"The notion that such persons are gay of heart and carefree is curiously untrue. They lead, as a matter of fact, an existence of jumpiness and apprehension. They sit on the edge of the chair of Literature. In the house of Life they have the feeling that they have never taken off their overcoats."
- James Thurber, My Life and Hard Times

Sunday, August 2, 2020

A big post from the little lady

I've had this post rattling around in my brain for at least a month, if not more, and I'm trying to make the words come out like Goldilocks' opinion of Baby Bear's stuff: juuuusssstttt right. We shall see, says my inner cynic.


This is a story of two of my friends, my separate interactions with them, and what it all means.

I have one friend who is as big-hearted as the African sky, but completely clueless when it comes to people who are not white and middle-class like her. Her family was that sadly rather stereotypical white family that naturally believed all the stereotypical crap about Black/Hispanic/Muslim/Jewish/Other families because they didn't have any contact with the Other to make them question their beliefs. Like I said, she is clueless, but she has a genuine fondness for all people, even when she puts her foot in her mouth.

When we are together, I get to educate her about the perils of being Black in America, even though I am white. I explain why Black Lives Matter. I explain having to teach my son how to survive a traffic stop. I explain why it frightens me to imagine calling 911 if we ever had an intruder because I don't want the police to assume the black guy is the burglar and shoot my husband. I describe being pulled over outside of Amarillo for doing 74 in a 70-mph zone and being Naive White Girl, arguing with the cop while Dale continually poked me in the ribs, whispering, "Shut up and take the ticket."

When she describes a situation that at least started badly for her, I ask her, "Do you want to know why that person thought it was offensive?" Her answer is always, "Yes."

Her heart and mind are open to change, even if it comes slowly, and I love that about her.

My other friend was not raised in that kind of bubble. She lived in a very diverse community and her parents always had visitors of other races, colors, and creeds. I will say, as an aside, that her family was more upper middle-class, but I don't hold that against her.

She told me a story of a woman in her volunteer organization who is the only black woman in a very white group. The woman expressed frustration that she was never listened to, she was talked over, that her ideas were dismissed, and ended with the statement that she couldn't help but feel this group was racist.

My friend described to me HER outrage at being called racist, and that she informed the woman she could not be more wrong. She listed all the ways she had not been raised to "see color" and would not stand for being called such an ugly term.

*Insert heavy sigh here* 

Basically, my friend invalidated this poor woman's feelings and made her feel even worse about the situation. It would not surprise me if that woman left the organization.

Which leads me to... *Insert big breath* declaring that I am a racist.

Do I feel like a racist? No. I see the differences in people and I love them, I applaud them, I want to learn about different cultures. I treat everyone as the individual I believe they are and not part of some collective "them." I'm still naive--I look for the good in everyone I meet. Of course, I also try to take Maya Angelou's advice, and believe who people are the first time they show me.

(Oh, and BTW, I don't care how you define your sexuality or who you love/marry/have sex with, as long as it's consensual. It's SOOOOO none of my business. Just give me your pronouns and I'll do my best.)

But I was not raised this way, and I must commit myself to accepting the label. Why? Because someday I will open my mouth and say something stupid. I'm guessing it will be out of ignorance (I can't imagine being malicious). Some phrase or term I got from my childhood and carried forward without knowing its meaning. Something that will make someone accuse me of racism.

And I don't want to immediately fight back and end the dialogue. I want to be able to apologize and ask how I can make amends. I want to do better.

Thanks for reading.


Pam Ripling said...

See, this is why you and I have remained friends, albeit distant ones. We are much the same, and I think you nailed it. My beloved, late father was born in 1912, an only child of a very young mother and a father who disappeared at some point. He was a died-in-the-wool racist. Yet I worshipped him. He was a product of his upbringing, I know. I can't repeat some of the things he said out of pure shame. My naive mother, growing up on a poor farm in Missouri, also used the work "colored" until her death. They were taught, and believed, from birth, in white superiority. In my teens, I experienced one of the periodic "awakenings" and took up the cause against racism. Hey, we had TWO black kids in my high school! Two! And everybody wanted to be their best friends. I'd like to believe I never outgrew that feeling, but like you, I have to admit my ingrained biases. Do I sometimes feel vulnerable if a black man approaches me while I'm alone, like on a walk or pumping gas? Yes. I do. But because I have experienced that feeling, I'm acutely aware of my black girlfriend's feelings when she tries to explain to me how she's felt up against a powerful, biased white woman in our business group. She feels vulnerable. Even scared. I know I'm rambling and not making sense, but your post does inspire me to examine these things. And yes, you got it right.

Gayle Carline said...

I wish we lived closer--if we ever dig our way out of this COVID mess, my bucket list is to visit more friends who live "just a little bit far away."

I do confess, I am more nervous about white guys approaching me. They're the ones who feel invincible.

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