Saturday, July 20, 2013

My Story Of Being Confronted And Accused of Racism

These black men are angry in part because they think their voices don't matter. I'm listening to what they are saying, and that's what they are saying. They think their voices don't matter because other black men, women, children and other color of folks who believe in civil rights have been fighting for equality in this civilized country, and not only do they not have true equality, they know that black people are three times more likely to be searched at a traffic stop than white motorists, ( ie 'driving while black' ) and four times as likely to experience force in an encounter with the police, and on and on the statistics go, while people in this country deny that racism still exists in the lives of many black people.

I watched this video with great sadness because you can hear the pain and suffering turned to rage. Every mother of men knows that young men, by and large, are full of the need for physical action in the face of intense emotion. It is a basic fact of human beings that being ignored or feeling unheard is one of the worst insults and wounds we can inflict on each other. It is the reason why in relationships, physical violence is most proceeded by a shutting out by the other person, instead of a confrontation.

I wonder how we can expect an entire community- the black community- to move forward if we do not accept that the place we begin exists?

The racism that still exists presents in so many ways, and there are many black people speaking out on their experiences with that racism if only we will listen. If you are not black, have you ever heard a black person recount a situation and believe it was racism, and you did not agree? This is not an intelligence test for you, or a measure of heart. How can that person's experience be held up to a light and examined and proven racist or not? Does common sense let you know if racism exists in a decision, or does your entire idea of common sense come from a completely different education?  Is it a completely different life experience, a life experience that for black people has day after day year after year let them know that in many ways, many people in this country still believe they are 'more' this or 'less' that than white people. If you grew up being reminded of that, in a variety of ways and experiences, do you think you'd still have the same idea of what was racist and what was not? 

When I was attending community college, I took politics in the evening. I loved the class and we often had robust debates on whatever issue was at hand. One night, we all gathered into self appointed groups for some assignment, and as my group circled round, a black woman approached who I had talked to a few times over the last week as our class met. She was friendly, funny and smart and I liked the little I knew of her. I was nervous in the group setting, as I always am, and so when she approached and asked if she could join, I joked ' we don't take your kind! ' and pulled out a chair for her to join us. It was probably one of the most insensitive, stupid jokes I've ever made in my life, but at the time it was completely innocent and born out of severe social anxiety. I wanted to be liked, I wanted to be irreverent and silly, and in my family we speak this way to each other now and again in jest.  I would have said it to anyone, any age, any color. But she didn't see it that way.

After class, I was walking away, backpack in hand, when I felt a tap. I turned around, and this young black woman laid into me. Her face was contorted in what might have appeared to be rage, but to me looked mostly like suffering.

' How dare you say that to me, white bitch! ' she cried out.

I was floored. Scared, too. She looked like she was going to beat the shit out of me, and she was in my face, hands raised. ' What are you talking about? ' I asked.

' Oh what am I talking about? ' she mocked my shaky voice. ' Your little comment back there in class, letting me know where you think I stood, you think that's OK? ' She got even closer, her face an inch from mine.

And then I got really, really pissed off. I had no clue what she was angry about, and in my mind, she had no right to be attacking me like this. I screamed ' Get out of my face! What the hell is wrong with you! I don't know WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT! '

' Oh yes you do! ' She wasn't backing down.

I moved forward and we were actually touching. I said in a furious, but now quiet voice ' No I don't. And you need to get out of my face. ' Suddenly, without warning, my eyes filled with tears. I went from being furious to being deeply hurt at being attacked in this way for something I knew I surely hadn't done.

She saw my tears, and her face changed from hurt and anger to confusion and doubt. ' Well back in said ' your kind...' she trailed off.

I was horrified. As soon as she said it, I knew what she was referring to and what she thought I meant, and it was as if my entire body was flooded with shame. I began crying. ' I would will you ever believe me...I would never talk to another human being like that...I am so sorry you took it that way, oh my God...'

She began crying. I put my arms around her and it was one of the most powerful hugs of my life, as we both cried, so few words had actually been said, and yet an entire history of hate and conflict and divide had been summoned and felt between the two of us. 

We hugged each other and sat at a nearby bench, and began to understand. She listened to me explain, and I listened to her. She told me that she lived near where I did, in the suburbs of a mostly middle tier middle class neighborhood with some areas of working poor. In the last year, her boys had begun school at a local elementary, and the brothers walked home together. 

Soon after, they came home crying. When she questioned them, they told her that a carful of kids had driven by and called them nigger.

' I had to have this conversation with my boys...' the pain on her face was terrible. As the mother of a son, I felt her agony at having her sons not only emotionally assaulted like this, but then to have to explain to them something she had never broached this directly before: racism in America.
' Since then, ' she told me, ' they have been called nigger a few times, once at school. They have been told by an adult man that they should try for sports because ' black kids do well with that. ' I .... the worst part is not the word, the worst part is having to make them understand that some people think they are less because they are black. ' She was crying again and gripped my hand. ' I can't make you understand that, you can't understand what that does to a person... '

I cannot. But I can try. I have a brain in my head and a heart- a mother's heart- and I can imagine what it would be like to have to personally hand over to your child the understanding of how negatively they are viewed by a percentage of the population because of the color of their skin. 

I told her I was sorry that happened to her boys, and I talked about my love for my own son, and my childhood experiences in Jackson Mississippi and again how sorry I was, and that I would never stand by and let anyone talk to any child that way, and as I spoke I saw her face soften and a tiny but significant relief move to her beautiful eyes. I just wanted her to know how deeply I cared, and that I was not part of that problem, nor would I stand by silently. When I went to Trayvon Martin's vigil, it was my way of not standing by silently. When I post here my experiences and thoughts, it is my way of not standing by silently. This is my side of the street. It is the side of the street where social justice and civil rights and compassion and communication occurs, and I'm proud to stand here. Not everyone can write a bill or save a child from a gun, not everyone can do something big and important, but everyone can listen, agitate, and speak up.

I don't agree or accept with the message in this rap- reminiscent of The Black Panthers- that pacifism and social justice protests and movements will not create change, that military arms and self defense is the only answer. Self defense is definitely a route I would take were I worried about my son's ability to walk down the street safely, but guns guns and more guns are clearly not the answer. Gangs have already tried that route and we know where the story ends, in slums and broken down neighborhoods with broken down peoples.  The Black Panthers exercised the same right that George Zimmerman's defense said made him not guilty: the right to carry arms and patrol the community in which one lives. The Black Panthers did not patrol to look out for criminals however, but to look out for cops who would take advantage of their power. Although their tactics failed in the long run- admitted by the leaders of the movement- the message of working class solidarity and empowerment, the message that all downtrodden peoples must come together to present a solid front for justice, remains true.

Rage at being told your reality does not exist IS something I can relate to. So when we- people who aren't black- listen and acknowledge, when we say ' you are right, that's not my experience and I don't really know what that is like ' when we say ' that is wrong ' when we say ' i'm sorry that happens to you ' when we 'acknowledge our privilege' as the politic speak currently says, there is some gathering together, some healing.

In the end the rappers above call and repeat:

' Trayvon / for you / Trayvon / for you '

We know where Trayvon Martin is, and he can't speak for himself anymore. His parents and his brother speak for him. The least we can do is listen.

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