Wednesday, April 26, 2006

A Day Of Silence

Something weird happened to me today. I willed myself not to speak from nine to five. Not to whisper. Not to grunt. Not to hum or sing or make a noise with my mouth at all. And it was weird.

The way it happened was that students all over the country called for this day to be a Day of Silence in solidarity with gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered people in the U.S. who are forced to be silent about their identity in the face of general disapproval of their personhoods and general disavowal of their equal rights under the Constitution. Some folks seem to conveniently forget that the U.S. Constitution clearly protects the rights of every citizen. Some folks want queers to shut up. Want differently-abled people to stay at home. Want women to keep their eyes on the ground. Want people of color to be invisible except as needed.

So, anyway, I decided (I guess you could see this coming) to participate.

I was informed that participation would require wearing a black t-shirt advertising the event and the commitment not to speak for eight hours, no matter what. So, I picked up my t-shirt and a stack of cards conveniently provided to hand to people during the course of trying to handle the affairs of a day without speaking.

When I woke up this morning, I took care of one business matter early, so that I could move into the rest of my day. And by the time I had showered and donned my shirt, I found myself becoming acutely aware of something I couldn't quite put my finger on. Something strange. A new, more intense understanding of something I hadn't yet really absorbed: the feeling of "difference."

Now, I've always been different on some pretty unapologetic levels. For example, there aren't a lot of women who've chosen to be as bold as I have, considering my socialization as a middle-class, mid-western White girl. And there aren't a lot of college professors who once spent five years on welfare. And there aren't a lot of White folks who've made even a good attempt at renouncing racial privilege, let alone a lifetime commitment to doing so daily. I'm different.

I breast-fed my babies--one of which was bi-racial--till they quit (my son was nearly four). I married more people than some people have dated. I got de-funded in grad school for writing about a topic that makes some sociologists twitch--no mean trick. I teach everything I've learned and not just the text book. I'm trying to be the change I want to see in this world (a la Gandhi). And I quit my day job just when I was beginning to look half-way normal year before last. I'm different.

But when push comes to shove, on a given day in public, the average person on the street won't see me as a threat. Especially if I don't open my mouth. I may not look my age, but you can look at me and tell I'm on the back nine. And I may not look rich by a long shot (my less than late model car is still badly dented eighteen months after some irresponsible driver crunched into it in a Walgreen's parking lot). But my favorite store is Dillard's and it's more or less obvious by assessing my clothes. I might be walking with, talking with, or variously greeted by one or more people of color more or less often, but someone who didn't know me would be more likely to think I'm a social worker than that we're up to something. So the fact is: I can pass. And regularly do. Not on purpose, because I like nothing better than to catch ordinary folks off guard and give 'em something to chew on. But just moving through my life, that's not immediately apparent.

In fact, last week-end, a couple of young African-American men raised the issue of the title of my book on race, which is Reduced to Equality: My Odyssey to Renounce Racial Privilege~and Find Myself. "You can't renounce racial privilege," they charged. "And even if you could, you could also just decide to pick it up again, if you wanted to." But the deal is that while I may not be able to renounce the so-called birthright of people who look like me, I can, nevertheless, spend my life on a daily odyssey to do so. And, of course, some White folks take it pretty hard when you move in that direction, so it's not only not easy to "change back," but it's actually easy to find yourself in limbo somewhere in the middle at some point feeling as though you may no longer belong anywhere.

I had a class to deal with this morning, but it happened that I had already planned a speaker for that time period, so I thought I was home free. I told my students on Monday what I'd be doing on Wednesday and prepared them a bit for the speaker (who had nothing to do with sexual orientation). Then, this morning, I entered the classroom and discovered that he would be fifteen minutes late.


So, I led a discussion without speaking a word. "Clap once for yes," one of the students called out, "and twice for no." Which I did, also scrawling across the board half-thoughts they seemed to follow with no problem. And the speaker came. And was amused, I think, by my commitment. And I answered questions after class and even in my office by writing on a pad, I swear, and never said a word.

My daughter didn't believe for a minute that I could pull it off. I have a serious reputation for being what we could call very talkative. In fact, the only way I learned to let other people get a word in edgewise once I got old enough to realize that I needed to do this occasionally was by holding my lips shut with one or more of my fingertips. But I went all day--hour after hour--without a peep. Even when I was in my department chair's office. Even when I ordered an oatmeal cookie and a cup of coffee to wash it down. Even when I went to the library to watch a video. Until two women wouldn't shut up in the media section of the library while I was trying to focus and I asked them to move, which they did. I was so upset with them that I completely forgot what I was trying to do and didn't even think about the fact that I spoke until this very moment.

Crap. And I tried so hard.

The reason I felt a need to write this, though, was that somewhere in the middle of everything, walking across the campus, it occurred to me that I felt weird. I felt as if I was wrapped in cotton, that I could hear people talk and birds sing and noises made, but I was just part of the scenery. I could have been a lamp post or a concrete bench. I was unnecessary to the pulsation of life on the planet. I was somehow shut in on myself.

The other t-shirt wearers became my only allies, the only ones who could really see me. We often hugged. We always waved. While I was not in any way disrespected for my silence by non-silent campus-dwellers (quite to the contrary), I still felt outside the vale. I felt my difference in a whole new and wholly visible way.

When I was invited to write something I've been called on the Wall of Shame (which was scheduled for destruction later), I signaled that I'd come back. I had to warm to the idea a bit. It seemed such a private matter. And when, a few minutes later, I was "told" that the pejorative didn't have to be about sexual orientation, I took the wide magic marker and wrote with bold letters "nigger-lover" in a blank space. Tears welled up in my eyes and I couldn't look at faces. I hurried away from the "wall," knowing they understood and glad that the fate of the "wall" was already sealed.

By the time I left the campus, ninety minutes before time was up, I was exhausted and looking forward to going home to my little apartment. I still didn't intend to speak until five o'clock, but I just wanted to be where the silence wouldn't be so deafening, the difference so heightened. With this new level of consciousness, I tried to imagine what it must be like to look African-American, to be utterly, critically aware at all times of my "race" in a country where that means so much. As I walked to my car, past the chattering, laughing "others," I felt my lips knitted together and remembered an African student telling me once that his outsider status had made him feel that his tongue was rooting itself to the top of his mouth from disuse, that until I had called to him from my porch, he was thinking of killing himself.

The point is that being "different" is a function of who has the power to define the norms. As long as White, protestant, heterosexual, middle class and upper class men fill that slot in this country, then those who don't fit into those categories will stand, to one degree or another and sometimes greatly, on the outside of the circle. And that makes for a lot of folks.

It's after five now, and I'm released. It feels almost embarrassing, this ability to let go of my difference, to return to being my middle class, able-bodied, White-looking, educated professional self when so many will go to bed tonight and rise tomorrow unable to step outside the bodies, the selves that mark them in others' eyes and in their hearts as unacceptable or, at least, as different. But my experience with being different for this one infinitesimal set of hours is still hanging palpable, like a soiled suit of clothes in the corner of my bedroom, where it will hang for the rest of my life.

Friday, April 21, 2006

The Reality Check Is On The Front Page

Until now, I have chosen not to write about the fourteen-year-old boy who was beaten and kicked to death by a group of White men January 6th in a so-called "boot camp" (how apropos!) in Bay County, Florida. I have also chosen not to write about the rape of an African-American dancer at a "party" in Durham, North Carolina, March 13th, where members of the Duke University lacrosse team were unwinding after a grueling week of being...well...whoever it is men like that perceive themselves to be.

Initially, of course, the fourteen-year-old boy, whose name was Martin Lee Anderson, was said to have died of sickle cell complications--after the beating that was (fortunately) caught on videotape. (Just how stupid do you have to be, one might wonder, to beat and kick a child to death in a group in front of a camera you unquestionably know exists?) And initially, of course, the rape victim--a young single mother of two who pays for her college courses dancing at parties (which is not as wildly uncommon as one would imagine)--was raped again in the media.

Some people in polite U.S. society (whatever that is in the face of our national love affair with violence against people of color everywhere in the world, including Florida and North Carolina) look away from these types of incidents, mumbling about young boys that get in trouble and young women who "shouldn't be" at an all-male party. I looked away--as much as I could--because reports like this give me a gut ache. My throat shuts. My tongue swells as if I might vomit. My tears clot. My teeth clench. I really, really want to see somebody get hurt. And that's not a way I like to feel. It never changes anything.

Now we hear that students from three schools are sitting in at the governor's office up in Tallahassee, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are scheduled to show up, and the FDLE chief--the top dog in this matter (hand-chosen by Governor Jeb Bush several years ago and the guy who actually established the particular boot camp in question, interestingly enough)--has stepped down. Also, we hear that, in spite of the fact that DNA tests ostensibly did not implicate the guys on the team, the coach has been fired, the remainder of the season scrapped, and two of the players (named Reade Seligmann and Collin Finnerty--no comment needed, I'm sure) have been arrested and charged with a string of serious crimes. And so we watch it all unfold in the daily news.

But glad as I am that "something's being done" and that it's not being "swept under the rug" on these two occasions, I know this doesn't mean that "progress is being made." It means that for whatever reason, these two incidents are going to play themselves out in public and something will happen (whatever that is), but a child will still be dead and a young mother's psyche will still be shattered (like to imagine how her final exams will go this coming week?). A mother and father will still be devastated and two children will still be raised by a woman whose fifteen minutes of fame are of her half-clad body on a burning cross. And people of color everywhere in the United States will still be left knowing that on the right day in just the right situation that victim could still be them.

No matter what happens, there's no reason to believe that these are the only similar incidents that have occurred this spring or that these events are not being repeated behind closed doors--and closed minds--even as I write these words. And there's absolutely no reason to believe as yet that rape and murder by European-Americans against helpless victims of color are not going to continue as a direct manifestation of White power in a nation not gone mad, you understand, but mad at its conception.

Europeans created this nation by stealing land from the Native Americans already on it and then making it rich by forcing millions of Africans to work fourteen hour days seven days per week for 250 years--without pay. And now White folks--who pat themselves on the back as if they have done something good--conveniently ignore the obvious: that their history has never really stopped. It continues to crop up like a relentless plague of weeds carrying a poisonous flower. It's indigenous to the culture. And it's going to take more than good intentions--or a couple of high profile legal cases--to get rid of it.

Another high profile case last year involved a European-American dance teacher who left the scene of an accident in Tampa, Florida, in March of 2004 after killing two children and maiming two others (all from one African-American family). When the dust settled, Jennifer Porter wound up with house arrest, probation, and community service work. And after a little sputtering, those still alive went on living. These new cases and the others already in motion and the ones that will be reported tomorrow or the day after that or next month will, more than likely, go more or less the same way. It's painful. It's depressing. And it's wrong.

Every once in a while, some particular case (such as the one in Jasper, Texas, involving White men who dragged an African-American man to his death behind a truck) is resolved, by hook or by crook (no pun intended), in some appropriate legal manner. But that's not the answer to this puzzle. We have to go all the way back to the root cause of our mutual dilemma. It's mutual because, while African-Americans are still being brutalized, European-Americans are staying insane. And which is more monstrous: being a victim or being a perpetrator? The rapists and murderers who actually carry out the crimes are not, repeat, not, repeat, not operating in a vacuum.

Yevtushenko wrote that he was a "Jew" at Babi Yar (the scene of an anti-Semetic massacre in Russia). John F. Kennedy told the German people gathered at their infamous wall that he was a "Berliner." And no matter what I look like, when a person of color is attacked by a White person anywhere in the world, I will see myself as attacked. There is no other way to restore myself to sanity.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Hustle and Flow

Back in my thirties, when I was on welfare for five years, before I got my bachelor's degree and my Master's degree and the additional 82 graduate level hours I earned at FSU working toward my Ph.D., when somebody asked me how I was making it, somebody African-American usually, since a European-American wouldn't ask, I used to reply, "I hustle." And they would invariably laugh out loud. Not like they found it funny, but like they found it funny that I would use that word. It seemed as if maybe they thought I wouldn't know how to hustle. Or maybe that a White person wouldn't ever really have to hustle--even a White person on welfare. Or at least that if I was, in fact, somehow "hustling," that they couldn't imagine me using the word appropriately. They laughed as if the word itself sounded funny coming out of my mouth.

But I knew the word. By that time, I had been fully bi-cultural for at least several years and crossing the color line back and forth for more than a decade. I meant "hustle." I was living on barely over $300 per month and a handful of food stamps, after all, and even after I moved into subsidized housing (which was just one part of my hustle, once my friend Esther showed me how to get in), I was endlessly living on the edge. So any given day, I was liable to be "working it" one way or the other. Because I had to. White or not. My kids needed shoes. My son needed money for school projects. There were birthdays and Christmases and Easter baskets. Not to mention laundry to be done and toilet paper and toothpaste to be bought. Three hundred dollars just wasn't gonna do it. So I hustled.

Sometimes, I hustled a man, somebody I was dating who wanted my undivided attention. I didn't think of it as degrading. I just needed to cover all my bases, that's all. The utility company didn't want to hear about my rickety old junker breaking down. Heck! The car itself had been the result of a hustle. And God knows, I needed it, even if the driver's seat was tipped hard to the left as the floor disintegrated underneath it. I had responsibilities just like every other adult, Black or White. And whatever it took within reason, I met them.

It didn't stop when I got off welfare either. For seven years of grad school, I hustled my way through student loans and financial aid and assistantships and summer jobs and endlessly through family and friends and boyfriends and even a husband or two. Even after I left school and went to work full-time, it seemed as if I was always a dollar or two (or more) shy of where I wanted--and often needed--to be. I had teenagers to support and inflation to deal with, of course, as well as the tendency to make an odd choice from time to time. And everybody gets a bad break now and then, such as being laid off from a great job after only six months because of programmatic cut-backs--two days after my druggie son and his girlfriend "had to" move in without jobs themselves. I mean, it was always something.

And for the most part, it still is. Granted, I chose to quit my day-job eighteen months ago to write, a choice that a number of my friends and acquaintances considered crazy. But I'm used to living on a wing and a prayer most of the time anyway and I was just taking a calculated risk, trying to hustle my way into the place I think I really belong, if you catch my drift.

Still, I remember one winter in northern Illinois back in the day going to a Community Action Agency to ask for help with my utility bill. I was crying the blues, I guess, whining about whatever my current struggle was (hustling, hustling) when the European-American woman caseworker on the other side of the desk said abruptly, "Well, at least you're White, so you don't have racism to deal with, too."

I was shocked. Shocked that she would speak to me like that when she was supposed to be a "social worker." Shocked that she would speak to me about how being White makes you special when she was White, too. Shocked, as a matter of fact, that she would talk about Whiteness at all, since only Black folks talked about White folks being White back then. And shocked, I think, that she did this with no apparent emotional investment at all. She was just saying it straight out. It shut down my hustle like a glass of cold water in the face.

Anyway, all this went through my mind a few weeks ago, after I had a conversation with a young African-American student who was telling me about his fledgling business in the entertainment field. He was explaining how it's against the law to post flyers in public, but that the cops will allow them in the Black community if you don't get caught putting them up. So they go out after dark to post advertisements about their next event. They dress in black, in cheap shoes, and without a watch or a wallet or even a jacket, so as not to tempt the local roadboys, who might be out marauding.

"You can't look like you have anything or they'll getcha," he said. "And you can't ride a bike after dark or you'll wind up in a fight. The rule is: if you can't defend what you have, you don't deserve it."

I looked into his eyes, as he matter-of-factly recounted the adventure. "In a capitalist society," he finished, "money is the equalizer." I didn't know if he was talking about himself or the roadboys...or both. And I was busy processing what he and his friends have to do to take their shot at getting a piece of the pie when he added the clencher, the follow-up to the social worker's challenge to me so long ago: "Bein' Black," he said, "is a hustle."

And suddenly, I got it. Why they always laughed when I used the word, I mean.

See, I work hard. Everybody works hard. We really don't have a choice. Even hustling is hard, hard work because you have to stay on top of so many things at once and the pay-off is frequently disproportionately low and sometimes nonexistent. But the difference for this young man and most of the other young Black males in their senior year of college in 2006 in the United States is that, as they pass the major milestone of college graduation, a milestone that regularly puts White youths on the track to success immediately, they're still having to skulk around their neighborhoods in the dark, hedging their bets against an unsure future. Something I've never had to do before. And might well never have to do in my life. Even when I'm on welfare. It's all about options and, while Black may be beautiful ("Say it loud: I'm Black and proud!"), being Black is still a serious hustle.

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?