Sunday, June 6, 2010

On The Lighter Side, It Can Be Dark

When my great-grandmother died in 1987, my family trekked to Alabama for the funeral. Sissy Babe, the black nanny who had taken care of at least two generations of my family, cooked for us around the clock. We had fried baby catfish from the pond out back and fresh blueberry muffins made from fruit grown on vines over the back porch. I'm sure we ate other foods, but those were my great-grandmother's staples and the ones I remember, and covet, most. Sissy Babe made those and more for us.

The day of the funeral, I remember Sissy Babe hugging a huge stock pot with the stub of one arm (I don't know how she lost her lower arm; maybe she never had it), and stirring with the other. I told her to come on, we were getting in the car to go to the church. "No," she said. "I think I'll stay here."

"Are you kidding me? Put the pot down; we're leaving."

"I can't go," she said.

"Of course you can. We're taking you."

"No," she said simply, "I can't."

Then I understood -- almost. I was 16 at the time and pretty certain the world was fair because this country was founded on equality. That's what they told me at school. My mother had to provide confirmation of my suspicion. I regretted for a long time my highlighting for Sissy Babe a fact she already knew. While practically a member of the family for decades, she wasn't welcomed in a white church even to pay her last respects. Or maybe the worse recognition is that she could never be considered family.

I know that my enjoyment, whether I care to acknowledge it or not, of white privilege sets me up for all manner of discriminatory beliefs and behaviors. I can't know what it means to be defined by my color, for example. I can't know what it means to walk watched through a department store or have people hug their purses close as I pass by. I can be sure that pretty much all of America wants to educate my blue-eyed kids.

One could look at statistics and justify racist beliefs that force people of color to endure these not-so-subtle forms of discrimination. Minorities are poor and therefore lazy. Minorities don't fare as well on standardized tests and therefore are not that bright. Minorities are jailed and therefore bad. The inequities in employment, education, and justice, the institutionalized racism, are often marginalized in their oppressive abilities. People who live like that do so because they enjoy their permanent vacation. Who doesn't adore limited options? Those caught in the "surround of force" (Shorris), should just pull themselves up by their boot straps just like the rest of us didn't have to.

Ideally, we could move past affirmative action. Ideally, we could go on about our days without "celebrating diversity" and just celebrate it. Unfortunately, we don't live in an ideal world. We live in this one where we often look at an entire group of people and unfairly ascribe to them the worst bits of humanity without ever reflecting on our own human failures. Mexicans are without morals, but Vegas is a show place. Blacks are criminal, but employers of undocumented residents are business people. My parents cautioned me against the use of the term "white trash" because they failed to understand why anyone would categorize trash. Trash is trash regardless of color (or housing in the case of "trailer trash").

It irritates me that "rednecks" are considered uneducated rather than people who work hard out-of-doors. The term "Okie" is just painful to me. I'm from Oklahoma, but I'm not a dust bowl migrant nor a farm worker. Some people from my home state have adopted the term and wear it proudly. Maybe when people stop acting so damned surprised that I'm from Oklahoma or feel compelled to tell me how sorry they are for me, then I'll adopt the term. Until then, I'm an Oklahoman, thank you very much.

This is, no doubt, why it's important to ban Ethnic Studies and to discriminate on the basis of an accent. It's much better for people to think of difference (in color, tradition, belief) as shameful. If they feel pride in themselves, in their people, in their heritage, then they will demand equity. If they demand equity, then the rest of us have to share in our privilege. There is only so much privilege to go around.

Why is this still so? Why are we so fear driven as a society that someone else might get more than what we got? Don't we have more than our share already? Why then do we stratify our hatred as well? This group is worse than that one, but not as bad as the other. The past few years, I've been thinking that poverty is the strongest factor in our perceptions of worthlessness, but now I'm wondering if color, language, and geography aren't still more powerful. No one here complains of terrorists the way they do Mexicans.

I was touched by this article from Roger Ebert (sent to me by my buddy Brett) in which he attempts to assume the thoughts and feelings of the Hispanic child whose likeness was used in a Prescott, Arizona public school mural. The mural was meant to depict children using different forms of green transportation but instead showed that our culture can still be ugly, can still waiver on what's right, and even when a wrong is rectified, the scars can remain.


  1. That's the way racism works, I think. We go on for years, sometimes even decades, with the status quo. Not questioning, just existing. Then there are these moments where a racist episode just gets up in your face. It doesn't happen to me that often anymore, but every now and then I still got a shock or two. If I could offer any advice, try really hard to make a trip to South Africa one day. And to us, in Germany. Two nations that definitely will make you operate outside of your comfort zone, yet the parallels often seem uncanny.

  2. Awesome post.

  3. I get kinda annoyed at folks who think I have a canoe and a tipi in my closet. I despise the stereotype that creates a need for distance instead of building a bridge of similarities.

    I also despise the fact that so many of my indiginous cousins have been marginalized by poverty, casinos, and oil companies they are terrified of anyone in the tribe "getting more than they have" creating an Urban vs Rez NDN attitude that tears the soul out of our tribe. As if there is such a thing as "NDN enough" and Rez NDNs are more "in touch" with the tribe because abject poverty fosters such a sense of cultural pride. And Urban NDNs suffering the quiet distance of differences is such a soul-eating endeavor it begs the question "are the better schools really worth it?"

    No, I don't have a canoe. No, I don't hunt buffalo. And, NO, I don't get any money for being a Native American and none of us ever did. But I will turn my back to your intolerant ass and Duck Dance away from your drama.