Sunday, June 15, 2008

A Bright Spot

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a post about Louisiana. It was pretty sad and a little overwhelmed-sounding, I imagine. But it's not all there is.

The fact is that in this dark forest of racial oppression and racial tension, there are points of light and you never know when one will pop up unexpectedly. One day, after class, for example, a European-American woman student who might be in her thirties or even her early forties, walked up to me with a big smile and stuck out her hand.

"I saw your presentation on 'What is Racism and How Do I Know If I Have It?'" she said warmly, "and I've signed up for one of your classes in the fall. I'm quite passionate about racism and social justice and I'm really looking forward to hearing more of what you have to say!"

She caught me so off-guard that I didn't immediately know what to respond aside from the usual superficial rejoinders. But I was delighted.

Then, as we headed for different doors, I turned and asked, "What was the process by which you became 'quite passionate about racism'? How did that happen here in Louisiana?" And we parted.

A week or so later, I got an email from her with an attached entry she had apparently written in her journal in 1993. When you read it, you'll see that even in Louisiana, there are other people who look like me who are thinking about and willing to work against the status quo. She gave me permission to print her journal entry on this blog (modifying it slightly to protect her privacy). And here it is:

"I have been thinking about racism a lot lately. Serbia and Bosnia, Arabs and Jews, Rodney King and Reginald Denney, Maya Angelou, CNN and the 700 Club have me in a pre-apocalyptic spin. I headed for [another country] this summer, looking for a place away from the hate and violence, a safe haven for my family where people are colorblind and everyone is treated with respect…Like I said, I have given racism a lot of thought and I have begun to question my own attitudes about race. How do we become racists? Is it genetic? I cannot answer that question, but I can remember the day, the moment, I became a racist.

"I grew up in…Louisiana. The [Louisiana] I remember as a child in the 1950’s was an idyllic place when seen from inside a glorious bubble of ignorance. There were water fountains that said “whites only” and “colored only” but I just thought they were talking about sorting laundry or something, which was how mom did it. Mom told me once that we couldn’t sit in the balcony of the movie theatre because the balcony was for colored people only. Well, I knew right then that colored people were special people because the balcony was the most exciting looking place I had ever seen and it had to hold the best seats in the house. I wished to be colored too! I was an ignorant child.

"When the Klan burned down our ironing lady’s church…, I thought it was a mean thing to do but I never gave it another thought. The Klan even had a meeting right in our neighborhood which made my parents really nervous and scared, but from inside my bubble of bliss, while it made no sense, it did not interrupt my life. I just forgot about it.

"That old bubble of bliss kept me happy for years until one day when Mom and I were taking our housekeeper…home. I must have been eleven or twelve years old when I made my first racist comment. I wasn’t talking about people, I was talking about crickets and how they scare me “’cause they’re black and creepy.” Well, as soon as [our housekeeper] was out of the car my momma let me know what an insensitive, racist comment I had made. 'How could you say something is creepy just because it is black?' she said. “Don’t you have any consideration for [other people’s] feelings? I even asked you to repeat yourself because I couldn’t believe you would say such a thing!” My bubble burst and a terrible understanding poured in over me, thick as syrup with ancestral guilt. I knew racism.

"I wished I could disappear that day because I would never have wanted to hurt [our housekeeper], she was special. [She] came to us when I was sick and had to stay home from school for a long time. She was a nurse’s aide at the hospital and she was really smart and beautiful with dark chocolate skin and a face that reminded me of Dionne Warwick. Best of all about her was that she knew me, really knew me at my very worst, and she still liked me. (She knew me well enough to know that I was only talking about crickets.) I hoped she loved me because I loved her.

"I believe I became a racist that day because I started to notice what color people were. I started to be really careful not to talk about black things in front of brown people. I started to single out anybody who was colored for extra acts of kindness so that they would forgive my “colorblind,” insensitive past.

"The whole world seems to be going racism crazy now; I do not think I can escape it. It is in everything I see and hear, in all of its many guises: fear and anger, charity and guilt. It just bubbles out from the lips of newscasters, preachers, politicians, poets and everyday people, spreading like some creeping ooze in a sci-fi movie, consuming our minds and our souls. Even in my wonderful hideaway place [outside the U.S.], I was told that my daughter’s friend should not come to visit because she is [B]lack and some people in the village who don’t like [B]lacks might hurt her feelings. I am not going to pay attention to them. We will have my daughter’s friend come for a visit not because she is [B]lack, but because she is a friend. My daughter is neither colorblind nor racist; she still sees people in all the wondrous colors of who they really are. I envy her freedom."

This is an excellent example of the kind of inside work TheFreeSlave and I recently posted about as being necessary to the process of becoming a whole human being and an ally of those who are oppressed. I am grateful to know and to be caused to remember that the tipping point may be closer than it seems. I am dreaming of a new world where babies are fed and people laugh and dance together and be all that we're here to be.
The poster featured above is available from the Syracuse Cultural Workers collective.

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