Thursday, May 9, 2013

Funny Vibe

No, I'm not gonna rob you
No, I'm not gonna beat you
No, I'm not gonna rape you
So why you want to give me that
Funny Vibe!

No, I'm not gonna hurt you
No, I'm not gonna harm you
And I try not to hate you
So why you want to give me that
Funny Vibe!
~ Funny Vibe, Living Colour, 1988

Sometimes I wish I could remember what it was like before I was race conscious. Blissfully ignorant, I believed racism had been outlawed with the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
I can’t claim ignorance anymore. The more I witness and experience, the more I realize that in our current collective frame of mind, racism is insurmountable and true change and true equality are a cruel fantasy.
I am not cynical, just weary.  I see the same weariness in my husband Ronald (for new readers, I am white and Ronald is black. We’ve been together for nearly 40 years.).
Ronald says, “Why do you write about this? It won’t change anything. It will only upset you.”
I’m already upset by it, though. Writing helps me to process it. As weary as I am over the whole thing, as hopeless as it feels, I want to make it better. I’d rather try to make change than tacitly perpetuate racism through inaction.
When Ronald is at his saddest he says, “I’ve seen too much.”
He is referring to when he was growing up in the projects on the Westside of Syracuse and then, later, when he served the community as a firefighter for 25 years and assisted people in crisis. The images are burned into his soul, and they live alongside me. I can’t turn them out. They are valid and real. They have a right to be here.
Watching media stories about the very white institution known as the PGA attacking Tiger Woods for “the drop” and Vijay Singh for “deer antler spray use,” Ronald recalled how certain officers on the fire department wanted to ruin his reputation and bring him shame just because they didn’t want him there. Their hatred, judgments, and actions against him had nothing to do with Ronald’s performance or abilities, but everything to do with the color of his skin. As a witness I felt immense sadness, helplessness, and anger. The same story is played out over and over, and it doesn’t matter if one is rich or famous or the best in the world at something or even the President of the United States. Skin color makes it so.
Everyone will remember that Tiger Woods took “the drop” at the 2013 Masters in Augusta, but they won’t remember that it was found to be a legal drop and that he did not have an unfair advantage.  They won’t remember that it was the PGA committee who determined the drop was legal and failed to let him know prior to signing his scorecard that a television spectator had called in a report of unfair play precipitating an investigation. They won’t remember how uncanny it was for the PGA committee to reverse its decision the next morning. They won’t remember that Tiger Woods is the number one golfer in the world because of his work ethic, drive, focus, and ability. They’ll only remember the commentators, Nick Faldo and Brandel Chamblee, calling for him to disqualify himself in a manner that suggested to me they might as well have worn white hoods and carried torches.  They’ll remember that deep down inside, they don’t think Tiger Woods deserves the title of the number one golfer in the world. Skin color makes it so.
I cringe when I hear about the kinds of attacks waged against President Obama. For a certain percentage of Americans, there is nothing he can do that is right. Hear them tell it, he doesn’t represent them. He is a tyrannical monster who orchestrated the Boston Marathon bombing and who plans to take America away from the very people who most deserve it – white people. Skin color makes it so.
It’s the mundane things, too. Like when we went out to eat the other night and the very nice, young, white waitress did not look or speak directly to Ronald the whole evening. She asked if we wanted separate checks and separate plates for our shared dessert, not just once, but several times, as if she wondered about my sanity, as if she could not imagine why we were seated at the same table, let alone sharing the same food and knocking spoons.
Her final attempt at figuring out the situation resulted in her handing Ronald’s credit card back to me instead of him. The scenario did not compute in her world. It ruined our evening. Skin color makes it so.
Then there are the events that change one’s life and one’s sense of self. They are specters that haunt continually and cast gray shadows that snuff out one’s spark.
I saw such a specter this past week as it hovered over my father-in-law. He has dementia, which is sad enough as we struggle with the loss of knowing him and of him knowing us.
“Who are you?” he asked me several times over the week.
Each time I patiently answered, “I’m Dianne, your number one daughter-in-law.” Sometimes he was fine and knew exactly who I was and minutes later, he didn’t.
One evening we piled into the car, with Ronald driving, to go to the carpet store to order new carpet for my in-laws’ bedroom. When we got inside the store, the salesman who approached us must have reminded my father-in-law of one of his supervisors from over 60 years ago.
“I’ve got something I need to say to him,” he said after I had led him to a chair so he could sit and his legs wouldn’t hurt so much. “I didn’t steal that loaf of bread.”
“He knows that now,” I said. “It’s been straightened out.”
“I want to tell him myself,” he said.
I know he didn’t steal that bread 60 years ago when he was a young father who moved his family up North so they could have a better life. One of his first jobs was at the Millbrook Bread Company. Like my father, he would not pick up a dime off the street if it didn’t belong to him. The truth doesn’t matter because that supervisor believed my father-in-law must have been the one that took that bread, and 60 years later the humiliation and anger are clear while other more dear memories are lost. Skin color makes it so.
When people are judged by the color of their skin, the scars go deeper than memory and time and space. They don’t fade. They embody pain, humiliation, depression, and anger. Skin color makes it so.
I’m sensitive to this, but that’s because racism is a chameleon, manifesting itself in different guises. My blissful ignorance is long gone, and I cannot recall how it felt. I am frequently offended, especially living down in the South where the attitudes seem infinitesimally different from the attitudes of the Jim Crow era. I am offended when people tell me not to take it seriously or to consider the source or that not everyone thinks that way or that I should just get over it. I can’t. I won’t. I’ve seen too much.
Instead I get that funny vibe like at the restaurant the other night or when white people stop and stare at us like we are engaged in something so unbelievable and abhorrent that they are going to post it on Facebook later and talk about it for the next year. Skin color makes it so.

The scars on this escaped slave’s back are painfully visible. This photo of Gordon was taken in 1862.

This is just one of the many subliminally racist images flooding the Internet. This is a target that bleeds when shot.  It eerily resembles President Obama. Looking at it gives me that funny vibe.

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