Posts Tagged ‘racism’

Sunday Sit-Down #14:

April 25, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week.

I remember in college
having room in my schedule
for a couple of extra classes
so I signed up for
multi-culti studies

which is where I first learned

about white apologizing
and also what-about-ism
masked as curiosity

and I remember
how hard I worked
to understand criticism of
dominant culture

and I remember I tried so hard
with my Nation of Islam paper
to understand how people could
hate my people
so very much
that I almost explained it away,
rationalized the caricatures
in the Final Call comic strips

but Professor McCarthy said
no
sometimes prejudice is what it is,
regardless of
whether it comes from the disempowered
and I thought

huh

well I guess that’s something new.

And I remember trying to make sure
my student teaching experience
brought questions of diversity past
FOODFOLKSFUN
so we had a debate about immigration
which was actually pretty eye-opening
(as a matter of fact,
so were the swastika doodles
one of my loveys drew in his notebook)

and I also realized
that for most of my kids
the question was not about color of skin
but the freeness of their lunch

(and something tells me
much of that is still the case,
and that if people really figured out
that the shaft is given
to people across the racial rainbow
some folks would
really be in trouble)

so sometimes what they needed was
to keep making their
New Year’s Dragons, their
Kente cloths, their
tissue paper flowers

as long as the love poured free
and so did the morning snacks.

Sunday Sit-Down #11: On My Way

March 28, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week. It’s also day 28 of the Slice of Life challenge.

High school.

If you’ve ever worked with high school kids, you’d know that it’s a time of profound drama, often bordering on melodrama. The years are steeped in a quest for self and identity. To a high schooler, it feels isolating and alone – like no other could possibly understand what they are going through.

Adults in the lives of high schoolers know it’s something that EVERYONE goes through.

This is the quirk of high school. It’s also the charm, if you happen to like kids that age.

I was no different. My big quest for individuality had all the major pieces to it: tension with friends, a longing for any semblance of a dating life, pressure to succeed. I was discovering myself, mostly through writing, musical expression, and just plain being a floppy old goof.

And, like absolutely nobody and everybody, I saw college as a fresh start.

It was my time to consider and craft who I wanted to be in this world, and what I wanted to be for myself and for others.

That included my attitude and actions with regard to race. I was hot on the heels of discovering that injustice and inequality was still a problem despite my early learning to the contrary. My high school’s newspaper article on Black English seemed like such a small thing, but it sparked such intense controversy that I knew there had to be more. I just didn’t know what.

So, when I packed my bags for my time at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, I set my resolve to “unpack” my current belief system where it came to race and identity. I set out for school with the mission to better understand our world and the people in it.

I’m still not there. I think the “there” of understanding is a moving target, just like any ideal should be. But setting off to college with this intention held a key part in shaping who I am now.

I’ll dig in a little deeper next week. See you then.

Sunday Sit-Down #9: Turning Point

March 14, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Today also marks Day 14 of the Slice of Life challenge. Join me as I work to write every day in March – and beyond!

Every story has a turning point. There is a moment of truth, a fulcrum on which our seesaw of experience forever rests between “before” and “after.” I’ve had several such moments in my life.

The details are sketchy. There’s a chance I have some of them wrong. There’s also much more complexity to this than I can express in a single blog post, but we all know words have their limitations at times. This is one of those times.

My first moment of racial reckoning occurred in high school. It was my junior or senior year. The high school newspaper just published an issue on slang. In it was an article on Black English.

I remember holding that edition of the paper in my hands, scrolling through the articles, and reading that one with some interest. I remember the article mentioning Black English Vernacular and giving some examples of its structure. I don’t remember much about the content of the article.

I do remember that it wasn’t written by someone Black.
And it didn’t sit well.
And it brought forth a lot of anger.
So much so that the local news covered our news.
LOTS of people were talking about it.

And if you asked me how things eventually turned out, I don’t even think I could tell you.

But I do remember that being a moment of truth for me. This idea I carried in my head, the one that told me racial justice and equality were “done” once Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks took care of things? It was a lie. There was still prejudice and racism and bias and inequality. There were wounds, still seething anger across and within racial groups, and it took a high school newspaper article to puncture that boil.

It was the first time I recognized there was still work to do. That I had work to do. That there was so very much I didn’t know, didn’t understand, hadn’t bothered to see.

That was the truth I had to sit with. That I still sit with. It has shaped me, has driven me. It’s what drove me to seek the experiences I have in college (starting up on that next week!) and beyond.

And…if you’re someone I know who remembers this time, I’d welcome your memories in the comments. I keep trying to put more perspective to these events, and I could use yours.

Sunday Sit-Down #8: If Only I Knew

March 7, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week. It’s also Day 7 of the Slice of Life challenge.

Some Sundays I reflect on my upbringing and its effect on my attitudes towards race, culture and gender. Others, I think on turning points in my racial autobiography. And some Sundays, it’s..harder.

This is one of those Sundays, where I’m left with more questions than answers.

Growing up, especially in high school, there was racism and homophobia all around me. I certainly was around a whole host of offensive comments, jokes and gestures. I’m certainly guilty of laughing and playing along. So…how on earth did I let myself not notice the effect it had on those around me?

I could have been so much better.
I wish I could have been better.
I wish the times could have been better.

I especially wonder about the homophobia our world was steeped in.
I think about now, with my sons in high school and college, with so much more openness about identity. I wonder how different high school would have been, had it been now.

I can think of at least a dozen or so kids I hung out with who are now “out” in one way or another. We’d spent Saturday nights together, relaxed in the student lounge in off periods, chatted for hours on the phone – heck, I even went out and to dances with some.

I remember in particular one late-night call with a guy friend of mine. He was struggling, nearly crying, confessing to me that he had a great weight on his shoulders, that he was carrying around something that he wanted, wished he could tell me, but he couldn’t. He told me that if he said it, he didn’t know what would happen, or what he would do.

Forty-five minutes passed. An hour. At the time, I thought maybe he had been contemplating suicide. So very long I spent on the phone, trying to convince him that whatever he could say to me was OK. That I was his friend, and I could support him no matter what. He even got close a few times before breaking down again and saying he couldn’t tell me.

Turns out, he’s gay.
He just couldn’t come out.

It’s hard not to put modern sensibilities on that conversation. How on earth did that possibility not come to me? Why wouldn’t I have figured that out? What would have happened if I just asked him, point blank?

I could completely blame myself for my blindness. But the truth is, at the time I was in high school, NOBODY was talking about it. At least, nobody straight. My guess is that some folks were out to one another, but that they intensely guarded the circle in the name of self-preservation.

Now, I wonder. How different would high school have been if my friends were allowed to live full, open lives as teenagers? If they had been able to talk openly about their latest crushes, or go to dances with who they actually liked, or just simply…be themselves?

I’ll never know.
I can spend my life wistful, wondering.
Or I can support the people in my life…now.

Sunday Sitdown #7: Taking a Look Around

February 28, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week.

High school.

There is something about it.

Everyone, it seems, is on a quest for identity, for selfhood. It’s what makes everyone both unique and identical. There’s drama. There’s melodrama. There’s angst. There’s a coming of age.

There’s also inner conflict as the self-involvement of youth gives way to the more empathetic views of adulthood. I keenly remember this push-pull and the tension it created.

Translation? High school was the first time I looked around at what was happening with other folks.

I noticed Black kids often sat together in the cafeteria or student lounge.*
I noticed that when they were together, they acted differently than when they were with white peers.

You’d think I would feel uncomfortable with that, or feel left out. But something else was happening for me around the same time. I was also starting to see and understand how others perceived me as a Jew.

High school marked the first time…
…someone directly told me I needed Jesus to save me.
…I received the first probing “ethnic” questions. (“So…what ARE you?)
…Sunday school was canceled because of bomb threats.
…I’d be given a derogatory nickname. (“Oh, look. Lainie the Jew.”)

It became clear to me – more than it ever had – that I was an “other.” There were places I belonged, and places I didn’t. I found that it was comfortable to hang out with other kids who were Jewish. It wasn’t exclusionary. It wasn’t an attempt to be rude.

It was a means of emotional survival. We didn’t even really talk about Jewish stuff, but it just felt good to be with people who had shared experiences. Going to youth group events created a space where we could all just…exhale.

So.
Did I mind that folks separated themselves out?
That they had different, more familiar ways of relating among folks in their own groups without me?

No.
I didn’t mind.
And I still don’t mind.
Yes, we need to integrate.
And yes, we need safety and comfort and support.
And we need it wherever we find it, from whomever it might come.

*All Black kids? nope. Nothing is never “all” or “nothing” (see what I did there?). Of course there was integration among students. But there was also enough separation for a kid to notice.

Sunday Sit-Down #6: Duped

February 21, 2021

Each Sunday, I’m working my way through my experiences with race. I’ll share stories and memories from throughout my life. I know I’ll encounter moments of growth that I wish I could relive. I’ll also have to think back on choices that I wish I could remake. Come join me each week.

I’ve been thinking a lot about today’s post, and I haven’t been looking forward to it. There are several stops on my journey that I know are difficult for one reason or another. Perhaps I carry guilt, embarrassment or shame.

Today, it’s anger.

You see, I – and way too many in my generation – were sold a bill of goods. We were duped. Fooled. Scammed.

We were led to believe that civil rights was “done,” that MLK and Rosa Parks had swept in and now we were done with racism. Everything is equal! Everyone is equal! Everyone now has equal opportunities and now everyone can be happy!

Yet I grew up at a time where sundown towns were still a thing. Where there was still a need to bus city students to the suburbs rather than focus on improving the educational system as a whole. Where black lives and black bodies were being criminalized at an alarming rate. Where kids around me were either victims or perpetrators of racist behaviors and comments. (And, being real, these things are STIL a thing.)

I would learn these things in high school. Coming to this awareness left me furious with a grown-up world that would shield me from this knowledge in the name of protection or false unity. I remember feeling – and still feel – a visceral sense of injustice, of betrayal, of anger that the world as it stood was hidden from me.

It wasn’t right.

Sad thing is, I’m one of the lucky ones. When racial issues at my high school shattered this illusion, I was fortunate enough to learn from others with different perspectives. And, luckily, I was able to gain this understanding while I was still in my formative years.

But there are other white folks who never came to that realization, who never had the opportunity to see and recognize that our work is far from done. I think of the folks who saw the light after George Floyd’s death. Their coming of age happened ages after they needed it. I saw their confusion and shock unfold around me. They had bought into the lie, just like I had, and they realized how very long they had been living that lie. After this summer, there was no turning away.

At least for grown-ups.

For children – for white children – there is still space to draw the blinds, to lower the volume, to shield from difficult truths.

But to allow another generation to be deceived?

No. I can’t, and I won’t.

I still hold my anger, still nurse it when the time is right. Because as a teacher, I have the ability to help raise humans who can be optimistic and idealistic, AND still be aware that we have work to do in our communities and society and world.

It’s not political to want this for our future generation. Rather, equipping our kids with the tools and knowledge to follow their moral compass is compassionate. It’s what’s right and fair.

There’s more – so much more! – I could express. But that’s for another day

Thanks for joining me. I’ll be right here, same time next week.

Sunday Sitdown #5: First Lesson

February 14, 2021

Mrs. Williams was a great first-grade teacher.

She was kind, cheerful and honest.
She always encouraged us with phrases like, “You’re cookin’ with gas!”
She regaled us with stories of her little girl.
She used Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies as prizes when she REALLY wanted to motivate us.
Heck, she put up with ME as a first grader. That’s no easy task.

She was also the first Black teacher I had ever had.* And she was willing to talk about race.

One day, Mrs. Williams decided that she was going to teach us about skin color. Looking back as a teacher, I might guess that wasn’t just a random choice. I might guess that Mrs. Williams was responding to a comment or situation that came up in class. Or maybe there was something going on in the world that my first-grade brain wasn’t quite aware of. Whatever it boiled down to, Mrs. Williams decided that it was time for us to talk.

I’m going to guess that the lesson was longer than I remember, but what captures my memory most is when she held up two crayons: one white, one black.

Mrs. Williams held up the white crayon and said, “When people say they’re white, does their skin look like this color?”
A crowd of giggling first-graders yelled back, “Nooooooo!”
She held up the black crayon and said, “When people say they’re Black, does their skin look like this color?”
We again yelled, “Noooooo!”

And that was at the heart of it. It was the first time I had ever engaged, on-purpose, in a conversation about what being Black or being white really means. About what race means, and what it DOESN’T mean. It was a way to tell a group of six- and seven-year olds that race is complicated. It’s not just what we see. It’s more complex than a label we might wrap around someone.

Thank you, Mrs. Williams. You were cookin’ with gas.

*I’m also beyond grateful to be able to say that Mrs. Williams was just my first Black teacher, and not my only. For all of the shortcomings that may have accompanied my schooling, I am glad that my school district made an effort to hire a diverse range of teaching and instructional staff. It was important for children of color in my community, but I’d say it was also important for me.

Sunday Sit-Down #4: On the Bus

February 7, 2021

At Old Bonhomme School there was always a range of faces different from mine. I took for granted the mix of kids in my classes. As far as I knew, I went to a neighborhood school with neighborhood kids, and we all learned and played and together as one community.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that the diverse mix of students wasn’t a natural part of living in Olivette. Yes, there was racial diversity within school attendance lines. But.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that the diverse mix of students was largely due to the fact that I went to elementary school in Saint Louis at the height of school desegregation. That my classmates and I were a part of a grand social experiment.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that many Black children spent long mornings and long afternoons on the bus to and from the city. That they left behind their own neighborhoods, their own neighbors, their own neighborhood schools to attend school in my district.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, were the direct and open ways in which our communities were segregated in the first place.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that we were all part of a system that, in the name of “quality education,” would separate kids from their communities to send them to other schools, rather than giving them what they needed where they needed it.

What I didn’t know, and what I didn’t understand, was that school desegregation allowed a number of kids to get an education in affluent districts while overlooking city communities. That if we really meant to desegregate schools, we’d improve all schools and bus children in both directions. Or we’d take away racial and economic barriers to housing equality. But we didn’t, and we didn’t. And we didn’t.

Those realizations would come.