Thursday, July 2, 2015

TL/DR: The one when Sally went on and on about race relations

I'm having a hard time articulating what's been going through my head lately about national events. I've been thinking about recent stuff--the Supreme Court, Charleston shootings, church burnings--but besides Bix (those conversations go like this: [something is said] [the other person agrees] [repeat 150 times]), I haven't managed to really talk about all of this.

My cousin posted a forwarded picture that read: "My facebook feed looks like a war broke out between the Confederacy and a Skittles factory." And it's all overwhelming me with so many conflicting feelings and damn it, it's supposed to be summer.

Another FB friend posted a lengthy message last night about how fruitful she has found the discussion on facebook lately regarding racism, how social media seems to be helping white folk (at least those who are open to it) see the world through different lenses, that the past year has brought American racism out into the open in a way that we've been denying for, well, decades.

But she said how dismayed she was at all the rainbow colored profile pictures after the Supreme Court decision last week.

Not that she was upset that people were excited or happy about it, not that we shouldn't be allies in the struggle for civil rights, but she was bothered by the discrepancy: so many people had come to the decision in their hearts that being able to legalize a relationship, with whomever we love, is a basic civil right that should be defended, but so few people were coming to the public decision that black folks deserved the right not to be gunned down at church, or have their churches burned, or their sons shot in the streets. Few people seemed riled up about it.

I thought about St. Louis. I thought about when Ferguson "happened", how I'd never even been to Ferguson. Seriously. I live in South St. Louis, and the furthest north I ever go is Overland. In addition, I live in a minority majority city (minorities, specifically African Americans, are the majority race here), but on my block, out of the 100 people who live and breathe here, give or take a college student or part-time stepchildren, there is 1 black person. In the 17 years I've lived here, there have been a total of 5 black people, two of whom were adopted children of white folk.

In comparison, in the time I've lived here, I can count 9 gay people who have lived on my block. Probably more, since I don't go around with a clipboard quizzing people about their sexual orientation. Next door neighbors Keith and Ron, when we moved in, were the first people who were nice to us, this young hoosier couple with rundown cars and no clue.

In addition, I can look at my facebook friend list and I can count a large number of gay and lesbian folks. Some of my favorite people, and I don't pretend that in "some of my best friends are gay" kind of straight middle class white girl way. But definitely "some of my favorite casual friends and people who make my life rich and amazing are gay" kind of way.

Growing up? I didn't know anyone who was out to me. Except for one cousin, I didn't know anyone who was gay, personally, until I moved here.

Now, repeat that for black folks. Not until high school did I have any friends who weren't white (and Catholic, frankly). In college and throughout young adulthood, all my friends were white. My kids are at a mostly white Catholic school. I've taught black kids...but when I look at the kids I still know, they're all white or Vietnamese.

And now I teach in a 100% white school. 11 out of 10 students are white at the school where I teach. I have a lovely integrated Catholic church where I am involved and very happy, but I'm not really close to anyone who isn't white.

I have two facebook friends who are black. In comparison, I am friends with a dog and with a cat. I am friends with my sister's burlesque dancing persona. I am friends with more fake people than I am with black people. What the hell is wrong with me? How has this happened?

I'm not saying "Golly, I need to go rustle up some more black friends, STAT!" Because that sounds like I'm trying to collect a set of Pokemon.

(Although, side note, my mom met a woman while visiting my grandmother in the hospital. They talked about crochet and crafts and so forth and she gave my mom her number, saying, "My last white friend moved away, I need more white friends.").

I think this is part of the problem. As time goes by and the culture relaxes (slowly), more of our friends and relatives feel safe sharing with us, with the world, that they are gay. And when your favorite cousin comes out, moves to New York to dress socialites, and writes books telling women how to work with their personal style, it gets easier to say, "oh, that's not wrong or foreign or weird or awful, because I love someone who identifies that way." When your next door neighbors bring you back a Christmas ornament from the Netherlands and every year when you hang it on your tree you get a little teary-eyed because Keith died of cancer 3 years ago, well, it's like this: gay people aren't outsiders. They are your friends and neighbors and coworkers and they are people just like you.

But black folks can never be in the closet. You can never get to know them not knowing that they're black. There's never the moment when she tells you, "hey, you know I'm black, right?" He never shows up at your parents' Christmas party and introduces his partner and make it loud and clear that, yeah, you were right about your hunch, he's black, so make him a cosmo, would you? and let's hang out just like before.

In my life, it is harder to break the color barrier than the sexual orientation barrier.

Even worse, it never struck me, not once, until this past year. Until Ferguson and trying to explain where I live to a group of sheltered white kids. And realizing that I was just like them, except that my neighborhood had better restaurants and my church had better music.

So I'm coming to see that I'm part of the problem. I would never fly a Confederate flag. I would never say the n-word. I would never tell my kids they couldn't be friends with someone who wasn't white. I wouldn't forbid them from dating someone based on race. I think of myself as progressive. Open minded. My girl scout troop, at its peak membership, was nearly half and half, black and white. In fact, the PR gal at Girl Scouts loved my troop because of this, because it wasn't segregated in either direction, and pictures of my girls adorn the walls of the conference room. Troy and his biracial son lived with us for 3 months. I am not a racist.

But I'm finding myself in situations where it's hard to articulate what I'm thinking. At work especially. When I was told that I could talk about the protests in Ferguson with my students but I couldn't bring up race? Then I guess the conversation is over. I didn't even argue. Because I couldn't figure out how. I couldn't figure out how to be an advocate. An ally. In comparison, and remember I teach at a Catholic school, I found intelligent articulate grace-filled ways to discuss homosexuality and the Church with my 8th grade religion class. I can do that. So why on earth can't I talk about race, about racism, about white privilege? What the hell is the matter with me?

What the hell is the matter with me?

So I'm thinking. And maybe I'm starting to talk.


  1. Starting to talk is the beginning. I have thought a lot about all this too and don't think I could articulate all my thoughts yet. One thing I do believe is that unless we live together, we will never really understand together. We are often asked why we live where we do, but (despite the distance from the city) I am glad we live in Florissant. I am in Ferguson all the time. I am on West Florissant all the time. My son's high school is 70% minority our elementary is over 50% minority - this even with them being parochial. Being in a multiracial setting is just normal, as are our multiracial friends. What is killing us is segregation. ~plaidshoes

  2. This is so wonderfully thoughtful and stated, I don't know where to begin. Thank you. (And often I'm quiet on all sorts of topics, in part because I've seen people who are trying to work stuff out, work themselves out of ignorance, be pounced upon in these days of social media/public living. Not sure how to start.)

  3. This is so interesting. I don't think there's anything wrong with you, precisely because you're thinking about the issue, and because you want to figure out how to talk about it with your class. If you were allowed, that is.

    (I am shaking my head at the thought that you were not allowed to talk about race with your students? Really? They think that banning a topic of conversation, a topic that has been at the forefront of debate in your country over recent months (if not forever), is appropriate at a school?)

    Anyway, I always find race debates in the US to be interesting. We have some of the same issues here, but not all. Our race issues are with indigenous Maori, and Pacific Islanders, predominantly. We've done some things really well, but others poorly. I can't imagine our teachers not being able to talk about it the issue. The uproar would be huge.

    (You got me thinking. The only Maori people I knew growing up - in a very European rural community - were my schoolteacher (same one for five years) and his family. Now I have very few friends who are Maori, perhaps simply because they are under-represented in professional parts of society, and I don't meet many. I'm embarrassed that I only know a few words in Maori, but can speak more in seven other languages.)

  4. I was hoping you would read; I love the different perspective from across the sea! Yes, I was told, right after the protests in Ferguson, that I was welcome to talk about protests but I couldn't bring up race, that it was often used as an excuse for people to do what they pleased (meaning black folks) and I shouldn't perpetuate that notion because it was wrong. I was also told that 8th graders were too young to really understand (8th graders are 13, 14 years old at the beginning of a school year). I was silent in response, mostly because I couldn't fathom how to talk about Ferguson without bringing up race. So I didn't talk about Ferguson. I did a bunch of ice breakers revolving around the idea of inter-cultural communication breakdowns, and then let students extrapolate. Which they did, because guess what, they weren't too young.