I’ve been thinking a lot about racism lately, and that’s my unfair advantage as a white woman: I get to think about it in an abstract way when I have time, interest, and energy. I don’t have to step out the door every day and deal with it myself or worry about a male child or a man in my life being followed, threatened, or shot for simply existing.
I’m a bleeding heart liberal from a genetic pool of people who are pre-disposed to giving others breathing room–the Dutch, so that shit’s genetic and deep. And right now pretty much everyone and every group is under fire, so how’s a lefty girl to choose? There is a macabre buffet of social, political, and environmental issues to choose to fight for. It’s an embarrassment of riches: immigrants, women’s reproduction, the environment, the political collapse of the Democratic Party that lost its focus on helping people without a voice. And then there’s the stuff to fight against, like white supremacists, people who shout using all caps in electronic communications, and Kellyanne Conway–call me conservative, but I don’t believe cyborgs should have full human rights until they can be better calibrated for balance, oh, and have a functioning brain.
So in this Cheeto flea world I’ve been darting around like a dog chasing rabid squirrels and collapsing in a corner panting until I catch my breath. Then another Cheeto flea tweet crosses my Facebook feed and I’m off and running again.
And I don’t even like exercising.
So what can I do? Where should I put my energy, because at 51, I can’t be giving it away for free like I did when I was 25. Except if you’re a hot man, then please step up to the front of the line.
Where was I? Ah, right, stop and focus. Recently a few conversations with my friend Sonia have helped clarify for me that race underpins so much of this–this fear that some white people have of losing ground they only got by 1) existing and 2) pushing down everyone else. This fear made Cheeto flea number 45. This fear continues to openly hate Obama, which is the most fucked up kind of ignorance and blatant racism. I can fight for gays, women, immigrants, and religions, but if Blacks are still considered subhuman, then everything else I do is just a Band-Aid. I should know. I went for marriage counseling around year 10, and that Band-Aid prevented us from getting to the root cause. 10 years after that, we got divorced. I’ve learned I can’t wish this crap away or think it’s one and done. That’s just for romantic comedies, and that is some of the fakest news ever.
Meeting Sonia in college and having some illuminating discussions about everything from rock ‘n’ roll to race inspired me to later read a lot of Black history that I was never taught in school, like the Civil Rights Movement. In 1986, smack in the middle of my conversations with Sonia, Spike Lee came on to the scene with “She’s Gotta Have It.” That was also life-changing–a whole movie about black people just doing regular things like trying to find love from a Black perspective. That shit was radical. Still is.
Eventually Sonia moved away, and I didn’t meet another Black person. Well that’s not true. I bonded with a nice, funny guy at a bad job. We had a lot of fun at work, and I still make this great potato salad recipe he gave me. I proposed that he and his wife hang out with my and my then husband a few times, but he politely declined. I thought at the time of something Sonia had told me about Black people having trouble trusting white people–some of us are pretty sketchy, after all. But now that I’m thinking about it, the same thing happened a few years later with a white couple, so maybe we were just a boring white couple no one wanted to hang around, Black or white.
You see how confusing this race thing can be?
After Sonia left, the gay people decided they did want to hang around with me. That worked because I don’t really think like a straight, white person. I never was big on getting married, although I did try it–it didn’t take. I’m not into working for big companies, climbing ladders, or having a big house. My one kid is great, but if he were not possible, I would have been OK not having a kid. My Moroccan friend once told me, “You’re a weird American.” And she was a weird Moroccan, so she would know. I got to know the struggles of gay people trying to define themselves outside of society’s norms–I was trying to do that too. If you’ve ever heard someone’s coming out story, which usually involves the terror of revealing your true self to those closest to you, knowing you may be rejected out of hand, then, straight, white people like me should be grateful for what we have. I just wanted to work in a nonprofit and be a writer, which meant squatting on the outer edges of American prosperity–most families don’t kick you out for that.
And so I have been to the Gay Pride parade in Boston every year, and was at Cambridge City Hall when they handed out the first gay marriage licenses, and benefited from lots of gay men giving me their cast off furniture. And then we got a Black president, so what could be better? Gay marriage! Black president! This lefty girl was snug as a bug in a rug.
Until, um, now. Cue “Home Alone” screaming kid–note that he’s white.
I’m getting back to where I started all those years ago freshman year talking into the night with Sonia about the difference between black and white hair and ashy skin. She was brave enough to let in this crazy white girl into her life and that changed me forever for the better. It’s time for me to speak up and talk about race, rock ‘n’ roll, and hair–I learned from the gay rights movement that’s what being an ally is. I have the socially acceptable attributes like being white and straight, so I need to use my ninja skills to help others and look at my own biases along the way. Yes, even the Spike Lee-loving liberal has biases. Nobody needs a clueless ally, and white, straight cluelessness can be the worst.
So what are you being called to do? We will most likely intersect and join up at some point in a big-ass massive rally that could maybe fill Rhode Island. We’re going to need all our passion and commitment to make these long-term changes. And while you’re doing your thing, try to also to hear out whatever it is others are saying, even if it makes you uncomfortable. When I hear about the environment, sometimes I want to yell, “I stopped using aerosols, I recycle, I cut up the damn plastic rings around a six-pack of soda! What more do you want from me!?” And when I put my big girl pants on, I can say, yeah, I know there’s more to it than that. Fight, and listen, and if all else fails, laugh at yourself, and keep moving.
Photo: Sonia and I getting our U2 groove on 2 summers ago.