The Hillhouse

The Journey of a Mother and Son

Guilty Too July 18, 2013

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.

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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…

 Kids React to Controversial Cheerios Commercial

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.

Les Brownlee Scholarship 

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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.

 

In Justice July 16, 2013

There’s a strange dichotomy in our country these days between lightening-fast social change and the continuation of archaic and primitive beliefs. Honestly, every last human being on this planet needs the very same things. Not everyone is content to stop at what they simply need, certainly, and much more importantly not everyone will concede that all their neighbors also deserve the very same things; this is part of the troublesome place in which we find ourselves these days. But the flood gates for parity among humans really do seem to be opening; the recent victories for gay marriage gift us hope and seem to indicate a critical mass has been reached. Now, if we could only see the same forward movement when it came to these insidious, deep and invisible biases when it comes to race and color of skin.

While I don’t believe that justice was served in the outcome of the recent Trayvon Martin case, I also don’t believe – deep down in my very core – that throwing his murderer in jail, while perhaps the best by-the-books outcome, would serve to advance the cause which is at the very root of this problem. Also, I find myself rather surprised, when reading all the Facebook comments about the injustice that’s occurred, that the commentors are expressing themselves in a tone of hatred that seems equally as inhumane as the sentiment of the race-based bias they’re objecting to. I understand the frustration these people are expressing – and I share that frustration – but then to blindly swing the other way and demand figurative blood from the other side – that gets us nowhere. A strange feeling comes over me as I take it all in – there’s a creepy, subversive taste to the sentiments folks are expressing. I’m reminded of the book we were required to read as middle schoolers… In The Lottery, a small, all-American town attributes its comfortable way of life to the annual sacrifice of one of the town children. Each year there is a lottery – very much like that in The Hunger Games – in which a child is chosen, and then ultimately stoned to death by his or her own townsfolk. I can’t be the only person feeling like this. Feeling that in our fevered desire for equanimity we’re losing sight of the forest for the trees. Are we not perpetrating the very thing we are espousing to go against? Are we not all feeding into a mass-mindset of eye-for-an-eye? Are we not resorting to primitive resolutions – needless sacrifices – in order to achieve our goals?

I’m convinced that simply incarcerating people guilty of certain crimes does nothing to prevent the said criminals – or others – from continuing to repeat the same or similar crimes. I do now understand, after having become friends with some folks who’ve actually worked inside state prisons, that there are some criminals who are beyond remorse, beyond rehabilitation – criminals whose actions are the result of any combination of nature and nurture – and they truly should be separated out from the population. And while I believe that this George Zimmerman fellow who shot Trayvon (and must deep inside his heart believe that he was justified) would do well to be ‘taught a lesson’, I think the larger issue is not necessarily to punish or incarcerate this man, but rather to begin work on transforming him and those who think as he does. If we can step back for a moment and turn down the heat of our emotions, why is it that we would want to see such a person behind bars? To ‘show’ him? To make a statement? Or to help bring about his remorse? To simply see justice served? Or, maybe, to help re-define for our culture what is acceptable and what’s not? That is my hoped-for objective at the end of the day. I ask those who angrily demand justice: will his incarceration actually do much to advance the cause of equal rights? I understand Trayvon’s grieving family might crave this man’s imprisonment, but what, as a society, do we really gain from it?

I realize too that it’s far too easy for me to make such sweeping assumptions about justice and the futility of our system, but it’s precisely because I’m not emotionally wound up in it that I can dare to give voice to my feelings. I can already feel the grumbling response to this post growing. Yes, some will say I have a naive take on things, that nothing’s as simple as all that. Yeah, I get that. But I also get that our system does little to improve situations. Our comfort with locking people up – and not addressing the reasons or cultural climate that gave birth to the crime in the first place – that is the shit that bothers me greatly. We all love the drama of a good crime story – but one upon another they’re quickly forgotten. We don’t learn anything of substance about why the perpetrator did what he/she did, what socio-economic or mental health issues may have been involved… nothing of substance ever seems to come to light, and if it’s mentioned, it’s certainly not investigated with any rigor. So we lock em up. That’ll show em who’s right. Yeah, ok. But what then? Have we fixed anything? All we’ve done is to take a moral stand. We’ve talked the talk, but beyond that, there’s not a lot of walking goin on.

As I pulled up to the local convenience store today, I saw a small sticker on the wall. On it was the shape of our country, and the text in the middle read “I miss America” (strangely, it was printed in yellow and black.) Given the mostly conservative and somewhat redneck climate of my immediate neighborhood, I got the message. And it occurred to me that those who would put up such a slogan might be feeling as if Mr. Zimmerman was exercising his inalienable right to self-defense in that brutal act. Where I live, there’s just no room for any conversation on such matters. Truths are black and white (or black and yellow) and no one in my neck of the woods is changing their minds any time soon. This breaks my heart. I can only hope that little by little the inevitable changes moving through the cultures of our entire world will soon wash over these people too. And I hope too that somehow, one day – maybe still a century off, but I so hope not – our very legal system will also change to reflect a larger vision of human truth. Because the main issue here is the establishment of balance between every single citizen of this globe. While we bicker amongst ourselves about rules and laws and meting out punishments commensurate with their crimes, we might just be missing the larger point. I realize we have to start somewhere, but I hope we pick up speed as we move towards our common goal. I pray one day everyone sharing this planet might have the peace of mind and heart to know they are truly living in a world of love, respect and justice for all.