Thursday, July 12, 2012

Another Brick in the Wall

We don't need no education

We don’t need no thought control

No dark sarcasm in the classroom

Teachers, leave them kids alone

Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone!
All in all it's just another brick in the wall.
All in all you’re just another brick in the wall.
~ Pink Floyd, Another Brick in the Wall Part 2
I’ve been en route and then busy with visiting family for the last couple of weeks, but I am home again, in my quiet house where I can cogitate without interruption, and I am ready to write.  Lots of words and ideas, jotted down so I wouldn’t forget, are pushing to break free, and I warn you, this post is lengthy and random, but it’s all connected in my mind.
Though most people don’t want to recognize racism or consider themselves a part of a racist society, it is integral in our societal structure, one brick laid on another and another, made strong with individual prejudice and what I’ve come to call willful or knowledgeable ignorance – the refusal to acknowledge what is right before one’s eyes, a denial of the truth.
There was a front-page story in the Winston-Salem Journal two Sundays ago: Separate worlds. The article begins with the following:
Many of Forsyth County’s public schools have resegregated over the last 40 years as national court decisions, and local political ones, favored neighborhood schools over racially and economically balanced ones.
It goes on to say:
Past Winston-Salem Journal and Associated Press reviews of the U.S. census data from 1980, 1990, and 2000 have shown Winston-Salem and Forsyth County to be the state’s most segregated major population center. In focusing just on Hispanic population data from the 2000 census, the Associated Press determined that Hispanics here are more segregated from whites than in any other city except Oakland, CA.
Can anyone deny the racism that exists in the town I live in? I’ve already warned Ronald that he will be responsible for selecting the next city we move to. Some people say everything happens for a reason; some think God has a plan and puts you just where you need to be to fulfill a purpose. I think I just made a poor choice, and yet, this may be the last place I call home. I think every place is similar, anyway.  Racism exists everywhere in this country.
I didn’t see the wrinkles and imperfections of this city when we used to drive down to the dance conservatory to see Cara and Mackenzie perform, or to spend time watching their classes, or to pick them up to take them home for the summer. The Carolina blue sky must have blinded me. Every day we live here teaches me that this town has plantation mentality. Every day I see that although we experienced racism in the North, here racism runs deep and true. It’s a part of the lingo and the philosophy that gets passed down through the generations. There is no denying it. And I’m not even out there talking to the citizens as Ronald is.
One white guy told Ronald that his great-grandfather owned slaves, and they were treated right. They even had doctors look after them when needed. He averred that they had a good life, better than what they might have faced in Africa.
“Do you know how much my great granddaddy paid for just one slave girl?” he asked Ronald. He had found his grandfather’s bookkeeping logs.
“Don’t know,” Ronald said.
“Eight hundred dollars. That was a lot of money back then. You wouldn’t abuse your slave when you paid that much for her,” he said, proud of how he had proven the humanity behind slavery.
“Oh, just like you wouldn’t mistreat the oxen or the other farm animals,” I said as Ronald finished up the story.
“Just like that,” he agreed.
“Never mind that you consider them animals and property, not people.”
“And they still want to believe it.”
“Take back America,” I said. “That’s where they want to take it back to.”
Ronald had been called a Yankee again and told that Yankees came down here for the weather but hated the people. Ronald told the white man that while he didn’t like the opinions of a lot of people he had met, he had never been rude or called them names as he had been since moving here.
“Did you remind him that the Civil War is over and that they lost?”
“Sometimes I want to,” he said.
I’m not perfect. My emotions are strong and deep and not always appropriate. There they are like banners, displayed for all who care to look, snapping in the wind on a bright day, hanging wet and limp in the rain, or rendered stiff and immobile in sub-zero temperatures. I don’t and won’t apologize for having them.
When we moved to the South, it was a big adjustment. Ronald lived his entire life in one city, and that was the same city in which I spent most of my adult life. We had always struggled to find a few close friends, mostly, I think, due to our being interracial. People, even when we could tell they really liked us, just couldn’t compute how to fit us into their social network. I had lost my aunt, with whom I had a close relationship, a couple years before.  (Ronald and our daughters had changed her mind about black people and interracial relationships.) Then I had gone through a rough patch with my siblings as I settled my aunt’s estate. The unresolved issues dampened my skin like fine, misty rain, and I wanted a big change. Moving was the big change we chose. I hoped we could run away and lose the past.
In the South we knew no one but our daughter, and we weren’t ones to think our children were obligated to entertain us. So I imagined we’d make new friends, and I would entertain a girlfriend or two on long Saturday afternoons spent drinking hot tea and eating scones, settled around a Scrabble board. We didn’t make any new friends. And most of the old ones never visited as they had promised.
I always thought I was strong and resilient, but the move knocked me down for the count. That surprised me. I didn’t realize how attached I was to our old home, the one we raised our daughters in, and to the city that I always thought looked dirty, worn, and gray. The doctor said my serotonin was low. She prescribed something to increase it.
It worked, kind of. I stopped having panic attacks, the kind that caused me to pass out in the shopping mall and crack my head open one humid August evening just months before we made the move.
Then I noticed something after taking the medication for a couple of months. My emotions were neutral. I didn’t cry at movies. I didn’t feel pleasure, displeasure, angry, happy, joy, or despair. I was completely and utterly devoid, empty. I imagined my soul had oozed out of my body and left behind an empty vessel. I thought, “The world could crumble around my feet, drop away, leave a void as big as infinity, and I would feel nothing.” I stopped taking it.
Within a few weeks, I was sniffling at movies again, loudly enough to disturb other moviegoers. Laughing out loud at commercials. Wearing my love like a hot pink blouse and my anger and sadness like itchy woolen leggings. I truly missed feeling, and I embraced all of it: the good, the bad, the best, and the worst. You can’t know one emotion without experiencing its opposing emotion.
I’ll never cede my emotions again.
was an emotional rant, most likely addressed to the wrong person, but warranted, valid, and real. It was as honest and authentic as can be.  I’m not afraid to show my humanity with all its imperfection.
“I don’t know how much longer I’m going to be wearing dresses that show my knees,” I said to Ronald this past week as I stared at my reflection in the hotel room full-length mirror. I was traveling for work, and he came along because we were bringing his parents back with us for a visit.
“Why?” he asked. I know he appreciated how well the dress fit over my curves and the way my heels elongated my legs. Later that evening when we returned to the hotel, I watched a man back up so he could watch me walk down the hallway, my walk slower, more languid, than it was thirty years ago, but my hips still rolling in that sensual, feminine way. I like that kind of attention, distant and non-threatening.
‘My knees show what age I am,” I said. I think fifty-five must be the magic number. Rest my elbow in the car window and turn to see the skin above it fold and crinkle. Straighten my arms and look at my elbows, and the flesh covering them looks like tiny elephant knees. Glance at my hands, and notice how the skin is thinner and losing its elasticity. Stick my hands under the dryer in the restroom and watch the force of air swirl the skin in skittering patterns. I keep applying lotion, believing I can hydrate myself to twenty-something. Staring in the mirror, I noticed the skin above my knees looked crepe-like, spidery fine webbing etching my flesh. My once smooth and flawless skin has texture.
“Some women’s knees are like that their whole lives,” Ronald said. He’s always trying so hard to make me feel better, and I laugh at his attempts, not meanly, but sweetly and thankfully. I know, though, that his artist’s eye has wandered and explored every new crevice and crinkle. I think it must be painful to see the woman he pursued, photographed, plastered, and painted enthusiastically fade before his eyes like an old Polaroid snapshot. Even I, devoid of the sharp vision he has, noted how his eyes sit deeper in his face, the skin on his forearms, backs of his hands, and ankles is textured, and the bald spot on the crown of his head is growing. Disbelief rises. I think I don’t want to know, but why deny the truth? I refuse to practice willful ignorance.
I have to embrace aging the same way I’ve come to embrace my emotions. The alternative doesn’t appeal.
Neither does the alternative to speaking out about racism. My voice in the matter will be heard. I don’t want to shut others down, but sometimes their willful ignorance rattles my sensibilities.
A couple weeks ago the guys at the golf range told Ronald that President Obama stole his identity by assuming a dead man’s social security number. His grandmother aided and abetted Obama when he was fourteen and perhaps wishing for his first summer job. I got my social security number at fourteen for the same reason – to obtain my ready to work papers.
Apparently the conspiracy to turn us into a socialist country was born years ago by a conniving mixed-race child and his power-hungry white grandmother. The agencies of government that vet candidates for office were too dumb to discover the complex scheme, or perhaps they were in on it. But not the Tea Party and “Take Back America” conservatives – they were on to his masterful and evil plot to displace and disempower D. Whiteman.
“Snopes debunked that myth back in 2010,” I said to Ronald as he told the story, and I typed in a quick search. “Don’t they have the internet?”
‘They don’t want to know,” he said. “If not that, then something else. They just can’t say the truth. They don’t want a black man in office.”
Then my disappointment in humanity was further fueled by an experience we had this past weekend. We drove my parents-in-law back to NC to visit with us for a few days. Every place we stopped along the way garnered stares.
“Dianne, they’re just looking at you. They can’t figure out why you are with us,” my father-in-law said several times during our travels.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “I’m used to it.”
“They think you’re our social worker or something,” my mother-in-law said at dinner in a Ruby Tuesday’s in Maryland. I had ordered my father-in-law’s dinner for him and then asked the waitress to bring him another soda as the first one had too much ice and was shades paler than the usual Coke products.
We had to turn in early. The drive is arduous for two octogenarians, so we pulled over at a Holiday Inn Express in West Virginia at around 7:00 p.m. I went in to book the rooms. That’s something Ronald and I figured out a long time ago. It’s using that white privilege I’ve spoken about in past posts. I’ll get the lowest rate. Why shouldn’t we get the white people rate? There should only be one rate.
We know this because one time when we went down to visit Cara and Mackenzie while they were at the dance conservatory, we stopped into a nearby Comfort Inn. I booked the room and got a really nice rate. Ronald was back a couple of weeks later by himself, I can’t remember why, but when he returned to the hotel, they quoted him $30 higher.
“I stayed here a couple weeks ago with my wife, and that’s not what we paid,” he told the clerk behind the desk.
“Impossible,” the clerk responded.
“Look it up,” Ronald said.
He did.  “They made a mistake,” he told Ronald, but he gave him the rate I paid. How could he not?
We chose the Holiday Inn Express because my parents-in-law have used them in their travels for the last fifty years and feel comfortable there. The reason my parents-in-law like the Holiday Inn is because back in the mid-twentieth century that was one of the few hotels that would let blacks book rooms. I guess there’s no way to know if they gave them the same rate as white people.
That kind of memory stays with a person. It’s like Dillard’s. A long time ago, they did not welcome black shoppers. My in-laws have never forgotten, and they refuse to shop there when they visit the South. Though I love the store, I understand why they don’t, even if it happened fifty years ago.
I booked two non-smoking king rooms, asked for the AARP rate (he never even asked me for my membership card), and told the clerk, an Asian Indian man who spoke broken English, that my parents were elderly and needed to be close to us because they had health issues. He gave us rooms across the hall from one another.
I returned to the car, we parked, got our luggage, and piled into the hotel. The clerk stared as we passed the desk. I had a bad feeling from the start. I’m not psychic, but I use my intuition, and nothing felt right. I chalked it up to a long day on the road and the worry that clutched at me because I knew this trip was going to be awfully difficult for my parents-in-law to make. As soon as we got up to the rooms, the evening slid into chaos.
The clerk did not give us two rooms with king beds as I requested. One room had a king and the other had two doubles. No problem, Ronald and I took the one with the doubles (we slept in a single dorm bed together for three of the four years of college), but the one with the king bed had a broken A/C unit. Ronald and I trudged back down stairs to tell the clerk. His uncle, a small man the same size as my father-in-law, stood behind him with a toddler in his arms. Ronald explained the situation. Then I added that if the A/C could not be repaired, we would have to move on to another hotel.  “You understand that my in-laws are elderly and have health issues. They cannot stay in a room without air.”
The desk clerk said he’d be up in twenty minutes. A half hour later, he still hadn’t come.
Ronald went back down while my in-laws propped open their door with a chair. I was trying to get them into our room to wait, but they didn’t want to miss the clerk. There were white people filing past us down the hall with dogs, lots of dogs. There must have been a dog show in town. They all stared as I stood with my in-laws, my father-in-law growing more upset as the minutes ticked by.
Downstairs the clerk told Ronald he was rushing him. Ronald explained, again, that his parents are elderly with health issues and the temperature in the room was well over 100 degrees. Finally the clerk agreed to come upstairs with him. The clerk’s uncle tagged along.
As soon as my father-in-law saw them, he wanted to explain the situation, but already tired and not feeling well, he was agitated and emotional. My mother-in-law made him sit down as the two men stooped around the PTAC (that stands for “packaged terminal air conditioner”) and examined it. Ronald stood nearby them. I waited in the hall.
After several minutes, the clerk announced the PTAC needed a new circuit board and maintenance would be there in the morning.
“Unacceptable,” Ronald said.
“Open the window,” the clerk answered. Even though it was evening, the temperature was still in the low 100s.
Ronald went into fire lieutenant mode. When you’ve managed fire scenes, you learn to communicate clearly, succinctly, loud enough to be heard, and with no room for interpretation. He did not curse. He did not lose control of his voice. He stood inches from the man’s face, his finger in his chest.
“You’re done. I gave you a chance to make it right,” Ronald said as the clerk backed out of the room, Ronald in close pursuit.
The clerk said, “Let them sleep in your room with you or take them to a different hotel and you stay here. You have another room.”
“Why don’t I call the police and they can help us sort this out?” Ronald said.
“Okay, okay, I have another room.”
“Too late.”
I jumped in. “I’ll see you at the front desk to check out. I already told you we’d be leaving if you couldn’t fix the air.”
Downstairs, my voice shaking, I said, “I explained to you that they have health issues. You see they are elderly. I better not see one cent charged on my credit card.”
Then he argued with me about the room numbers. He said we were in 320 and 322. We were not side by side but across the hall from one another in 320 and 321. I didn’t want 322 charged to my card.
“Really?” I asked. “Weren’t you just up there?”
“The computer doesn’t lie.”
“I don’t either. We are in 320 and 321. I want documentation that you cancelled the rooms.”
He said he had none and I took a business card from the desk and told him I would be checking to make sure he didn’t charge me. There was a white woman standing at the counter during our exchange. She stood with her mouth open and her wallet in her hand. As I stood waiting at the elevator to go back upstairs, I mouthed to her, “Don’t stay here.”
She excused herself from the desk and came over and whispered, “What happened? He was so rude to you.”
I explained. She said, “Oh, God, we prepaid.”
“Good luck,” I said.
I took my in-laws to the car while Ronald gathered the overnight bags, and the white woman and her family were parked next to us. It was the first she knew of our interracial status. She and I spoke again.  She offered the understanding that I wish for lots of times and don’t get as I navigate this interracial world.
I don’t think every white person hates black people. It’s the way our culture operates silently behind the scenes. Racism is institutionalized and systemic in how we live, work, and socialize. It’s about power and privilege and the oppression of others. Most people don’t realize it. They think racism is an individual thing, but it isn’t. That’s just plain bias or hatred. That white woman was kind and understanding, but in our society, she is still part of the majority race and benefits from that membership, just as I do. Until we eliminate the unwritten racism hidden in our social structure, it will remain, and the majority will continue to enjoy power and privilege while minority groups continue to suffer their status of “less than.”
Later, lying in bed with the lights turned off in our king room at the next hotel we found along the route, Ronald and I chuckled as we recapped our day before dropping off to sleep. We talked about all the people who stared and wondered what our story was. Then I mentioned the look on the hotel clerk’s face, how it went from arrogant to fearful, when Ronald went into lieutenant mode and told him we were leaving. We didn’t know if the man was stupid, rude, prejudiced, acting superior, or all of the above, but it had made for a very bad evening, one that we’ll talk about for years to come, no doubt.
“I guess all the white folks with their dogs were worried that the niggers were going to turn out the place,” Ronald concluded. He keeps a sense of humor about these situations.
“Yup, it’s always an adventure,” I said, laughing.
I told Ronald the story of the white woman who nodded to me one last time after I had pulled our car up to the front door to wait for him while he imparted a last warning not to charge our credit card to the clerk and his uncle. The woman tilted her head and smiled, and I smiled back at her and shrugged my shoulders.
We are all just another brick in the societal wall, but I hope that together we can modify the structure so there will be true equality. I’m talking about the kind of equality where everyone pays a better rate at the hotel and the clerk aims to please all of the hotel guests. We can’t run away and lose the past. Instead we have to shake up our willful ignorance and face the undeniable truth.

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