Having just watched Jon Stewart’s commentary on racism in the U.S. (and if you haven’t seen it yet, you absolutely should; you can find it here: http://www.upworthy.com/this-might-be-jon-stewarts-best-rant-ever-because-ferguson), I felt compelled to share a few stories of my own:
When I was in high school, a few friends and I decided to go to the mall. There were five of us, three girls and two boys, all clean cut, white bread looking youths, who’d parked our cars outside of Dillard’s department store and were simply making our way through as we headed to the main section of the mall.
Shortly after we walked through the doors, an employee of the store began to follow us. He made no attempt to hide the fact that we were being tailed. To the best of our knowledge, we had not done anything to garner such personal attention other than being teenagers. We weren’t goofing around, weren’t acting suspiciously, weren’t causing any trouble whatsoever. When we noticed him following us, we intentionally stopped to look at something just to confirm our suspicions. The man stopped too, glared at us for a few moments, then came up to us and asked in the most condescending voice possible if there was something he could help us with. “Oh, no, we’re just looking,” we replied and moved on. He followed us all the way to the mall entrance and, once satisfied that we would not return, he turned and walked back into the store, presumably content at a job well done—keeping the hooligans at bay.
My teenage indignation was monumental. I was livid! How dare he treat us this way? I used to fantasize about going back to that store with a huge wad of cash in my pocket, enough to buy something very expensive. I would engage a sales person with feigned interest in some costly item, pull out my large bankroll, and then say, “so sorry, I wouldn’t dream of spending my money HERE,” and walk out in a haughty huff. That would show THEM!
Years later, I had been in El Paso for the wedding of two friends with whom I had gone to high school with several years before. After the ceremony, the three of us drove back to the Dallas area (where we all lived) together and stopped along the way at a Dairy Queen for lunch. My white friend and I went to wash up while her newly-wed Hispanic husband, Pete, got in line to place our order. We came out of the restroom just as the women ahead of him completed her order and slid to the side to wait for her food. Pete then stepped forward to place our order. The white woman looked casually to her left, noticed Pete standing there, and proceeded to WRAP HER ARMS around her purse, which was sitting on the counter in front of her, in a BEAR HUG and stare him down until her food arrived, at which point she quickly shuffled away. Not ONCE did she take her eyes off of him, nor release the death grip from her purse.
My friend Holly and I were enraged! What the hell was the matter with this woman?! We had a strong inclination to go give her a piece of our minds. Pete is a one of the nicest guys ever! But she did not know that. All she saw was a Hispanic man standing next to her in a fast food place (in broad daylight, mind you). She had no similar reaction to any of the white people, male or female, in the place. Pete remained calm and tried to blow it off, which made the two of us all the angrier on his behalf. Why was he not outraged?
Clearly, this was not the first time he had encountered such a situation. Sadly, I am sure it was not the last.
Mind you, this first incident especially was the most minor of slights and both occurred some time ago. I mean, I graduated from high school 25 years ago, yet I still remember these incidents vividly, the impressions they left still burning in my memory. Mostly, I remember how I FELT—being followed, watching a woman shrink away from my friend, simply because of how we looked and their biases.
Is it really that hard to imagine what it might feel like to a person who endures such slights (and much, much worse) over and over and over again based solely on the color of their skin? That in some cases it has become a literal life or death situation? Is it that hard to believe that people get tired of just shutting up and taking it, and that maybe they are not ‘tired of talking about it’ because they are living it?
Last month, I had occasion to be in the great state of Michigan, where I was lucky enough to visit the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn. The place is enormous, with all manner of exhibits on American culture and history. One such exhibit, titled “With Liberty and Justice for All,” traces America from her humble beginnings as we mounted and eventually won out Revolutionary war, through the trials and tribulations of various people at various times in our nation’s history. A timeline stretching the length of several exhibit walls reads like a who’s who of oppressed people: Native Americans, Blacks, women, immigrants, Japanese, the Red Scare…
Turning the corner into the section on the Civil Rights Movement, you come face to face with a KKK outfit on display. The sight of it sent a chill through me. My 8-year old son asked me to explain what the KKK was. I told him they were people full of hate who did horrible things to other people just because they were Black. ‘Like what?’ he asked, his beautiful innocence showing in full force. I explained that they hurt people very badly and sometimes even killed them. “But why would they do that? Just because they were Black? That doesn’t make any sense!” Exactly.
Further down the corridor, in all its refurbished glory, stands the Rosa Parks bus. THE Rosa Parks bus. The one she was sitting on in 1955 when she was arrested for not giving up her seat to a white man, thus beginning the Montgomery Bus Boycott. The bus is not set back behind some velvet rope, either. You can actually go right into it and sit down. Sit in the very seat that Mrs. Parks was sitting in, even. I climbed up and took a seat, listening to the recording of Mrs. Parks describe what happened that day that she refused to give up her seat. It was quite a sobering experience, unlike any I have felt before.
I sat there on the bus for a few minutes, just absorbing it all. Eventually, as I rose to leave, a wave of emotion overcame me. I am not sure exactly why this particular exhibit hit me so hard. Before I could stop them, great sobs gushed forth from deep within my chest. Something about it struck me at my core. It is all so stupid. So senseless. So utterly maddening! I mean, what is WRONG with people? Why do we keep treating each other this way?
Racism is not going away just because some of us have grown weary of the discussion. Gee, what a luxury it is to just decide that it is no longer a worthy topic of conversation. While racism may seem like a ‘non-issue’ to some–something we have overcome in the past and need to ‘get over’ –this is clearly not the case for people who are still facing it every day. Nearly 60 years later, there is still so much to do.
A quote on the wall in the “With Liberty and Justice for All” exhibit reads:
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”
–Martin Luther King, Jr.
If you’re tired of hearing about racism, you may be part of the problem.
If you’re tired of hearing about racism, maybe you stop should complaining and join the efforts to end it.