Friday, August 2, 2013

Biased Much?

The following letter appeared in my local newspaper today. It was titled Racism.
In response to the letter (‘a terrible message” July 28) criticizing the woman holding the “We’re racist & proud” sign, I am an American with European heritage. Because of my political and social views, many would label, and have labeled, me a racist. I would argue that I do not deserve that label.
My great-great-grandfather shed blood to free an enslaved people and my family and I have always opposed any measure that would promote one race over another. For example, I think it would be an outrage for a group with European heritage to promote advantages for themselves and call their group the National Association for the Advancement of Anglo-Saxon People. That would be offensive to many of non-Anglo descent.
A European History Month would be similarly offensive, as would an event celebrating White Repertoire Theater. If 12 million Europeans or their families had gained illegal entry into the country, resulting in a drain on the public treasury, I would be opposed to granting them amnesty without consequence.
Again, because of those views, I will be labeled a racist by many screaming racism, because of? Racism. There is no way to escape the label and I am proud of my views promoting equality for all people who obey the law.
If the Rev. Al Sharpton were to call me a racist, I’d never convince him that he is wrong. All I can do is to tolerate, even embrace, the label and proudly continue to hold and express my views.
Here is a reminder of that photo:

This is the problem. This letter writer and many, many others don’t get it. They are acting as if everyone, no matter one’s ethnic or racial heritage or the color of one’s skin, is treated the same and experiences social interactions and situations in the same way, and enjoys equal protection under the law; that we all have the same experience as citizens of the United States of America. But that is an assumption, and it is wrong, dead wrong in many cases.
Let me illustrate. Male teens of all races dress a lot alike. That’s part of adolescence – they are rebelling against the older generations but conforming with their own generation while claiming they are fiercely independent. They like hoodies and pants that are way too low at the waist or below the butt for my taste. I’d like to start a campaign to “put a belt on it,” but I digress and I seem to recall not too many adults of the generation above me liked the short skirts, platform heels, hiphugger bellbottom jeans, and midriff shirts I wore back in the ‘70s like everyone else my age.
That same uniform takes on different meanings depending on whether the person wearing it is white or black. A white teen might be described as finding himself and sowing his wild oats; it’s what ALL boys do, all white boys, anyway.
Put that same uniform on a black teen, and he is a criminal.
Subconscious racial bias and racism are alive and well.
And that’s scary, because when a stranger is sizing you up and subconscious racial bias is operating, a black teen may find himself in a fatal situation just as Trayvon Martin did, and Darius Simmons, aged 13, who was shot and killed by his neighbor. No one should discount the enormity of racism and racial bias. It is deadly!
So when I read a letter like the one above, or someone writes a comment on my Facebook page, or says something in a conversation that diminishes or denies the effect of racial bias, I react strongly. Because I have seen how dangerous it is and not just in the news but in my life.
Examples of dangerous or life transforming racially motivated occurences in my life (for new readers, I am white, my husband is black): the seller of our first house decided not to honor our contract after she found out we were an interracial couple; forty white men jumped Ronald because they didn’t think he should be able to date me; two white men rammed our canoe with their motor boat because they didn’t like seeing us together; a car of twenty-something white kids hurtled toward us as we left the movie theater and one kid yelled a racial epithet as they sped off; a white cop held a gun to Ronald’s head as he unlocked his car door because “blacks don’t own foreign cars”; a white guy sucker punched Ronald because he mistook him for an Arab; Ronald was fired from his first job because his boss didn’t like seeing us together; Ronald was arrested for walking down the street. I could list hundreds of more situations, and we are just one couple.
I am saddened by it, too. Because racial bias is insidious in so many ways. When I see a black male child, I see a child. I don’t see a person who has evil intent, or who can physically take me, or who wants to rob me. I see a child.
When our daughters were in first grade, we separated them so they would be able to develop independently. Mackenzie was shy at school and relied on Cara to speak for her, and Cara would have forgotten her head at school every day if Mackenzie wasn’t tracking behind her picking up her lunchbox and gloves and books and boots.
Cara came home each day to excitedly tell me about her new friend. I went to school one day for a special class project, and, as we waited for the kids to return from a school function in the auditorium, I started a conversation with another mom. We were each delighted to discover the other was the mother of the child who was our daughter’s new friend.
The kids returned, and Cara ran over to hug me. I guess Cara's brown skin against my white skin was too much. The white mother physically backed away from us. During the class project she and her daughter sat at the same table as we did, because the girls wanted to sit together, but she avoided speaking to me, and I could tell she was comparing her daughter’s artwork to Cara’s artwork and pushing her daughter to do better. I was saddened by the way the afternoon unfolded.
The next week Cara came home from school crying. She said her new friend had left to go to another school.
I asked the teacher what happened, and because we had known each other for quite a while, she was honest with me when she told me the mother said she was removing her daughter from the school because there was not a single child in the classroom she considered a peer to her child and there were too many black boys in the class.
I knew the black boys she talked about, and I thought they were wonderful, like I think all children are. Their eyes gleemed with the excitement of learning. Their bodies moved with energy and passion. They were friendly, and funny, and engaging, and creative, and smart. I never saw them as different from my children, but she didn’t like my child either.
I wonder if I had been more like that mother, would I have been frightened, too? I don’t think so. I learned from an early age about being open to who other people are. Maybe I learned it because I felt like such an unlovable being, and I hoped others would be open to seeing me if I were open to them. Maybe I always had deep empathy for others, that rare ability to walk in someone else’s shoes. I wish I could endow others with that kind of compassion.
I would travel the country with my magic wand and touch the foreheads and the hearts of people everywhere, so they, too, would see, not through the lenses of hatred and paranoia, but through the lens of acceptance.
So I have to wonder about someone who can look at a 13-year-old boy and see an enemy, especially when so many white middle class children seem to have extended childhoods that last into their mid-twenties and sometimes even later. How, then, can a black boy be assigned adult power and wherewithall and prowess? Racism and racial bias.
There is a a story in the New York Times about Missouri schools where white parents are upset that black parents are transferring their children to better performing schools. Wouldn’t you want that for your child? Why would you be upset that someone else desires it?
One mother who chose to transfer her daughter from a school that had the worst disciplinary rating in the state to a predominately white school watched a televised town hall meeting about the school where the “parents angrily protested the transfer of Normandy students across the county line, some yelling that their children could be stabbed and that the district’s academic standards would slip.”
The mother said, “When I saw them screaming and hollering like they were crazy, I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, this is back in Martin Luther King days. They’re going to get the hoses out. They’re going to be beating our kids and making sure they don’t get off the school bus.’”
Can you imagine thinking that? Wondering if you made the right decision to put your child in a better school and worrying about her safety?
The irony of the white parents thinking the same thing is not lost on me. But I have to wonder how their thinking got to that point. Why are they assuming that having black children in their school, in particular, lower socio-economic black children, will put their own children in danger?
That’s the same kind of thinking George Zimmerman had when he shot and killed Trayvon Martin. That’s the same kind of thinking John Henry Spooner had when he shot and killed Darius Simmons. He said, when the judge asked him if he felt bad for killing his next door neighbor, “Not that bad.”
When he was questioned on the stand he said, “I wanted my guns back. I just, you ever want something so bad…yeah.”
What? His guns were worth more than a child’s life? A child who did not steal his guns? A child who was his neighbor and known to him? How does anyone come to this? Racial bias and racism.
I can’t see us having a conversation on race when the very people who need to be active listeners in the conversation shut it down with their disbelief that racism exists. The truth is in the news every day, and in the lives of millions of people of color. How can it be denied?
The reason most white people think there is no racism is that they have not experienced it,  and they cannot imagine that such horrible things could happen in a country where they feel safe and free to live their lives, until someone of color moves into their neighborhood or attends their child’s school.
I’ll leave you with this video of James Baldwin, activist and writer, describing racism to Dick Cavett fifty years ago. Some things don’t change, and his words are as true today as they were back then.