About the time I began to pursue racial understanding, I had a student in one of my classes who gave me a whole different perspective regarding race and fear. Thomas was a college freshman at a small university in a small town. He was from one of the largest cities in the United States. As the semester progressed I was impressed by his excellent academic performance and his winning personality. Thomas had wonderful potential, and held himself to a high standard. While giving a required speech in class, Thomas explained what it was like to be a young, black man in his city. He and his friends (also black) were perceived as a threat when walking down the street even though they had done nothing wrong. Thomas stated that white people would cross the street in order to avoid them. This is just the way it was in his city. He and his friends had done nothing to earn this treatment. They were simply young, black, and male.
This heart-breaking revelation was new information to me. “How could people treat Thomas with such disrespect!?” I thought to myself. Then…the days, weeks, and months after that speech I began to examine my own white behavior on the streets, and I was disappointed. When a male of color would pass me on the street, I always moved my purse to the far side of this person. This was just one example of thoughtless, nonverbal behaviors I embraced toward people of color in public spaces. “I need to change. I can do better,” I told myself. Now, I always move my purse to the side closest to the person of color while I smile and say hello. Pitiful, right? What shoulder my purse hangs from is not going to change the world. But, I am dedicated to this small change and others.
Can you imagine going through life receiving such negative messages from your community? I was happily surprised to hear from Thomas the other day. He is a successful leader at an outstanding organization. Thomas did not let perpetual, negative treatment ruin his self-esteem. But, how many young people of color do not have the strength of Thomas?
…fear, fear. It is obvious to say that the relationship between race, racism, ethnicity and fear is intimate, and tightly woven. My last post told a story of white fear from a child’s perspective. Honestly, I’m embarrassed to discuss white fear when it comes to race. White fear is nothing compared to the years of terror, oppression, and constant fear experienced by people of color in the United States. However, if we do not examine white fear and the behavior it promotes, we cannot become better people dedicated to understanding and equality.
As a child I perceived that everyone was afraid in the 1960s South. Bomb threats at my all-white public elementary school made us afraid. Riots at my sister’s junior high school made us afraid. Driving through many neighborhoods and downtown areas frightened white people. So, when Daddy and Mama were unafraid I was attentive and will always remember the circumstances.
Every Saturday night my family went out to eat. We all piled into the Chrysler — parents, four kids, and two grannies. Many times we would stop by Daddy’s gas station and fuel oil business on the way to the restaurant. My father’s business sat on the edge of a poor, black neighborhood. Few white faces were ever seen there. However, on occasion Daddy would roll down the windows of the Chrysler and cruise through that neighborhood on our Saturday night journey to the restaurant. Mama and Daddy would wave at people sitting on their porches, who would respond by yelling, “Hey Mr. and Mrs. George!” My Dad’s first name was George. I was called, “little George.” We would stop the car and talk to groups of people gathered in the streets. We were unafraid. Why? Because Daddy was a decent businessman who believed in helping others, and believed in equality. Daddy refused to have Jim Crow restrooms at his station. “If you want to piss at my station you can do it in the same toilet as everybody else,” he would say. If white people complained he told them to piss someplace else. Also, no old person on a small, fixed income in the neighborhood went without fuel oil to heat their houses in the winter. They paid him when they could. Kindness, respect, and decency were more important than race and separation. Fear melted away.
…for me began with the drive to church. This half hour drive required us to pass from outskirts to suburbia to the inner city of my deep-south hometown. The tragedy of 1960s society passed by the windows of our Chrysler New Yorker each week. But, when I was about six years old I had a much closer experience with inequality in my hometown.
My Mom and I were having lunch at one of our favorite, little cafes. This cafe was in my neighborhood, very near my school, and I was perfectly at home there. My entire family usually dined there once a week. The owner, Mrs. Jones, knew my parents, grannies, uncles, brother, and sisters. We were always welcomed with kindness and enthusiasm.
On this particular day two men entered the cafe and sat at a booth behind us waiting for service. Mrs. Jones confidently approached their table and told the men to get out. She would not serve them. One man was black, and one was white. A muted, but heated exchange happened between Mrs. Jones and the white man. I was mortified! Kind, sweet, little Mrs. Jones would not feed those men. I kept turning around and asking Mama why this was happening. I could see fear in Mama’s face. With eyes cast downward, she whispered that I must stay still and be very quiet. Now, from previous observations and my parents’ discussions, I knew that Mrs. Jones was a yankee. Mama and Daddy said that her occasional abruptness had to be overlooked due to her unfortunate birth and upbringing in the North. But, her behavior shocked and confused me.
On that day I learned my first, great lesson about race in America. I must look away and be silent. Look away and be silent, little, white girl. Look away and be silent. Of course, I understand that my parents taught me this to protect me from my own big mouth. Like most people in the South during the 1960s, they were afraid. But, what about now almost 50 years later?
MY POINT: Do I still choose to look away and be silent when I witness racial inequality? I hope and pray for boldness to speak up!
Hey, wait! Before I continue I need to answer this question. Are white people ignorant — even illiterate — when it comes to the issues of race, ethnicity, and racism? Yes, I think we are. American white people have a “let them eat cake” understanding of race. We don’t understand because it’s not necessary for our daily functions. People of color are forced to evolve and struggle and think about race because IT IS necessary for their daily functions. The only time many white people struggle with race is when a situation makes them uncomfortable. And, the more power and privilege that exists in a white person’s world, the less likely those situations will happen.
Of course, I had made my mind up to struggle with these issues. I had already decided to fight my own ignorance. To do so meant starting at the beginning of race for me.
MY POINT: Most white people have not pursued understanding. How can we solve America’s racial and ethnic issues if we do not chase understanding? Is society waiting on white people?
The more I read, and the more diversity of experience I added to my life, the more I became convinced that the journey to racial progress is within each of us. It is a soul-searching, intrapersonal experience. We all must compare the racial life training we received from family, friends, and community, to the TRUTH about race as we know it today. We may not realize it, but we all interact with others through a racial/ethnic lens. I believe this is particularly true for those of us middle-aged, southerners who grew up during the final years of Jim Crow. I wonder how much Jim Crow we still carry within us? If you are like me — over the age of 50 and white, I wonder how “literate” we are when it comes to race and ethnicity? I wonder if we have evolved since our formative years when everything in our lives kept us from people of color, and (for me) poor people. I wonder how our life choices and experiences have pushed our evolution?
These questions are becoming MORE, not less, important for us to ask ourselves. “Why,” you may ask? Because we are at (or moving toward) the apex of our careers, influence, and leadership. Think about it. What prejudices have you, or will you, carry into leadership? Ideally, we all should clean our psychological house before we attempt to influence society.
MY POINT: Sadly, this critically important journey within is lonely and unsupported.
As I continued to read and eat my way through racial understanding, I realized that race is a persistent theme in American history. Specifically, the theme of slavery. It is an undercurrent sometimes flowing just beneath most of the major events in our past. It seems that the more we remove the myths of American history, the more race and slavery bubbles up. It’s not that I did not learn about slavery. In fact, I can’t remember a time that I DID NOT know about slavery. However, the discussion was always attached to the fact that we Southerners lost the war. We lost, and we’re still upset about it! Now, as I read with purposeful, new eyes I realized that slavery was an economic foundation of the British colonies, and the new United States of America. So some my ancestors, like many Americans throughout our history, advanced our family through direct or indirect oppression. This is an ugly part of our personal histories to explore.
Since our country’s founding we have dealt with the issues of race and slavery as a collective — the Civil War, Emancipation, and the Civil Rights Movement. American politicians have written amendments, passed laws, dedicated memorials, and designated national holidays. We have made progress, but apparently it is not enough. What I see on the news tells me it is not enough. What I sometimes hear in conversation among white people tells me it is not enough. What I observe on a daily basis as I move through my community tells me it is not enough. I believe a racial frontier still exists for Americans. We have done a great deal of collective/policy work, now we must do the personal work.
MY POINT: We have a racial frontier to explore and it is within each of us.
After my moment of enlightenment in Chicago I searched for books about race. I’m thankful I eventually found the book, Slaves in the Family by Edward Ball. This wonderful journalist had the courage to tell the truth about his family’s relationship with the slaves they owned on South Carolina plantations. His quiet, terrible truth revolved around the fact that the white Balls and the black Balls were related. Ball’s writing introduced me to “step aside” children, the people who were the product of a white male and a black female. Many of these children grew up along side their white brothers and sisters, but were never recognized as family, just slaves and the descendants of slaves. “That’s just messed up!” I said to myself as I read through this book for the first time. For many people, the dysfunction of this arrangement must run deeply through subsequent generations. I never considered this truth. My conservative upbringing in church and church school protected me from these harsh realities. Also, my history classes never illuminated these important facts. How naive I was to never see this “indulgence” as part of slave-owning!
Aside from reading materials, I also decided to seek out experiences that would allow me to connect with people of color. My life seemed to be isolated from them. As a southerner raised during the Civil Rights era, almost everything in my life was engineered to separate me from black people, rather than build intentional community with them. I decided to research and then visit businesses that were owned by people of color. Of course, being the chow hound I was, I decided to seek out restaurants. As it turns out, only six blocks off my favorite road to the mall was an African-American community. “How could I live in this area for years and not know about this community?” I asked myself. In this community was a small BBQ restaurant. Immediately, I felt out of place as I walked into this restaurant for the first time. But the owner was a kind and friendly older gentleman who welcomed me. I tried the BBQ beef ribs with a side of homemade hot sauce. After two bites my eyes rolled back into my head and I was transported. Delicious! One day when I was at the restaurant gnawing on rib bones, the owner asked me a question. I don’t remember what we were discussing, but my answer to him was, “yes, Sir.” This response was automatic. It reflected my upbringing in Southern civility. The restaurant owner looked at me with sympathy and said the following. “Honey, you don’t have to say ‘Sir’ to me. I was forced to say that in years past. No one has to say that anymore.” I swallowed hard. I didn’t know what to say, or if I said anything at all. I wanted to tell him how sorry I was, and how I wanted to understand so I could live a more loving life. I didn’t have the confidence or the words. I just kept gnawing on those delicious bones.
MY POINT: Our history related to race is sad, tragic, and dysfunctional. We have a great deal of loving and healing to do.