet and didn't ask questions..... If he weren't wearing a hoodie....."

Do you see the similarities? A woman doesn't ask to be raped. We don't ask to be catcalled. We don't ask to be objectified or marginalized or touched inappropriately or ignored or shamed or blamed for the thoughts a man has that we aren't aware of or in control of. People of color don't ask to be shot or suspected of crimes or profiled or accused. When we are just going about our business we don't ask to be victims. If we take ourselves outside of our own perceptions for a second, then maybe we can see that we have similarities.

Another problem I see on social media, and one that I have been confronted with, is that if I care about one cause, I must not care about another. Enough has been said about Black Lives versus All Lives, but this is related. There are several causes I care about and am passionate about. I can care about more than one at one time. I have enough emotion and enough space in my life to do so. Some become more pressing at times than others. If a woman is raped today and she is being vilified in the media while her rapist is being protected, then that is where I turn my attention. If I see an abused dog brought into a shelter who is in critical condition and needs immediate funds for medical care, then that is what I focus on for awareness. If there is an Amber Alert for a missing or kidnapped child, then that takes precedence in that moment and for that day. It isn't all or nothing for one cause and all the rest be damned.

Last week, while talking about Alton Sterling and Philando Castile and the greater problem of racism, I was called a cop-hater. Because I care that two men died unjustifiably does not equate to hatred of all police. I can and do understand the enormous sacrifice that officers make on a daily basis. I can feel for their families and know that they also make sacrifices in loving someone who might not come home that night. I can have the utmost respect for men and women who are willing to put their lives on the line to protect me while also calling out that mistakes were made because other lives were ended. There aren't sides. There are people with beliefs and prejudices making decisions that they might not be prepared for, and that result in the loss of lives. That this happens over and over means that something needs to change.

I went to the BLM vigil/protest in Nashville on Friday night. There were two black officers within visual sight of the gathering. One male, one female. Those attending the assembly weren't confronted with a large show of police, they were allowed to congregate without interference. And yet, before the event started, I watched two young black men walk by, silently flipping off the two officers. My immediate reaction was, "Why? They're here to ensure that you get your say, that you get to honor your loss. They're also black, like you. Why so hateful?" The next day I had to separate my own reasoning from their emotion. Maybe it was the uniform itself. And they weren't confrontational, they were expressing their frustration. It was a safe place to do so and they did it peacefully.

If we can stop the automatic voices in our heads for a few moments and try to understand, then we start to be part of the solution. Stop saying, "But I have black friends.... But I have never said that... But I have never done that.... But that's not me....." Because it is. We have all done or said something that contributes to the problem, that separates us from the solution. And even if you have never used the "N word" or refused to hire someone because of their skin color, there is a person of color who has had that experience. Saying that you don't do it doesn't mean that it doesn't happen to them.

And if I take this further, just because something hasn't happened to you doesn't mean that it won't or that it can't. I've never been raped, but it's a possibility. I've never been mugged, but it's a possibility. I've never lost a parent, but that is something that looms in my future. Just because something hasn't happened to you doesn't mean that it won't. And it doesn't mean that it hasn't happened to someone else. It may have happened to someone you know and care about, but they don't talk about it because, most likely, it happens so often it's hardly worth mentioning anymore.

I've come to understand some things in the last few days that I didn't even as recently as the last year. I was in Southern California during the Rodney King riots. Granted, I was safely ensconced in my college environment in Orange County. I watched the horrors from a distance on my TV. There was no social media then so I was allowed to form my own opinions without interference from other, biased comments. What I believed was that it was terribly wrong. What I saw was anger and frustration and fear from a community I wasn't part of. And, naively, I thought that things would change. I thought that this country saw injustice, paid the price, and would move forward.

I was so wrong, because here we are. I can't say if it's worse because we see more of it or if it's less but the worst is being broadcast more easily through modern technology. All I know is that it shouldn't continue, not in any amount. Twenty four years later and we're still having the same conversation. 24. Two decades. 

What I know is that my own internal voices need to change. They way I communicate to those around me needs to change. I can no longer sit by and say, "Oh, how sad. It's terrible but what can I do?" I have a voice. I can use it. It's just one voice and it won't reach everyone, but if everyone like me spoke up too? If we all silenced our own experiences for a minute. If we listened. If we acknowledged that we have more similar experiences than we think while also understanding that what certain groups experience is also profoundly different. If we stop denying that. If we accept and admit that we have been part of the problem. And if we decide we no longer want to be part of the problem. If we educate ourselves, if we look at history, if we open our minds and our hearts.

Oh, what would we do if we realized we could do it? What if we used our White Privilege to reach out? I feel like being white provides yet another advantage. Will you listen to me before you listen to "another angry black person?" Can you understand it coming from me? Does it make more sense? Can you have a conversation with me that you couldn't have with someone else?

Because I'm willing. Are you?


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