Sunday, March 23, 2008

Some uncomfortable ruminations

I watched Obama's televised speech on race and racism in America, and afterwards did some soul-searching: an uncomfortable and at times discomforting process, which is, no doubt, why I tend to avoid it. Socrates may have asserted that the unexamined life is not worth living, but did he ever spend the wee hours pondering the uglier aspects of his life and preferring to pull the covers over his head?

Obviously, I'm not the only person moved to such reflections by the speech. On a message board I frequent, a member invited others to post their experiences: "
I'd really like to see a thread where people just try to understand the racial dynamics and baggage that each person in America carries. Disparities in opportunity. Disparities in treatment. Unequal histories. Fears, hopes, hurts, and aspirations. I'd like to see us lay out our own racial baggage."

I struggled with whether to respond. However much I may babble on publicly about superficial things, I rarely let out my inner demons for a run where others can see them. But I found myself compelled to air out what's been running through my mind ever since the speech, what's in fact been bubbling away inside for quite a while. So, as disquieting as it is for me to reveal so much of myself, here is what I wrote:
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I was born in 1949 and grew up in a mostly middle class white suburb north of Boston. There may have been a black family or two in the town, but black people were pretty much an abstraction until I went to college. My family and their friends never made racist statements, that I can remember; they didn't demonstrate anger and alarm at the civil rights movement of King's time; heck, I have a vague memory of participating in some racial justice and harmony march in Boston, as a teenager.

And I was in the company of Negroes (the polite term then) for the first time in my life, and I didn't know how to talk to them, how to even look at them (being naturally shy didn't help). I departed from that experience no closer to any understanding of those people than I'd had before.

Those people. That's what black folks were to me. Beings so different from me that I couldn't see past the abstraction to the real people. Oh, I had imbibed the tenets of civil rights, even though my parents were lower middle class Republicans -- Republicans of that ancient strain that flourished when fiscal conservatism and belief in a strong defense hadn't been hijacked into a patriotic cover for extreme social-issues fanaticism and empire-building. The Congregational church I grew up attending was socially conscious and taught it from the pulpit. I believed in equality and justice and the American Dream for all -- but I never had to confront the reality of their application to those people.

In college I met blacks and got to know them as individuals, as real people, for the first time. I tried hard to comprehend what small glimpses they granted me of the black experience. Can't pretend that I did very well at it, but still, it built bridges for me, for my appreciation of folks whose differences, sometimes vast differences from me did not belie the underlying fact of our mutual humanity.

And yet, deeply rooted in my mind, ineradicable to this day, from childhood on were and are a whole host of ugly racist stereotypes. Where the hell did they come from? How did they get in there and why can't I cleanse my mind of them?

Where did they come from? From the society I grew up in, of course, a childhood time and place where blacks on professional sports teams were still a novelty; where the faces on television were all white, all the time; where assumptions of white superiority were so deep-rooted that they didn't have to be declared or debated -- that's just the way it was.

Now, I don't concede any validity to these stereotypes -- in my conscious word, deed, or thought. Over the decades since college I've tried my damnedest to live up to the liberty and justice for all ideal. I've rejoiced at the rolling back of prejudice and constricted opportunity in so many ways.

But the ugly thoughts are still there. Beaten back, beaten down, beaten into a low dull intermittent muttering -- they refuse to die. I've become resigned, at age 59, to the fact that, shameful as it is, difficult as it is to admit, I've got some racism in me that I can't scour out; the best I can do is shut the closet door, ignore the tiny hammering on it, and live my life according to the ideals I want to believe are the real me.

And that, my friends, is the racism of one Northeastern white liberal. Whether I like it or not.
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As the conversation continued, this memory worked its way to the surface:
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[A previous post] reminds me of a woman I knew some 15 years ago, a decade or so younger than me. She was of white and Japanese parentage, with a Japanese surname, and simply gorgeous, as a person as well as in her looks. She had two young sons by a black father. They were also lovely, lovely little young men -- physically, yes, but also in demeanor because my friend worked her butt off to raise them well despite being a single mother holding down a full-time, demanding job.

She was living in a close-in suburb of Boston when I knew her, but within a couple of years of our meeting she told me she was moving to Hawaii. "It's because," she said, "well, because....."

"Because you want to live where you and your kids look like everyone else," I interjected.

"Yes! Yes, that's exactly it!"

And we had a discussion of how hard it was for her to live among people who couldn't matter-of-factly accept her and her children because they didn't fit into the mold of their milieu.

I've been thinking about her a lot lately.
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So there it is -- the confused muddle of a "typical white person" who really, really does want to be true to her ideals but must confront the fact that their foundations rest upon muck as well as granite.

1 comment:

ollie said...

Have you thought about posting this as a diary on the Daily Kos?

Nice job!