Wednesday, April 14, 2010

White Culture I

I tend to keep my head low when it comes to discussing race.  After all what do I know about it?  I do know my own culture though -- white culture.

I have had several conversion style revelations around race and racism lately.

My first was a few years ago.  My children were going to a multicultural school and it was such a different experience than I had growing up.  I was fascinated by how comfortable my sons were negotiating race.  They noticed race, talked about it, but as an everyday occurrence and a part of that person's identity.  It wasn't always completely politically correct what they said, but it had no heat.  There was a comfort for them of the everyday.   This guy was Asian, this girl was Russian and that meant they had to negotiate with their parents in a certain way.  No big deal.

In fact I developed this theory that race was over.  I thought, "what is all the fuss about race, it's over, the kids know what to do".  They get race and gayness and all of that and its over, or at least just about over; all that uncomfortableness and the bad feelings, all of that.  I even developed a theory that 'especially black was over' since there were so many different races now that they didn't have that duality relationship anymore with America.  There was one of those tempest-in-a-teapot controversies going on in the newspaper.  One person had charged racism.  A white person had written back saying, 'why do you think that is racism? Maybe it was just grumpiness.'  I was frankly inclined to agree with the white person. Arghh!  Just writing these things embarrasses me quite a lot, but this is what I thought.

It was at the unlikely location of my practically-all-white church that I was disabused of my happy face racial consciousness.  We were doing a service on Martin Luther King and one of the older members stood up and witnessed to an event that she still remembered.  She was a woman in her 80's and she was visiting Washington DC in the war years.  She got on a bus and watched a group of young black people get kicked of the bus because they were black.  It had been so unfair that she had never forgotten.

Listening, I felt conversion sweep over me.  Its a prickly feeling that I get sometimes, when I realize something in my body.  I couldn't be comfortable any more and think what I had thought before.  My cheeks even pinked at my own ignorance.

Of course race isn't over!  This woman had watched the most blatant institutional racism perpetuated in her own lifetime!  People remember, they tell stories!  A young child born today can have a great-grandparent who had this happen to them!  Memories, even other people's memories, can hold on to that feeling of aggrievement and shame.  It isn't over until its completely over, and all of the memories are so old that they are no longer transmitted.

I was still pretty ignorant about how much racism a person of color encounters in their daily life, but at least I was not being 'Sunny Jim' optimistic.  I now didn't automatically dismiss a charge of racism when I read it in the paper.   I knew racism was an evil with a long memory and I should respect its staying power and its impact on those who experience it.

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