From That – To This

It feels a little as though things have been turned upside down. (Not a Hamilton reference, believe it or not – although the sentiment is the same…) Since the white supremacist flyers were distributed in our town’s neighborhoods, all of the fears and anger and hatred that were happening Somewhere Else, that had seemed almost hypothetical, were suddenly impossible to ignore. It was one of my most difficult parenting moments – my daughters and husband being targeted for their race, knowing others’ privacy had been violated, wondering if we would be next. I began having difficulty sleeping; I awoke every morning anxious to see if our driveway had been hit, if, on the way to school, our girls would find strips of paper disavowing their existence.

Turns out, I was far from the only person feeling this way. Within 48 hours of the initial intimidation campaign, a meeting was scheduled for local residents to discuss a counter-response. Over 50 people showed up on a Sunday afternoon, including Nick and me; we strategized, imagined, and shared ideas on how to organize a visible anti-racist, inclusive message – both in the immediate aftermath and well beyond. A group was formed: Pittsforward. I left the meeting feeling wary but energized, so grateful that others were willing to be brave enough to come together and say, “YOU ARE NOT ALONE!” rather than silently condemning from the safety of our houses.

We agreed that, among other things, a march or walk of some kind was in order. Exactly one week later, all of the details were in place and we gathered for our Unity Walk.

(I always have said I’m not the kind of person who marches for stuff; it’s just not my thing. Turns out, when you literally bring hate to our neighborhoods and driveways, I have a different reaction. Funny, that.)

It wasn’t just the 50 of us, however; hundreds upon hundreds of people showed up to stroll peacefully en masse through our little town, joyfully and resolutely declaring that racism will not be accepted here, that we stand united, that we celebrate our differences, and that everyone is welcome here.

That so many residents in my community wanted to stand with one another and say, NO, NOT HERE! was deeply heartening. That they did so in a steady rain kind of blew my mind. img_7253img_7255

Neither of our girls was particularly looking forward to the walk. Part of this was our waiting until the last minute to tell them about it, and part of this was their relative lack of perspective on why something like this was worthwhile. Often, when Ella or Annie strongly object to participating in a “family” outing, either Nick or I will step in to say, “Hey, maybe this isn’t so important; let’s allow her to skip it.” (Like, I might say this regarding a hockey game and Nick might say it regarding a dance performance. YOU KNOW, JUST AS HYPOTHETICAL EXAMPLES.)

On this, however, we were in agreement: our family would walk, period. It was important. It was necessary. We were going, driving rain or sunshine. (Side note: we would have preferred the latter.)
img_7279
So, this is a totally crappy photo… It’s actually a screen shot – from my phone – of a video that was shown by one of our local television stations.
Still, it’s the only photo (such as it is) of us at the walk, so… yeah.

After almost 41 years of tearing up at Budweiser commercials and getting misty over inspirational memes on Pinterest,  you’d think, by now, that I would expect to be emotional at things like this. Apparently I still surprise myself, because I was not prepared to become so choked up at the sight of everyone in their raincoats and umbrellas, coming together to support one another.
img_7262
Low bridge, everybody down… (Get it?)

There were families with kids – from babies in strollers to high schoolers. Some were biracial families, like ours. Others had adopted children of mixed race. Others were all people of color. And, alongside them, hundreds of white folks – who, despite being “included” in the “acceptable” list provided in the supremacist flyers, found their rhetoric anything but acceptable.

There were older couples without any children (accompanying them). There were college students. There were groups of adults with signs and placards. There were women in headscarves. There were priests in collared shirts. We passed our local Chabad House, where members were preparing for the start of Rosh Hashanah; despite their preparations, they stepped outside to wave and join our chorus.

14479605_10210999907901754_1838754398092969073_n14485128_10100287595069075_2231779531500025766_n
A couple of the many signs from the walk…

We walked behind our local Flower City Pride Band, their 60s and 70s rock songs providing us a cheerful soundtrack. Police had cordoned off portions of our little town to make it safe for the marchers to go by; they were on hand, directing the traffic that inevitably backed up. As we passed them, we leaned into their patrol cars to thank them for being there. And, at the end, we gathered – alongside many of our locally elected officials and members of the school board – in a town park. The display of love in the face of hate, of support in the face of threats, was so incredibly powerful.

We can do this. Together, we can do this. Just look at all the people willing to say so.

I will fully admit it: I cried. More than once.
img_7258

Because our little town is, indeed, little, the entire affair lasted only twenty minutes or so… but that was enough. We said what we needed to say. We were where we needed to be. And, whether they understand or not – whether they like it or not – we showed our girls what it means to stand up for diversity, acceptance, and love.

There is a time for deliberate indifference, for willful ignoring. I absolutely believe that, sometimes, the best way to handle an ignorant bully is to not even acknowledge their existence – to not give them the attention they’re seeking. I also believe that, sometimes, when a bully pushes too hard, when they threaten you by coming to your turf rather than spouting their message from afar, a strong, direct, vocal opposition is exactly what’s needed.

The time had passed for quietly shaking our heads in disapproval. We needed to take a stand, to make it clear that not only would we not tolerate this kind of hate and propaganda being delivered to our homes, but we also celebrate our differences and our diversity. Perhaps most of all: we are not alone. 

I’m a silver lining kind of girl (see: yes, the basement flooded, but at least the floor is clean!). The flyers were certainly The Bad. But there is The Good, too: people are no longer content to be complacent. We are making connections, having conversations, coming together. We are recognizing that our neighborhoods are more than just where we live; they’re also the people who live there. If nothing else, the flyers’ aftermath has caused me to want to get to know my neighbors better, because it’s much more difficult to hate and fear someone you’ve talked with face to face.

This isn’t going to change overnight. Yes, the walk was tremendous and important.But there is so much more to do to make our community truly inclusive, safe, and open to other viewpoints. Together, we can make a difference in our community. I have to believe it’s so, because the alternative is just not okay.

14484964_312715835763190_7795085902730877513_n

Advertisements

Oh Hell No

The unthinkable happened – or so I thought*.

(* see what I did there?)

As is well-documented, I love where we live. We moved to our cozy, tight-knit, western New York community because it is exactly where we want to be, and especially where we want to raise our girls. No, it’s not as diverse as I’d like, but we take as many steps as possible to help Ella and Annie understand that there is a world beyond what they know. Life feels good here – safe, supportive, inclusive.

Yesterday, in our cozy, tight-knit, safe, supportive, inclusive community, a man was seen handing out flyers in a residential neighborhood. The flyers were titled, “Make (Rochester) Great Again” and contained the link to a website that is being used as a recruitment tool for white supremacist groups.

According to one of our local news outlets, the website advertises a “network (of) like-minded Whites for the furtherance of the European white races… (It) promotes that European whites should not feel constrained in recognizing their ethnic and racial identities and in promoting its interest. It is thus taken as legitimate for whites to challenge attempts to turn whites into a minority. (The group) is an incipient initiative that aims to Make (Rochester) Great Again, by making Rochester Whiter.”

Um. Hell no. Fuck no.

I shared the story with Ella to get her opinion – she’s usually pretty good at framing things for me from a kid’s perspective (which is almost always better than whatever we adults are thinking) – but I could barely read the words aloud. I am of the European white race. My daughters and husband are not. Looking at my child and saying that my race should be furthered, but not hers… That I should take pains to recognize and promote my ethnic and racial identities above hers… That anyone attempting to promote equality and equity for non-white races (like, say, the Black Lives Matter movement) should be seen as a threat to me…

… was literally stomach-turning. I felt like I was going to throw up.

These are my children that this website is targeting. MY CHILDREN. In MY CUTE LITTLE TOWN. This is not happening in some big city or some podunk nowhere. It is happening in my own backyard. I knew, of course, that there was racism and hatred everywhere, even in my community, but to see it happening exactly here, exactly now, was absolutely chilling.

 

Thankfully, Ella found the article more amusing than alarming – she was so shocked that anyone in 2016 believes such drivel, she was basically speechless. But it still woke me up to the reality of what we in 2016 America are dealing with (I thought I understood; until tonight, I didn’t) and made me vow anew to make absolutely certain that our children are able to do better than we are.
img_5764
Our community; soccer game.

In fairness, it’s something I’ve been working at for my whole life.

In elementary school, my first Cabbage Patch doll was black. Her name was Guinevere Camilla and she smelled like baby powder and I adored her from the moment I saw her. I gave not one shit that she wasn’t white.

In middle school, I accompanied a Jewish friend in requesting that a menorah be included alongside the Christmas tree in the school office. The principal called my mother to ask if I was considering converting. The very idea that I, a Christian student, would be supporting this “cause” just because I was, you know, a friend who happened to believe in the radical idea of equality was absolutely beyond his backward brain. Even at age 12, though, I knew.

In 10th grade, a friend asked if I believed gay people were going to hell, which puzzled me. I don’t even think I knew anyone who was openly gay, but I’d never heard or even considered such a possibility before and I was completely flummoxed as to what she talking about. She attempted to explain to me that her religion taught her that homosexuality was against God’s will. I told her gay people were born gay and God loves everyone, so no, they’re not going to hell, good grief.

When I was in college and finally saw, for the first time, racial profiling up close and personal, it rocked me so hard to my core, I never forgot it.

Basically, I think I’m hardwired to believe that we all are deserving of respect and love and kindness, regardless of race, gender, gender identity, sexuality, age, religion, dis/ability, or favorite sports team (although obviously the Yankees > Red Sox). I believe this so strongly, I talk about it – a lot – because one of the ways I think we’re going to combat and ultimately end the horrible cycle we’ve found ourselves in is to feel comfortable talking about this stuff.

Our girls have heard me talk about these things – a lot. They knew what it meant to be gay before they knew their uncles were gay; they never thought it was weird or taboo because they were familiar with it. Ditto gender identity and religion and, absolutely, race.

‘Cause my girls aren’t white. When strangers look at them, they don’t see white kids – even though they’re half-me. They see Asian. (And, if they’ve got eyes, they see awesome, but that’s neither here nor there.) And, apparently, some people in my own little town see my children as Other. As, What Is Stopping Rochester From Being Great. As something to be opposed.

My girls don’t see that. They think that’s insane – and I’m sure most of their friends do, too. But we need to do everything in our power to ensure that none of our children grows up thinking that these thoughts are even possibilities.

So? Have the damned discussions. No, for real. Actually talk about race relations, about what’s happening in America – today, 2016. These flyers aren’t from 1956; they’re from now, for fuck’s sake. Don’t pretend it isn’t happening. Don’t pat yourself on the back for being bummed that the Academy Awards didn’t honor any people of color this year while still shouting “All Lives Matter!” Don’t assume that your community’s goodwill is going to somehow override centuries of overt and covert racist programming.

Don’t be afraid of talking about people’s race. Use terms like white/Caucasian, black/African American, Asian, hispanic/Latino, Native American (“brown” is also widely used and accepted for people of color) to identify people – as you’d describe height or hair color –  not cutesy terms like “people with a tan” (seriously, wtf) or “darker-skinned people.”

Somehow, those of us in our sweet, affluent, mostly-white-but-genuinely-trying-to-do-the-right-thing communities seem to think that it’s, I don’t know, accepting? Supportive? Inclusive? to simply not refer to skin color, period. In fact, we’re doing way more harm than good when we teach our kids that discussing race is shameful. Skin color should not be whispered like cancer. It is not bad or wrong or offensive, and it’s certainly not racist, for the love, to refer to the color of someone’s skin –  any more than it’s wrong or racist to refer to the color of someone’s eyes.
img_5771
Our community: summer sunset

I know many people are sick of discussing race; others think it’s still not an issue. To that, I would say, Ask yourself – and really be honest here – how you’d feel if you were pulled over. If you’re white, like me, I imagine that you’d be a bit nervous, a bit pissed that you were caught, the tiniest bit contrite (’cause you recognize that you must’ve done something wrong even if you don’t want to admit it). You might be considering what you could do to talk your way out of the ticket.

If you’re white, like me, there is almost no way that you’d be concerned even a little bit that your pull-over might result in your being shot by the police officer who stopped you. You could yell at the officer. You could swear. You could dance. You could tell them that you’re secretly rooting for ISIS and maybe even Donald Trump. Hell, you could show them the handgun that’s sitting in your lap… and you know damned well that you’d still come out of it alive.

And deep down, you know the same would not be true if you were black. You know equally damned well that people of color, and especially black men, are not afforded this luxury. You’d be scared to death because you know in your heart that these black lives are not treated the same as yours.

We need to talk about these things openly and honestly and without shame. We need to acknowledge the problems that exist – and not be so defensive. Yes, these flyers are repugnant; instead of ignoring them or wishing them away, we need to confront them head on. We need to say FUCK NO and come together and show people who believe that diversity is the problem that it is actually the freaking answer.

Turns out, I wasn’t wrong; Ella did have some words of wisdom after hearing the content of the article (which I had to explain to her, because the very concepts were so foreign). She asked, for the millionth time, why people don’t get it — that WE – all of us, every last black, brown, white, gay, straight, bi, male, female, transgender, able-bodied, disabled, neurotypical, differently-abled, old, young, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist, Yankees-loving, Red Sox-loving, sports-hating one of us… ALL of us – are what makes America great.

We, in our diversity, ARE America’s greatness. We, in ourselves, are our greatest strength.
img_5822

Yes, It’s About Race

Have you seen the videos? The ones of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile being shot and killed? The ones where two black men were shot and killed by police officers? Two days in a row, two sets of videos, two men’s lives lost.

I haven’t seen the videos, and I’m not sure if I will. I have no desire to each two more men’s lives be horrifically taken, right in front of my eyes. I’ve already seen this over and over again – so many of us have – and yet it’s still happening, so clearly watching isn’t helping things, and I need to maintain a small shred of protection around my heart.

To Anton and Philando’s families, I’m so sorry, and I’m sorry that I’m not watching; I simply can’t right now. But I’m here speaking out for them, and I hope that’s one minuscule consolation.

Where is the outrage? Not amongst black and minority communities, but amongst the rest of us? How are we not so aghast and appalled and furious and devastated that we have to take a moment to sit down and then figure out what to do next? (Actually, I cried when I told Nick about it, and now I’m literally shaking, so there’s at least one of us who feels this way.)

Every single time this happens, the number of people who positively stumble over themselves in their rush to say that “race has nothing to do with it” is astonishing. I’m sure the excuses are already in full force: but Anton had a record! He just got out of jail! He was carrying a gun! (He didn’t reach for it, and was on the ground when he was shot, but yes, he had a gun.) He wasn’t complying! In other words, he somehow deserved to be killed, or was asking for trouble, or at least presented an awfully strong case for violence against him.

Nope. Not about race.

But what about Philando? He had no lengthy rap sheet. In fact, he worked for the local school system as a cafeteria manager. (Not sure why this matters? Well, these days, every school employee is required to be fingerprinted and background-checked, so there is absolutely no way that this man had a violent record. Further, do you have any idea of the saint-like patience and stamina it takes to run a school cafeteria??) Those facts aside, he was pulled over for a broken tail light and was asked for his license. After informing the officer that he had a permit to carry a weapon and that, if the officer checked, a gun would be found in his car, he calmly leaned over to reach for his license and registration – fully complying, as he had been asked – when the officer shot him.

So, just to be clear, Philando deserved this, or was asking for trouble, or presented a strong case of violence against him… how?

Think this is still not about race?

A couple of months ago, I was pulled over for speeding. The whole family was in the car and I lost track of how fast I was going. I didn’t even attempt to pretend otherwise; I acknowledged to the officer that I’d been going too fast, apologized, and handed over my paperwork. I explained to the girls that I absolutely earned the ticket I was about to get, and that it would be a great lesson for me (and them, fingers crossed).

When the officer came back to the window, he returned my license and registration… and told me to drive safely, then headed back to his cruiser. That was it. No ticket, not even a warning. I was stunned, and told the girls so. They wanted to know why I hadn’t gotten a ticket when I’d broken the law. Maybe it was because I was only driving fast, not erratically. Maybe it was that I fully cooperated and took responsibility for my actions. I probably just got lucky. But I also told them that I was lucky to be a white woman rather than a black man, because the outcome could have been different.

At the time, this statement – although true – felt extreme.
It doesn’t this morning.

And yet, most people continue to say that race is not an issue.

When a white college student gets only six months of jail time for sexually assaulting, and attempting to rape, an unconscious woman behind a dumpster, and the photos paraded around the media are of him as a shining athlete, rather than his mugshot, I grow a little suspicious. When a white man guns down people in a theater and is not shot and killed on the spot by responding officers, but is arrested and led away, I grow still more suspicious. When a white man deliberately targets a black church, murdering parishioners in cold blood, and is offered a bulletproof vest by police as he is taken to the police car, I am no longer suspicious; I am certain.

Race has a heckuva lot to do with it.

Still unconvinced? Try this. Imagine that you could trade places with someone for a day. You experience life exactly as they would – a Freaky Friday sort of situation. Now imagine that you’ve traded places with a black man, and that you’ve been tasked with driving around. You’re on the highway. You’re in the ‘burbs. You’re downtown… a black man, behind the wheel. Imagine that you’re pulled over – maybe you ran a stop sign, or maybe you just have a broken tail light (did you even know your tail light was broken?). The cop shows up at your window, and there you are, strapped into the driver’s seat behind the wheel.

Be honest: you’d be terrified. You would’t be sure that you’d come out of it alive.

Think this is still not about race?

We cannot begin to fix this if we cannot even acknowledge, as a country, that racism is an *enormous problem*. So I will say it: racism is an enormous problem in this country. Yes, there is also a police brutality problem (although I truly believe the vast majority of cops are good and are trying their best – but our best is a best that is inherently, unconsciously racist). There’s a gun problem (which is another issue that is still not even acknowledged as a problem, so that’s fun). But right now, right here, the biggest issue is race (ever seen this video of how differently a white and black man are treated while openly carrying?).

WE NEED TO FIX THIS. This is not a black problem or a minority problem; it is a human problem for all of us, every race. I know that the United States is facing almost unprecedented division and difficulties right now, but at its heart, I know we are better than this. I believe in America, and I believe that we can do this; I believe that we can truly be the land of the free, where everyone is created equal.

But until all of us would feel safe walking around as a minority (a person of color… or a Muslim, or someone who is gay or lesbian or transgender, or heck – a woman), we have not reached that place. When most of us would be scared for our lives to walk in those shoes, there is a serious, dangerous, heartbreaking, terrible problem.

Please, let’s stop pretending that this isn’t happening. Let’s not avoid talking about it because it’s difficult. And, for the love, let’s stop explaining away violence against black folks and people of color. Let’s acknowledge that racism is a tremendous problem. And then let’s work together – all of us – to make the change.

 

Un-Weird: They’ve Got to be Carefully Taught

It’s been a heckuva couple of weeks.

Okay, so that’s putting it mildly.
Shit has really hit the fan, hasn’t it?

Last Sunday, after learning about the Orlando massacre, I wanted nothing more than to hole up with my phone and consume as much information as possible; it was almost all-consuming, this desire to know more, to reach out, to stay connected.

Simultaneously, though, was this desire to stay as far from the news as possible. There’s so much going on this time of year – family birthdays, end of school, beginning of summer, my girl “graduating” elementary school (I can’t even) – that I viscerally recoiled from the external forces that seemed intent on taking the little time and energy I had away from what mattered most… Meaning I also wanted nothing more than to hole up with my girls and Nick and the dogs and weed the garden and listen to Ella and Annie read to me and hug everyone as much as humanly possible.

In the end, we wound up telling the girls about the attack – in part because we would be watching the Tony Awards that night (duh) and I knew they were dedicating the show to Orlando, and in part because we thought they might hear about it in school and we wanted them to hear it from us, first.

(During their school’s annual Flag Day celebration on Tuesday, the flag was taken down before the ceremony – as it always is – so that it could be re-raised for everyone to see, followed by The Pledge of Allegiance. This year, the flag crested the top of the pole… and then was lowered down again until it reached half-mast. The jarring juxtaposition of the mourning flag, the kids in their patriotic regalia, and the words of The Pledge – “with liberty and justice for all” – was not lost on the parents in attendance.)

After we shared the basics, the girls asked – as they always do when they hear about hate-filled crimes – why anyone would do such a thing; do they not know that gay people/black people/women/transgendered people/Americans are okay? How do they not get it? We answered honestly that we don’t know; it makes no sense to us. There’s fear that fuels hatred… but beyond that, we don’t know why – not really.

Nick ended our discussion by saying, with resignation, that he didn’t know what the take-away message was — but he was so sorry these sorts of things are reality. At first, I agreed; but upon further reflection, I realized there was a message I wanted to impart:

Be kind.
See other human beings as just that – human beings – rather than “others” simply because they’re different. 
Don’t fight hatred with hate; fight it with love and knowledge and understanding.
And never forget that one individual – who claims to be part of a community – doing evil things does not mean that that entire community is evil, not by a long shot.

The girls looked at me like I had two heads; my “advice” was so basic as to be assumed. “Thanks so much, Captain Obvious. THIS IS ALL YOU’VE GOT?”

IMG_7315
Unrelated annual Memorial Day photo…

The background to all of this fear and hatred and judgment – from nutty “bathroom bills” to the absurd six-month Stanford rape case sentence to ISIS to Orlando to Britain to the lambasting of the parents whose two year-old was tragically killed by an alligator – has been Hamilton. I mean this literally and figuratively: the soundtrack has been on an almost-constant loop in our house, and the storyline is fresh in my mind.

Immigrants coming to America. Native-born residents taunting said immigrants and grousing about how they take away from those who were here first. Disagreements on the size and role of government. Pride causing people to do really stupid things. Women being treated as objects. Gun violence. People attacking one another simply because they see things differently.

The parallels between this 200+ year-old story and the craziness of today have made recent events almost entirely surreal.

The musical ends with Alexander Hamilton’s killer/rival/one-time friend Aaron Burr lamenting that he should have known the world was wide enough for both Hamilton and him. (No, we haven’t seen the show and won’t before Lin-Manuel leaves… but we did snag tickets to a February performance. Only eight months to wait, yo!)

That’s the crux of it, I think – the crux of everything. Somehow, we allow ourselves to fall into the belief that there simply isn’t enough… space, time, energy, money, resources, love, etc. for all of us. It becomes us versus them. We fuel our narratives with fear. If you’re not like us – a different race, another sex, transgendered, gay, a different religion, from another part of the world – we let those fear-fueled stories take over until…

… well, until there are half-mast flags during Flag Day and dancing nightclubbers gunned down by an extremist and people screaming (literally) for a ban on Muslims and folks being harassed just for trying to use the loo.

The thing is, though? Our kids don’t get it. No, I mean it: they don’t understand any of this, because they cannot fathom this us versus them mentality. As Rodgers and Hammerstein so aptly said, “You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear… Before you are six or seven or eight – to hate all the people your relatives hate.” So we’re trying a different approach.

A few weeks ago, I posted on Facebook about the push by some for Elsa to be shown as gay in Disney’s Frozen 2 – and how I thought that was unnecessary, but how I also thought it was nonsensical for people to oppose the idea on the grounds that they’d need to explain it to their children, or it would be too confusing for kids.

My awesome friend, N. – who happens to be a lesbian – backed me up with these fantastic sentiments:

Exposing children to things at a young age is soooooo important. Just like ‘love is an action…not just a word’…so is parenting.

It’s pretty simple. Things are only ‘weird’ to kids because parents make them that way.

YES, this.

Our girls live charmed, privileged lives. They want for little and go to a (wonderful) school that is not racially diverse. Largely because of that – because we know that their personal experience is what will shape their view of the world and of the people sharing this planet with them – we have deliberately made efforts to introduce them to things that are different from their experiences, to make those things un-weird.

It’s much harder to talk disparagingly about “them” when you’ve met them face-to-face.

Also – although their worldview is narrow, we make a point to discuss as much as we can, to give them language and context. Just prior to Ella’s kindergarten year, a friend of mine told me she and her partner informed their son that they were gay. He’d never heard the term before – their life was all he knew – but they wanted him to be familiar with it before he started school, in case the other kids mentioned it. Nick and I thought this was a good idea, so we – casually, matter-of-factly – told the girls that they were half-Asian, lest they hear the word at school and debate it (“I am not Asian!”). They’d never heard that term and were fascinated (Annie wanted to know “which parts” of her were the Asian parts).
IMG_7307

This isn’t good or bad or anything in between; it just is, we told them.

And so it has gone with everything else. They know we’re Christian – but not everyone is. They have classmates who are Jewish and Hindu and Muslim and atheist; none of them is good or bad or anything in between; they just are. We’re straight; their uncles are gay. It’s not weird, because it just is what it is. They have strong opinions about Donald Trump (yes, really); they also know that people they love may be voting for him, and that doesn’t make them bad people; it just is.

None of these differences makes people weird (well, maybe the Trump voters…), and it certainly doesn’t make them worth hating.

The more Annie and Ella learn about people who are unlike them, the more normal – and human – those people become. So, when they hear stories of racism or sexism or homophobia or religious persecution, they are genuinely confused. “But they’re not weird. Why would anyone hate them so much?”

As I said, there’s so much else going on in life right now, I haven’t even begun to process recent current events – and I definitely don’t have any big answers. But I think all of our kids may be the place to begin. If they can be distraught that Burr didn’t realize the world was wide enough for him and Hamilton… they can be distraught that anyone thinks the same today.

We need to teach them that “different” doesn’t mean “bad” or “weird” or “wrong” – it just is. We need to do it before they are six or seven or eight… So they don’t have the hate.

It’s a place to start, anyway.

 

 

 

A Difficult Truth

It’s been a relatively quiet week in terms of the whole riot/protest/police cycle we’ve got going on. If you dig beneath the surface, however, tensions are still simmering and “sides” are being taken. There seems to be very little room for middle ground. You’re either with us or against us. It is one thing or the other. Two opposing ideas that cannot coexist.

Quite frankly – it pisses me off. This is not an either/or situation. It’s a both/and.

This concept should not be so foreign to people; it’s how most of us operate, most of the time. Two seemingly opposing ideas can coexist. But somehow, many people seem to have forgotten that recently.

The riots that occurred in Baltimore (or Ferguson or anywhere else) are not okay. They are not the solution.
AND also death of Freddie Gray while in police custody is not okay. It is not okay at all.

Both/and.

Throwing rocks or bricks – or, frankly, anything – at police officers is not condonable.
Neither, however, is it condonable for police to overstep their boundaries and persecute the communities they are bound to protect.

Saying that “black lives matter” does not imply that you are, in any way, anti-police. It just doesn’t – no more than saying, “Doritos are delicious” means that you are, in any way, anti-Pringles. You can believe that Doritos are manna from heaven while also thinking that Pringles are pretty dope. That should go without saying.

Yes, of course police lives matter and white lives matter and all lives matter. But here’s the thing: those statements are basically givens. They’re obvious, omni-present, so we don’t need to continue saying them. Our black and brown citizens, though? Their lives have never mattered as much as non-black or brown lives.

They still don’t.
And so reminders are needed.

We have long recognized this in our society: that we need to celebrate and specially acknowledge the minority, the underdog, the marginalized. When Gonzaga first showed up on everyone’s radar in 1999, they were deemed a “Cinderella story.” Everyone was rooting for them. But while people cheered the Zags on, how many folks were on the sidelines saying, “But what about UConn?? Where are the UConn posters? UConn matters, too!” Because UConn was ubiquitous. Everyone knew them already. They didn’t need the extra support.

Or what about St. Patrick’s Day, when parades are held and people proudly tout their Irish heritage and cities dye rivers green? Do we stomp our feet with indignation that America is not being celebrated, too? “Hey, you guys! We live in the UNITED STATES. Happy St. Patrick’s Day? What about Happy America Day? When you raise that Guinness, you’re basically saying that you hate Americans.” No, of course not. Because we already know that America matters, too. We don’t need a reminder; the Irish can have their day.

Our black (and brown) citizens are told and shown, time and time again, verbally and silently, overtly and subtly, that they are not as important as the rest of us – and by “us” I mean white people. I won’t link to the (literally) hundreds of stories and articles supporting this claim; all you’d need is a quick Google search to confirm it (if you’d like, you can find some of them in this post that I wrote in November). Heck, all you’d need to do to confirm it is ask even one black friend to tell you even one story – of being pulled over when nothing was wrong, of being stopped in their own neighborhood and asked “what they were doing there,” of being followed by a store clerk, of being overlooked at a counter while the cashier or salesperson waited on other non-black customers, of being called racist epithets, of watching as people obviously avoid walking by them on streets…

Or, if you’d rather not do that, perhaps you could ask yourself (if you’re white, or at least non-black or non-brown). Ask yourself when the last time was that you worried that you’d be pulled over by the police while driving through your neighborhood. Ask yourself how often you’ve been walking your dog near your home and have been stopped and asked what you were doing there. Ask yourself if you’ve given your children (especially your sons) “the talk” — not about the birds and the bees, but you know, the one about moving slowly around authority figures, about making sure their hands don’t drift too near their pockets, about keeping both hands on the wheel at all times if they’re pulled over (for God’s sake, don’t reach into the glovebox unless you’re told to) — to help ensure that law enforcement officers have no reason to suspect them of a crime.

I would imagine, if you really asked, and then if you really, truly considered the answers, that you would see – even in this glorious America where everyone can succeed if they only try hard enough, where we have a black President, and where Oprah is the queen –  that black and brown folks are still not treated the same as white folks.

And so, sometimes, we need to be reminded that black lives matter.
IMG_0738
Did you know that even black dogs are adopted less frequently and euthanized more often than non-black dogs? CRAZINESS, you guys!
Yes, I know that dogs and people are not the same. I’m not making a direct comparison. But none of my other photos seemed appropriate… so here you go. Our black and yellow Labs, both of whom are awesome.

But we aren’t asking those questions. Or, if we are, we are jumping immediately to answers without really, really thinking about them; so often, the conclusion is drawn that race doesn’t play a role in how we treat one another. And that, really, is what bothers me the most: we don’t even acknowledge it. We, as an American society as a whole, do not acknowledge that racism still exists — I’m not talking about the overt, name-calling kind (although that exists, too), but rather the systemic, deeply-rooted, unconscious, so-pervasive-we-don’t-even-realize-it’s-happening racism.

I am going to ask, for a moment, that you ignore the riots**. I’m not saying that they aren’t horrible – they are. I’m not saying that they’re good or okay – they’re not. (Which is a rather absurd notion, anyway. Have you really come across people saying, “YAY, RIOTS!!”?) But people get all hung up on the riots (which are shown non-stop by our media), which causes them to miss the bigger picture.

For me, the bigger picture starts with the protests. Tens of thousands of citizens have been peacefully protesting for years now; the protests are growing ever more frequent. There must be a reason for this.

When we look to find that reason, however, there is almost immediately name calling and criticizing. I’ve heard some folks gripe that these protestors “have nothing better to do” – but that’s just untrue. Sure, some are unemployed. Some are looking to simply entertain themselves. But the majority are not. Protests – not the ones that last 30 minutes outside of your local Starbucks, but the ones that take hours and days and are focused and targeted – are not usually what one would consider “fun.” They take people away from their jobs, their homes, their families.

So, then. Why? Why the protests?

Have you ever had something to say and no one would listen to you? Maybe you were in a large group and couldn’t get a word in edgewise. Maybe everyone else was dead set on seeing Age of Ultron but you had your heart set on Pitch Perfect 2; in their excitement, they didn’t hear you. Maybe it was a meeting and no one asked for your ideas even though you had plenty.

Whatever the situation, I think you’d acknowledge that it feels crappy when no one’s listening. Sometimes, you sit back and just let things happen; there’s always next time. Others, maybe you email your boss or try to pull someone aside and explain your thoughts. But what if that doesn’t work? What if it happens over and over again? What if you feel ignored, unheard, shushed? What if you just can’t stand being unseen and unnoticed one minute longer?

Well, then.
You raise your voice.

You yell. You shout. You make noise. You stand up. You do whatever it takes to get people to hear you. It’s very simple, really.

That, to me, is the reason behind these protests. People are not being heard and they are sick of it. Yes, they want change. They want to be treated differently, fairly, better. They want justice. But at their core, they want someone to listen to them, by God.

And then, when they finally begin to raise their voices, we “listen”… and then immediately discount what they’re saying. Racism doesn’t exist anymore; stop complaining. Not all police are bad; stop generalizing. White lives matter too. Stop playing the race card. If he hadn’t tried to run, the cop wouldn’t have pulled his gun. When you dress like a thug, you’re asking for trouble. I don’t even see color.

(That’s a personal favorite, by the way. I understand the supposed meaning behind it – that you treat everyone the same, regardless of race – but if you don’t see color, you should probably get your eyes checked.)

Their concerns are summarily dismissed – there’s nothing more to see here. Which leads to people speaking even more loudly and strongly because they are still not being heard.

Until we can even agree on a topic, we cannot have a conversation.

Which is a problem, because holy sh*t, y’all, we need to have a conversation. We need to talk about racism in this country because make no mistake about it: racism still exists. We are all, almost without exception, racist. Yep, that includes black people. It includes teachers and scholars and human rights activists and historians and preachers. It includes me.

I try very, very hard not to allow skin color to inform my opinions of people. When I think rationally about it, I know – I believe, to my core – that white people are absolutely no better, smarter, harder working, or more deserving of respect that our non-white brothers and sisters. And yet… I still make assumptions. I feel the worry creep in. Not consciously, not on purpose. But it happens.

I am racist.

Until we can acknowledge this – until we can accept that racism is inextricably woven into the fabric of our nation, and until we can accept that non-white people still feel its sting despite our so-called “post-racial” era – things are not going to change. Men of color will continue being funneled into prisons. There will still be a wage gap between minorities and white folks. People will describe themselves as “colorblind” and pat themselves on the back for reading Maya Angelou and watching “Blackish.” Fewer black and brown citizens will attend college than their white counterparts. Police will continue to disproportionately arrest, detain, imprison, or even shoot people of color. Retaliatory shootings will continue to occur. The protests (and, occasionally, riots) will go on. And on. And on.

I’ll be honest with you: I have no idea how to fix this. We’ve been (mostly) trying for hundreds of years and we’re still not there, so obviously it’s a pretty tricky issue. But I do know that we don’t stand a chance at fixing it until we’re honest with ourselves that racism exists – all over, pretty much all the time.

Once we can do that – once we’re all on the same page, or at least in the same book – we can start a meaningful dialogue on how to make it better. It’s going to take all of us to make this change, but it’s one of the most important journeys we’ll ever embark upon.

So, for today, I’ll start with me.
My name is Emily. I believe that police have a tremendously difficult job and I have deep respect for our officers. I also believe that black lives matter. Both/and.
I believe that riots are absolutely not the answer. I also believe that the current protests are meaningful and valid. Both/and.
I believe that everyone should be treated equally, regardless of skin color. I’m also racist. Both/and.

I’d like that to change.
Let’s talk. Let’s listen. Let’s do this.

————

** (If you’re absolutely determined to focus on the riots, I’d also invite you to check out other riots that have occurred over the past five years. Yes, we all know about Ferguson, but how about this one in 2014 which resulted in fires, two shootings, and a stabbing after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series? Or this one in Lexington, Kentucky, where more than 50 instances of arson occurred after the University of Kentucky Wildcats won the national championship? Or this one, after a WVU football game, where participants “pushed over street lights and threw rocks, beer bottles and other items at public safety personnel and their vehicles”? White people are crazy, yo!)

Privileged; Through the Peephole

You know those essay contests, where they invite you to name something that changed your life, or your Ah-Ha moment, or your biggest regret, or your celebrity crush, or whatever? (I’m looking at you, Ben Affleck.) I’ve never considered entering those contests, mostly because I don’t want to write an essay (I left grad school behind long ago, thanks), but also because I didn’t really think I’d had any of those moments. Life-changing experiences, sure. Influential people, absolutely. Middle school ceiling plastered with posters of Charlie Sheen (pre-winning and much more Ferris Bueller), oh hellz yes. But I didn’t think there was a singular moment.

Turns out I was wrong.

It was the summer of 1995, between my sophomore and junior years at Connecticut College. I had signed up to work for the LEAP program, an organization that — back then, anyway (it may have changed somewhat over nearly two decades) — paired up college-aged kids with inner-city children in a summer camp environment… except much more hardcore. Rather than bunking in a quaint cabin or hiking through woodsy trails, we counselors would live in the same housing projects as our campers, spending our days pounding the hot inner city pavements while doing educational and fun activities together. I knew that it would be intense, but I was looking forward to working with the kids, to maybe making a difference. I didn’t anticipate that the greatest difference would be made in my own life.

When I arrived in New Haven to begin several weeks of training before meeting my campers, I quickly discovered that mine was one of very few white faces. Nearly everyone — all but a handful out of many dozens of people — was black or Latino, college students from Conn (like me), Yale, or nearby Quinnipiac University. I had never before been a racial minority, and it was both intimidating and eye-opening. As the days passed, I began to see that difference not as a burden, but as a gift, peering through a peephole to see what it might have been like to be a person of color, someone who is a racial minority moving among white peers. I soon learned, however, that despite my seeming newfound understanding, the brief glimpse I’d been granted was just that: a passing glance, a toe dipped into an enormous lake.

As part of our training, our New London crew (leaders, counselors, and junior counselors) embarked upon an actual camping trip — tent sleeping, cooking over fires, engaging in trust falls and writing exercises, all designed to help us get to know our co-counselors more closely. I thoroughly enjoyed the activities and found my fellow counselors – many of whom were from Conn, but who I hadn’t really known prior to LEAP – to be funny, trustworthy, and fascinating.

On the other hand, I was unsure how they felt about me. Me, the privileged white girl. The girl who had few non-white friends, and whose previous introduction to diversity consisted almost solely of joining a Jewish friend in trying to convince our middle school principal to include Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah alongside Christmas on the school calendar. (The principal had promptly phoned my mother, asking her if I was considering converting to Judaism. She asked if he was insane [but not in so many words], and informed him that, shockingly, friends sometimes help other friends. The Jewish holidays were added to the calendar the following year.) I was keenly aware that I was different, that I’d never before experienced how unsettling it can feel to be in the minority. I liked my fellow LEAP-mates tremendously, and so wanted to be thought of as a buddy and not an outsider.

Doubts continued to plague me until the final night of our trip. Sitting at a picnic table next to the fire, we were asked to share our impressions of our camping experience. When it was my turn, I was hesitant, but decided to risk embarrassment and admit that I’d been nervous, afraid that I wasn’t accepted, that no one liked me. The moment I uttered those words, I felt arms encircle me from behind in an enormous bear hug as David (not his real name), one of my co-counselors, squeezed me tight and said, “Aw, Emily! We love you!” I was elated.

David was a big guy, a tall black student who was also going into his junior year at Conn. I vaguely recognized him from school — an art major, perhaps — but knew little else about him. He had been relatively quiet during our camping adventure, which I initially thought indicated his indifference, or perhaps even contempt, toward me. Now, I knew that he had simply been keeping his thoughts to himself, and – to quote Miss Sally Field – that he liked me. He really, really liked me. I was a buddy. Yes!

Upon returning to New Haven, our training continued for at least another week. At some point, David, two other counselors, and I went out to lunch together, dining at a small restaurant near the Yale campus. I was again the only white participant, but by this point, it had become a non-issue for me — for all of us. We talked about race, about our upbringings, but it wasn’t a problem, merely a starting point for conversation. We also talked about much more than race; we were, after all, friends.

Once lunch was over, we had some time to kill before we needed to return for training, so we decided to peruse a few nearby shops. I can’t remember what they were, but given that they were within walking distance of Yale, they were undoubtedly typical college town establishments: record shops, clothing stores, drugstores, places to buy beer with fake IDs. The final shop we entered had long aisles with numerous shelves and hanging racks at the back, so we split up to check out the merchandise. And that’s when I noticed her.

The clerk – the only salesperson in the entire store, and the only other white person I’d seen in a while – had been sitting at the cash register by the door when we came in. Now, although we were the only customers, and although we weren’t touching anything or asking her any questions, she had gotten up from her cozy chair and begun to walk slowly around the store. I remember thinking that it was so strange, her moving around all of a sudden for no reason. She wasn’t engaging us in conversation, wasn’t hovering to make sure we didn’t unfold the t-shirt stack. Instead, it seemed almost like she was following us.

I soon realized, to my horror, that I was only partly right: she was following. But she wasn’t following all of us, and she certainly wasn’t following me. She was following David. Every aisle he turned down, she was there. Each time he stopped to look at an item more closely, she slowed, keeping him within easy view. She wasn’t blatantly on his heels, but it was incredibly obvious that she had fixed her attention on him and was watching his every move. It was flabbergasting. There were three more of us in the store. We were all the same age, from the same program, in town for the same purpose. If any of us was touching the merchandise, it was me or our other two female friends; David merely kept us company as we window shopped. But he was followed, for absolutely no reason… other than that he was a young black male.

I was dumbfounded. David! She was following David! David, who had bear-hugged me and welcomed me into the group, accepted me as a friend, despite my starting off as an outsider. David, who was no more likely to have stolen anything or committed a crime than my grandma. David, who was spending his summer in the New London projects in order to help inner city kids. David, who would soon welcome my presence as the only white person at a true (and awesome) “Yo’ Mama” contest (my first and only). David, who, later that summer, would help shepherd me into my apartment after one of the residents accosted me in the urine-filled elevator, and my male LEAP counterparts – fearful of my safety – put themselves at risk to make sure I made it home safely. David, who was doing nothing at all except being himself. An artist. A student. A counselor. A son. A friend. A young black male. And that was all it took to make him worthy of close observation.

I’d heard of things like this before, of course. I may have been living as a sheltered white girl, but I wasn’t entirely stupid. Still, I had never seen it with my own eyes – I’d never watched, aghast and mortified, as a completely innocent person was assumed to be up to no good because of his race. At first, I was horrified. As time went on, I became livid.

I attempted to find some kind of justification for her behavior. Perhaps she had recently been robbed by a young black male, or perhaps some kids who looked like David had vandalized her shop or other shops near her, and she was nervous, even prudent. Perhaps, however, she had simply been indoctrinated into the idea that black men do bad things, and so every black male automatically looked suspicious to her. Regardless of her reasoning, the outcome was the same: David was assumed to be doing something wrong simply because of the color of his skin.

I approached him about it, indignant, furious, and shocked. How could this have happened? It was blatantly unfair. It was awful. I was so sorry.

He listened to what I had to say but then, for all intents and purposes, shrugged it off – not because he didn’t notice, not because he didn’t see exactly what I’d seen, but because he had become so accustomed to being viewed as suspicious, it no longer even occurred to him that it was newsworthy. That was just the way it was. Perhaps he seethed inside; maybe he swore under his breath every time he was treated like this. But all I ever saw was him shrug it off, and then go back to being David. We had training to complete, kids to work with, and our lives moved on.

For him that experience was nothing to get worked up about, commonplace. For me, it was life-changing, and I’m not using that term just because I have a flair for being dramatic. Even though the clerk wasn’t being overtly racist – wasn’t calling David names or refusing him admission to the shop – her actions spoke volumes. I’d grown up assuming that such attitudes were long extinct; that woman proved me wrong.
I’ve never forgotten it.

I am not trying to make sweeping statements about race in America, nor about race relations in 2013. I am not tying this to the Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman case, although certainly the discussions regarding the verdict have gotten me thinking and led to my writing this post. Since that summer, I have been out with black and brown friends (and, of course, my husband and my daughters) and have seen them treated with respect and kindness, not because of their behavior or their skin color, but because they are human. Likewise, I have seen people of all races and genders — some of them my own students — be presumed guilty of crimes they never committed, because those proclaiming guilt made false assumptions with no facts in place. I am not saying anything is irrevocably broken, nor do I consider myself to be an activist. I am simply talking about my particular experience that day in New Haven, and how it shattered my notion that people no longer judged others because of the color of their skin; and, therefore, how it changed the way I see and move in the world.

It’s only recently that I’ve realized that the lesson I learned that day had a flip side, one with equally important consequences. I never worry that I’ll be stopped by the police, unless I’m actually doing something wrong (no texting while driving, I promise). I don’t get followed around stores. I have never been instructed to use a bathroom separate from the main restroom, and the only time I’m detained at the airport is when I have one of our service-dogs-in-training with me. I float through life largely unnoticed – by my neighbors, by authority figures, by other adults. Some of this is because I don’t purposely draw attention to myself, and some of it is that I, like many of us, generally find myself surrounded by people who, by and large, look like me. But part of it – the part I’m not consciously aware of, the part that many of us are not doing consciously – is because I’m a white female, someone who, we tend to think, is not up to no good, so there is no reason to pay me any unnecessary attention. I absolutely take this lack of attention for granted; in fact, it’s so not on my radar, I almost don’t know it exists… until I think back to that summer of 1995.

Having only been a white woman (at least, that I remember…), I, obviously, don’t know what it’s like to walk in anyone else’s shoes, and certainly not those of someone with black or brown skin. But I remember that glimpse through the peephole, that toe in the lake. I remember being the only peach face in a sea of tans and browns, being instantly doubted by my campers’ parents because I was a well-off white girl, and being shown outright hatred (because I was white; they told me as much) by some inhabitants of the housing projects where I’d spend the summer. I can still feel their withering glances and how it almost physically hurt to be called horrible names. I can also still feel my own indignation and confusion: But you don’t even know me. Why do you assume that I won’t be a good counselor? How can you distrust me when I haven’t given you any reason to do so?

It was easy for me to avoid their judgement and persecution if I’d really wanted to; I could simply, literally, walk away. I could return to my dorm at Conn, or even just drive down the street, and I would no longer be the only white girl around. How fortunate for me, no?

Eighteen years removed from my LEAP summer, I am still just as fortunate. In fact, I am privileged. I live in a wonderful, safe neighborhood. My daughters attend a fantastic public elementary school. Nick has a stable job with a good company. We make enough to make ends meet, but still have enough left over to take vacations and buy random apps for our iPads. I am healthy. I am happy. I am privileged.

I know, too, that I am privileged to be a white female. Truthfully, it’s not something I think about often, but perhaps I should. With privilege comes responsibility, and while I don’t feel that I can easily change the world and make it a fairer place, I can change my world. At the very least, I can acknowledge how fortunate I am, and be grateful for it.

I’d rather not do the very least. I’d prefer to do a bit more. I’m not really the attend-a-rally type, and my thoughts on race are too jumbled and discombobulated to turn them into a soapbox. But I do like to think, and I sure as hell like to talk. And so that’s what I’m going to do. Think, and talk – in my head in the shower, out loud to myself in the car, and now “publicly” in this forum. Then maybe I’ll think some more and talk with friends… and, who knows, maybe someday I’ll lead a rally. But for now, this seems right.

I owe it to David to tell this story. (For the record, David and I fell out of touch when our LEAP days were over. Although I haven’t seen him in years, I have it on good authority that he’s a married dad now, and has started his own consulting firm. I hope he counsels women like the one we encountered that day in New Haven.) I owe it to all of the Davids out there to tell this story, not because it’s unique, but because it is so commonplace, it’s often overlooked. I owe it to my friends who have never experienced such judgement. I owe it to myself, so that the lessons I learned are not forgotten.

Perhaps most of all, I owe it to Ella and Annie (who, themselves, are not white) – not because I want them to know how horribly people can treat one another, but because I want them to know how awesome David was, and how his story is too important to be disregarded. Peering through that peephole was an incredible gift; I want to share it with my daughters, so that they, too, can think and talk, and eventually, do.

Maybe, just maybe, one day, that they’ll share David’s story, too… And I hope it’ll begin with, “This is the craziest thing — can you believe it?” We have a long way to go, but the journey will never be made if we don’t start. I’m starting today – with this leap.