Thursday, May 28, 2020

The Worst Type of Racist

Confronting the Worst Type of Racist. Myself.

     It does me no good to say “but I’m not a racist, some of my best friends (and family) are Black/Latinx/Asian/other.” Not when I look at some of the things I have done or said so very long ago. Mostly out of ignorance and fear, and just plain stupidity. This is not meant to be a mea culpa, although I would beg forgiveness from anyone I I have made to feel less than, hurt, offended, or even angry. And when I say “beg” I do mean plead with such sincerity and emotion, yet I am aware never coming close to fade out such hurt.

Let me explain.

I grew up in a very diverse, military town. So much of the make up of the student body was a true melting pot. Fathers from military families who had been stationed overseas often married women from those countries. The “mix” was every coupling you can imagine. And like most cities, there existed blatant and unspoken racism from decades before. But as a third and fourth grader, we didn’t know that, and we maybe had not yet learned from others around us how to divide ourselves along those lines quite yet. I do recall the very first time I felt that there was definably something different in those other than myself was during a questionnaire given to us in the fourth grade.

Mrs G Smith was our teacher, and looking back she was one of the best educators I have ever encountered. We actually all loved her. The questionnaire came about during one of the times of year I grew to dread, the Presidential Physical Fitness testing. I was not as physical as I would have liked, I was smaller and slight. If only someone then would have taken me aside and said “let this be the thing that changes you for the better” my life may be very different, but I digress. One of the questions was about “race.” We really hadn’t been exposed to that idea before, and I remember Mrs. Smith trying to guide us all to answer in the way she most certainly thought we would identify.

I had grown up understanding that somewhere in our family background, there had been Cherokee. As kids, if the idea of “Cowboys and Indians” came up, I always thought I’d be the Indian. And not the villain. Now later with the advent of genealogy and ancestry tests, it seems we were not AS close to Tribal bloodline, but as a kid, I thought I should answer differently than “white.” But Mrs. Smith told me that of the options given, I should choose “white.” So I did.

A classmate who sat beside me, named David, who was barely darker skinned than I, chose “black.” I was surprised. Certainly I knew “black” was an option. I had heard it before. On TV, from my father and my fathers employees, even in random conversations. But for David to self identify as “black” had me very confused. I even asked him why and he said “my dad is black.” So that was all I needed to understand. OK, so that’s all it takes is for someone’s dad to be black. After all, I knew my mother’s last name had been different before she was married, thats why my Grandma and Grandpa from her side had different last names than I did. But then it settled in my brain that there were reasons and configurations which I did not understand. And it was mostly forgotten.

Except for the teasing. 

Rodney, James, Vince. These boys, black even though Vince and James had white or Asian mothers, would pick on me relentlessly. “Sissy, Tom-girl, and Pinocchio nose” were what I was called on almost a daily basis. Now evidently my nose was longer and pointier than their noses, so I guess I understood KIND OF where that one came from, although it didn’t feel any better. But I didn’t yet understand “sissy” or “Tom-girl” (a take on “Tomboy.”) But I knew it hurt. And still, the only thing that I myself saw differently was that I was “white” and they were “black.” They didn’t pick on any of the black kids in the class. And honestly their daily abuse was saved for me alone. They didn’t hit me or hurt me physically on a regular basis, it was just the name calling. Although they did on occasion spit in my food at lunch when my back was turned.

One day, on the playground, James, Vincent, and Rodney were relentless in picking on several kids for some reason. A few of the other kids were playing in the sand pit (we didn’t have an actual “box”) and James came stomping through kicking sand around and destroying the scene that was somehow supposed to be a town. Everyone started yelling and asking him to stop. I remember clearly he said “shut up honkeys” and kicked sand again. Although I had not yet come to understand that word, I was still really mad. So I grabbed a handful of sand and I threw it at him, and even grabbed another and rubbed it into his hair. He had an afro that he would always pick out. It was quite honestly the perfect head of hair. And I knew my actions would really make him mad. They did. He punched me in the stomach just as Mrs Smith came to our rescue.

Although that was all the retribution I got from James for that particular incident. The teasing and the torment never let up. Not from the rest of fourth grade, not from fifth, sixth, or through junior high. One young black man I thought was my “best friend” in fourth grade was named Marvin. But he turned on me once in the fifth grade and also called me names, and that ended that friendship.

In junior high and high school, even some of the black girls chimed in. Gail, Angela, and one or two others would steal lunch from my bag. They would call me a new name “fairy” or “faggot” and even some of the white kids started to pick up on that difference although I would not understand that much about who I was until later in high school.

I had NEVER called someone a bad name or even used “swear words” until I was in eighth grade or so. Not really and not with any regularity. But the abuse I suffered, albeit by this time I was not alone (Mitch, John, Michael, a few other boys became targets for the “faggot” slur by then.) But I remember the first time I really used the “N” word in a hurtful way.

We were in the library and I had just a few of the usual verbal assaults. Someone I loved as a friend (and still do) who identifies as black came and asked if I wanted to go out to the patio during lunch. I knew who would be on the patio and I didn’t want to be a target so I said “no, there’s nothing but n******-lovers there.” I saw the shock on the faces of my friends knowing that one young lady present was "mixed." When I saw the look on HER face I was immediately crushed inside. I knew that my use of the word felt just as horrible to her. If not worse, because I was actually supposed to be her friend.

Even typing those words out now causes me physical discomfort. But to feel the full force of how awful, awful, awful, a thousand times horrible, they are, I need the reader to feel them too. They hurt then, they hurt now, and they are just this side of unforgivable. I say “this side” because I do believe in redemption, and I hope I am still earning it. More on that later. But I do remember crying about it at home that evening. It was the obvious to me for the first time I had actually sinned against G-d.

It shames me more to know that I would use that term again. Although never as an insult hurled at someone to their face. Usually in stupid, ugly, vile “jokes” or conversations where you try to “shock” someone and you pretend its “funny” or you “didn’t really mean it.” None of that can excuse it. Nothing could ever excuse it. It simply is the most horrible word in the English vocabulary. Designed and used for nothing but hurt.

There were kids that I would tell you that I LOVED who were black. Sheena, Cecelia, Corrine, Khadijah, Robin, so many more) and if I thought now that I had ever caused them to feel the way I felt when I was called names, it cuts me so deep. They were so beautiful, fun, funny, kind, smart, caring. I was and am proud if any of them thought of me as a friend. But it cannot erase what I had done or said on any occasion.

As I grew up into young adulthood, my group of black friends diminished and I became like most others my age. Friends with many, but close friends with those with whom I more readily identified. As I learned of my sexuality in early adulthood, I did not go in for “social kiss greetings” except for a young man named Bruce. He was black, and a true GIFT to this world, His charm, his humor, his kindness, his joy. He was the only man I would greet socially with a kiss and feel true affection.

I didn’t then, nor do I now, consider myself “racist” but I don’t think I ever really asked anyone for “forgiveness.” And I think that is important. I believe in the value of the 12 Steps, used mostly by those with addiction and substance issues. I have been to meetings and I know that an honest assessment and statement of the wrongs I have committed is for me AND for those I may have harmed. To ask forgiveness is necessary for real healing.

So am I racist? I don’t think so but I cannot offer excuses. And its also for someone else to determine.

When Trayvon Martin was killed, I thought George Zimmerman was GUILTY of murder. But I remember thinking AND saying “well, Trayvon had been verbally abusive and sketchy, and ....” other nonsense now that is complete garbage thinking. And then when Michael Brown, or Eric Garner were killed, I thought that the police involved should face justice but somehow I didn’t think it rose to the level of “murder.” I mean, they had been involved in possible crimes and they were not obeying the police. Some part of me wanted so badly to believe in the ultimate goodness of the police, but somehow I also believed in some unproven inherent "badness" of men I didn't know. Could I have really been racist? Was this due to some hidden fear I still had based upon how I was treated as a kid? Out of some prejudice picked up that was modeled by someone else of which I was not aware? I wish I knew, because I know it is not me.

But now look at us. To understand, too late, that most men of color grow up with such a figurative and literal loaded gun pointed at them no matter the circumstance, what gives me, or anyone the right to ask that they somehow “follow the rules” in order to NOT BE SHOT? Irrational, angry white men storm the steps of state buildings armed for bear because they don’t want to wear a mask during a pandemic and they feel perfectly safe. Yet a man who never resisted the police gets put prostrate on the ground and killed with a knee to his throat. I could never offer enough “I was wrong” statements. 

No matter how much of an outsider I feel I am because of my orientation, it will not overflow the level of privilege to which I have access based on my “complexion.” None of those men deserved to be treated the way they were. None of them deserved to die, to be MURDERED because some white guy thinks they should have “acted differently.” How can I make amends for any of that to which my ignorance had a hand in excusing for so long?

Now at this point in my life, one of the women I have met and admire most in this world is Kimberly. A long lost friend whom I have certainly hurt and miss terribly is Kamille. Terri is a woman who will most definitely change this world for the better. My sister in law gave me the experience of my two nieces who have the most beautiful souls I have been blessed to meet. They would all identify or be identified as “black.” And it is to them I owe so much of my personal growth and self discovery. So to understand that the harmful actions of my past. actions born of hurt, or pain, or ignorance, have left a mark somewhere, means I have been complicit along the way. I pray to G-d that I can yet be changed.

I would ask only that when I am judged, I am able to account for my sins, and say, yes, I am guilty, and I ask forgiveness, and I will make amends. 

Show me Lord. Bless them, and change me.

I am sorry.