Somehow or other, over the years (which is to say, decades, really), I have become the "go-to girl" for many who know me and want to talk to someone about the socially-constructed, political notion of "race." It started, I guess, when I was a junior in high school and talked my way into doing an all-interview term paper on "Racial Discrimination in the Quad-Cities" (where I grew up in Illinois). Now, the interesting part about this is that I didn't know at the time what either race or discrimination was (it was 1963). But I had begged my teacher to let me do something outside the library and this was what she suggested. Then, some crucial input by the president of the local N.A.A.C.P. chapter made it possible for me to begin what has now become a life-long study. Presenting my "findings" during class (at my teacher's insistance) resulted in me winning a joke award at the end of the year: the National Association for the Advancement of Cows and Pigs Award. It was embarrassing. And I was pretty sure it was racist, though I didn't, as yet, know for sure.
Anyway, I went on with my life, proceeding to become deeply involved with the national prison movement for several years, where I discovered well before it was being openly admitted in polite society that prison populations were overwhelmingly representative of minority groups and, most particularly African-Americans. I was shocked. The situation fairly stunk of a systemic attack on a community, but with little context into which to put what I saw going on, I more or less filed it away with the earlier material.
My daughter's father did the best he could to educate me to the cold realities of his day-to-day existence, but he was never satisfied with the results. Then, eventually, I spent a couple of years in a branch of the A. Phillip Randolph Institute and came to understand more about the institutionalized nature of oppression in the U.S., as well as some of the strategies that were being employed and honed in opposition to that oppression. It was during this period that I first discovered that a "White" person can say some pretty straight-forward stuff about race without necessarily catching hell--stuff that is very heartening for people of color to hear coming out of a White person's mouth--and that even White people are more inclined to listen than they ever tend to be when a Black person is doing the talking.
We had called in the U.S. Justice Department to review law enforcement brutality against people of color in our city, so we were holding a community forum. My job was to make sure the press got there (it did). But near the end of the forum, characterized in most part by the expected statements of frustration by local Black residents followed by the local police chief's vague postering, I finally stood up and said rather forcefully, "The real problem is an attitude problem of police concerning Blacks. Residents need a police force to believe in. Racism cannot be tolerated. All officers must know that slavery is dead in America." People--White and Black--looked at me like my hair was on fire.
Needless to say, my comment was quoted in articles on the front page of two different newspapers the following day. And I was off to the races, as it were.
When I moved to Florida, I once had to spend a good week or two scouting for a pair of red patent leather high heels before learning that the only shoe store in several cities that carried such an item was located in an African-American neighborhood. Then, soon after that, I took a potshot from a superior at work for wearing fuschia stretch pants. "Doing your shopping on Tamarind Avenue these days?" he had quipped, referring to a street in the so-called "ghetto."
Now, the fact was that I had purchased the pants in a popular department store, as I recall, and was seriously irritated that he would call my taste into question like that, while simultaneously marking himself as a racist. But I quit wearing the pants until I left that job in an attempt not to take more sniping. Which moved me even closer to the Black community, as one who was becoming increasingly sensitive to and rebellious against anti-Black sentiments.
A few years further up the road, shortly after I had entered grad school and then decided to specialize in the subject of "race," I wound up at a party where most of the other party-goers were either African or African-American. I arrived a bit late (as usual), entering the apartment by walking down the stairs into a room bustling with people. Later on in the evening, I was talking with a Black woman I had never met before, when she mentioned casually that she knew when I came down the stairs that I had been "shocked by the culture."
"Shocked by the culture...?" I asked, curious.
"Yeah, you know," she responded. "You've been around Black folks. Most White folks don't carry themselves like you do coming into a room full of us."
And here I am twenty years later, writing about race and teaching about race and speaking about race and learning about race, with people (especially people of color) bringing me books and articles and dvd's about race and cd's of spoken word and "rebel music" and even seeking me out to talk about race. Two of my former students--African-American--came over one day some years ago, saying "From time to time, we gotta get back in touch with our blackness." I felt weird about it, but I knew that what they meant was that I rant a good bit and fairly non-stop and it couches the topic in boldness. In a world where institutionalized oppression shuts Blacks and Whites in their respective corners, while internalized oppression blunts the spirits of most people of color, the effects of my having been shocked by the culture is a blessing not always in disguise.