As we continue to settle in to our home in Virginia, people will sometimes ask ~ Wasn’t it hard to leave your home of 20+ years in Oklahoma? Don’t you miss it?
I don’t really know how to respond, truthfully. Of course I miss people I love, who remain in that proudly scarlet state. I miss prairie skies, and a July abloom with crape myrtles. Not to mention scissortailed flycatchers, and even the occasional road runner down by my inlaws’ farm. The land itself? Sure.
But as a white woman who tries verrry hard to be a voice for engaged Buddhism, for the social justice so painfully absent in today’s government, I’m glad to be out of there. I used to have a bumper sticker: Bright Blue Dot in a Very Red State. Which grew increasingly hard to live with. And today I read an article that said, far more articulately than I’m able to, just how Tulsa in particular is such a racist mess. And why I don’t have faith it will change much, despite the many wonderful progressives I know there.
I don’t personally know the author of the article, Caleb Gayle. His piece in the Guardian, “How America’s heartland loses black people” might not seem relevant to a very white woman, aging nicely into her Gigi-hood. But it resonated with me on so many levels.
I would guess Mr. Gayle is younger than the close friends from Oklahoma I’m so grateful for. The ones I’m thinking of specifically are the African American scholars & teachers who have helped me understand the impact of racism on their daily lives. Who, through their very presence at a restaurant with me (I’m looking at you, Ben & Dewayne), have made Tulsa’s racism manifest and tangible. It’s so very different to go to a nice restaurant in midtown (old money Tulsa) with Ben and/or Dewayne than it is to go with a white male friend. Service is cooler, more distant. No one sits by us, even if that choice inconveniences them. And the glances from the other restaurant patrons? Beyond ‘just curious.’ Seeing is definitely believing.
Perhaps because I grew up the odd person out — a blonde white girl in ViệtNam, a blonde white girl in Thailand, a blonde white woman in Algeria & Saudi Arabia, and the many places we traveled — I didn’t grow up thinking white was better. In Algiers, men tried to fondle me daily. The little boys threw rocks at me. As a young girl in ViệtNam, I grew accustomed to people tugging at my pale blonde ponytail, so rare in those days. I never understood why anyone would think ‘we’ were superior. We certainly weren’t as pretty as the Việtnamese girls, nor do we have the lengthy culture of Arab science. And we are no better, morally, than either Muslims or Buddhists.
In fact, I know American history well, and it’s rife with thousands of horrific racist actions. By white people. By Christian white people (full disclosure here: I don’t know that I was ever a Christian after 9th grade, when my youth group refused to let me bring in friends who weren’t ‘like us’). And given the stats on how white American males are our most likely ‘terrorists’? We certainly have nor legitimate moral high ground on criminal terrorism.
At 18 I fell in love with a young man whose father was from Sierra Leone, and whose mother was African American. It netted me a deportation. My father saw that official act as the only way to be certain I didn’t return to ‘engage’ with the enemy.
This is all by way of trying to answer a question a new FB acquaintance asked me recently, referencing my passionate rejection of this administration & government: Why would a middle aged white woman care so much about all this? Even if my background hadn’t influenced me so profoundly, my two beautiful brown grandsons surely would. I will never, thankfully, share the sleep-shattering fears black mothers I know have told me they suffer. But as my grandsons grow to school-age, I worry. Will someone say something hurtful? When they’re older, will someone hurt them?
Caleb Gayle has, I’m sure, hundreds of stories of such experiences. The young man I loved at 18 had one leg 2 inches shorter than the other, from being run off the road on his motorcycle. A laughing white driver of a car, he told me. In Philadelphia, the land of brotherly love. My friends Ben, Dewayne, Sylvia, Shanedra, Deborah, & others could chill your blood with what they encounter daily
My beloved of 40+ years is white. Or at least Oklahoma white, meaning he’s part Native American, but has no tribal knowledge. Forefather kicked off the Indian rolls for beating up the agent, according to family lore. Which the agent probably deserved, my readings in history tell me. So racism doesn’t ‘overtly’ affect him or us. And yet…
How can white people pretend that racism doesn’t diminish us, the whites who benefit from it? And how can they pretend it’s a ‘post-racial’ society, as I heard knee-jerk liberals assert following Obama’s first election? Really? If so, why would the same judge sentence a black teenager to 26 years for the same offense he sentenced a white man to 2 years??? There are so very many instances of these racist judgements that I just don’t understand how white people DON”T SEE THEM. They don’t want to…?\
We moved from Oklahoma to be by our children, and our grandchildren. It wasn’t simply that the political climate had grown so awful. It was all the ‘side issues’ common to neo-con politics: funding for public schools put Oklahoma at the bottom of the nation. Crime is high, as it usually is when poverty is rampant. And yes: politics are as deeply red as the spilled blood of Jeremy Lake (an unarmed black teen killed by his white girlfriend’s policeman father), or Terence Crutcher, another unarmed black man killed by another Tulsa policeman. Or Joshua Barre, also shot by Tulsa police in a hotly disputed case. And that’s just in the last couple of years. But Tulsans will assure that race was no issue.
My religion is one of peace & non-violence. In my next post, I’m hoping to move forward to how to deal with all of today’s overt hate, and increasingly systemic racism (which is, by definition, a system for those whites who put it in power). Maybe you have some ideas to contribute?
In my hometown, many of us — I hope thousands of us — are grieving. We’re grieving for a murdered father of four. For a man returning from a music appreciation class, who had car trouble. Who was shot FOR NO GOOD REASON (although that’s not the story the accused cop is telling, of course), after he was tased.
Did mention he was tased FIRST? Oh: and he was black. That’s the REAL important fact these days…
I’m linking to two other pieces — one the heart-breaking post of a teacher at Mr. Crutcher’s daughter’s school. Please read it. Imagine how to explain that this little girl’s daddy won’t be coming home because a cop killed him. If you can, imagine the faces of the black children to whom the teacher is speaking: sons & daughters of black men. Black boys who will grow up to be big black guys who may look scary. And tell me it’s going to be fine. Because I don’t believe it.
The 2nd piece is one I wrote, for my other blog — a more Buddhist one — at Beliefnet. In it, I spent more time than my breaking heart will allow today exploring what happened. And how it’s part of a tragic historical trajectory. America is not interested in justice, when it comes to black men. It’s more afraid of them than for them.
The Buddhist in me has no idea what to do. I’m writing and writing and writing more, wondering how to help. I’m tackling family who believe that an unarmed man is a threat. I’m railing at a system where black is the wrong colour, at least in any tense situation. I’m caught in a kind of death spiral of anger & pain and more anger, and rage that this keeps happening.
And I don’t have a clue — not a single Buddhist text — to help me figure out. All I can do is breathe in, breathe out. Breathe through the heartbreak and anger. And try, HARD, to remember that the pain I feel is not a drop compared to the tsunami of sorrow Terence Crutcher’s four children feel…
For all its frailty and bitterness, the human heart is worthy of your love. Love it. Have faith in it. Both you and the human heart are full of sorrow. But only one of you can speak for that sorrow and ease its burdens and make it sing word after word after word.
~ Roger Rosenblatt, Unless it Moves the Human Heart: The Craft and Art of Writing
Today, as I took my beloved in for his weekly lab work, I watched a young man intimidate his girlfriend. He pretended to be playing — perhaps he thought he was ‘playing.’ But his girlfriend obviously didn’t. And neither did I, nor the other young man watching with me. Bully pushed his girlfriend out of the way of the car door, after she gave up on him opening it. Perhaps he realised I was watching, or perhaps he just wanted to mess w/ her (I vote the latter). He shoved her further away, as she tried to open the door herself, then stood in her path as she tried to get around him. Over & over he laughed at her, pretended to playfully smack her, and generally intimidated her. He was a big guy; she was a pretty small woman. And did I mention there was an infant seat in the car?
I wanted to smack him. I at least wanted to let him know that he was seen, that there was someone watching, and that this behaviour wasn’t acceptable. And here’s where I failed: I only glared at him, because I’m white & he was not. Please note: I live in one of the most segregated towns in the US. We’re the town of the 1921 race riots, one of the America’s worst massacres of African Americans. We’re the city w/horrific health gaps between brown & white citizens. It’s here that we recently saw police refuse to become involved when a Lebanese man implored them to do something about his racist neighbour. Who minutes later shot the (browner) man to death.
I try daily to be an ally. To live an example of active, engaged anti-racism. To interrogate my own privilege(s), my own attitude(s). But I didn’t speak up. And I have no excuse, really. But I do have reasons. In retrospect? Probably not good ones. But here they come, and I would sooo appreciate it if you’d let me know what you think, as well:
- I didn’t want him to think it was a race thing (both he & his tiny girlfriend were black). I didn’t want him to be able to write off my interference as racial ~you just hate black guys. Because it wasn’t. I absolutely WOULD have spoken up to a white guy.
- I didn’t want to make it any worse for the young woman, or her baby. She had enough on her plate — did I mention we were at the infusion therapy lab? And since the baby wasn’t in the carseat, I assumed it was in the lab, being treated. It certainly was in the hospital.
I did turn to the young man beside me (another African American), & said, Sometimes you have to wonder why folks stay together. He nodded, and said Yep. I added, Would you want your sister treated like that?? And he said No. No one’s gonna treat my sister like that. That guy… And he shrugged. I said, He’s a jerk. We exchanged wordless looks of frustration.
So there you have it. I failed. Maybe from cowardice. Although I know I would have buttonholed a white guy treating his child’s mother like that. But I didn’t this young man. And I will always wonder if I failed the frail young woman with him, and her unknown child. She could have been my sister (sans child), 30 years ago. We know about domestic violence, in my family. Thankfully, only one of us has had to live with it, and she no longer does. It kills. Daily. Three American women die each day, at the hands of their ‘beloved.’ If this young woman does, am I complicit through my silence?
What should I have done? Because I agree with Rosenblatt, quoted at the beginning of this post: the human heart is worthy of love. Perhaps, as my own beloved said, this young man was overwhelmed himself. My response? NO. NOT ONE of the men I know, of any colour or background, would treat a woman that way. Period. But still… And perhaps he too was once a victim of abuse — by a parent, a step-parent, a family member. And yet… It is almost impossible (actually? it is impossible) for me to love this bully’s heart.
I remember what a dear friend once said, when I was trying to get my head around the cruelty in the world. Britt, it’s not your job to love the evildoers. It’s your job not to hate them. They turned from go(o)d; go(o)d did not turn from them.
So here’s my question: what would you have done? And how do YOU deal w/ ugliness when it shows up right in front of you?
I have a new betta fish: Beowulf 2. Beowulf the Original disappeared in a gullywasher of a derecho last week. We received more than an inch of rain overnight, and the next morning? No Beowulf. He seems to have been washed out of his home in the deck water feature… 🙁
If you’re careful, bettas are quite happy outside. My beloved epoxied an antique copper pot (about 2.5 gallons capacity), and we filled it w/ dechlorinated water, hornwort, & anachris (2 kinds of water plants for cover & shade). I bought a yellow snail to keep down the slime, and because I like snails. We put Beowulf in, and he seemed happy, learning to come when I leaned over the pot to feed him, or just when I leaned over (hopeful, that fish was). He was tame, and would follow my finger through the water plants. In case you hadn’t figured it out, I got pretty attached to him.
But after the rains, he was gone. I had a very sad vision of him being washed out of his pot, onto the deck, and then off the deck (a story up) into the yard below… 🙁 Very unhappy image.
So we bought Beowulf 2. He’s a little more iridescent than Beowulf 1, who was a bit whiter. So he’s equally pretty. But he wasn’t — at least not at first — nearly as tame. He hid under the water plants, and I’d have to move them to drop the food in front of him. In other words, he wasn’t a whole lot like Beowulf 1. Pretty much, except for both being fish, they weren’t pretty different.
But we continue to do this, America. We continue to lump all black Americans into a category that (apparently) says dangerous: kill. And we put all Muslims into a box that says terrorists: deport and/or kill. We look at tattoos and ‘deduce’ trashy person: harass and/or arrest. A colleague visiting my alma mater recently was stopped by campus security & harassed by three (yep, THREE) cop cars. It was a hot day; he’d taken off his shirt. And he has a LOT of (lovely) tattoos. Plus, he didn’t have his wallet with him. Now, security COULD have followed him nicely to the classroom where he was teaching. But nooooo. They were so sure he was a ‘bad guy’ that they interrogated him aggressively. And now? He’s in the totally justified process of bringing a LOT of negative attention to the university.
Two betta fish. A series of wrongful deaths at the hands of profiling police. A sad interrogation of a PhD who works for UNESCO, ironically on issues of social justice. Can you figure out how to fix this problem? With a betta, you let it show you who it is. And it gradually will come to trust you. At least B2 has. Now? He comes to the water just like B1. But note: that doesn’t make me think they’re the same…
Charles Kinsey was laying on the ground, as we all can see. With his arms in the air. He had done exactly as the police asked. The therapist had stopped his conversation w/ the young, autistic black man (who apparently had a dangerous toy TRUCK) to obey police. They shot him in the leg anyway.
When Kinsey asked the police why he’d been shot, the shooter responded: I don’t know.
I absolutely believe that. I’m sure the police who shot Kinsey doesn’t know why he shot Kinsey. But there’s a lot of good research out there that helps us understand, even if the shooter doesn’t.
When given psychological tests, by far the majority of whites respond to pictures of blacks w/ fear. White Americans are far more likely to see black Americans as dangerous, as ‘bad.’ As threatening. This is the backdrop for the shooting of Charles Kinsey, a black American who did everything the police told him. And STILL was shot in the leg. And then left to bleed, in handcuffs, for 20 minutes. While the ‘rescue squad’ (certainly not a rescue of Kinsey) came to the scene of the crime. Note: Kinsey committed NO crime. He did EXACTLY as police asked. He was completely unarmed. And he was STILL shot.
If there needed to be, for white America, a ‘smoking gun’ to illustrate the fear of black Americans endemic to white police officers, surely this is it. This is what black Americans — and white police — live with. For those of us with long memories, those of us who have been active for decades in social justice issues (which in America are so often those of race…), this is an old story. But Charles Kinsey’s shooting is an almost perfect confluence of sad vectors: black men, white police, Fear. And film footage. In this age of cell phones, it’s far more difficult to get by w/ overt racial wrongheadedness. Especially when it’s sooo obviously a case of fear.
But here’s the problem we are NOT discussing: fear isn’t rational. You don’t just say, I don’t want to be afraid of the dark anymore. It doesn’t work that way. When we look at the visceral responses of white police to black Americans — and I’m thinking of obviously horrific cases, like Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Eric Garner — these are, for the even more tragic most part, not conscious racism. They are the product of adrenaline, fear of black Americans, and guns. And (probably) inadequate training.
There is an entire litany of names of wrongful black deaths at the hands of the white police system. The recent deaths of police (not all of whom were white, note) are tragic, yes. But they are a drop in the bucket compared to the murders of black citizens from way back. And until we begin to figure out how we can change the hearts & minds of white America, so that we see our friends and family in the faces of black victims, we don’t have a chance in hell of changing this.
When I heard of the shooting of Charles Kinsey, I thought of two dear friends. Kinsey could just have easily been my friend Ben, or my friend Dewayne. Both have Ph.D.s That, of course, would have made no difference to the police. Each is a kind, funny, brilliant person. That too would never have made police radar. Neither carries weapons — not even pocket knives. But none of that would have mattered, since each one would have been there to help the frightened autistic man. They’re helpful, and would have seen his fear and panic. Each would have done what the police demanded. And almost certainly? Both would have been shot.
What do we do, America? How can we change fear into reason? How can we defuse this poisonous tragedy? If you have ideas, I would love to hear them…