I spent a lot of time in hospitals during the last five years of my parents’ lives. I recall being in rooms with people in scrubs, and reminding myself, “Okay, the woman could be the doctor,” or, “The black man could be the doctor.” This self-talk infuriates and shames me.
I have also been thinking about my 70s childhood when many of us now middle-aged white people “learned” at school or home that “black people are as good as white people.” The phrase was not that whites and blacks were equal. And certainly not that whites were as good as blacks. No, it was blacks are as good as whites.
This is not just quibbling about semantics. This is powerful language, that intended or not, deeply affects how we think. In the “good as” phrase, it is always the second item that is the gold standard, the perfection everyone else is trying to reach: “Your pot roast is almost as good as Mother’s; She’s as pretty as a picture; Mary is good as gold.” In matters both small and great, the first thing (pot roast, she, Mary, girls, blacks, are being measured against the assumed ideal: (Mother’s cooking, a picture, gold, boys, whites.)
So, as a little girl in the 70s, when I “learned” that girls are as good as boys, and blacks are just as good as whites, I wasn’t getting quite the right message. I don’t think I was alone in this.
“Girls are as . . ..” Being on the left side of the “as,” the striving side, I got the message that boys really were the gold standard. (I mean, if someone has to announce to the world I am as good as the rest, there must be something not quite great about little-girl me. ) That is the message I absorbed, so quietly and deeply that I wasn’t even aware of it.
“. . . as good as whites.” Being on the gold-standard side here, I fear I internalized the opposite of my girl inferiority. Even now, writing this, I will assert that as a kid I do not recall ever feeling superior. (I can’t seem to admit my bias even in an article about bias.) Yet, I do remember feeling called upon to be nice to the black kids. That assumes a kind of superiority, or at least a smugness, doesn’t it? And if needing an announcement to assert that girls were okay made me feel a little less than, it stands to reason that hearing an announcement that black kids were as good as the rest of “us,” must have made me feel better than. Or perhaps, the more insidious message I absorbed was not just that we whites set the standard, but that we were of course the ones (with the power, the right?) to announce when other groups met that standard. Sadly, this rings true.
As a ten-year-old white kid in a white town, I did not think too deeply about social justice, but the few bits of memory I have suggest, whatever messages I was absorbing, I still had a normal child’s sense of compassion and fairness. My parents nourished those qualities, and I believe they stayed with me and helped counter those other, competing messages. I remember seeing a picture of a little black girl drinking out of the black-only water fountain. I could not understand how some white people could think that other people were not, (good enough?) to drink from their fountains. I didn’t understand it, but knew it was wrong, and I felt mad for that little girl. I really can’t imagine any child feeling anything other than horror when first learning about slavery, and that is what I felt. When a little Jewish girl moved into our neighborhood, and I recalled what I’d learned in Sunday School — that if you didn’t believe in Jesus, sorry, but you would go to hell — I understood right then, even as a devout little Catholic kid, that there was something wrong with my religion. So all that is in me, too.
Blacks are as good as whites and Black Lives Matter both insist, in their very existence, that black lives are not fully valued. But Black Lives Matter does so intentionally. It does so by being a seemingly self-evident truth, that, sadly, isn’t. Its power lies in both what is said and what is left unsaid.
I could live my life in this small town without discussing race. Indeed, white privilege and this white community separate me from people of color in many ways. But I also believe a shared history links me to my black sisters and brothers, despite and because of that white skin.
This shared history means I know the American life I enjoy was built with the labor of black men and women brought here against their will, brutalized legally and illegally for centuries. That as a white person, I walk around on this land freer in mind and body than so many of my black brothers and sisters. This shared history means I feel profound anger and disappointment that 150 years after the ratification of the Emancipation Proclamation, we are so far from racial equality, so rooted, still, in racism.
For change to happen, for progress to continue to be made, we have to truly see whatever is inside our hearts. Black or white, we will not begin to feel respect, to actually be respectful of one another until we face the failures within ourselves, acknowledge them, and work to correct them.
For it’s not just blatant racists who hurt the cause of racial justice. It can be people like me. People who completely and adamantly reject the ridiculous notion that the amount of melanin in one’s skin should matter, but who may still — even against their own desire — retain a remnant of bias. Bias that could cause me to assume — just for a split second — that the black man in scrubs was the orderly.
While it shames me, that split-second thought likely caused nothing more than momentary discomfort. But not every encounter comes at such a low cost.
Unexamined or unchanged, it is this very bias that leads so many white cops to stop black drivers in the first place. It is this very bias that can lead a cop to behave so rudely that a traffic stop turns into a tragedy. It is this very same bias that can cause a cop to see — just for a split second — the black man with a phone as a thug with a gun. Just a split second. But that’s all it takes.
Black Lives Matter. July 29, 2015