Wrangling With Racism

I published the following article exactly three years ago, on July 18, 2013. Tragically, it is more relevant today than ever.

It was a curmudgeonly time during the George Zimmerman trial. Heated. Cantankerous. Unfriendly at best. We heard one too many divisive comments on news interviews, social media, when out-and-about in our communities. Some outright racism. I suppose each side wanted to build their ranks, or defend their position, but it only made us acknowledge what a bunch of hard-headed, hard-hearted people there are on this planet.

While most of us strive for daily peace, some truly enjoy fighting. I’m talking about those who position themselves at the extremes of issues. They blend there with like-minded people in sweet security, or anonymity, and shoot off bombs of vitriol toward the polar opposition. The rest of us in the middle, between the poles of extremism, get the caustic fallout.

It’s no fun to realize that about humanity. On top of that, I feel guilty. Because I was born white. I belong to the group that gets a pass, even when I’m in someone else’s neighborhood.

I’ve received looks, sure, when I was the only blonde in a village in Guatemala. But no vigilantism. No forced removal for being the wrong color in the wrong neighborhood. I’ve gotten looks while sitting with my son in a local burrito joint in his youthful, working-class, Hispanic neighborhood in San Francisco. When I asked him why (it’s not often that I’m the one who stands out), he explained that I was out of my demographic. I was a surprise. But I didn’t get told to leave.

When he moved to the South Side of Chicago, he and his roommates were the only whites on the block. There were two more whites a couple blocks over, he told me. When he met them one day on a sidewalk, he wanted to acknowledge them but refrained because he didn’t want to be racist that way. Aw, it’s tricky noticing skin color but wishing you didn’t.

The day I visited, mine was noticed by three little neighbor girls. They stood staring as they were introduced. They had pretty names and careful rows of braids fastened by pink and purple barrettes. When I asked if it hurt, they stared harder. “Because I remember it hurting when my mom braided my hair,” I followed.

The oldest found her voice, “It did when I was little. But my head got used to it.” They perched on the fire escape and pressed their noses against the kitchen window, watching us sit there at the table. We were fish in a fishbowl. I heard the littlest describing my features to the older two.

Grandma upstairs hollered at them, “Girls, leave ’em alone! Get on up here now!”

They were just curious. I was out of my demographic again.

A guy who lived upstairs at that Chicago brownstone was under house arrest, a fact he shared with my son on move-in day. It mattered not to me. He was nice. He said “hi” and smiled as we brushed shoulders passing in the doorway. I know I stuck out like a silly cowlick, a blonde-haired white woman in a neighborhood I didn’t belong to. He didn’t ask me what I was doing there. He … well, he was polite.

As I left at dusk, the sidewalks were filled with people of all ages, including young-adult black males I’ve been told to fear. I’m not naive, I know about crime rates, bad guys, and all, but it’s illogical to size up individuals by collective crime data. It’s insensible to decide a person’s intentions based on their skin color, income or educational level, or their geographic location at a point in time. My son and his housemates were embraced by their community. People were neighborly. As a visitor, I was treated well there.

I don’t like that I get unmerited favor on this planet and others don’t. I have it easy. I’m Caucasian, straight, and comfortably middle class. I was born to a Midwestern farmer and his wife, for crying out loud. Others are up against prejudice, rejection, and hate just for being who they are. Their hearts dared to beat after they were born in the skin God gave them. They are hated by some because of it. I don’t know what it’s like to be despised for things like that.

Thankfully, in all this guilt and discouraging reflections, I got some relief when along came an old friend. I’ll call him Bert, because … well, because that name makes me laugh, it doesn’t fit him at all. Bert’s and my interaction didn’t start out as a relief, our points of views collided first.

During the Zimmerman trial, Bert shared a post about racism on Facebook. It suggested that whites are the victims, and included a picture of Trayvon Martin. Now you should know that since the day seventeen-year-old Martin was killed, I considered him a tragic victim of racial profiling (I still do, despite Zimmerman’s acquittal), so my protective reactions jumped up and wanted their say.

Which made me comment on Bert’s post, “As a Caucasian, it’s my responsibility to listen to people who experience being a minority firsthand, and to read reliable, unbiased information on the topic. Sociological stats make me side with young black males, who endure racial profiling (sometimes fatal) that we whites will never experience.” Something like that.

Bert and I engaged in a private back and forth after. I suppose it could have become ugly, as some people like to make you pay for disagreeing with them. But that’s not Bert. My friend is the classiest of men. We discussed race civilly, intelligently, calmly, and respectfully.

It turns out he’s been a white victim of racial profiling of sorts, the kind that ignores past service and evicts a businessman because the numbers need to be there. “Gotta have a certain number of minorities on the books” kind of thing, “so you’re out, thanks for nothing.”

I came to understand the statement he was making with his post. The picture and words that someone else created, and Bert shared, did an inadequate job of representing him. Bert had wiser words about it. I got to read them. He sees inequity and wishes skin color were irrelevant. He was just saying, “Sometimes it’s the white person who is the victim of racism.”

Bert took some risk addressing a potentially volatile topic on Facebook. I can relate to that as I publish this blog post. He was nothing less than wonderful as we dialogued our differing viewpoints. He was a timely reminder that respect is possible amid conflict. Bert did me a great favor by being himself. As did the nice man under house arrest in Chicago’s South Side who shared that narrow doorway with me.

Sure there are people at the extreme poles, and they’re scary. But the majority of folks are in the broad middle, where differences are reckoned with and mostly accepted, and where manners and respect are bestowed regardless.

Video and music credit goes to: 

“Don’t Shoot” – Heaven x Lil Chris shot by @PassportTrace, Published on Sep 5, 2014

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