After writing yesterday’s post about the Trayvon Martin case, I prepared myself for some emotional responses. Glad I did, cuz I got a few. And as I worked in the garden today, I got to thinking more closely about it. Then I realized, that I too, had done something that I had been condemning in others. Funny how a person can live with conflicting truths. Double standards. I still stand by my feelings towards extremely conservative attitudes. I don’t think that sort of stance encourages basic human kindnesses, nor do I think it engenders an atmosphere for dialogue. But it’s that other word I used in describing this group that bothered a few people. I had called some of the locals ‘rednecks’. Yeah, I got it, as I sat there pulling weeds and digging holes, that using that word might have been provocative. It might not have been a wise choice of words, yet I think readers might know what I meant to imply by using it. As I’ve said before – it’s dangerous to start lumping folks into broad categories; it’s easy to use descriptors which don’t truly represent what it is you’re trying to convey. And what I had hoped to describe was a population of folks – rural to be sure – who’ve backed into their ideological corners and take a ‘I dare you’ sort of attitude towards anyone who might not share the same values and beliefs. Hell, if having an old toilet sitting outside your front door for two months while you ponder on how to dispose of it, if letting your chickens poop all over your stairs and letting the grass grow thigh-high are any indications of being a ‘redneck’, then I am definitely a redneck. ! I know plenty of people with whom I don’t share a lot politically, but we’re still able not only to be friends, but to talk about things. To have an exchange of ideas and perspectives. But there are lots of folks up here in the hills that would rather escort me on my way – and forbid me future visits – if I were to try and share with them my feelings about some things. Like equal rights. Like race, or sexual orientation. The very basic stuff that we, as a culture (in my opinion) should be well past by now.
Years ago, when I had just met my ex-husband, and we were rapidly growing madly in love, I experienced something incredibly eye-opening about not only myself, but the larger world. First, I myself was surprised that I’d fallen for a man of ‘some’ color – being half Chilean and half Pakistani you can’t exactly say he’s ‘black’ (when you get down to this sort of detail it all really does seem ridiculous) – but at that time in his life, especially with his jet-black hair, he looked a bit darker than your average white person. Yet I, as a dreamy adolescent, had harbored fantasies of falling in love with a Robert Plant type. Blonde, curly hair, strong, masculine…. white. And yet here I was, absolutely smitten with a skinny brown boy! Deep inside I could feel a strange new emotion growing – what was it exactly? I felt a hesitation, a certain hint of something being off, wrong, or at least not at all as I’d envisioned it would one day be. Yeah. I was being a racist. I was. The realization smacked me in the face one day, and I was deeply ashamed and shocked. Me? Having reservations about my new love just because he wasn’t white? Good God! Was this true? I examined my heart over and over, and learned that it was. But I loved him, I wanted to be with him, so I had no choice but to use the situation as an opportunity to learn and grow. Over the next two decades I would come to not only embrace all that his parents’ cultures contributed to him as a person, but these identities also became something of my own. After all, I ate the foods, lived with the languages, wore the clothes, learned the stories. Making my father-in-law’s curry chicken recipe is as much a part of my life’s history as is my own, ‘very white’ mother’s cooking.
One day, as we were filling his car with gas, a car pulled up alongside us and a man yelled out the window “Move your ass, camel jockey!”. Huh? I’d never head that before. “What did he say?” I asked Fareed, as I wasn’t quite sure I’d heard correctly. But Fareed just laughed and explained that he’d said ‘camel jockey’. A moment passed. The question still hung in the air. “I’m your camel jockey!” he said, hardly registering any offense. Apparently, this was not new to him. But to me – it was stunning. If I thought I was being a racist – and I cared about this guy – just imagine the deadly venom of those who truly were racist and couldn’t give one shit about him. How dangerous the world seemed all of a sudden. We’d gone from average people on the street – to potential targets. I felt truly weak and vulnerable for the first time. Honestly, in that one moment, my life changed.
It’s easier to take things for granted than to stop and examine them. And who doesn’t want easy? Challenges are a pain in the ass. But we as people sometimes need to step beyond our own, familiar worlds. I think of the classic white guy’s response, when asked how he feels about his black friend as opposed the black population at large: ‘oh, but he’s different. He’s a good guy.’ To me that seems pretty outdated thinking, but I’m fairly sure there are some people in my town – right now – who might feel the same. I remember another moment of shock, when a young (white and local) fellow remarked about Obama’s first campaign, saying “I ain’t gonna let no nigger tell me what to do”. Now this is a pretty nice young kid. Helpful, kind, and certainly not what you’d call an abrasive personality. So the very hate embodied in his remark almost shook me physically. I remember wondering if my response had been apparent. I remember wondering if I should just nod politely, or return a volley. I said nothing. Really, I was just too stunned to speak. Once upon a time, before I began to play in R&B bands in Chicago and had begun to count many black people as good friends (in the 80s everyone was emulating Prince and wanted a white girl or two in their band), I too looked on black people at large as a great unknown. And I mean as a larger, overall culture. Because in my white, privileged upbringing on Chicago’s North Shore, I’d known some black kids. Only they were ‘white’ blacks. They had more in common culturally with me than did the guys on the West Side. (Hell, some of the black kids I knew as a kid were stinking rich, my family surely wasn’t.) So if I, as a reasonably tolerant and open-minded white person harbored even the teensiet bit of curiosity – and even perhaps discomfort – with this ‘other’ culture, imagine how far away this local country boy is from seeing dark-skinned people as equals. Scary, really. Just shows how far we still have to go.
Last summer Elihu and I attended the wedding of some dear friends. As we were driving home from our vacation, I prepped him with a little backstory. “This wedding is significant” I started to explain, “because it’s a wedding between two women.” No response. So I continued,”until very recently, gay people weren’t allowed to get married.” There was a pause from the back seat. Good, I thought, he’s getting it. Then he just very matter-of-factly responded “I find that hard to believe.” That sure stopped me for a minute. Amazing. But nonetheless I went on, thinking he was probably missing something important here… “See, this is a very important wedding…” he cut me off. “Yeah, because it’s the first wedding I’ve ever gone to!” To him, the most important thing was that he loved these people, and that he was going to be there for their big day. From the mouths of babes. If only we could all just think like that. My hope is that with each new generation we will begin to put the old, hateful ways of inequality and bigotry behind us. Some might think that’s never going to happen. After all we’ve been fighting and misunderstanding each other since the dawn of time. But something’s changing. I just know it. If for no other reason than the instant, world-wide communication that’s become a routine part of our lives. Now we can begin to finally meet each other, and in so doing, humanize ourselves to each other. And when we can be brave enough, and caring enough, to stop and examine the beliefs we currently take for granted – when we can make even the smallest progress into the territory of new and different thinking – then we will understand that we ourselves as a planet-wide population have been guilty of seeing other people as different – or less deserving – than ourselves. With our eyes finally opened, we can then pardon ourselves those trespasses and thoughtfully begin anew.
Here are two links, the first to a short, documentary-style response to the ‘controversial’ Cheerios commercial. I myself had actually seen the ad on tv and had thought nothing about it. Apparently, neither did these kids…
And if there are any aspiring broadcasting students you know in the Chicago area, please check out this scholarship created in the name of the late Les Brownlee, a leading black journalist and pioneer in his field, also my one time neighbor and friend.
Post Script: I encourage folks to share their responses here on this blog, rather than through personal emails. While I think people are just trying to be polite and respectful, I’d love to see the discussions that might evolve out of a post.