Tuesday, May 26, 2015

What I've Learned About Racism: My Journey in Learning to Listen

I heard them before I saw them.  They were running, their little brown legs flashing up and down beneath the flounces of their pretty ruffled dresses, their faces upturned, their laughter contagious.  They slowed when they saw me, as if they weren't sure if their joy was acceptable, so I smiled back at them as I held the hands of my own small kiddos whose steps were slower and less sure.  

"Excuse us," one of the little girls said politely as they passed us.  They were probably sisters, the two: likely between seven and nine years old.  Their hair was styled neatly in twisted black swirls, held together with barrettes that matched their dresses.  The older man who was with them, possibly their grandfather, followed a ways behind, wearing an auto mechanic's uniform and holding a handkerchief to his mouth.  We were all headed for the park carousel:  brightly colored and beautifully painted, it seemed to beckon to us with its music. 

I bought our tickets, fifty cents each, for our children to ride, and stepped aside as Grandpa came up to the ticket window.  He pulled out a twenty from a leather wallet and handed it to the isolated young man behind the ticket window.  The young white man refused the bill.  "I won't change a twenty.  It's either exact change or I'll give you 10 tickets for a five."

"That's all I got!"  Grandpa said in frustration.  He dabbed at his mouth with his handkerchief and glared at the young man.  A sign behind him read, "No bills over fifty".  The two little girls turned in unison and looked at me.  In their liquid brown eyes was a mute appeal...

I don't think I'm the best person to talk about racism.  I'm white with light blue eyes and dark blonde hair beneath my bleached highlights.  I grew up in a little Western town in the 80's, where ethnic groups were few in number and Republicans outnumbered Democrats probably 3 to 1.  My knowledge of racism was a dim, "it all happened long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away" kind of feeling.

When I was ten, my family visited Southern relatives in Georgia who took us to visit a Slave Auctioneer's Block.  I remember a sense of amazement that such a thing still existed, and even more surprise that my extended family seemed proud to show it off.   "Isn't this a piece of history we all wish had never happened? I mean, shouldn't someone burn the thing to the ground?"  Kids have an innate sense of justice, after all.

In high school, my favorite teacher, (a thoughtful and highly intelligent man) assigned non-fiction reading from his personal list.  The book I chose was the true story of John Howard Griffin, "Black Like Me".   Reading that poignant true-life experience written by a white journalist who medically turned his skin black, woke up a sleepy something within me.  At 16, I could not yet grasp what a short jump of time there really was between 1988 and 1961, the book's publishing date.  But I felt that I had missed something along the way, like an awareness of what Black Americans might think of this country I had grown up so comfortably in.

When my husband and I moved to the Midwest for a whirlwind experience of rejection, prejudice, and hatred from the Christian community we were serving, some things changed for us.  One of those was a new view of racism in this country.  Regardless of its faults, California, where we both grew up, is a very welcoming state.  Some might argue "to its detriment", but I find beauty in California's embrace of people, particularly those who are rejected in other places.

There is no need to retell our story, but one facet was our personal experience of good people (formerly our friends) turning away from us when we began to be perceived as different from what was acceptable in that community.  A year spent desperately searching for work fruitlessly in the "land of opportunity", was an eye-opening experience that gave us a chance to walk in the shoes of the prejudice that stalks the poverty-stricken. And through all of these experiences was a shocking lack of compassion for our situation, from the very folks who were in the position to offer it.

Almost no one wanted to listen.

Many people, good people, didn't want to talk about the things we were experiencing.  And they were angry that we were talking about them.  Things like church abuse.  Or the homeless.  Police abuse.  And Racism.   

That last one twisted my heart up as I began to see it more from where we sat enduring prejudice in the Midwest.  Questions were building inside me that wanted answers:  questions about experiences that I knew I could not comprehend on my own with my limited background.  I knew I needed to see through someone else's eyes.  My husband and I first met with Tyrell (not his real name), a black friend who lived there.  We had gotten to know this older man and admired him greatly.  I asked him about his experiences of racism growing up in Northern Illinois.  But, Tyrell didn't want to talk of the evil he had endured: To him, speaking about such things wasn't helpful to the cause of Christ, which was, he felt, his foremost concern.  He desired unity, even with those who were the most injurious to the cause of Christ, ironically enough.  He admitted that his own children disagreed with his stand, and yet, that was where he stood.

Although I still admire Tyrell greatly, his reticence to talk about the truth of the pain that had been endured didn't answer any of my questions.  Nor did it help reveal where the light needed to come, and without that light, so many of us are left in darkness.   One Bible verse states, "My people perish for lack of knowledge."

The questions within me were still begging to be answered.  Now, I was understanding better what prejudice felt like, what it was like to be ostracized within an entire community, what it was like to have "good" people turn their backs on "seeing" what was happening.  And by now I knew the pain of sharing my own experiences only to have others close their ears from hearing.

"I'm so worried," I told a Christian friend, after moving back to California.  "I'm four months pregnant with O negative blood and no money for a Rhogam shot."  Without that shot, my body would reject any future children.  I had limited time remaining for it, we had no money, were living on the grace of relatives and still had to purchase our own groceries.  Daniel desperately picked up any odd job he could, and yet there was nothing left over for that precious shot.

So I shared my fear and my friend responded:  "Oh, I had a friend who had that problem and she didn't get any Rhogam.  She had two kids and they turned out just fine."

With that, she was done talking about it.  The real slap in the face was not the incredible and obvious ignorance of her comment, but the total lack of any compassion about something that was wringing my heart dry.
And this is the most important thing about asking the hard questions.  Once asked, I must listen. Even if I was ignorant, I must listen to the experiences of others.

The questions were still raging.  So Daniel and I met with another black friend, another amazing person whom my husband and I admire greatly.  We'll call her Tanya.  Tanya had grown up in San Francisco during the 50's and 60's.  She was one of the first black female CHP officers in that city.  She remains one of the most compassionate and giving people I have ever met in my life.

We sat down to breakfast with her and I asked, "Tanya, please.  I admit I'm ignorant of these things.  I grew up thinking that racism was mostly something of the past.  But after the experiences Daniel and I have run into, I'm not so sure.  Please, can you tell me, what has been your experience?"

And then we listened.  She had much to share.  Because she also has a great deal of wisdom, I imagine she picked and chose what she told me carefully. 
Here's the thing to know:  it wasn't always easy to just listen, even though I love and admire Tanya.  There were times when I wanted to excuse, or explain or say something.  But how rude would that be?  As insensitive and ridiculous as the gal who lives in a country club bombing one of my black friends' conversations about racism on Facebook.  "I know exactly what you mean!"  Miss Country Club commented,  "I was the only white student in a black school and I experienced the same prejudice you did."  

"No, you didn't," I wrote under her comment, since my black friends were too incredibly polite to contradict her. "You may have endured some painful experiences, but you do NOT know exactly what it is to be black in this country, any more than I do." 

There is a term that is going around these days that I did not at first understand.  It is called "White Privilege".  Inside, I objected at first to the connotation.  But I am gaining understanding of what it means. 

Yes, we all experience offenses in life.  Those are part of the human experience.  Someone cuts you off in line.  Another student uses foul language in your face.  A cop pulls you over and proves himself to be a wretched human being as he threatens you for no apparent reason.  I have experienced every single one of these things, but I have never had to wonder if the reason they were done to me were because of the color of my skin. 

 And though my stories, my own personal experiences about such things, might be ignored or condescended on:
 "You should have been quiet when the church treated you so badly." 
"You should never call any emergency response person anything but a hero, even if they treated you unjustly."   
"If you're struggling financially, you should pull yourself up by your own bootstraps."  
I have never had to hear such responses in context of the color of my skin.  This is my white privilege.  And this is just the tip of that iceberg.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian who fought desperately against the Nazism that was villainizing people groups through the German church, pre-WWII, said, "Silence in the face of evil is itself evil. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act."  

..."Oh, hey, I can cover them," I said, leaping back to the ticket booth, with my purse in hand. 

 I dug through my change purse and found the required coins.  The little girls ran through the gate, choosing their painted horses.  Grandpa stuck his chin out and stared down the white kid behind the counter before he walked through the gate.  The white kid said nothing.  Grandpa and his girls rode their horses like generals and their laughter rang out over the music of the carousel.  We all had a lovely ride.

It was my husband who drew my attention to the sign that stated nothing about twenty dollar bills. 

"That white dude was being racist," Daniel said, "He could have accepted the twenty."

I was shocked.  I felt sick to my stomach.  I hadn't even caught on.  

I'm used to my white privilege, I guess.  I had only seen it as a stupid policy and the kid as just another dumb worker.  I don't completely understand this enemy of Racism.  And my ignorance has made me a little dense.  But I want to learn.  I want to try to understand.  I want to help start the conversation.  Even if I don't always understand, I want to do my best to bring about the right kind of change because my friends, those whose skin shimmers with ebony-tinted loveliness: They matter. 

So, that means listening, even if I think I already get it.  That means offering compassion to others whose hearts are over-burdened with the pain of their experiences.  That means giving to the poor because I know sometimes you can't pull yourself up by your own bootstraps.  That means speaking up in the face of abuse, no matter where it comes from.

And that, my friends, is just the beginning.

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