Friday, April 07, 2006

My Reality Check Bounced

Last night, one of my students wore a t-shirt to class that read "my reality check bounced." Needless to say, I loved it. I often feel that I'm free-falling through some surreal existence, careening off the walls as I descend further and faster down the rabbit hole. I asked where I could get one, though at this stage of my life, I might not wear such an item even if I purchased it. Been there, done that--you know.

Anyway, this morning, as I shuffled through the slips of papers in my "blog file" (articles, quotes, idea shreds that skitter through my mind as I go through my days), I noticed the words "reality check" with quotes around them and remembered last month when I heard them used in a different way.

I had told an African-American co-worker about an incident in my neighborhood that sounded like a Jim Crow encounter. She was horrified, but fascinated, the way we often are while passing a nasty car wreck. And we agreed that it was very unsettling. People in the U.S. want to believe that the more violent demonstrations of racist oppression are in the past, few and far between, or at least happening somewhere--anywhere--else. "The North" points at "The South" and "The South" retorts that "The North" just sweeps their dirt under the rug, while California blames their problems on the immigrants, and police seem free to do as they will, no matter where they are.

A couple of hours later, out on the campus, I was speaking with an African-American man who sells products during the weekly Bull Run bazaar, and my co-worker came up to us. After greeting the man, who she's apparently known for a long time, she turned to me and said, "You know, I really wish you hadn't told me what you told me."

I protested, feeling terrible. "I tried not to, but you kept wanting to know..."

"I know," she said. "But I just wish I hadn't, that's all. I've been all upset ever since. I can't get it out of my mind."

The vendor looked from one to the other of us blankly, obviously interested.

And her statement to him--said very pointedly--was: "It was nothing. Just a 'reality check'..."

"Oh!" he responded immediately, without any other information being imparted, shaking his head quickly from side to side and raising his hands, palms out, in front of his chest, "Then I don't even want to know..."

I wanted to erase myself from the tiny group the way I erase a word from the blackboard. Just vaporize and disappear without fanfare. I was ashamed. Not ashamed of having told her, though I won't make that mistake again. People of color have enough to deal with. I was ashamed of being "White" in the presence of two human beings who continue to be treated not only differently than people who look like me, but who are routinely presented with information proving that painful and disgusting things--even life-threatening things--still happen to people just because they look like them. Perpetrated by people who look like me.

I don't hate who I am. I hate what some people who look like me do in the name of our shared skin tone. Particularly when you consider that they do those things because they are insane with the need to believe that they are somehow superior to others. How in the hell can a person be so crazy that they can imagine that brutalizing others proves that you're a person of superior worth?!?

I was ashamed because it is 2006 and one well-established middle class African-American speaking to another well-established middle class African-American on a university campus where young people of color are all over the place can still invoke the demons of White supremacy by simply using the words "reality check." With instant recognition. I know when it started, but when will it end? And what will it take to end it?

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