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Monday, July 15, 2013

This Post Is Not About Trayvon Martin.

When I was in preschool, about Kiedis' age, my parents were called in twice in a short time span due to my behavior.

The first trespass was over me saying that my parents had gotten divorced and my dad had moved to Pennsylvania. It was completely untrue -- I had heard a fellow preschooler tell a similar story and I decided I was going to tell it, too. Chalk it up to childish precociousness and an awkward conversation between my still very married parents and my teacher and whatever, little kids experiment with lying, it happens, moving on.

Maybe it's of note that I went to a Christian-based preschool. That might slightly matter.

But the second time, the second time was far more alarming to everyone involved, far more indicative of the secret struggle I have wrestled with most of my life.

There was a little girl in my class that I didn't play with often. I'm not sure there was any specific reason -- I played with a close friend most days; she played with some other kids. She may have actually been in a different class and our classes occasionally combined, I'm not really sure.

Be that as it may, one day we found ourselves at the highly coveted bin of Barbies, and my friend and I were playing quietly while this other little girl quietly approached, watched for a minute, and asked if she could play with us.

I said no. She asked why. I didn't have a good answer, so I said the first thing that came to mind.

I said it was because she was black.

The subsequent meeting with the teachers and her parents was full of apologies and we're not those kind of people, we promise, we don't know where she got that though they very well did. The oscillating conversations at home about why we don't say those things even if we think them and why would I ever think that's something okay to say made my young head spin.

But I don't remember really being told that it was wrong. Just wrong to say out loud, to someone's face, in public.
I graduated in a class of 619 students from a fairly affluent suburb. I can think of only three African-American students in my graduating class.

If you look at the demographics for the district, you'll see a large minority population, something they nearly boast about, but I can tell you that it's heavily Pan-Asian. I didn't even see an African-American kid in class until the fifth grade, and that family only stayed a couple of years before they moved on to a "friendlier" district.
It has taken me a very long time to truly understand my white privilege. As a woman, I am (technically) a minority, so to a certain extent I empathize if not commiserate along the lines of being treated as lesser due to the way you were born. I understand the innate fear that must be carried around every living moment because you never know when someone might exercise their privilege against you, and if you are not perfect with a water-tight alibi you will lose no matter the situation.

As I saw on Twitter:
However, I am fortunate I guess that I am always one foot in the door due to the paleness of my melanin. I'm allowed at the kids' table, if you will, and in more progressive circles I even get to sit at the adult table from time to time. So I realize that I have it better in my minority-ness than most, and from that perspective I will never truly understand societal marginalization because I am an upper middle class raised white woman with a college education participating in a heterosexual relationship, and for that I reap many benefits that others do not.

I think back to the patience shown me while I grappled with these concepts in my classes at college, when I tried to justify the mild social maligning of bits and pieces of my ethnic heritages as equal to those of the African-American communities and my professors did not correct me, nor did they validate me. I cringe, honestly, thinking about how often they must have seen students like me comparing the scar left from a single stitch on a finger to that of one from open heart surgery and calling them the same, knowing that to be so untrue and a practice of the white privilege we the students were refusing to see.

And I think back to that girl in preschool, afraid that I was her first introduction to that hatred and that second-class-citizening, but perhaps more saddened that I probably was not, but just another moment in a long line of them that would fill her existence for no other reason that the color of her skin.

Twenty-five years later, I am ashamed and embarrassed for my actions and my words, and that it has taken me twenty five years to truly understand the depth and the breadth of my actions. Between the first two agents of socialization -- the family and education -- I was failed. I was both directly and indirectly taught to fear and ridicule those who looked different than me, specifically if their skin was darker than mine. While I suffered from bullying due to my weight and intelligence and was being told that people shouldn't judge a book by it's cover, I was also being told to do just that, under the guise that at least this generation wasn't as bad as the one prior, and if I wanted to know what racism really was I needed to talk to my now-dead great grandparents.

And this battle, this indoctrination, is one I still wrestle with today.
I was out with friends for a birthday celebration this past week, most of the people present knowing each other from being friends in high school in a neighboring district from mine -- one we were taught to look down upon due to it's lower socioeconomic status, to be frank -- and one that has a much higher minority population than my alma mater. 

The group we were in was mixed, and I sat in awe of one of the other (white) women there, who glided with ease into conversations with the whole table while I felt like the whiteness of my skin burned brighter and hotter than the sun. I stay quiet in these situations and listen, too afraid of being accidentally offensive because I am not practiced at not coming off like a snooty white bitch. I don't understand the cultural capital (though living downtown has certainly helped that process along quite a bit) and my anxiety and my guilt eat me alive and it's all I can do to sit and watch and wonder what it must be like to see beyond skin color, as this woman seemed to do, and for the first time I realized my "good suburban education" has pretty much been worth dick in the real world.

And for that, I am grateful that my children will have the experiences I did not growing up. In the urban district we now live in, they will meet and experience a plethora of cultures and backgrounds and ethnicities. By default of immersion they will get the education on the human race that I am still learning as an adult, now that I've left the bubble of my suburban upbringing. 

I pray that means that this cycle of distrust and suspicion and blind-eye-turning to white privilege ends here, with me.
I'll end with this, nabbed from a friend on Facebook:
“The growing number of gated communities in our nation is but one example of the obsession with safety. With guards at the gate, individuals still have bars and elaborate internal security systems. Americans spend more than thirty billion dollars a year on security. When I have stayed with friends in these communities and inquired as to whether all the security is in response to an actual danger I am told “not really," that it is the fear of threat rather than a real threat that is the catalyst for an obsession with safety that borders on madness. 
Culturally we bear witness to this madness every day. We can all tell endless stories of how it makes itself known in everyday life. For example, an adult white male answers the door when a young Asian male rings the bell. We live in a culture where without responding to any gesture of aggression or hostility on the part of the stranger, who is simply lost and trying to find the correct address, the white male shoots him, believing he is protecting his life and his property. This is an everyday example of madness. The person who is really the threat here is the home owner who has been so well socialized by the thinking of white supremacy, of capitalism, of patriarchy that he can no longer respond rationally. 
White supremacy has taught him that all people of color are threats irrespective of their behavior. Capitalism has taught him that, at all costs, his property can and must be protected. Patriarchy has taught him that his masculinity has to be proved by the willingness to conquer fear through aggression; that it would be unmanly to ask questions before taking action. Mass media then brings us the news of this in a newspeak manner that sounds almost jocular and celebratory, as though no tragedy has happened, as though the sacrifice of a young life was necessary to uphold property values and white patriarchal honor. Viewers are encouraged to feel sympathy for the white male home owner who made a mistake. The fact that this mistake led to the violent death of an innocent young man does not register; the narrative is worded in a manner that encourages viewers to identify with the one who made the mistake by doing what we are led to feel we might all do to “protect our property at all costs from any sense of perceived threat. " This is what the worship of death looks like.” — bell hooks, All About Love, p. 194-195
This post isn't about Trayvon Martin. It's about owning up to injustice when we see it, and accepting that we are complicit in that injustice if we sit by and do nothing, if we do not talk about the things we don't want to because they may paint us uglier than we like. We have to sit with the things that make us squirm uncomfortably and we have to listen and truly hear the stories otherwise swept under the rug or beaten down with a firehose or locked out of a public state building. We have to own up to the privileges we pretend are innate or somehow deserved and understand the implicit difference between the concepts of privilege and fundamental rights and do more to equal those out for everyone.

We don't live in a post-racial society. I, and many others like me, are proof of that.

But I want to. For myself, for my family.

And for a little girl a quarter century ago that just wanted to play with a doll.