Last week, outside the gym locker rooms, I saw a friend. He’s a great guy, and I also love his wife. We met nearly four years ago when our children started kindergarten together. They are both incredibly successful professionals and their kids are the sort you meet and think, “What terrific kids!” Which of course also means, “What terrific parents.”
We started catching up, and I asked if he was still travelling fairly constantly for work. He’s been on the road regularly for the past year and told me that pace hadn’t yet relented. Hopefully this fall. He must be a million-miler on all airlines by now.
Chit-chat transitioned into a powerful conversation about race in America, and for the next twenty minutes, I mostly listened, entranced and sad.
He and his wife are black. Did you have that in your mind’s eye? Or did that make you pause slightly, like the jury in A Time To Kill when Matthew McConaughey instructs them, “Now imagine that girl is black.”
We talked about what’s happening in Ferguson, the Eric Garner homicide, my friend’s own experiences as the victim of bigotry and racism since he was young. He told me about having been called the “n word” too many times to count, about having the police follow and pull him over for no reason and then question his ownership of his own car. He told me about the treatment his wife has received too; ugly, discriminatory profiling.
The albatrosses they now possess, constituted by years of these encounters, have made them think long and hard about how they need to prepare their children to be black in America. As he told me how -emphasizing perfect diction; learning how to handle being called the “n word” should that happen; teaching irreproachable behavior when in the presence of any authority, especially the police - I stood there, dumbstruck and heartbroken. We are definitely not in a post-racial U.S.
Our boys have been friends for years, and the way they walk down school halls or the baseball dugout now might be just the way they saunter through malls or towards a movie theater in another ten. My friend said that even though they (the boys) wouldn’t bat an eye, others might. Strangers may “look at them differently. If the police pass …” and something appears even the tiniest bit off, “nothing would happen to your son, but something could very easily happen to mine.” He said everything much more eloquently than that, but hopefully you get the drift. Remarkably, he didn’t sound bitter. He sounded resigned, and that crushed me.
For my heart hurt with those truths, throbbing with the painful knowledge that because I am white, I won’t have to prepare my kids in the same way. I have read and heard so much, especially lately, about black parents who are scared for their children (particularly for their sons) to simply walk down the street. Who fear for the hateful assumptions others will make for nothing more than the color of their skin. They have had to work, as will their children, harder than white peers for the same, or lesser, outcomes.
Trayvon, Michael, Eric. Black men walking on American streets one moment, dead the next. Killed. I’d be terrified too.
But those are never the worries I have for my sons. I fret about many things, but I take for granted -subconsciously; because I can- that they won’t be profiled and judged. That ability to not worry? That is white privilege and it’s despicable. That this privilege is another’s burden, too many others’ burden, enrages me and makes me cringe. It is morally indefensible.
Realizing the time, my friend and I quickly hugged and said goodbye. I thanked him profusely for the gift he gave me in this conversation, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since. I don’t think I will and I do hope we’ll pick up where we left off sometime soon. Discrimination is ugly and divisive, the sort of horribleness that necessarily exalts some while denigrating others. It reminds me of the caste system in India, an antiquated, racist scheme that I I suspect many Americans would condemn, despite the tragic double standard inherent in doing so.
In such an unequal system, the “exalted” must and should play an enormous role in fighting the injustice. It is additional discrimination to put the onus on the denigrated to themselves do better and overcome. Like hetero allies do in the fight for LGBTQ rights, so too must non-blacks rise up in protest of the Eric Garner and Michael Brown homicides. Garner was killed by a police officer. Killed. On a street in a chokehold, begging for breath while some ignorant idiot continued to apply pressure. And for what? Selling cigarettes when he shouldn’t have been?
So far, the officers responsible have been slapped on the wrists. They’re still employed by the NYPD. The NYPD union protested the claim -despite video evidence and the autopsy- that Garner died from the chokehold, citing instead his being overweight and in somewhat ill health. Mayor de Blasio called for dialogue. What would be different if Garner were white? I suspect much. And by the way, that officer, the one who killed Garner and still has his job? He was accused twice in 2013 of falsely arresting and abusing people. Who’s the threat here? The problem?
We all should have a problem with cops like that. We all should expect and demand more. Dialogue should prevent these sorts of deaths. It’s a largely empty suggestion afterwards.
Remember Cliven Bundy? That racist, nearly-seventy-year-old in Nevada who has refused to pay grazing fees on federal land for twenty years? Remember him sitting atop his horse, flanked by an equally crazed militia, all of them armed out the wazoo, pointing their guns directly at the Bureau of Land Management agents and screaming about their second amendment rights? Can you imagine if a group of black men sat in their place? I don’t at all think it’s exaggeration to say that at least one would have been shot dead and the rest jailed for life.
Ours is far from a fair and just society, and after all the years and decades spent fighting for equality on many fronts, it’s deeply upsetting to witness events that strongly suggest we have moved forward not an inch. American inequality plays out socioeconomically, racially, geographically, religiously, along gender lines and on and on. At times the future seems so terribly bleak: what can any of us do? What can one of us do? What can I do?
Right now, I can look microcosmically at myself as a white mother of two. I believe it is my responsibility to confront racism head-on by exposing my children to its ugly presence; as they see its injustice and are moved by it, I can try to guide them towards behavior that combats such intolerance.
It is my duty to expose them to the abject poverty in which many Americans live and foster in them desire to work towards its end. It is incumbent upon me to repeatedly remind them just how fortunate they are and to instill in them sincere generosity and eagerness to give back, not out of a sense of obligation but rather the deeply held conviction of what is just.
I want to continue to ask and listen and learn and talk. To stand up alongside and for my brothers and sisters in whose shoes I don’t walk so that I see more clearly their paths as they both converge with and diverge from my own. It is my hope that as my children see their mother walking the walk, they are inspired to do the same. And that at some point, the weights of injustice and suppression that debase the fabric of our society are weakened to the point of insignificance and true regret.
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