Thursday, July 18, 2013

I Am Not Trayvon; I Am a Racist

Many are writing that Zimmerman could not have been a racist because he, among other things, once tutored minority children. Oh, and 20% of the residents of his gated community are black (Here is one. Another here. One more here.)MMInottrayvon
I am a white woman. I have a black daughter and a black son. I am a racist.
If the old "I once had a black man into my home" argument does not work for me, a mother of two black children, it certainly does not work in defense of Zimmerman.
Here is the cold, hard truth, the secret that pains me daily: I was told throughout my childhood by my father to "cross the street when a black man approached"  (his exact words). I was told that Asians were dirty and bad. I was admonished when my father realized my prom date's parents were from the Philippines (my father refused to pay for the pictures; my mother bought them in secret) and told that if I brought my black dear friend home from college, I would not be allowed in.
These attitudes plagued me then. I knew somewhere deep in my soul that they were wrong. They made me uncomfortable and I have spent my adulthood combatting them. I ache, though, for no matter how hard I have fought against them, no matter how much I love my black children, they still exist within the recesses of my mind. There are still times when I see a black man approaching, even while out with my son, and hear that tape telling me to cross the street. I have to shake the tapes off, be bigger than them. Now, an adult who never ever wants my son to face a white person crossing the street as they approach, I usually over-compensate. I smile hugely and greet the person approaching. I work to picture my son's face and his future. I remind myself that the rantings of one blatant racist do not control me now.
Except in very real ways they do. These thoughts that creep in are the by-products of living in a racist society and, for many of us (though some through greater subtlety than in my home), being raised by a racist parent. We have all grown up and continue to exist in a culture that casually tosses racism into our every day experiences. Whether our exposure is limited to television shows that cast every bad guy in dark skin or news reports that focus heavily on crimes committed by black men (that same father committed his own crimes and was either not caught, or when he was, it simply never made the news), or we openly use racist language, racism permeates us.
It even influences the most benevolent of beings, those to whom we look for guidance. We have been manipulated, altered, and ruined by the greatest PR campaign ever created and having "a black man into our home" is simply not enough to rid ourselves of this propaganda.
It takes a lifetime of work to erase the tapes. On a small scale, it requires that we turn off the television (even those seemingly harmless commercials are often racist -- like the skeezy loan commercials featuring black families and the luxury car commercials featuring white people). We might wish to delete from our Facebook and Twitter feeds all those people who defend Zimmerman because of all the black men who shot white people and are free (trust me, if a black man shot a white person and is free, it is because he is on the run, not because he was acquitted), who post Paula Deen's recipes because her comments don't negate the quality of her recipes (that "her" recipes come out of black history is a story for another venue). We must will ourselves to make different choices than the ones our culture presents us (crossing the street, locking our car doors as a black man approaches).
On a larger scale, it requires that we begin by admitting that we have a problem.
We are racists.
(If your response to that statement is that I am "playing the race card", guess what -- you are a racist.)
We are racists, even those of us who co-exist daily with people of all races, and we have a lot of work to do.
Yesterday, my deep-set racism prevented me from standing up to to, if needed, deleting the aforementioned people from my Facebook feed. Because I loved them once, I don't want to hurt their feelings. That's racism. Racism dictates that it is okay to separate the person from what they say and do regarding race (a la Zimmerman; a la Deen). Today, I will stand up.
Yesterday, I demonstrated my racism by assuming that I did not need to join organizations like NAACP or to march peacefully. Racism dictates a hands-off approach as long as we do not perceive ourselves to be part of the problem. Today, I will join (thanks to my friend, D, who inspired this). I will march.
I am a racist because I worried there might be riots after the Zimmerman verdict. I am a racist because I have used the pain inherent in parenting a black son in these times as an excuse for remaining relatively silent after the verdict.
I am a racist because I am the beneficiary of white privilege (It even played a large part in me being allowed to adopt my children) and I have yet to do anything about it.
I am a racist because sometimes I think I am not and that it is the rest of the white people, not me, a mother of two black children, who need to do the work.
I am a racist and because of me, because of people like me, Zimmerman is a free man and a young boy who put up his hoodie to avoid the rain is dead.

9 comments:

outtasiteoutamind said...

Thank you for this honest telling of an ugly truth we all participate in. We need more kind, well-intentioned White people to step up and acknowledge the world we live in, benefit from, and oppress others with. --D

Jill Urbach said...

You spoke your thoughts well. I'm off island with D today so he read it too. It prompted good discussion.

Holly said...

Thank you for this post, I agree!

knitwitmama said...

Kudos to you for digging deep and revealing the hard stuff, it helps me feel brave enough to bring that stuff in me to the surface and face it in the light of day.
Jennie

Motherhood and More said...

I grew up in a very different family than you did, particularly when it comes to race. I was actively taught the importance of seeing the human race as one, and the varying shades of skin as no different than varying shades of flowers. I remember a roommate of mine in college remark that her dad would be angry if she ever brought a black boy home, and I remember thinking that my dad would be thrilled. I would actually be more likely to cross the street if a white man were walking toward me, because my first fear in those situations is serial killers, and they're predominantly white in my memory. I don't have the same tapes that you do.

That being said, I am still afflicted with the disease of racism. We all are, not just as white people, but as Americans. Our collective history is too rife with conflict, contention, inequality, and gross injustice not to be. For me, racism manifests itself in ways much more subtle. One place I can name it is occasionally feeling frustrated when a person of another race feels offended by something I don't see any offense in. Another place I can name it is in my passive acceptance of my white privilege, as you mentioned. Racism is an insidious cancer that doesn't always manifest itself in bad thoughts or bad feelings toward people of other races. To say I'm not affected by racism would be like saying I'm not affected by air pollution. Until we rid our society of the disease, we are all going to be affected by it.

In that vein, the only thing I'm not sure I agree with you on is shutting out people who are suffering more obviously with racism, or who don't recognize that they are infected with it. There are cases of KKK leaders having a 180 degree turnaround, which would never have happened if people had just shut them out. Erasing people who may manifest racism more blatantly, or unknowingly, may remove their voice from your life, but it removes your voice from their life as well. Because this is something we all suffer from, we can't give up hope for anyone to change. Without that hope, there's no real hope for humanity to overcome it. You may not need those people in your life in their current state, but they certainly need you.

Paula F. said...

I was actually thinking of your upbringing, Annie of Motherhood and More, as I wrote this, and considering your perspective.

Thanks for your helpful response and for challenging me on the FB decision.

The reasoning behind unfriending on FB has some layers to it.

The most important layer is that I just don't think FB (or twitter or any similar social media) is the place to discuss something so tenuous where disagreement is inevitable. I write this, of course, fully cognizant that I used FB as a platform for this post. I'm a bit grey in that regard.

There are people I have known a long time, people I will surely see again, with whom I disagree on this matter. Were we in a room together, I am pretty confident that we would have a civilized conversation about race. But within the artificial and somewhat sterile confines of FB, that conversation usually does not produce fruit. More often than not, it leads to hard feelings.

I was finding myself angry with people I had not seen in years over a matter that touches my family directly. Just as I did not feel they understood my perspective, I am sure I was misunderstanding their's. So part of my reasoning with a batch of FB friends was to preserve the relationship as I once knew it and recognize that we might have a more intimate discussion about race when in the same room.

Having said that, I debated that decision for a long time because I do believe that change comes about by knowing real people. I wondered if people seeing my kids and their activities on FB might help to humanize the issue. But then I felt that it is not fair for me to put my kids in that role. They already allow me to write about them in this open forum (as they get all veto rights to anything I write about them). I didn't think it fair to hold them up as some sort of example. I did not want to put them in the position of being a poster child of sorts (a crude way to word it, but I worried it could feel that way). Their younger sister, who is white, will never be put in that sort of position. Why should they?

I should add that In my mind, unfriending a person on FB is not the same as disolving the real friendship. On the contrary, I think there are a variety of situations where it is best to keep the relationship on live terms.

Another layer involved that batch of FB friends that I wasn't really sure about in the first place. These are people I will likely never see again and probably did not know too well in the first place. Eliminating them from my feed felt right because we were not close enough to have an intimate discussion about race. Once again, our interactions regarding race have only been on FB. I was allowing their views to creep into daily life. I was expending far too much mental energy there, leaving me little left to deal with racism as it affects my children. This was the easiest layer to consider.

The final layer, I suppose, comes with the decision of unfriending vs. hiding. I have hidden people in fact, but FB isn't always reliable and I was still seeing posts that I found damaging and hurtful. And then there is the very real fact that I am not nearly as strong as I would like to be and would sometimes foundnd myself going and peeking at hidden people. It felt voyeuristic, as if I were looking for something to fan the flames. I have no desire to fan the flames.

I do want to be a voice, though, in this discussion and I could not do that feeling anger at virtual versions of people -- people I have loved -- people I might very well love again someday.

Now then, Annie of Motherhood and More, how about writing a guest post on this subject coming from the perspective of a person who was not raised with those tapes in her head?

Anonymous said...

This is such a thought-provoking discussion. As the white mother of an African-American (or black, or dark-skinned, or brown...we use all these terms) daughter, I, too, have devoted many, many hours of introspection to this topic (particularly while I do her HAIR!!!!). When we first brought her home from the hospital, a tiny four-pound preemie with all the odds against her, I was extremely conscious and self-conscious. I felt people watching us, people of all races; I know that there are plenty of black mamas who were upset by my role as mama to my black child, and plenty of white folks who, at best, thought we were nuts. And, yes, I know the feeling of going out of my way to smile at a black person, while I hold my daughter's hand. "See? See? I am not racist!"

However, here is the thing I have come to understand. While we cannot control what is in our heads (those tapes are indelible), we can control our actions, our speech, our behavior. And you know what is weird? After a while the behavior, if you practice it long enough, becomes real--your thoughts stray less and less into channels you don't like. You become genuinely what you practice to be. This happens with both undesirable behaviors and desirable ones. After all these years I realize, when I stop to think about it, that I am not conscious of her color and mine any more. I do not think of myself as the white mom with the black daughter. Sitting with other moms pointing out our kids on the soccer field, I forget to say, "Mine's the African-American one" (and where we live, she is usually the ONLY one).

Also important: by your behavioral example you are teaching not only your own children, but the people around you. Your friends. Your acquaintances. The random person you sat next to on the bench in the park.

You love your kids. You will raise them to be better human beings than you were raised to be. That is progress and the process. Humanity has a long way to go, but we have come a long way baby. Don't resent the fact that your whiteness gave you the privilege to adopt those beautiful babies; acknowledge its truth and then move towards a world where that privilege extends to all people.

Best wishes!!

JudyinCA said...

I am Annie's Mom and can give some information on the layers before. I don't ever remember my Dad saying anything racist. He was in the American Legion and there I saw him openly friendly with black veterans. My high school voted a black student as president. But I had NO idea of anything outside my bubble. I was actually surprised reading about Martin Luther King and the marches in the South when they started. Just like I was surprised that American Indians were still alive. I had only seen them in movies. BUT I did hear racist messages from my grandfather who came from Tennessee. I don't remember hearing it from my Mom--so she was probably in the "keep quiet" generation. I guess because I rarely heard blatant racist comments, I felt they were wrong. I remember always arguing (with love) back to my grandfather that I thought he needed to look at it differently.
Maybe a "quiet" generation is a little like planting a seed and it takes time to see the difference.

Paula F. said...

I am encouraged by these comments to believe that we can make a great change in the racism that plagues our country. I appreciate hearing your thoughts.

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