This is hard.
I’ve told you before that growing up in the 1970s, I attended an all-girls private Catholic school in uptown New Orleans. There were 52 girls in our class; three of them were black. No one was outwardly mean to the black girls, but neither were they our friends outside of school.
The majority of these classmates were a bastion of privilege and exclusivity; I desperately wanted to be like them. I was privileged, for sure – but I didn’t have the lineage required to join their circles. They didn’t have to worry about being included in social clubs like Valencia or Les Pierrettes; for them, it was automatic. At least I had a shot – blacks, Jews, and brown-skinned people couldn’t even apply. I managed, though, and even slid onto a couple of the revered invitation lists.
When I graduated high school, I left that insulated world behind. College, travel, journalism – I became a better version of myself. Decades passed, then Facebook happened. Gradually I began connecting, at least online, with my past, and with one of the three African American girls from high school. As soon as she “friended” me, she sent me an old, wrinkled photo of myself during our 8th grade camping trip, and it made me laugh. She and I started exchanging emails. In time, I apologized for belonging to all-white social clubs. “I UNDERSTAND,” she wrote. “I wanted to take part, too, even though I knew how the people in the groups felt about ‘my people.'” She updated me on her life; I told her about mine.
A few weeks ago, we found ourselves together in a group chat with other former classmates, and the subject of senior rings came up. My friend mentioned she had lost hers. I wrote her privately and offered to send her mine; but I asked why she would want a reminder of a place that made her feel so less-than. She responded with a long letter recalling details of her high school days. She told me about three dreaded words – oh, I forgot – muttered whenever someone accidentally spoke in front of her about niggers or coloreds. Or when we made plans to meet places she wasn’t allowed. When we talked about white events to which she wasn’t invited.
She wanted my ring, she said, to remind her of how she survived. I wanted to give it to her to remind myself I’ve changed.
I’ve changed….but I recognize that the influence of my childhood will never be completely muted. Most Baby Boomers raised in the South, especially those with the benefits of white privilege, have looked disparagingly at people of color. It was wrong. It is wrong. But there it is. And perhaps my upbringing, layered with subsequent enlightenment, has made me hyper-vigilant about pushing race-tinged thoughts from my head. Thoughts happen – they pop up like mosquitos, especially when the tendency to have them was instilled during such a formative time in life. It’s no crime to have bad thoughts – but it’s a terrible injustice to not temper those thoughts with the truth that all men and women are created equal, regardless of color, and deserve the same human rights, the same dignity, and the same presumptions of goodness.
I guess I am outing myself here as a progressive, tolerant person with a racist past. I don’t think I’m alone. In fact, I know I’m not alone – but I might be one of the few who admit it, and therein lies a major obstacle in solving this country’s race problems. I work hard to confront my past and not allow my inherent white privilege to prevent me from understanding the plight of those who don’t have it. But too many Americans view racism as past history, and deny their own complicity in the racial divide. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body.” How many times have you heard someone say that?
I have black friends. I have three brown children. But I was raised in a racist bubble – not by my parents, who absolutely taught me the value of all human life – but by a society which didn’t value blacks as equal to whites. And it’s hard to scrub one’s brain clean of the lessons imprinted so early in life. I don’t like to think of myself as a racist, but perhaps it’s something I can’t completely erase, and the best I can do is paint over it and paint over it until it’s no longer a detectable part of me. Damn, that’s difficult to admit.
If my upbringing was so imprinted on my psyche, can you imagine what my friend’s early years did to her? And now, white society has the gall to tell her that #AllLivesMatter, we have a black president, racism has been overcome! We are a color-blind citizenry! There was a time not so long ago when, based on societal standards, her black life absolutely did not hold the value of a white life. She’d be crazy to think it’s all better now.
Being color-blind – which is kind of a mythical state of being, by the way – would mean literally not noticing whether a person is black, white, or brown. Are you like that? I’m not. I notice race. And I have found myself making assumptions about people based on their ethnicity. But I catch myself, and there’s the key. My evolved brain kicks that leftover drivel out of my head, and I recalibrate. I read, I gain perspective, I have dedicated my life to understanding what it’s like to be denied the benefit of growing up safe from discrimination. I listen. I learn.
Racism doesn’t mean hating people. At its most dangerous core, it is the marginalization of a people based on their ethnicity or the color of their skin. It’s wondering why a person of color would be in your white neighborhood. It’s asking your neighbor whether he knows some Mexicans to work on your lawn. It’s the woman in the grocery who told me to watch my purse in my cart, and glancing sideways at the black man behind me, or the boy on the bus who told my brown-skinned daughter she wasn’t American. It’s an acquaintance telling my husband and me that blacks up north are so different from the ones down here. It’s the mother who made herself the victim when asked to correct her son for calling my Hispanic children Dora and Diego. Racism is all around me, and it’s all around you, too. And honestly, if you’re just watching these incidents roll by you like a news reel you can’t control, you’re part of the problem.
I watched the reprisal of ROOTS earlier this year. It impacted me almost as strongly as it did 40 years ago – perhaps even more so. Men chained down in the belly of a ship as it crossed an ocean…..children being sold and separated from their mothers out of spite…..and the rape! Holy mother of god, the rape and abuse of women! We all know the facts of slavery, but I suspect we mostly think of it as a regrettable chapter in a history book we’d rather not revisit. To view it as a true saga, though – to cry when a child is dragged away from her parents for knowing how to read, or feel sick when a man’s foot is chopped off for trying to run away….well, it elicited a visceral, intimate, sadness in me, that humans could be so hateful. And though we want it to be part of the distant past, it’s really not – slavery didn’t end until 1865. My grandmother was born in 1918 – which means she grew up among people who remembered having slaves. And of course, many of us lived through the civil rights era. We are a nation comprised of people who are less than a generation away from violent, cruel, institutionalized, hatred of black people, and the creepy remnants of that societal evil continues to taint how we treat each other. It just does.
If you are white, you grew up with racism, and you’ve probably harbored racism in your heart and mind. If you are white, you’ve probably smiled weakly or maybe laughed when a racist joke was told at a party. If you’re white, you’ve probably got a racist bone in your body, even if you don’t want it there, and even if you’ve done your very best to overcome this most damaging of traits.
Because of all this, I believe #BlackLives(should)Matter as much as all other lives do. #AllLivesMatter is a fine idea; I hope, in my lifetime, it will finally ring true.