Wake-Up Call

Back when I was in high school, I had a huge crush on a football player. A crush which had no basis in reality, mind you, for I didn’t really know him at all. We didn’t have any classes together nor did we have any of the same friends, so my crush was simply based on how sweet and funny and smart my mind imagined him to be.

Not that it would have mattered if he had indeed known that I even existed for my parents would have never allowed me to go out with him anyway.

Why?

Because he was black.

I distinctly remember asking my mother one day if I would ever be allowed to date a black guy. Her reply started off with a, “not that we’re racist … but …”.

You can rest assured that anytime anybody ever says anything that hinges on a “but,” that whatever statement they just made can be completely erased.

“Oh sweetie, not that I don’t like your new hairstyle … but …”

“Oh darling, not that those jeans make your hips look wide … but …”

“Now I’m not saying your bourbon chicken wasn’t good … but …”

“Not that we’re racist … but … we just don’t think it’s appropriate for a white girl to date a black boy.”

For years I tried to figure out a way to confront the racism exhibited by my parents without also being disrespectful to my parents. It’s a difficult journey to navigate – you know, what with the whole “let he who is without fault cast the first stone” bit drilled into my head.

And then one Christmas – several years post graduation and marriage and children – my own thirteen year old son did the trick. My mother offered him a certain chocolate-covered, cream-centered candy that a lot of my family had always simply referred to as “ni**er toes.”

My son’s reaction – with a disgusted, intense stare – was like an arrow straight to her heart:  “Nana. I. Am. So. Disappointed. In. You.” Each word singularly punctuated to further lodge the blade.

To my knowledge, she has never used that word since. And thus was the beginning of a long, complicated journey of coming to terms with and trying to remove herself from the prejudice history from which she came.

My father comes from a very similar history with his own mother having a penchant for the very same candy. She even referred to said candy by the exact same name.

We’re all still on that long, complicated journey. We. Are. ALL. Still. On. It. I may not use derogatory terms and I have no problem with my daughter dating guys who aren’t white but there are still times when I catch myself … judging.

Judging things I don’t understand. Judging culture that is not mine. And it is then that I remind myself – different is different – but it’s not better or worse.

If only we all accepted each other for who we are, regardless of skin color or sexual orientation or religious affiliations or political leanings. It’s a lesson we all need to learn.

Even when that wake-up call comes from a thirteen year old boy.

“Race and racism is a reality that so many of us grow up learning to just deal with. But if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it. It’s up to all of us – black, white, everyone – no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out.”

— Michelle Obama

White Privilage

Many years ago, I was driving through Georgia on Interstate 75 on my way to visit my parents. My son was in the backseat playing whatever latest video game had just hit the market. This was back before my daughter had even been born so my son was about to have his grandparents all to himself for two weeks.

All of a sudden I saw flashing lights in my rearview mirror. I immediately pulled over, thinking that perhaps I had been speeding. The police officer appeared by my driver’s side window and asked for my license and registration. Not a problem as I smiled and handed them over.

Then the officer asked me to get out of the car. I smiled and did as asked – not sure what was going on but still not concerned.

Then the officer asked if I had any weapons on me and asked for permission to pat me down. I was confused as I had never been patted down for a routine traffic stop before but still I smiled and complied.

Then the officer asked if he could search the trunk of my car. At that moment, I vaguely remembered something about unlawful searches without a warrant – wishing I had paid more attention when studying constitutional law in my high school political science class. But I had nothing to hide and was still not overly concerned, so I smiled and popped the trunk.

That was when the officer got a call over the radio that the suspect had been caught.

Suspect? What suspect?

The officer then explained to me that a convenience store had been robbed a few exits back and the suspect was female, driving a black Nissan Altima and had a kid in the backseat. I had fit the description perfectly.

He apologized for the inconvenience, returned my license and registration, and then got back into his patrol car and left.

Looking back on that incident, there was never a moment in my mind that I entertained any possible conclusion other than a handshake, a thank you very much and being sent on my merry way. Some people might call it being naive or just plain stupid, but now I realize my naiveness was the result of white privilege.

There was never a moment when I thought that scenario could end badly. Never. There was never a moment growing up when my parents had to sit me down and have “the talk” with me about how to interact with officers to keep things from escalating. Never. There has never been a moment when I have been fearful for my life around a police officer. Period.

With so many people discussing racism these days, there are still so many people who continue to misunderstand the concept of white privilege. I have heard several friends and family members say things like, “I’m not privileged; I’ve had to work hard for everything I’ve got!”

White privilege isn’t about having never had it hard – it’s about having never had it hard because of the color of your skin!

It’s about being pulled over on the Interstate, being frisked and having your trunk searched and still whole-heartedly believing that it’s all going to end with a handshake and a smile.

Because my naiveness (white privilege) never entertained otherwise.

Empty Frames and Hoop Skirts

The frames hang empty now. Those frames used to hold portraits of Confederate generals but my mother recently decided to remove them. Those portraits have stood guard over the dining room for decades. But now, for the first time in her eighty years, my mother finally realizes how the display and celebration of such could be interpreted as racist.

My mother says she didn’t mean anything by the display. She just wanted to be like Scarlett in Gone With The Wind.

Well fiddledeedee. So you say you wanted to be a spiteful, manipulative, selfish, slave owner who ends up a negligent mother with two dead husbands, and estranged from her third – all by the age of twenty-eight?

Of course not.

My mother was just seduced by the drama and intrigue. The pure aesthetics of the film. And say what you will about Scarlett, some believe her to be an intelligent, courageous go-getter. Apparently if you dress up a pretty girl in a hoop skirt and give her a strong southern accent, all manner of character flaws can be overlooked and forgiven.

Note to self: buy a hoop skirt.

I will never understand the whitewashed, romanticized version of the Civil War that my mother has bought into. To this day, she simply believes that Confederate soldiers were fighting for their freedom, fighting to defend their way of life. The freedom … “to have slaves” part of that equation escapes her. Their way of life … “to have slaves” part of that equation doesn’t compute.

My mother will tell you in a heartbeat that her ancestors didn’t even own slaves!

So then why did they fight for the right to keep them????? And why, mother, are you so fiercely proud that they did?

These are the questions that I continue to ask – the questions that continue to take root in the abyss of disagreement and misunderstanding between my mother and me. A generational abyss.

I may never understand her. And she may never understand me. And she may never understand this generation. But she is trying; she is learning; she is changing.

A bridge isn’t built in a day.

And so here I am

I was born in the south in the late sixties. Mere months after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr … mere weeks after the assassination of Robert Kennedy. A time when protests against the Vietnam War were ongoing. A time when marches for the Poor People’s Campaign descended upon Washington. So much violence and civil unrest but a time when peace and equality were ideals to march for. To strive for. To die for.

And now here I am, in the year 2020, and I’m too lazy, too indifferent, too worried about what the neighbors might say to march and strive for those same ideals. Oh I ordered all the bestselling books of the moment on racial inequality and, I might add, I’m reading them with a veracious literary appetite. I also donated to several current, hot-topic organizations that are fighting against racial injustice.

All from the comfort of my sofa.

So let’s be brutally honest here: that’s not creating change. That’s just donating dollars.

I’ve got a long way to go.

And having been born and raised in the south, I’ve got a lot of baggage to unpack along that way. A deconstructing, if you will. For make no mistake about it, I have a love/hate relationship with this land and her people. I love her natural beauty and her gracious hospitality and her country drawl, but I hate her ugly history and her stubborn tendency to cling to a heritage that is more prejudice than pride.

And my uneasiness with southern, bible-belt views and morality goes a lot deeper than just race. I raised my own children to be open minded and accepting of all – but is that enough? Of course not. In the past, I’ve had very close friends who were black and some that were gay – but is that enough? Of course not.

Because in the end, it’s not enough to be good. One must do good. And doing good requires action.

And I was taught … well, to be passive. To be quiet. To let the men folk be in charge. I’ve been questioning that, fighting that, arguing against that most all my life. A life that has thus far been a succession of three steps forward, two steps back.

It can be hard to stand up to your parents. Even in your fifties, like me. (Did I mention that my father is a minister? So going against him is like going against God because everything – and I mean everything – is answered with a scripture.)

My mother texted me the other night, upset that Lady Antebellum had felt the need to change her name to Lady A. “What’s next?” my mother asked. “Are they gonna burn down all the antebellum houses too?”

“No mother,” I replied. “Houses aren’t racist. People are.”

My family used to live in one of those antebellum houses. Yep, this is gonna be a long journey.