This most recent horrific tragedy — the mass murder of congregants at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh — hits very close to home: it’s the home synagogue of one of my cousins and her family. I learned about the terrible event because her daughter ‘checked in’ to say she was okay. The victims and the survivors were attending a bris, celebrating the birth of a baby boy in the congregation. Reading her simple text, I reeled from despair at this country’s love affair with hate.
In my not-too extended family, we have Jews, Muslims, pagans, Wiccans (not the same thing, fyi), Buddhists, spiritualists, agnostics, atheists, and Christians ranging from liberation theologians to hard-core, right-wing evangelicals. I fall in with the Buddhist of that belief web. Two of my dear cousins went to Indonesia with a deep commitment to liberation theology (Presbyterian). My uncle was a Catholic, also committed to working with ‘those less unfortunate.’ I spent a summer working for him at Upward Bound. His love for others was unfailing, tempered always with a nicely sick sense of humour.
We also have, however, as I noted, über right-wing evangelicals. Who honestly believe that the hatred fomented by our new administration isn’t that at all. They are, of course, white. And spout the usual privileged position of ‘I have black/ Jewish/ Indian/ etc. friends.’ Seriously? I’m betting they don’t find you as friendly as you think…
All this is by way of explaining why I find it so difficult to understand racism and hatred predicated upon difference. Almost everything about my childhood was different from my peers. I spent a period from about 6 to about 8 pretty poor. My father had retired from the military on 1/2 pay, probably about $400/ monthly back then. With 3 kids, that wasn’t much. Less than $1200 in today’s dollars, or about $14,000. I remember a LOT of beans, chili, & cornbread. We certainly didn’t feel rich. In fact, my old ladies (grandmothers & great-aunts) often fed us.
Then my father joined the civil service, & we went to ViệtNam. Where my white-blonde ponytail was such an anomaly that people in the market le grand marché would stop me and reach out to touch it, pulling it as if it might be fake. In the early time of police advisors,ViệtNam and its citizens were unfamiliar with little blonde white girls. Later, when my husband & I moved to the Middle East, small boys would throw rocks at me as I walked to yet another marché, this one in Algiers. In that city of troubled colonialism, prostitutes wore their hair like mine, blonde.
You can see that even if I hadn’t been exposed from an early age to the abyss separating my privileged life from those of people around me, even if I hadn’t been singled out (often unpleasantly) for my race & gender, even without my early grounding in a non-denominational Christianity that stressed the Beatitudes (not the10 Commandments, which Jesus himself says are superseded by HIS teachings, l as is ALL of the Old Testament), juxtaposed w/ a deeply Buddhist & animist sensibility of the respect due all living beings, I’d be hard-pressed to ignore my childhood roots.
Please note: to varying degrees, all four of us sisters (myself & my 3 sisters) are beyond liberal. Beyond progressive, some might say. We not only believe in ‘equality,’ we believe in ‘equity.’ We know that often to be ‘equal’ folks need a helping hand. And we’re OKAY with that. We aren’t threatened, nor do we feel diminished. Nor do we think it’s a handout, because we are aware of all the privileges that accrue even to the children of GED earners like us. Just by virtue of our race, among other things.
So I have divorced FB, for the duration. Maybe long-term, who knows? To see people I grew up with standing up for an administration that calls Nazis ‘nice people,’ an administration that has fomented hate so that hate crimes have risen for the past 2+ years… Despair, again.
At first, confronted by this unbelievable fact — that my own family supports caging children, supports a wall, supports the racial profiling of victims, and are apologists for racially targeted police killings, I was dumbfounded. So I attempted — good researcher & scholar that I am — to offer evidence & support: studies, refutations of the many lies coming out of the establishment. No use. Whatever multiple sources I provided were dismissed as ‘biased.’ Only Fox News & Breitbart (Breitbartt!!!), or rabid evangelical websites qualify as ‘reliable.’ In other words? No interest in real conversation, just conversion…
So, no. I could never live with racists or anti-Semites or the folks who support them. I can’t even communicate w/ them. And here’s the truth — I have no answer to this. I’ve mostly cut myself off from folks who support this administration. I can’t handle it. I wish I could say I’m tolerant of other’s beliefs, but no, NOT when said beliefs result in children being caged. And when we become apologists for getting a FIVE-YEAR-OLD to sign away her rights. Nor when we begin to talk about ‘executive orders’ to change Constitutional rights. I’m not okay. And unlike two of my sisters who manage to disregard these differences, I can’t.
In an earlier post, I mentioned I was going to revisit the topic of white people & living with/among racists. I’m trying to get my head around how we — those people who fight for social justice, who try to live our lives grounded in Buddhist (&, to be honest, most religions’) principles — can work against the systemic white privilege & overt racism in today’s America. All without falling captive to the hatred so prevalent in today’s discourse.
As a Buddhist — as a humanist, as a progressive, as just a person in the world with kids & grandkids & nieces & nephews coming after me — I want to be a force for peace. I don’t want to be eaten up with the anger & hate that consumed me for more than a year after the elections. To hold on to anger, as the Buddhist saying goes, is “like grasping a hot coal with the intent of throwing it at someone else; you are the one who gets burned.” So I actually stopped reading FB for several weeks, since it just ‘fanned the coals.’
But I’ve slowly returned to reading friends & family. And just the other day my sister posted an update on the renaming of the Tulsa school that triggered Caleb Gayle’s post in The Guardian. Robert E. Lee Elementary, which was changed to Lee Elementary (I have nooo idea why that supposed to placate concerned citizens!), is now Council Oak Elementary. Which is wonderful — definitely a praise-worthy name. The Council Oak is a wonderful piece of Tulsa history.
However, this change (posted, again, on my sis’s FB) initiated a vocal & lengthy thread calling the decision costly (??), politically correct (as an insult), an erasure of history, and more. The lament was that we were denouncing family members who might have owned slaves, and rewriting history.
At this point I joined the conversation, noting that my paternal grandmother was a class A racist: wouldn’t watch the news if there was a black or brown newscaster on it. I still love her. I just don’t want that part of her to be my children’s legacy from her. The conversation wasn’t loving, but it wasn’t hateful, either. No insults. Just folks exchanging comments on what this decision by Tulsa Public Schools’ board meant to them.
I felt pretty good at this point. We were talking! And I was hearing what folks really thought! Since I have muted most of the FB ‘friends’ who insist on fighting me (literally — complete with insulting my dearest friends & colleagues) about such political issues, it felt like a huge step to be able to hear folks who disagree with me, how they feel and what they have to say. Without insults, rancor, or hostility. How else will I learn? And surely there is some place we can still meet…?
And then the guys joined in…
I must digress here. Far too often a disagreement is seen as a red flag to assert dominance. People can be sooo certain they’re correct that they don’t listen. Especially if you’re disagreeing on something they a) hold fundamental to their beliefs, and/or b) think they’re an expert on. Insults flew (liberal BS, ‘butthurt’ Hillary, a few more for good measure). My carefully nurtured sense of communication, of return from the hot coals of anger, was beginning to burn…
And I realised: I WAS under attack. No wonder I felt so defensive, so angry! These 2 men were saying that my carefully couched comments, framed to be non-confrontational & respectful, were just BS. And had no basis in reality. They were dragging in total non sequiturs to derail a conversation. To assert dominance. To win.
That wasn’t what I was looking for, nor — I so hope! — were the original folks on the thread, who were trying hard to be respectful. These guys? Not so much…
My takeaway is this: I have to remember (to learn!) how to let go of my darn sureties. I need to listen (although maybe not to those 2 yahoos!). I need to NOT be ‘those guys.’ And I need to try every single day to breathe. After all, tea & breath, right? And engaged Buddhism is fed nicely by both.
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?