Friday, August 19, 2011

Racial Equality - Tale of Two Countries

I picked up the USA Today this week because an article on the front page caught my attention – Poll: Racial Divisions Remain.
It’s no surprise to me that the quest for racial equality is measured differently depending on whom you ask, but I was glad USA Today conducted a poll on the topic and considered it important enough for front page coverage. In spite of the potential for inaccurate results with a lot of these newspaper polls, I think there is something to this. I hear it when I speak to others on this topic. There are those who believe we live in a post racial society, based on the fact that we elected a black president. There are others, myself included, that think President Obama’s election was a first, not a trend, and certainly not indicative that we no longer live in a racial society. Racism is alive and well – different, but still present, still insidious.
I worry about the idolatry of the movement to “take back America.” For me, it’s code that a certain, elite group believes it owns this country: those that want to push the hands of time backwards, who fear social programs and government intervention (except when it comes to certain hot button issues: abortion; gay marriage), who wish to force fundamental religious dogma on all citizens and in our governance, and who wish for segregation and exclusion of those deemed different.
I’m as American as anyone, and I’m proud to be an American, even as I hope for change, progress, and inclusion of all the people who make up our great country. We have room for different philosophies and approaches – it’s what makes us great. What’s your vision for America?
(Excerpt from essay What’s Race Got to Do with It?)
Ma descended into depression and then alcoholism in the years after she crossed an ocean to be with Dad at the end of World War II. Her in-laws refused to accept her because of her cultural and religious differences, and she felt profound isolation and loneliness. Her drinking escalated as my three older siblings each left home, leaving my youngest brother and me behind.  The chaos inside our house, and the brutal verbal abuse my parents engaged in daily, eroded my confidence, trust in others, and sense of self. My home environment probably exacerbated my shyness and fear of strangers. Everything about my life felt skewed and fragile.
When I met Ronald, he seemed the epitome of self-control, stability and protection. Our different races and culturally different upbringings felt a bit like déjà vu, but also contributed to the feeling that our relationship would deliver me far beyond the circumstances of my childhood. Perhaps it was the same hope Ma fostered when she fell in love with Dad.
Monica McGoldrick says the following about exogamous relationships:
Couples who choose to “marry out” are usually seeking to rebalance their own ethnic characteristics, moving away from some values as well as toward others. During courtship, a person may be attracted precisely to the loved one’s differentness, but when he or she is in a marital relationship the same qualities can seem grating.

This is true of our marriage. It took me years to realize that when Ronald speaks loudly and passionately, he is not angry. It took him just as long to understand my silence is a coping mechanism, my way of hiding inside my head when the external world is overwhelming.
Human beings are social and crave interaction. Being interracially married can break or eliminate one’s social support network. In the beginning we did not worry about what others thought. We were too busy focusing on one another, the pull and excitement of new love occupying our full attention. But soon, external pressures intruded.

Erica Chito Childs, an interracially married white woman, studied the social dynamics of interracial couples and documented her qualitative research in the book Navigating Interracial Borders. She borrowed the term “miner’s canary” from Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres who defined it in their book The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Power. They described the ways in which the experiences of racial minorities in America expose the hidden toxicity of racism much like canaries in coalmines expose toxic air.
Chito Childs says, “In many ways, the experiences of black-white couples are a miner’s canary, revealing problems of race that otherwise remain hidden, especially to whites. The issues surrounding interracial couples…should not be looked at as individual problems, but rather as a reflection of the larger racial issues that divide the races.”

Back in the early eighties Ronald joined a men’s bowling league with a white friend of ours, Randy. We had known Randy since undergraduate school. His wife Sharon, also white, and I decided we would go watch the men bowl. Almost immediately one of the white men on the opposing team started making comments about me, like, “What’s she doing with him?” and “She’d be better off with me.”
At first I thought it was funny. Ronald was in his twenties, a firefighter, a musician, and an artist. He dressed handsomely and neatly. He was of average height, but he had bulging biceps, and his backside, as he stood at the lane ready to throw his ball, made my head swim with delight. The white man was much older and overweight with a beach-ball-sized belly. He wore a T-shirt stained with food and dirt, needed a haircut, and drank like Ma. I wondered aloud what made him think I would choose him over Ronald.
The more he drank, the bolder he got. When Ronald got up to bowl, the man purposely distracted him. He stood close to me, invading my space. I grew frightened, and Ronald became frustrated and angry. Then the man said something to Ronald that I could not hear. Ronald picked up a nearby beer bottle and smashed it on the table edge, holding the jagged top like a weapon. All of a sudden, I lost sight of him.  A group of thirty or forty white men had swarmed him.
I pushed my way through the men, my heart pounding. One of them had his arm around Ronald’s neck and others pushed their faces into Ronald’s and shouted profanities at him.
“Stop it,” I screamed, pushing at the men surrounding Ronald and trying to pull the man’s arm from around his neck. I felt swallowed by the mass of bodies. Terror raced through me, bright lights flashing in front of my eyes. At that moment I realized our relationship could move some people to violence. “Stop, please! Let go of him! Why are you doing this?” I cried looking at the faces around me. The men backed away.
“Let go of me. We’re leaving,” Ronald said. They let him go and he walked through them to get his bowling gear.
“Why did you do this?” I asked the man who had held Ronald by the neck, my voice squeezed by disbelief. “Didn’t you see what your teammate was doing?”
“I guess it wasn’t right,” he said.
Randy and Sharon stood planted, side-by-side, spectators to it all. Randy looked puzzled.
“Should we leave, too?” he asked Ronald.
“Do whatever you have to do,” Ronald answered, his breath heaving.
“I know a few of these guys. That’s Mr. Bigelow. He’s a nice man.”
“He’s nice to you,” Ronald said, picking up his ball bag and turning away. I followed him to the exit. He held the door for me, and, as I stepped through it, I turned back to see Randy packing up his equipment. Outside Ronald opened the trunk to put his ball bag in the car, and he picked up the tire iron, testing its weightiness.
“Don’t,” I said.  “It isn’t worth it.”
Ronald looked at me and held the tire iron out in front of him. Then he put it back in the trunk and closed the lid.

Ronald developed his own explanation about interracial couples and racism. He called it the “’Does Your Dog Bite?’ Theory.”
“Does your dog bite?” the theory goes.
“No, he doesn’t bite.”
“You mean he doesn’t bite you, but you don’t know how he’ll act around me.” And so it goes with people.
Despite my parents’ marriage fraught with cultural discord, I wanted to believe Ma and Dad would understand. My father’s best friend was a black man, and their friendship spanned six decades. Ma and Dad said the neighbors were ignorant when everyone except my parents signed a petition to prevent a black family from buying a house on our street. They were friends with an interracial couple in the1960s, having them over to our house several times for coffee, tea and cookies. My sister’s friend from college, a black man from Kenya, stayed with us for a weekend. My godmother called in a panic when she heard about his visit, but Ma laughed over her concern.
So it was with astonishment that I witnessed my parents attacking my relationship with Ronald, using the kind of verbal abuse usually reserved for one another: invoking the N-word, refusing to speak to Ronald, and making predictions that I would end up on welfare with a passel of mulatto children.  I wonder now how many children constituted a passel, since there were five of us. And there was the time Dad had a heart attack when I was twelve.  He was unable to return to work immediately, so he and Ma collected welfare. 

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