Saturday, September 06, 2014

Racism ruined my dinner

For me Ferguson started when I was around 12 years old. Let’s say, 1981. I was at the doctor’s office and my doctor was making small talk. I don’t remember the exact question he’d asked but it was something along the lines of did I like football and who was my favorite player. I don’t remember the name I gave him, but I’ll never forget the line that came out of my mouth after. “But you know them niggers all look the same.” My mom was, as I recall, embarrassed. I don’t recall the exact correction that I received when we got back into the car. She was not happy. I wish I remembered the specifics of our exchange after because I think it would be very telling in describing everything that has come since. It might explain how, some 33 years later, a really nice home made pizza dinner was spoiled by a conversation about Ferguson (which is really an ongoing conversation about race). Actually, it wasn’t really a conversation about race so much as it was my parents and I talking at each other with neither side actually listening. It escalated and I lost my temper. I got up and walked out slamming the door behind me and that was that. I trudged up the hill and found a place in the rocks to sit.

Tic tock. The house is quiet now. No raised voices. Just a clock and the quiet hum of the refrigerator inside. Outside, the night-time chorus of frogs and insects is in full swing. Maybe I have to go back further than that doctor visit. That is my first recollection of race as an issue but I knew, even then, that we had moved south to Arnold when I was 9 because of something called “bussing.” I didn’t fully understand it but knew it had something to do with me not being allowed to go to the school down the street because I might have to take a bus to another school while other kids, black kids, would be brought into my school in Spanish Lake. The solution was to leave the city and move to a relatively young suburb with a brand new school that was just opening up. I started school there in the 4th grade.

It wasn’t until the early 90’s that my family began discussing race again. I’d gone to college and studied sociology and what’s more, I’d taken it a step further and become an “activist.” For me, becoming an activist started with becoming more knowledgeable about U.S. foreign policy and military spending. Next, it was learning about “political prisoners” and groups such Amnesty International. This was followed by environmental activism and in particular learning of the “Greens” and anarchism. Essentially, as I was learning (via university studies) about things such as “social stratification” and “systemic racism” I was also becoming increasingly “radicalized” in my activism. What I was only partially aware of at the time was that I was also stepping away from the collective values of my family. It was a gradual move.

By the mid 90s my activism was in full swing. It wasn’t something my parents understood. My parents are not all that political or religious. I’ve always thought of them as sitting on the sidelines. They worked hard and focused on raising their 3 kids. They were sociable with the neighbors in our subdivision in Arnold. We watched plenty of tv and lived what I consider (looking back on it) a fairly typical life in middle class white suburbia. I didn’t consider my parents raging racists, but I did consider them racists, as I do today. But I also consider myself a racist. I don’t think I know a person in America who is not a racist. I’d imagine that that there are many young people who have not yet learned the racism of the larger culture but suspect that they will not be spared. We live in a country that is still steeped in racial problems and we are all still a part of it.

When Michael Brown was shot in early August, the heated arguments about race that had been dormant in my family for most of the past decade were suddenly rekindled. To my knowledge I stand alone in my immediate and extended family on the issue of race in the U.S., as well as our reaction and interpretation of Michael Brown’s killing. We’re back to conversations that go nowhere as they try to explain their side and I try to explain mine. But, as is often the case, we’re not really learning or understanding each other so much as we are talking at each other. Sadly, last night, not only did we spoil our pizza dinner, but we also set a terrible example for the kids. They didn’t see or hear adults that were respectful of one another attempting to understand one another. They saw adults not listening and not communicating. They saw me get angry and storm out of a conversation and out of the house. A perfect microcosm of the U.S. and our inability to communicate not only about race, but also about our other problems.

I wonder how much of this failed communication is cultural and how much of it is human? Particularly regarding race and violence; why do we seem to have such difficulty understanding these problems? I suspect that it is not a problem specific to the U.S., but we do have our own unique racial history and that history helped shape the culture we live in today. No doubt it is a very complex process. It’s not even a question of just race as the equations must include economics, politics and geography. A discussion of race is going to be different based on our locations and our specific family histories, as well as our educational backgrounds. So many variables to consider.

As I sat up on the rocks, angry and sad at our inability to communicate, I felt stuck. I still feel stuck. I think of my family, our society, our species and I wonder about our way forward. How do we begin to communicate? How do we deepen our understanding on the issues that divide us?

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