While I’m voraciously reading about the Ferguson issue (and all the issues that have spawned from it,) Sam is reading To Kill a Mockingbird for school. The irony is a little much.
It’s his first time, so I try to warn him, but when he closes the book he says he still wasn’t prepared. And yet, he says it’s his favorite book he’s read for school so far. Considering the fact that he and three of our other siblings are black and my parents, four of our other siblings and I are white, race isn’t a topic that gets brought up too often at Eyrie Park. It’s become a bit of a nonissue because of the community we are a part of. When I say “school” I mean Classical Conversations, and our campus is about as diverse and accepting as they come. Our newest little sister would be “caucasian” on a census, but she comes from a country where she, as a Roma, was considered a racial minority among white people. As a matter of fact, Romas have been greatly discriminated against in Latvia and the “token” black person is usually met with a readymade fan base, they’re such a novelty!
My friend Diane is a white mom to black children. She recently shared a Youtube video with me of Jane Elliot’s “Angry Eyes” experiment conducted at a college. Basically, students are split into two groups, those with brown eyes and those with any other eye color. The brown-eyed students are instructed on how to treat the “blueys” when they enter the classroom. There is to be no respect toward them. They are to assume certain things about them and blame it on their eye color. The experiment is well worth watching (to the very end!) and left me with lots to think about. I found myself wondering how the experiment changed those particular students. Was that group more likely to marry outside of their race? Were they more understanding of others, even later in life?
Then I started thinking about my siblings and I. What sort of changes could we bring to the world based on our unique upbringing and family situation? Sam and I both get a little choked up talking about the last chapter of To Kill a Mockingbird. We feel mutual feelings about the ending. I get the sense we’re better prepared for a diverse world than the average teenager and twenty-something, but it’s not because of Harper Lee’s excellent novel. It’s not because we’ve had so many conversations about race. It’s because we live with each other, we’re used to each other and we love each other very much.
If we can be comfortable with each other in our own home, why couldn’t we be comfortable with…anyone?
I was recently in line for about four score and seven years at the utilities office. There were two ancient black ladies in line behind me and they shared their entire life stories with each other while they stood there. They never spoke to me and I never spoke to them. To be honest, we had little in common. They had both lost children to cancer. They went to the same church. They were about a hundred years older than me. And still, I had the urge to turn around and put my hands on their wrinkly arms and say, “Just so you know, I am not intimidated and I am not trying to intimidate you. I’m just a quiet person and I don’t need to butt into your conversation. But I’d be happy to talk to you. I actually love old black ladies.” You will all be happy to know that I did not say these things. There’s still a part of me that doesn’t want to be seen as a lunatic.
The only time I’ve lived in a place where I was the minority was in Haiti. Though white people were seen as important, rich and arrogant, we were definitely judged but the color of skin. It was like we had a special place at the top of the food chain in their eyes and yet they weren’t afraid to mock us. I was often referred to as “ti blanc” (“little white,”) and gawked at. However, we literally lived at the orphanage. I had about ninety black friends all of the sudden (and zero white friends.) Though we were “missionaries” and they were “orphans,” I still got to experience being the odd one out. I remember keenly a time when I was about eleven, sitting on the cement playing “jacks” with little pieces of chicken bones with a large group of Haitian girls, thinking, “Wait, wasn’t there something different about y’all when I first came?” I could recollect the uncomfortable feeling of stepping out of the van and being a white girl surrounded by black people, but the feeling had gone away. I will never teach kids to be colorblind. It’s a silly concept born from white privilege that indicates we need to overlook something about black people in order to accept them. However, when you’re a kid, colorblindness (even to yourself) can sometimes occur naturally. It might have helped that I had no mirror and literally did not see my own white face for months at a time!
I tell these two stories to admit one thing: I have been ignorant. Jane Elliot said,
“White people’s number one freedom in the USA is the freedom to be totally ignorant about those who are other than white… And our number two freedom is to deny that we’re ignorant.”
I do not have much experience with diversity or racism. Ninety percent of my friends are white. However, I have had the unique opportunity to grow up in a multi-racial family. Just as I wondered hopefully about those students in Jane Elliot’s experiment, I wonder about my siblings and I. Will we be the minority in the world by seeing everyone as truly equal? Will we be the ones who see color and don’t discriminate? You see, ending racism isn’t about stopping the hate (though that does indeed need to happen.) It’s very much about realizing how ignorant we are about other people and seeing ourselves as they see us. It’s very much about equal opportunity, not just to vote and work and run for offices, but to interact with folks of other races as we do with folks of our own race. For the white girl to sit next to the black girl at the dentist’s office. For the black guy to be able to ask the white girl out on a date without feeling like a joke. For children’s books featuring hispanic kids to not have to have their own section at the bookstore. For Asian actors to be the star in movies, not just a supporting role.
The reasons why many adopted kids are black and many adoptive parents are white are sad ones, which I won’t go into right now. But the power of this possibility is a strong one. As is the power of any other race combination, whether through adoption or marriage. The same power is possible for anyone who lives their day-to-day life with someone of another color. When we truly accept someone of another race without having to “overlook” our differences, but actually celebrate them, we create a super weapon against racism.
I used to think ignoring racism was the best way to snuff it out. There are definitely times when “disengagement” is the best policy. However, I’ve learned that racism isn’t a candle that merely needs the oxygen of conversation to live on. It’s a cancer that feeds on people’s minds. Now I realize that intentionality is necessary. I never thought I’d be quoting Chris Rock, but in a recent interview the comedian said something very poignant.
“But the thing is, we treat racism in this country like it’s a style that America went through. Like flared legs and lava lamps. Oh, that crazy thing we did. We were hanging black people. We treat it like a fad instead of a disease that eradicates millions of people. You’ve got to get it at a lab, and study it, and see its origins, and see what it’s immune to and what breaks it down.”
Though I wouldn’t make Mr. Rock my role model, I agree with him on this point. Racism is an age-old problem, but that doesn’t make it “okay.” And his proposed solution isn’t a passive one. It cannot be passive because racism itself is not passive. It isn’t a fad. It’s not Kim Kardashian’s latest photo or Jennifer Lawrence’s latest tweet. It’s not something that will naturally blow over.
But with an unnatural intentionality, with a persistent effort, I believe in us. I believe we can do it. In your home, in your school, in your office. In your city, county, state and in the U.S.A. and then, perhaps, the world.
My newest little sister with the hazel eyes looks up at me and says, “If I marry a brown man, I gonna have brown babies?” I explain that her children would look a little like her and a little like him. “Oh, then I want to marry a brown man!” She exclaims. “I love it, brown people!”