Race. We pretend that racial tension is a thing of the past, and that all people of all colors get treated the very same every day, and that “white privilege” is something some whiny socialists made up to stir the pot again. None of that is true.
Darker skinned children show up in a classroom with a white teacher, who in all other aspects of her being is a kind, decent hard-working person. But, when she looks at that child, her bias kicks in. Whether she realizes it or not, through generation after generation of at home training, she looks at that child and automatically assumes that his family is poor, that his care is subpar compared to his classmates, and that he is, in some intangible way, “less able” to learn or succeed. That sweet teacher, who goes to church every Sunday, donates to charities, helps her elderly mother, and has a passel of friends who think she’s awesome, would never, ever, identify herself as a “racist.” But, she is. The fact that she would give this child her sandwich if she thought he was hungry does not negate the fact that in her deepest, subconscious thoughts, she attributes certain “characteristics” to this child based on the color of his skin.
Yes, things have gotten better. The KKK firebombing houses and hanging black men on a Saturday night for sport aren’t an every weekend occurrence anymore, so that is good. African Americans are “allowed” into every restaurant, hotel and movie theater in our country, and can even go to college! We’ve made huge strides (said with sarcasm.) But the truth of the matter is this: My seventeen year old white son can walk downtown at two am, and a police officer seeing him will think, “I’ll bet that kid is just leaving his girlfriend’s house, or just finished studying at McDonalds.” When my son’s seventeen year old black friend walks downtown at two am, despite an entire troop of officers that are good people and who have had “racial profiling training,” there is always one officer who thinks that young man shouldn’t be there. That he must have drugs, or must have just committed a crime. Statistics show clearly that a black man is many times more likely to be stopped for the very same thing as a white man (such as walking on a sidewalk).
Likewise, we are finding in the social service realm that white medical staff, white teachers, and white therapists and social workers (like my own company) are many more times likely to report a family of color to Children and Youth Services agencies than we are to report people who remind us of ourselves. In other words, if a white child tells a doctor or nurse that mama smacked them, the staffer is much more likely to ask questions to “get to the bottom” of it. The staffer is more likely to assume that the child meant a spanking. When an African American child tells a medical person that mama smacked them, the staff is much more likely to call and report it to CYS. Why? Because of bias. Because of prejudice. Because of those little unconscionable thoughts in the back of our mind that says, “African Americans can be violent. African Americans don’t make good decisions. African Americans aren’t always the best parents.”
Am I making you uncomfortable? Good. Because talking about racism is uncomfortable.
My family is just going to have to suck this one up. My great grandparents were immigrants. They were dead by the time I was four. I have no memories of them, only black and white pictures. But, I know they were racist. How do I know that? Because their children, my grandparents and their siblings on my paternal side of the family were loudmouthed in-your-face racists. When I was a child and we had spent time with the grandparents, my parents would take us home, sit us down, and “reinstruct” us. My parents, who were young adults in the sixties watching the world change, would explain to my sister and I that those names we heard, those jokes that were told were never, ever, to come out of our mouths. I remember being confused about why it was okay for grandpa to say those things, my parents never said those things, and I was forbidden and threatened with punishment if I ever said those things.
I am a white lady in a predominately white town, who grew up going to an entirely white elementary school, who then went to a high school where there were two bi-racial kids, and two kids adopted from a Native Indian community. A high school with 900 students, four of whom had darker skin. I grew up with grandparents who used the “N word” like you and I say water or broccoli, with parents who freaked out when the “N word” was used.
Going to college, even though it was only twenty miles down the road, allowed me to live, work and attend classes with people from all over the world who had different skin tones, different accents, and totally different experiences from me. I lived in dorms with black men and women, and in graduate school worked a job where I supervised students. Dave and Jacque from Pittsburgh and Kavan from India turned out to be extremely nice young men with hopes and dreams trying to work their way up in this world, just like me.
Early on in my career I worked for a company in Pittsburgh that contracted to a huge number of nursing homes. I worked for about a year at Lincoln-Lemington Home for the Aged. There were three white residents, and three of us white staff members. The rest were all African American. I look back on this experience with such fondness. It was a place where black elderly people were tended to by black younger people. The care was exceptional, and the respect for these elders was immense. Residents were not called Mr. and Mrs. by the staff, they were called “Meemaw” or “Poppa” or “Pops” and “Sir/Ma’am,” with great affection. This was a place where music played loudly, and when the song, “Whomp, There It Is” came on the radio, the whole staff started dancing in the halls while the residents in the wheelchairs clapped, laughed and pointed – just like in a television musical. It was here that I tried okra, turnip greens and pinto beans, while I ate lunch in the cafeteria with the rest of the staff. It was here that a cafeteria worker said, “Do you know how much we like you? Do you know how much we appreciate that you eat with us and eat our food instead of bringing your own lunch?” It was here that I mentioned that I would like to try the catfish with Tabasco sauce on it like they all ate it, but that I was a little funky about seafood and didn’t think I could manage without Tartar sauce – so the next week on fish day they had ordered in Tartar sauce just for me!
This was also the only nursing home that I ever worked in that had armed security. Armed. It was a really, really rough neighborhood. One day as I drove in to work, I passed several police cars with lights flashing, and thought nothing of it. When I pulled into the nursing home parking lot, a security guard came running to my car. “What are you doing here? Holy Sh%^&!” I had no idea. The police cars were for a shooting that had occurred at a bar a block down the street a few hours earlier. A white man had shot a black man, and tensions were high. I was in danger. “Am I in danger out here in the neighborhood, or am I in danger in the nursing home?” The guard assured me that I wasn’t in danger with my co-workers. So I said, “Well, then I’m working. Get out of my way so I can get in.” The security guard had me pull my car to the curb close to the door (not a parking space), and shielded me with his body to get me into the building. When I entered the building, a whole sea of dark faces looked at me with horror. They were genuinely frightened for me. I worked. Ms. Edna was trying chewable foods that day for the first time, and I had to make sure that she didn’t choke. Big Fred had said his first three words the day before after having a stroke, and I was shooting for three more that day. I couldn’t just not work. I worked three days under these conditions (staying away from windows, being walked to and from my car by security) until the shooter was arrested.
At one point, I did home visits in the Hill District. I was given fifty safety tips, including wearing my white doctors’ coat, because “they” were less likely to attack a white woman who was there to help one of “their own.” Hundreds of visits; not once was I hassled, threatened, or had to drive away from a crowd that wanted to mob me on the street. Instead, black men and women thanked me for coming to see their grandpa. Thanked me for doing my job, and offered to walk me to my car.
While living in Pittsburgh and working the nursing homes there, I became friends with a nurse named Donna. She was just a kind, lovely human being who was outstanding with the Alzheimer’s crowd, and we hit it off. After being friends at work for a while, we decided to get together on a weekend with our spouses. Donna had darker skin than I did, but it had never occurred to me to ask her why….it was about laughing together and being on the same page about the wandering broken-hearted elderly lady who couldn’t swallow. We agreed to meet at a restaurant, and when she showed up, well shut my mouth and slap your grandma, her spouse was a six foot tall, two hundred pound black man named Mike. So, Donna and Mike, and my then spouse Gordon and I became the best of friends. We did everything together. Restaurants, bars, shows, trivia pursuit contests at my house and cookouts at theirs.
We were close enough after a while that when Donna and Gordon had to work nights, Mike and I occasionally did things together. Usually a motorcycle ride down 279 into Pittsburgh while Mike taught me the different neighborhoods. Yeah, back in the day, I loved to be on the back of a bike.
So, one night I called Donna, got Mike, and was told that Donna had been called into work unexpectedly. Mike said that he was just getting ready to head into downtown to meet with someone, and did I want to go? I said sure, because I was bored. Ten minutes later, Mike is in front of my house on the bike, and I’m putting on my helmet. Mike said, “Hey, I probably shouldn’t take you here. We’re going to one of the roughest bars in downtown Pittsburgh. You probably shouldn’t go.” I said, “Mike, you wouldn’t take me somewhere that I’m likely to end up dead, right?” So we went. We went to Play it Again Sam’s on Liberty Avenue, after dark. When we arrived and got off the bike, Mike was nervous. He gave me a tutorial on the curb of Liberty Avenue. “Listen to me. We’re gonna walk in, and see who is there. If it’s a problem, we’re leaving. If not, we’ll have a drink. You need to be cool, and watch me the whole time. Got it?”
It was like dropping down the rabbit hole. I was young, and white, and sheltered. I didn’t know. We walked into this dump of a bar, and lo and behold, some of Mike’s friends that I had met at cook-outs were there. Believe it or not, his friends were Big Mike (an enormous black man – at least 6’4 and 300 pounds, and Little Mike, a white kid.) So my Mike relaxed, and told me to get us a drink. I ordered at the bar, from a bartender named Strawberry. Strawberry wanted to know if I was “with” Mike. I assured Strawberry that Mike was still with Donna, and was functioning as my tour guide as I learned Pittsburgh.
Strawberry apparently saw a set of kind eyes, because she told me her life story. The long and the short of it was that she had gotten pregnant at 16, wanted to keep the baby, and had no support. So, she had the baby, and started stripping at a local night club, which paid enough to pay the bills, eat and pay a babysitter. But, she quit stripping when her daughter was twelve, because she wanted to show her baby another way of life, so she got a job bartending. Meanwhile, her daughter was now 16 and pregnant herself, and Strawberry, at the ripe old age of 32 was hoping to live through her shift and be able to support her child and soon to be grandchild. I said something along the lines of, “Strawberry, good for you. Good for you for not going on welfare, and for trying to do better for your kid. If I had made one small left turn in my life, I would be you. I admire you.” She looked at me, looked at Mike, and said, “I like her. You bring this girl back. Hey!!!! If you ain’t drinking, get the hell out!” (The prostitutes on the corner were allowed to come inside when the cops drove by, but had to leave within two minutes if not buying a drink.)
So, everything was going well. I was in one of the roughest bars in Pittsburgh, and I was holding my own, when everything just changed in a heartbeat. Some guy asked some other guy if he had picked up that “piece” he had been looking at, and the guy said that he had, and pulled a gun out of his jacket and laid it on the table. People oohhed and aahhed over the gun, while another guy pulled his gun and laid it on the table for comparison purposes….and suddenly Mike was at my side. “The situation has changed, we need to go.” “Ok, tell me what to do.” “Put a tip on the bar, say goodnight to Strawberry, get in front of me and head to the door.” And so I did. Casually. Pulled a bill out and gave it to Strawberry. Told her that it was a pleasure to meet her. Hopped off my bar stool and got in front of Mike, and headed to the door. As I did, Big Mike and Little Mike, who were at a table, stood up and got on either side of me. Big Mike said, “Don’t worry sweetheart, you are surrounded by the Wall of Flesh.” Boom, out on the street, putting on my helmet, hopping on the back of the bike, Big Mike and Little Mike guarding me like I was some kind of special princess…..and not once did I feel afraid.
I live in rural PA, and I am surrounded by white people who believe with all of their hearts that black men rape white women, and that black women live for producing another baby and getting another welfare check. But, in my life, I have had nothing but positive experiences with black people. I have been in their workplace, and in their neighborhoods. They work hard, just like you and me. They want better for their kids, just like you and me. Unlike you, however, I have been protected by black men in multiple situations. I have seen over and over again that a black man would put himself between me, a white woman, and violence. For that reason, I have never feared the black man. If anything, I see them as guardians. I have always felt protected by black men. But, to have that experience, you have to be willing to have friends who are black.
So, I’m a divorced white woman with two boys in rural PA, my experiences with “blacks” a thing of the past; distant history. Five years ago, my then 7th grader Noah, who has friends over most weekends says, “Hey Mom, can I have Kahlil over this weekend?” “Who is Kahlil, honey? I don’t think I’ve met him.” “He’s on my football team, and we’re going to play basketball together.” So yeah, Kahlil can come over. I’m not going to lie. Based on the name Kahlil, I was pretty sure that Kahlil was not lily-white. And, sure enough, when Kahlil came over, he had the most beautiful brown skin. He was kind. He was funny. He and Noah interacted just like Noah interacted with all of his friends. I was inordinately pleased. Noah had a black friend! We had evolved enough that my son could have a black friend over and nobody was going to flip out! I was so happy. But, then, I realized that maybe being happy that my son had a black friend was reverse discrimination. After all, if we’re going to “get past color,” we’re supposed to not notice color at all, right? Well, I have had to think about that long and hard. Here is what I’ve come up with. If you take nothing else from this post, take this. There will never be a day that we don’t notice color. Why? Because the human brain is designed to categorize. It is how we remember names. It is how we run into someone at a store that we haven’t seen in fifteen years, and figure out how we know them. We categorize everything, including people.
When you and I meet people, we immediately put them into categories – male/female, our age/older/younger, heavy/skinny/normal, red/blonde/black hair….blah, blah, blah. One of the first things we teach our toddlers is to put things into categories….animals, transportation, fruits, vegetables, meats. Our brains work that way. It is how we retrieve important information. There will never come a day that we don’t notice skin color, accents in speech, or eye shape.
What we are really trying to do as far as eliminating racial bias is to get rid of the subconscious thoughts that slam through our heads upon meeting someone of a different culture or a different race. Those thoughts that someone isn’t “quite as good.” That is what needs to go by the wayside, not our ability to see color.
So, Kahlil spends 24 hours at my house, and he is no different than the white boys that have stayed. He’s hungry. He wants to play Xbox. He doesn’t want to go to bed. He loves history, and can’t stand his English teacher. Just like my kid. He is just like my kid. When I took him home and dropped him off at the curb, Kahlil, lugging his duffle bag, grabbed the trash can at the curb and drug it up to the house, while I sat there thinking, “What a well-trained, respectful young man.” Most of the kids that I knew would have walked past that garbage can. Kahlil had been taught responsibility. His parents clearly had expectations. I believed, with all of my heart, right then, that Kahlil had endless potential.
A few years later, the man that I was involved with was given box seat tickets to a Steeler game, so we took Noah and Kahlil. Noah and Kahlil were working and playing hard on their high school football team. I wanted them to see an in-person pro game, and I wanted them to see that hard work could eventually land you in box seats. VIP ticket line. Escorted to the box. A huge buffet that did not include burgers and hotdogs. Shrimp. Wings. An open bar. A dessert cart! We get a plate of food, plop into our super comfy seats, look left, and through the glass in the next box over was Ben Roethlisberger’s’ wife. OMG! We were truly having the time of our lives, feeling like royals. Right up until two white boys (and I say boys because they surely weren’t men) in their twenties came into the box, clearly liquored up, and talking loudly about the Niggers on the field. And yes, I spelled it out, so that you can truly feel my discomfort and anger.
I titled this post, “I Failed a Child,” because on that day, I am almost certain that I did. While these two jerks ran their mouths like only a white-supremacist can, I nearly lost my mind in a torment of trying to decide what to do. Folks, boxes like that are purchased for the season (and usually every season, year after year) by big companies like Joy Manufacturing, Kennametal, or Consol Energy. They probably cost $100,000.00 a year. People like my date are given tickets for them as rewards for doing business with them. The rules are simple. If you cause a ruckus in the stands and get thrown out, your season tickets get revoked too. Whether it is a guest or not. I knew that if I threw a fit and got us thrown out, there was a small possibility that the company that had gifted us those seats would lose the box. I also knew that if the company that gifted us those seats didn’t lose the box that they would absolutely hear about the incident and the man that I was with would be punished. I also did not know who the two low-life’s were – sons of the boxes owners?
As these two jerks ran their mouths, apparently feeling oh so superior to the black football players on the field (who, by the way, actually had talent and were making millions), I kept looking at my date for guidance, and got nothing. He was significantly hard of hearing, and whether he didn’t hear it at all, or just tuned it out, I don’t know. I kept looking at Noah and Kahlil, watching for anger or distress and saw none. They were having a blast. Did they not hear it either, or had Kahlil been trained to ignore that? I should have stood up. I should have turned my sarcastic, acid tongue on them….but they were drunk, and it wouldn’t have sunk in. I probably should have removed the boys from the situation – but they were still having fun and enjoying the game. I should have approached an usher for assistance. Should have….
I have very few regrets in this world. Broken relationships, ended friendships, poor business decisions, moments when I wasn’t the very best mom….I’ve had many of these, but don’t regret them. These were all learning experiences for me. But, the day I took Kahlil to a Steelers game and let two drunk white trash idiots talk about Niggers….that I regret.
The Kahlil that I am talking about is Kahlil West, who just set nearly every record for wide receiver at Franklin High School this past season. Kahlil West who just signed his letter of intent to play college football. Kahlil who is going to college, not just because he is a tremendous athlete, but because he has the grades to go. Kahlil who is smart, funny, kind, respectful, hard-working, and an absolute team player.
We are making progress. I am forty-eight years old, so put what I’m saying into perspective. Three generations before me, African Americans were considered a high functioning animal, with no rights. Two generations ago the laws changed, and people “had” to deal with segregation and sharing the same toilets. This, however, did not stop my Grandfather from referring to Oprah as “That Nigger on TV at 4:00.” Understand that in his 80’s, he watched her every day…gave her rating shares, watched the sponsored commercials, added to her wealth, but couldn’t call her by name. One generation before mine, it was understood that working and living among African Americans was required, and maybe not such a bad thing. My generation, many of us, don’t care what color the skin is – we’re way more concerned with whether you are a good person. And my generations’ kids have kids with different skin tones over for weekend sleepovers, play Xbox, and flirt with the same girls of all colors.
We are making progress. I don’t think it should take another three generations for all people to be treated equally in all situations.
There is no reason on the planet that a teenaged bi-racial boy should have to sit, in this day and age, at a function surrounded by people who talk smack about him because of the color of his skin – which, by the way, he is no more responsible for than you are for your eye color.
To my white friends: Your great-grandparents couldn’t have imagined credit cards, computers, internet, deciding to fly to Florida on a Thursday, or Barrack Obama as President. If it were up to them, you and I would still be riding horses, blacking our wood-fired stove, and dying at 30 of consumption. Do not let their thought process of people of color be your “go to” thought process. They didn’t know. You do.
To my African American friends: Yep. It’s still not right. We have work to do. But, understand that just as you can’t forget your history of slavery and being seated in the back of the bus, we’ve been hearing crap forever. It takes work to overcome decades of indoctrination. We’re trying. We’re questioning what we’ve been told. We’re encouraging our kids to be friends with everybody, not just those that look like themselves.
Kahlil: You have been one of my son’s best friends for six years. I love you, and if there is ever a day that you need something and can’t reach your mom, you call me. It doesn’t matter if you need a pep talk, a ride home from college, or $50. You call me. It has been a joy to watch you grow up, mature, and become the man that you are today. I apologize. I am so sorry that on the one day that I witnessed people try to destroy you that I didn’t say anything. I am so sorry. If there was ever a moment that I should have stood up and said damn the consequences, it was that day. I’m sorry.