I sometimes speak with schoolboys and girls about my son. I tell them he is the best person I know. Not because he's my child. Not because he goes through hell and comes out the other side. But because he doesn't have a mean bone in his body. Calvin loves everyone no matter how fat or wrinkly or dark or skinny or disabled or poor or old or conservative or devout or liberal or ugly or American they are. He makes me want to be a better person every day, and yet I fail.
At a dinner party, I squabble about stories I feel are at best unconscious or implicit bias and at worst bigoted tropes being tossed around the table. Heart pounding, I struggle with whether to say something. Recklessly casting my doubts aside, I dive.
"Now might not be the best time to tell you I am Jewish and
Black," I say, which everyone knows is false. I'm trying to make a point, condemn what I find offensive. Immediately, I regret my timing and reaction, my stinging words ruining what is meant to be a fun-filled evening and weekend.
I try to explain my perspective, recounting a time years back when I'd ignorantly used the term "White Trash," thus offending someone, not because she was poor—the comment was not meant to describe her—but because the term is an ugly slur for folks simply trying to eke out an existence. I hadn't before thought it offensive, but realizing with newly-opened eyes my affront, I apologized and have never again used the term. Then someone at our table defends the slur, perhaps to make me feel better, saying that anyone—White, Black or Brown—can be trash. I fiercely insist that human beings aren't trash, silently recalling the dehumanizing rhetoric of despots in describing good people as scum, rats, snakes, infestations. I think of the pathetic detention of refugees in our own nation. Tyrants and fascists seek to malign, blame, shun and eliminate those they deem unworthy. I think of Calvin. The conversation splinters.
I want to ask why being poor and underserved makes someone garbage. I wonder who in our circle, including ancestors, might have been considered as such, wonder how they were treated. I question if judgment is righteous when what it condemns sounds like bigotry. Rather, is the criticism of prejudice prejudice itself?
Still, I regret my initial timing and response, not because my reaction is at once deemed judgmental, but because I hurt someone I love very much. I did not consider fully the goodness of those I chastised. In doing so, did I aggrandize myself? I fear I was too hasty and harsh in my appraisal.
In a hurried moment after dinner I again attempt to address my reaction. First, I apologize for my folly. I want to describe White privilege to someone who has succeeded in the face of great adversity. I don't contest the hard work of anyone, their rising above neglect and conflict, their beating the odds, their ability to shine so brightly when so much of what they have come through and surrounds them is and has been hardship. These truths are evident. But they are not sole truths in existence. What I want is the time and space to say this:
If our names were Ashanti or Trayvon instead of names like Jennifer or John, we might not have gotten that prized interview, that job, that promotion, that apartment, that loan, that house in that nice neighborhood. We'd likely be making far less and paying far more than if our skin were whiter. Our net worth might be ten times less than those of our White contemporaries. If our boys were Black rather than White, depending upon where we live, they'd be three to six-plus times more likely to be pulled over, ticketed, fined, arrested, incarcerated, sentenced—perhaps even shot—for the same infraction as their White counterparts, or for having committed no infraction. If we were Black or Brown, we'd more likely live in food deserts, get subpar educations, drink tainted water, get inferior medical care and insurance, if any, receive less pain management, and be more likely to die in childbirth or languish behind bars. And if our Black children survived, they'd be far more likely to face punishment and detention for the same behaviors as fair-skinned students. If we were Black or Brown, we'd be far more likely to be the victims of predatory lending and voter suppression, far more likely to be thought suspicious, to be stalked in neighborhoods, to be convicted of crimes we didn't commit. It is truth that in this nation white skin affords a smoother, safer path through life and to prosperity than black and brown skin does, which is not the same thing as saying it is necessarily easy.
Later, someone uses the slur "dumpster divers" to describe homeless people, going on to say the majority of them choose to live on the streets and therefore don't deserve her charity. She says, essentially, that reverse racism is a thing. These notions are myths, easily disproved with the slightest scrutiny. For one, prejudice does not equal racism; racism is prejudice plus
power (think 400 years of slavery followed by Jim Crow, segregation, state-sanctioned denial of civil rights, the War on Drugs, and current-day voter suppression and mass incarceration all backed by White authorities or, as a friend said, bigotry empowered by the system.) But I don't have a chance to debunk, which is frustrating and regrettable. I'm left wondering why the destitute so often garner contempt rather than compassion.
I go see Aaron Sorkin's adaptation of To Kill A Mockingbird
. I know the story well. I watch the cast of characters—Whites, Blacks, fathers, lawyers, judges, motherless children, maids, innocent defendants, witnesses, poverty-stricken victims, abusers, Klansmen, heroes. Bob Ewell is a poor, White, drunken, racist, deceitful, bullying, abusive, widowed father of eight, and yet I wince when Atticus Finch says he's better than Ewell. I know what Atticus means. But contempt is no virtue, and so I find myself pitying the loathsome offender, but I physically ache for the innocent and doomed Tom Robinson and his family, who are Black, and therefore shackled in most every way imaginable.
I exit the theater making my way through crowded, misty streets thinking about the play and mulling over my earlier exchanges. These are hard conversations, requiring space and time and trust and openness and humility and listening. There are unknown truths we must all unearth, but best with love, respect, acceptance, tenderness, understanding and forgiveness. I close my eyes and think once more of Calvin.
|Photo by Michael Kolster|