Writing about bees and gardens is my preference, but I simply cannot write about these things while so many people are in so much pain. This post is from Left Field and deals with topics that aren’t very pleasant. We can’t bring about the change our world needs if we are only willing to talk about pleasant things that make us feel comfortable. This blog is my platform, and I feel it is important to use it to speak out against racism.
Dr. Condoleeza Rice recently wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post: “Unless and until we are honest that race is still an anchor around our country’s neck, that shadow will never be lifted.” Hopefully 2020 will serve as a turning point when Americans, especially white Americans, begin to have honest conversations about racism in our country.
I was born in the 70s in a middle class home in a predominantly white area. I had friends of different races and different religions. All were welcome in my home and I was welcome in theirs. My parents taught me to treat everyone as I wanted to be treated. I grew up before the internet and social media, so the major influences that shaped my world view were the public schools and what I saw on network television. (We didn’t have cable. If I wanted to watch MTV, I had to go to a friend’s house.) Here are some of the things I came to realize when I reflected on how school and TV influenced by view on race:
- We were taught in school that the founding fathers were infallable heros. As a second grader I remember coloring pictures of George Washington and a cherry tree and being told about how honest he was.
- We never covered the civil rights movement in history class. We never got that far. Every year we started by studying the European explorers. We had to use colored pencils to draw their explorations on maps of North America. We spent so much time talking about the European explorers that we barely made it to the Civil War by the end of the school year. We were told slavery was bad, but it ended. Our textbooks usually had a pencil drawing of a the cargo hold of a slave ship, and that was not enough to convey the brutality of the trans Atlantic slave trade. The only thing I learned about Jim Crow was enough to be able to define it on a test.
- We studied Black history, and that consisted of learning about the following people: Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglass, Washington Carver, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. We read excerpts from the “I Have A Dream” speech, but only the nice parts about everyone getting along together.
- I was assigned to read at least 20 novels during my high school career. I can only recall two black characters in all of those novels, Jim from Huckleberry Finn and Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird. That doesn’t really give a rounded perspective.
- Nearly all the TV shows on the major networks had all white casts. Occassionally there was a person of color in a supporting role. The Jeffersons, Good Times, and The Cosby Show were the only notable exceptions I can remember, and that’s hardly enough to give a person any kind of cultural awareness.
- Saturday morning cartoons were filled with School House Rock segments to teach kids history, civics, and grammar. When I see the videos now on YouTube about America as a melting pot and America’s expansion west, I am shocked at how blatantly racist they are. I didn’t know they were racist when I was 8 eating Captain Crunch in my pajamas in front of the TV.
With this stunning lack of cultural awareness and a completely inaccurate white washed view of American history, I entered the world of grown ups and was unable to identify racism when it happened right in front of me.
At 19 I obtained a minimum wage job at a national discount department store. One Sunday afternoon I was working at the jewelry counter. A couple came in and wanted to look at jewelry, and I was happy to have customers to break up the monotony. They were very friendly and selected a few items for purchase after looking at several different pieces. In those days, personal checks were acceptable forms of payment. I verified the informaton on the check with the info on the drivers license. The last step in the transaction was to run the check through this massive old school cash register so the register could validate the back of the check with a stamp. I couldn’t get the check to grab in the register. This wasn’t the first time I had problems with that register. After several attempts, I paged my manager to see if he could hand validate the check to finish the transaction. I apologized to the customers for their wait. When the manager got there, he told the customers that the store didn’t take checks on Sunday. I was confused. Of course the store took checks on Sunday. The manager refused to take the check, and the customers blew up in rage. Did I mention that the customers were black? The man had to put his arm around his wife to convince her to leave the store. Stunned I apologized to the manager and said I thought we took checks on Sunday. I thought I had done something wrong. The manager said something didn’t feel right to him about the transaction. This made me feel bad too. Was there some sign I should have seen? Did I not follow policy? Because I was so naive it never occurred to my 19 year old brain that the manager didn’t want to sell them jewelry because of their skin color. He assumed that their check was fraudulent even though they had valid ID and met all the requirements to pay with a check. Had I not been so naive, I could have said something to call out the blatant racism. I could have reported the conduct to the corporate office. I did nothing because I didn’t know better. You don’t always know what you don’t know, and that type of ignorance is what perpetuates the racist systems in our society. This is just one small example. I could write more examples, but I try to keep my posts around 1500 words.
Ron Finley is a gardener in South Central LA, which is not the place that you normally think of when you think about gardening. He has a fabulous Ted Talk that you can find here. Mr. Finley says when you plant something you begin to change the ecosystem and since you are part of the ecosystem you begin to change too. That sentiment really resonated with me, and I think it is appropriate in the context of discussing racism and racial reconcilliation. As a white person, what actions can I take to change the ecosystem around me to create an environment where all people can thrive and where healing of past wrongs can begin to occur? Here is some of the things I am working on. My list will be different from other people’s lists. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list but hopefully it will help stimulate your own thought process:
- Listen – When your black friends tell you how upset they are, listen and show support. Don’t quote phrases like “All lives matter” to someone in pain who is visualing their own family member with a knee on his neck. Listen to commentators and thought leaders that have vastly different views from your own. You don’t have to agree with everything, but you might better understand a person’s perspective.
- Read – Start reading lots of things from all different non-traditional sources and blogs from people of color. Watch YouTube videos and Ted Talks by people of color. Read books by black authors. (In my opinion, Toni Morrison is the greatest US author of any color. Read The Bluest Eye. It was life changing for me.)
- Practice humility – I don’t have all the answers. I have made mistakes. Humility means you are willing to grow and learn.
- Study the unsanitized version of US history. – Warning – This may cause anger regarding the lies you were told in school. There are plenty of resources available in 2020 to learn our country’s history as it actually was, not the G rated happy version we learned about in school.
- Develop skills for talking about race. – There are plenty of books out there to give you tools to have thoughtful, meaningful conversations about race that are grounded in truth and love. I am currently reading Be the Bridge by Latasha Morrison. If you aren’t a book reader, there are YouTube videos that can help. Many churches have published helpful resources in this area.
- Contact your legislators. – I contacted my state senator and state rep to let them know that I thought Kentucky should consider classifying racism as a public health problem similar to what has been done in other parts of the country. I called out my US Representative for not making a statement about the George Floyd killing. It is going to take white people in predominantly white districts pressuring legislators to get something done. In our country, majority rules for most things. The majority needs to demand equality for minorities. Much attention is given to national politics, but there is work to be done on the local levels too.
- Initiate discussion – Note that I said discussion and not debates. Create spaces to have constructive conversations. Ignoring racism doesn’t make it go away. Lead a small group or a book club discussion on the topic.
- Pray – I put this last. I belive in the power of prayer, but praying can’t be an excuse to do nothing else if you are able to do something else.
You can peacefully protest, donate money to charities you support, and do a million other things. Black lives matter. I state that not because I think black lives matter more than other lives. I state that because for hundreds of years our country has said they do not matter, and we need to affirm that they do and then follow up those affirmations with actions. We are all going to have to work together if we are going to remove the anchor of racism around the country’s neck.