I am willing, and I think it is an appropriate time for me to talk about race, racism and the perpetuation of prejudice. Before I forge ahead, I want everyone to be aware that I am a white woman, 33 years old from North St. Louis County, from a diverse neighborhood and that I was raised relatively well-off… well, comfortable at least (see old blog-post Classy Talk. (or you got a purdy mouth) for more on my personal history with classism.) By me stating this, you should realize that my opinions on race, racism and the perpetuation of prejudice is already biased and incomplete. I am stating this in advance, so that you that disagree with what I am saying need not bring up my white, middle-class background as ammunition against me. I am well aware of my racial privileges even while I fight against the reasons why I have them.
I became aware of race and racism in 4th grade. One of my closest friends in Elementary School was LaCreisha. She lived in the next neighborhood over from mine, too far in those years for me to go and visit alone on my bike, so we didn’t spend a lot of time outside of school together. However, like most young girls we would converse on the telephone, sometimes for hours talking about god knows what. My Elementary School was quite diverse, in fact- if my memory serves me correct I want to say Briar Crest was 50/50 or at least 40/60 African-American and Caucasian. I was an inactive recess girl- I have a healthy imagination and monkey bars and jungle gyms looked like death traps to me as I would envision the myriad of ways I could break bones. So, I tended to sit off to the side with other girls and we would chit-chat, play house or just gossip. LaCreisha was the same way and many times we just sat to the side while she played with my hair. (I had hair that went to my waist and most young girls would treat me like their personal Barbie doll and my mom would be astonished by the amount of barrettes and rubber bands that I would end up bringing home with me as the girls in my class did my hair in a variety of wacky styles)
My father, (and I must state that as a human being- my father has grown, and he would be very ashamed of this story I am telling you now. His point of view on race has shifted dramatically since he was working at McDonnell Douglas, as he saw his affluence diminish and found how much more he has in common with the African-American plight than he realized. Is he perfect- no. But he is open to understanding so I have hope that he will continue to grow more enlightened as the years progress) anyways, my father worked the night shift and usually wasn’t home when LaCreisha and I had our phone conversations, but one evening he was. He answered the phone (which is also VERY rare) and when he asked who was calling and LaCreisha said her name, my father said I wasn’t home and told her not to call me anymore. I was heart broken because I didn’t understand why he wouldn’t let me talk to her. I was told something to the extent that she was different and I shouldn’t hang out with her.
Now, my father never used the N-word. He never was overtly racist in ways that I see other people act. He had co-workers that he would talk about “respecting” and now that I am older I understand how he was raised, where he was raised and how difficult it can be to change a mindset that was firmly in place. This isn’t an excuse, because he has worked hard to change that mindset, a mindset that others of his generation not only kept- but has passed to their children. And unfortunately I realized in 4th grade that my relationship with my African-American counterparts was supposed to be different, and I started to de-compartmentalize those relationships. I talked to them less at school, I talked to them less at home, or I would hide the relationships.
In 6th grade, there was a African-American boy that I developed a crush on. Brad was smart and funny and personable. He was a very secret crush, a crush that I pulled out only in the darkness of my room right before falling asleep. It was a feeling of forbidden love, a Romeo and Juliet type of lust that no one but a mutual friend Ivy was really aware of. I tucked it away because I knew it was “impossible”. Today, the sadness I feel with typing these words is over whelming. It’s like missing a plane that you knew would have changed your life. He left Pattonville and went to a new school in 7th grade. Years later, in 1996 as a Junior, I worked on the political campaign for a Lieutenant Governor of Missouri, and one of the rewards was being able to see Presidential Candidate Bill Clinton speak outside of the University City, City Hall. There were thousands of people there. Three rows in front of me a kid turned around and we made eye contact and my heart swooned- it was Brad. He recognized me instantly and we pushed through the rows and hugged. It was amazing to see him again and instantly I was heart-crushed. It was still there- and I still had something stopping me. I am sure it was racial. And it breaks my heart how I denied myself something because of an incorrect and socially biased taught behavior. I wish I was a better person.
Growing up in my school district I had many African-American friends that surrounded me, but I didn’t bring them over to visit and my conversations over the phone had to be planned. Something changed in high school, and I feel it directly is influenced by the change in my father. As he grew gathering Socialistic opinions, as he sat in interviews next to disenfranchised African-American men who were vying for the same positions, as he temped with all these jobs and saw how hard and dedicated these workers were- how similar he was to them I felt more comfortable bringing my friends to my house. I felt more comfortable with my relationships and more comfortable with myself. However, it would be an outright lie to say I didn’t see the segregation what was palpable not only in the cafeteria- but in classrooms, in activities, in almost every aspect of our lives we continue to be segregated.
I live on The Hill. Although they have “allowed” non-Italians to purchase homes (which is surprisingly a new phenomenon if you can believe it!) it is rare to see African-Americans in this neighborhood (unless they are coming to and from work at the many Italian restaurants). This, I am acutely aware of. I am also acutely aware that when my neighbors make comments about how “safe” this neighborhood is- that safety is equated to lack of African-Americans. I hear this… and I am quiet. I do not agree but I let them say this without retribution, without consequence. Never mind it is the little tow-headed boy, the Dennis the Menace, that is the thief and cause of most destruction in our neighborhood- it must be these African-Americans that make neighborhoods unsafe. I get angry that my Caucasian brethren’s “white-flight” to the ever expanding suburbs, is perpetuating the strip-mall-ization of America while the inner cities get left to the mess discarded in the flight. I get angry that I have yet to take the initiative to move to a neighborhood more diverse, to enact the change that I rail against, to be a part of the solution. I get angry that I think I need to do this, as if my white ass will fix any of the problems just by being there. I get angry that I have not only a racial implication of what it means to be black, but also what it means to be white. I get angry that I may be suffering from the ‘Sandra Bullock’ syndrome myself- the salvation and the healer- just because of my skin. I get frustrated because I can’t seem to grasp this issue in any way, I can’t seem to find a footing on my beliefs and I can’t seem to concrete my emotions so that I wax and wane with any shifting issue.
It’s so big… and yet my actions are so small.
I cried after the Trayvon Martin case was decided. I cried because it feels so helpless, so hopeless, so discouraging. I cried because I fear that people will see Zimmerman in me, will assume fault of me because of my white skin. I cried because I will never understand what it is like to be African-American, how invasive the fear is. I cried because I am disgusted, disgusted by the cheers of white American’s and the lack of consciousness as they fly their racist opinions without fear of retribution, without fear of consequence- because they are white people of privilege and their opinions are innately better by the color of their skin. I cried because I am weak and powerless, even as a white woman, to stem the tide against me.
Between Trayvon, between Normandy and Francis Howell School District fiasco here in St. Louis (here’s a link to the innate racist actions that underline this issue-which would require a whole new blog for me to reiterate), between the racist and homophobic comments being aired by people on Big Brother (which although is no surprise that they ARE racist and homophobic- just that they feel no shame or remorse about spouting their racism and homophobia in public) I am over powered by embarrassment and anger and fear and sadness…. pure sadness.
I am embarrassed to be a white person this week. I am embarrassed for all those inevitable moments that I was racist- I know they exist- I know I disenfranchised a fellow human being at least once if not dozens of times- I am embarrassed for our nation that we can’t seem to get this melting pot idea right and that we continually have to fight for the right to civility. I am sorry. I am truly sorry.