Thursday, February 3, 2011

What Can I Do?

When I was five we went to Disneyland--my two older foster siblings, my younger sister, my dad, and my mom who was pregnant with my little brother (and didn't tell the workers so she could still ride all of the rides.)  Mostly it is all a blur of running from place to place and fun.  However, I have a few clear memories of that day, and one that has nothing to do with Disneyland being the happiest place on earth.

Since I was only five most people were taller than me and all I remember is a rush of different colored shirts swirling around me.  We were standing in a line that wrapped back and forth through horizontal barred fences when I saw a little girl just my height.  Her family was directly in front of us in line.  She was the most beautiful little girl I had ever seen and she had the most beautiful white princess dress on and pretty shoes.  She was also African American.  The year would have been 1978. 

I do not remember what anyone said, but I still remember a few things clearly from that moment.  I said hi, and she turned away.  When we went around a corner we both had our hands on the bars and touched.  She pulled her hand away like I had burnt her.  At some point my parents moved me away from the front of our family to the back of our family (I think I was asking why won't she talk to me?), and I could only see the little girl as we went around corners.  Then finally I got on the ride convinced of two things--this little princessy girl didn't like me for some reason and it hurt.

At some point, I don't know if it was the same day or months or years later, I decided this little girl's response was because I was white and she was black, possibly because of conversations with my mom that I don't remember.  As I grew I would "learn" it was because I was Caucasian and she was African American.  And I became convinced deep down in my soul that if racism is defined as judging someone by the color of their skin then it hurt and it was wrong!

Let me be clear, I am not telling this story to "prove" white people experience racism, too.  I am not sharing because I am claiming this one incident scarred me for life.  In fact, while I thought about it a lot, I know it doesn't compare at all to what minorities experienced who grew up the same time I did.  I use it to illustrate that a child doesn't have to know all the history, or about institutional racism, or white privilege to know that racism exists; and I think that children, unless they are taught differently, will decide it is wrong.

The question then becomes what to do with their sense of injustice and desire to change the world?  I know that by the time I was in high school I was convinced I wasn't allowed to fight racism.  I think this mostly came from movies and tv--"Go home, white girl, you don't know what racism is.  We don't need your liberal, fake compassion, rich girl."  I would never label myself liberal, compassionate or rich, but I was white and thought, oh, I'm not supposed to get involved.  Maybe this sounds completely naive and ridiculous to you, honestly it does to me, also, but I was really convinced fighting against racism and for civil rights was something I didn't have the "right" to participate in because I was not discriminated against.  I thought my job was to stay away and just "not be racist"--whatever that meant.

I still don't know exactly what my role is.  I don't think it is writing powerful messages that change people's hearts because truly everything under the sun has already been written and others know a lot more about this than I do.  But I have learned a few things in my preliminary reading that have freed me up to at least try.

First, at minimum I need to root out prejudice and racism in myself.  This is not as easy as it sounds because our culture is rooted in racism and it is very difficult to identify while seeing things through my white lenses.  There is a lot to read that can help me start with this.  The blog "Resist Racism" for one.  I plan to create (or copy) a larger list as I expand my own reading.  Some of the things on the internet are difficult to read since it is written by hurting, angry people, but until I see racism I cannot fight it.  

One fun but challenging way I identified my prejudices was to take these tests created by Harvard.  I took the ones on Asians--no preference; African Americans--slight prejudice against; and President Obama vs President Kennedy--preferred Obama.  The last one quite surprised me since I wasn't really around during Kennedy's politics, but then I realized my preference wasn't political but that I believe Kennedy cheated on his wife and Obama hasn't.

Secondly, I need to stand up when things are said around me that are racist or even might be racist.   I really don't have people around me that tell racist jokes or at least not that I have noticed.  As my eyes are opened I might notice them more often or maybe my friends really are that enlightened (actually I think my closest friends are).  Either way, as I learn my friends will be hearing all about it.  That is just who I am.  I have already had several interesting conversations with people in the last few months about racism and race.

Thirdly, there are several things about racism that in America as the majority race Caucasians are the only ones with the power to change.  Peggy McIntosh's "White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" was published in 1988.  Not enough things (if any) on the list have changed in the last 23 years to make it obsolete.  There is a lot to unpack, but one of the things I took from this article is that minorities can protest about how unfair things are forever, but at this time only Caucasians have enough power to change things in certain situations.  Therefore, we must find those situations and change things.

The more I read the more I realize how much I do not know and how far I need to come.  How I wish, I wish, I had started sooner--right after I met that beautiful little girl in her Sunday best who was afraid to say hi.

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