Friday, April 18, 2008

Hearts and Minds

I am beginning to think that one of the problems blacks face today is that our history is not taught in schools. The effects of humiliation and institutional racism was not taught to me in school. I didn't know that it was near impossible for blacks in Mississippi to get loans in the mid 1900's until my aunt told me. I didn't really understand what was at the heart of the civil rights movement until recently.

I had never taken the time, and was never asked, to contemplate the long term effects of these things on a family.

What I learned about black history was actually pretty sterilized. An illustration of a smiling Harriet Tubman as she helped slaves get through the underground railroad. The lesson leaned more on adventure than on what these people were trying to escape.

In third grade I learned about how a man named Martin Luther King, Jr. gave eloquent speeches and then was murdered. But why, exactly? What was so bad that he felt it was worth risking his life to fight against it? When I was in school the focus was on the most common names in African-American history and on telling their stories of heroism. The focus was not on why the African-American community needed heroes in the first place.

It amazes and baffles me to think that some people really believe that racism was eradicated when a law was past. Did prohibition keep people from drinking? Were there abortions before Roe v. Wade? Anna Quindlen said about the women's movement that we changed laws but we didn't change hearts and minds. I think that, to some degree, the same can be said about the civil rights movement.

Racism Close to Home

I purchased a homeschool curriculum for my son from one of the biggest homeshool curriculum companies. They have a really active online discussion forum. Many of the people who post are on there everyday and they have formed best friendships even though they have never met face to face.

Well, I have noticed some mild to severe racism on the site. Without going into too much detail, the phrase ebonics was used, someone posted about how blacks and mexicans just sit around collecting checks, another person said that the term "African-American" gives her a rash. Almost all of the people who post are white. Literally, I think there are only three of us who are black and there are thousands of posters.

I started a thread about the racial bias and I asked if I was welcome there. Some of the angry people posted comments to effectively say that if I don't like the heat I should get out of the kitchen. Others posted comments about how they really didn't see any bias and they wanted me to help them see it. Others expressed that they too had seen racism but didn't know what to do because the racist posters usually had the majority in their corner. The most interesting thing was that some people began opening up about racism they had seen in their own lives. Some people talked about how they were told they could not date black men when they were growing up. Others were told that they should not have black friends etc. One person asked me if I could give them a reading list of books to help them deal with their lack of sensitivity in issues of diversity! I felt so ill equipped to help her since I am still learning myself! But I did my best.

I shared some of this with a good friend. She sided with the posters. She felt that they are entitled to their opinions. She felt that blacks need to stop looking back and just move on. I tried to expain to her that racism still exists, I cited a study out of the University of Pennsylvania about employment disparities between white and black males, she just looked away. I thought that maybe she just didn't understand how bad things really were. I explained to her about my dad being beaten by the police when he was 14 and his cousin who was killed for looking the wrong way at a white woman. She interrupted me to say that that was a different generation though.

Nothing I said to her could arouse compassion. She wouldn't budge. At one point when I was explaining about racism, she interrupted me and said, "Oh, yeah, well what about Reverend Wright. What do you think about that." As if there is any question. Did she think I would side with him becaue he was black? I explained that there was no excuse for his comments and they were offensive to everyone, not just whites. She then asked what I thought about Obama for going to that church. I explained that he hadn't heard the comments. It felt like she was trying to drop bombs on me that would explode and expose that there is no racism from whites, just racist blacks.

I could not believe the ideas that came from my friend. I know her. I know she doesn't read the news, read history books, etc. I know she is disengaged. But her husband and her mom are not. I got the impression that she has swallowed whole some idea and decided that she does not need to hear the other side. Whenever I would start trying to explain things to her she seemed to get irritated.

I don't know. It was weird. I began to feel that my world was full of smiling white faces that, when peeled back, revealed eyes filled with disgust and judgement. When I was reading the forums a little voice in my head said, "So, is this how they talk when there are no blacks around?" I was ready to stop perming my hair and start wearing dashikis!

I can't let these things make me crazy. But I also can't look away. So, to maintain my sanity, I am actively reminding myself that my friend (former friend) is in the minority. Not all people think this way.

The bottom line is that I can't just drop it. I won't. For me, that is the definition of character. I will not slink into a corner and say that it's someone else's problem. It is not my problem because I am black. It is not my problem because I am raising black children. It is my problem becase I have breath in me. It is everyone's problem.