Sunday, December 31, 2006

Should New Acquaintances Be Discovered

I guess everybody's got their thing, huh? I spent my whole new year's eve so far reading the new Erase Racism Blog Carnival. And it's the best one yet. There's a few old favorites and a bunch of great folks I hadn't read before. Christina did a terrific job of putting it all together and deserves many readers.

Being as you won't probably see this until 2007 (snicker), I suggest you do yourself a huge favor and read it as your first act of the new year. It'll take a minute because there's more than a couple, but it'll be kind of like visiting folks on a holiday, going from house to house, shaking hands and sipping egg nog and bonding with those who wish us all well.

As for me? Well, while you're going from blog to blog, feasting on the hearty fare of speaking truth to power, I'll be dutifully posting a new blog entry for the new year--a year in which I wish us all the joy of growing, the satisfaction of knowing, and the blessing of peace.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Happy Holidays From The Big Apple

Happy holidays to all my regular readers. I am in New York City trying to eat myself into a larger size jeans, while I walk so much there's not much likelihood of that happening. I would love to do a real blog post from here, but I'm moving too fast to develop a real topic as yet. Still, checking my emails in a computer cafe across the street from Tompkins Square Park, I just had to say hi and wish you well and know that when I get home, I'll look at this post and remember everything...with great joy.

I did have coffee in Greenwich Village with another blogger. We talked about other stuff. Like ordinary people. Come to think of it, why am I not surprised? (Hey, Judd! It was swell to meet you.)


Sunday, December 10, 2006

Any Questions?

"If we believe in the rebirth of our civilization...then clearly this renaissance must begin in the chambers of our own hearts...We cannot wait for society to change, or for our institutions to be renewed. We, as individuals, must assume responsibility for our own personal transformation."

~Georg Feuerstein

Friday, December 08, 2006

Why Am I Not Surprised?

Remember last summer, when I wrote here and here about racist practices of some fans at European soccer matches?

Well, here's the latest. At the time I wrote my earlier pieces, some suggested that the problem doesn't really exist. Apparently, they were wrong.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

For White Folks: How To Be An Ally (Part 3)

Some years ago--quite a few, I think--I faced the fact that I like to talk. Rather a lot, actually. The issue was raised the first time soon after I started first grade (as in "Is a joy to have in class, but likes to talk to her neighbors"). It popped up again more painfully in the form of my own personal hazing as an incoming freshman during the hot minute I was in nurse's training when I was instructed to stand in the hospital cafeteria for a half-hour talking to a statue.

Anyway, through the years, my talking got me something of a reputation, but since I was good at it and often clever or funny or impassioned, I was tolerated and even encouraged, by and large. Particularly since I could really use the skill in front of the press or at a demonstration or when speaking before a mass audience or whatever.

Then my daughter came along and as she aged, she would shut the door between me as a talker and her as a listener sometimes. "Inner monologue, Mom," she would cue me in a flat voice on occasion when I was talking to myself while under the mistaken impression that I was speaking to her.

"You're doing it again, Mom," she would mention casually over dinner at a restaurant, "You're holding a conversation for which I'm not necessary--posing questions and then answering them yourself." (And yes, she really does talk that way. She did, after all, grow up with me and her also highly verbal older brother. We often sounded like a Neil Simon script, much to the amazement of outsiders.)

And over time, my training under her tutelage helped me to hone, I think (I hope?), my tendency to monopolize conversation too ruthlessly. I learned to rest a finger or two on my lips to remind myself not to blurt out my thoughts while someone else is speaking. And I started listening so intently that sometimes a speaker in front of a smallish group will wind up speaking almost entirely to me alone.

In any case, "voice"--verbal or written (and at one time, sung)--is crucial to me. It is breath. It is imperative. I can spend ridiculous amounts of time alone, and even in silence. But I must, absolutely must, be able to express myself somehow.

So maybe that's why I understood almost immediately when I was exposed some years ago to the idea that, as a person who looks like I do, it is my responsibility to serve sometimes as a bridge between African-Americans and my counterparts in the European-American community. For one thing, White people will sometimes listen to me when they won't listen to people of color. And if I can express even something of the exact nature of institutionalized oppression in the name of racism, then the listeners may find themselves more willing--and able--to listen to a person of color speak for themselves at some point.

In fact, I have been told through the years by a number of my African-American students that I caused them to see the realities of "the system" much more clearly than they had ever imagined them--even as people of color. And I am, frankly, thrilled by this, when it occurs. I imagine that it empowers them, even if it does come from me.

But decades ago, I was taught that part of serving as a bridge is to introduce my fellow-speakers of color. To share the stage, if you will. To prepare the minds of listeners and then, when I have their attention, to give up the lectern to one who might otherwise not have access to it. That this is part of my job as one who has a clue. As one who wants to make a difference. As an ally. And the process of doing this, of course, sometimes means that I have to shut up (saying this to myself, of course, in the nicest possible way).

Sometimes, however, I hear stories from African-Americans who are struggling with the ramifications of not being allowed to find--or use--their voice under circumstances over which I can exert no control. And it saddens me greatly. Feeling the way I do about self-expression, I can't even imagine what it must be like to live in skin attached to lips that are forever expected to be sealed. Or worse, are always expected to make White folks feel good or safe or superior.

What a nightmare it must be, as an African-American, to have your White boss say jovially with an eager look, "You didn't take that the wrong way, did ya? You know we don't see color around here!" Or to have somebody lean toward you warmly at a church function and say, "Now, if all the Blacks were like you, we wouldn't have the problems we have in this country, you know what I mean?" Or to have the mother of your new friend (who just happens to be White) reach over at a bar-b-que and ask curiously, "Would you mind if I touched your hair? It looks so soft..." All the time knowing that your response must be measured and controlled and a lie.

And from what I can gather, these situations are made worse by the fact that you can't always see them coming. And while being constantly vigilant can give you ulcers, if you let your guard down, you're sure to get spiked eventually. And if you respond too quickly--because your guard was down--the repercussions can be severe. A lost job. A lost friend. A lost opportunity. Exclusion. The look.

Now, I don't mean "the look" that White people use when an African-American comes unexpectedly through the door to apply for a particular job or shows up at a party where everyone else is White or walks into the restaurant with a White date and his or her White child. I'm talking about "the look," however imperceptible, that says, "Hold up there--you just crossed the line." The color line. Into the space that's reserved for grown folks. The space of respect. As demonstrated by African-American deference to White people. And that's a dangerous look. It can be just a warning. But it can also mean that you--or your spirit--is about to get lynched.

So, African-Americans learn early to avoid "the look." They second guess themselves. They be quiet unless spoken to. They learn to smile a tight little smile and nod or grunt or "Hmmm" to avoid actually having to tell a bold-faced lie to a White person who really believes that they are well-meaning, but will get their feelings hurt in a New York minute and react--either now or at some unexpected future moment--in a way intended to "put you in your place" whether they admit it, or even know it, or not.

One young African-American I know (I'll call him "A."), who's been running things by me for years now, dropped by with his baby son last week and, while I was wallowing on the floor with the youngster, told me about winding up in the trick bag (yet again) at his new job this time, which he had loved until last week. Basically, as the story went, a new White social worker had been hired and had made it clear within days that she will not go into "certain" neighborhoods (despite the fact that she's from New York City and, duh, is a social worker), that she considers her African-American co-workers "them" (as opposed to she and the boss who are White), and that, while she reserves the right to make thinly-veiled racist comments in the office to specific individuals, she will run to the boss in tears if she is confronted on it. The other workers of color just shut down in the face of the situation, but A. had called her on her behaviors, only to have her "rescued" by the boss who literally threatened A.'s job all of a sudden, since A. is now a "high-maintenance employee."

A. is disappointed and frustrated. He wants to love his job. He wants to do it well. He's a highly competent, highly educated, deeply caring man who would be a wonderful asset to any social work team. But now--instead of being able to focus on his work like the professional he is--if he wants to continue to pay his rent, he's going to have to buck and shuffle. He has to accept the gibes of a White woman and say nothing in return or suffer for it. And that's what I mean by loss of voice.

A day or two after I spoke with A., I got an email from another African-American--a woman, this time--who I'll call "B." B. wrote me because she had been attacked for her comments on a blog (not her own) and she was tired of always having to defend herself for calling it the way she sees it as a person of color. She's expected to be intellectual, reasonable, and understanding in her statements to White people whose gentle sensibilities are wounded by her attempts to protect herself--from their attacks. Excuse me? At the end of her email, having expressed her frustration, she even went so far as to ask me not to tell anyone that she expressed to me how painful it is for her to be stuck in this space of having to be a literary punching bag. She, too, is being prevented from using her voice.

Later that same week, an African-American student came to me to discuss entering a prestigious essay competition. The young man ("C.") is not one of my students, but he's bright and mature enough to know what's going on with him. Plus, he wrote me an email one time that was electric with his passionate commitment to social change. Nevertheless, it became quickly apparent that he had lost his voice somewhere along the line.

I spent two hours with C. the first night and two more the night after that, cajoling, encouraging, reminding, challenging. And finally he admitted that the only reason he was using the essay in question (on Latino immigration) was that he didn't want to appear to be "just another Black man whining about race."

"Who better to express the African-American reality?" I countered. "Who better to plead the case for racial fairness?"

The next day, a Saturday, I got another email from C.

"Thanks for opening my mind..." he began. "From adolescence to this moment, I have been so uptight...Today, I am letting go! Yes, for a change, I will allow myself to enjoy an EXPERIENCE...As you've encouraged, 'My stars shall all come out to show their sparkling glimmer.' I am aware that trials and criticism shall follow, but that's all part of the process, right? This is so awesome, and the train is moving and, finally, I'm a passenger on board. Your words have not fallen on deaf ears..."

I wept great sobs in joy for this young man. And for the incredible honor of being allowed to help him find his voice. And for the millions of other people of color--old and young, male and female, rich and poor--whose voices may never be heard or even used.

But let's face it, I have a peculiar place in society in which to operate. And a particular skill, perhaps, in operating there. How can others help people of color to find their voices?

Well, for one thing, you can listen--really listen. It's hard to find a voice you've never been allowed to use. And it's hard to hear with ears that have never practiced listening. But we can help each other, if we bring honest hearts to the task.

Then, you can validate the truth you hear by accepting its legitimacy, no matter now difficult it is to face, no matter how sad it is to look at, no matter how formidable the wall it seems to illumine, no matter how deep the chasm it seems to produce. You can say, "Yes. I hear you. Yes. It must be painful. Yes. It is immoral. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes."

And finally, you can sit beside the wounded.

I saw a quote years ago by a woman back in the sixties, a SNCC-member, I think, who said something about, "What it all comes down to in the end is one person saying 'I will sit next to you.'" A commitment so simple it can be made by anyone. Without training. Without education. Without planning. Without agenda. "I will sit next to you." When the tempers blaze and the tears come. "I will sit next to you." In the rain. In the sun. In the darkness of night. "I will sit next to you." We can share a sandwich. We can pass the dipper down the row. We can breathe the air of a planet that has waited five hundred years for these words: "I will sit next to you."

In 1963, Anne Moody, the author of Coming of Age in Mississippi, probably one of the single most important books ever written by a U.S. citizen, having already spent years of her youth risking and losing everything but her life, walked into a Woolworth's in Jackson, Mississippi, and sat quietly down at the segregated lunch counter with two friends, one European-American and one Native American. It was the beginning of the end of racial segregation in America.

As angry White men pushed, struck, poured catsup, mustard and sugar over the heads of, and spit on Anne and her two allies, John Salter and Joan Trumpauer, they sat--together--and unleashed a power that could not be denied. They sat, silent, and were heard around the world. Eventually, we, too, may find our collective voice. But it will only be when everyone gets to speak.