Where I Went Wrong

You know when you are doing something without realizing it, and then all of a sudden you don’t have to do it, and it all becomes clear?  Like when you are trying to turn left on a crowded city street, and once you finally manage it, you have to flex your hand because it is glued to the steering wheel?  The other week I realized that I unconsciously split the people I am talking to into two categories: people I feel comfortable talking about race with, and people I don’t.  I had the chance to hang out with an old friend and it was like exhaling and letting your belly fat show, taking big full gulping breaths of fresh air as all the topics I need to be very careful about usually came tumbling out into the open with laughter and head shaking.

Let me be clear: it is wrong, that I hold back and only discuss race with the people I feel at ease with, mostly folks of color that I know are thinking about it even more than I am.  I do it to protect myself and my family and in so doing I become complacent, and fall short of my duty to fight race and class privilege every chance I get.  The split happens for me because, as another friend of mine, Liam, reminded me just today, the defining characteristic of privilege is that you don’t HAVE to talk about this stuff all the time.  You can choose to ignore it, and most people of privilege do, and then they go ahead and assume that racism no longer exists.  By making that split in my head and adhering to it in my friendships, I allow that privilege to continue, allow those folks to believe that racism doesn’t effect people they know and love, because it is uncomfortable for me when they say ignorant things and I feel hurt.  Well, this week, this distinction hasn’t really mattered, because now everyone is talking about race, and folks are certainly being honest about what they really think!

I’m always surprised to hear that race and ethnicity are not frequent topics of conversations in people’s households, because Joel and I talk about these issues CONSTANTLY.  But then I think about how often it happens that he or I will bring up race in a conversation and feel the whole tone of the room change, as people out of practice with such talk start flexing muscles that are stiff with disuse, straining to make sense of an area of discussion that needs to be stretched every day in order to gracefully participate once the game is on.

So, I’m taking a leap here, dear readers, and inviting you in to the first group I often unwittingly create — the ones I can be myself with.  This is a huge risk, because the backlash to my last post has been really disheartening.  Don’t get me wrong — most of you  responded with such love and righteous outrage to the Travyon Martin tragedy and for a minute I started to believe that even though it is insanely saddening that such atrocities are happening in 2012, people are finally willing to stop avoiding the topic.  But then I got a lot of ignorant comments, and some cold, impassive ones, and it all got really depressing.

This is not a topic I feel rational and clinical about.  This is not a textbook, this is my life.  My cousin Fabienne, Olive’s godmother, posted a picture of herself on Facebook wearing a hoodie, holding a sign that says, “Trayvon Martin is my son, too.”  It had me in tears because all parents should feel that way.  But they don’t.  I read today about moviegoers who were really disappointed about the Hunger Games casting — they were upset that all the characters they really liked in the book, like Cinna and Rue, were played by black actors.  One of the tweets even said that they were LESS SAD when Rue died BECAUSE she’s black.  I read this in the morning and was not surprised, because, I know people are ignorant and racist, that is not news to me.  But as the day went on, I got more and more upset.  I called Joel, “This person was saying they would not be sad if our kid died.  They would be less sad about Olive dying than a white kid dying.”  He said, “Yep.  It’s awful.”  Being a parent just makes this stuff so personal, and I’ve been on the verge of tears all day.

I think it is important not to get jaded, and I’m reaching my limit here, folks.  We need to expose these racist attitudes, yes, but I also NEED to hear stories about people doing beautiful, positive things in response to this tragedy, and to the backlash.  Help me out here — post some links to pictures of you in a hoodie to honor Trayvon, tell me that you are one of those people that are not still trying to say that racial profiling does not exist, and join this conversation.  Right now I feel like the ignorant comments are dominating our discourse and we need to change that!  Give me less Geraldo and Newt, more Fabienne and Liam.  Also, get ready, because a lot more of my posts are going to be about race.  I’m coming out of the woodwork as a person who is thinking about race ALL the time, and talking about it constantly in the safety of my own home.  I’m taking out the safety, because we need to, America.  We need to risk and be brave, because these are the times that we find out what we are made of.  We can start here.

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7 thoughts on “Where I Went Wrong

  1. Thank you for creating this forum Rhea! Race is something that is on my mind constantly, yet I’ve had to keep a lot of things to myself because I’ve been afraid to be perceived as a woman of color with a “chip on my shoulder”. Even with my husband, I’ve said some things that he’s been offended about. But instead of shying away, we should embrace the opportunity to have this dialogue. I’m disgusted by the Hunger Games response (but at least they filmmakers didn’t change Rue and Cinna’s race. In The Help, when Constantine’s daughter wasn’t passing for white, I was so disappointed that filmmakers couldn’t be courageous to show that sad part of African American history).
    On a lighter note, I couldn’t stop thinking about your term “magical negro”, and I was trying to be that with my students today, brave, and wise, with a little can of whuup-@#$, just in case. Lets always say what’s on our minds!!!!

  2. So grateful that you are brave enough to open a dialogue. Growing up as a privileged white chick I thought the whole “race thing” was overblown (talk about freakin’ sheltered) and aside from that felt that I could never talk about race because I didn’t feel like I had a right to. Then when I taught inner city low-income, non-white kids my whole world really blew up. Being their teacher helped me understand how little I knew, how little I still know, but most importantly, how much there is to learn and talk about, and I finally felt like I had the “right” to. Like so many people I used to think it didn’t really matter what the race of characters in books/movies were. Only as a teacher did I realize, hmmm, maybe that’s because they were all white! I still think about it every day now that I’m reading to James. I would love to talk with you more about this (particularly about the education aspect – very tricky territory in need of new ideas), and I’d love to hear more about your perspective as a mom.

  3. Rhea, this is so important and you have never been alone in thinking about these things, not even among fellow white people, never ever…. And I must confess that I feel that kneejerk defensiveness every time I am lumped in with ignorant privileged self-satisfied white people. But at the same time I get it. That is the legacy. One day when I have a child, it will be hard to teach them both the continually oppressed legacy of their father and the continually defensive legacy of their mother. But thats what I do appreciate about you, always. You do not speak from the point of view of a tech savvy, hip, activist person but from the point of view of a mother! What more unconditional love could there be? It really drives these issues home for me….so thank you to you, to Fabienne and to Liam, to Joel and to Olive 🙂

  4. I find myself often hoping that I’m one of those people you can talk about race with… then I realize that’s the wrong hope. My desire to be in your category of “can talk about it” is the same desire we White people often have to be seen as “not racist.” Like a check-box you can tick off and move on in life. I’m so grateful to be reminded that racism isn’t something that gets moved on from, but something I’m called to engage with and heal from on a daily basis. When my eyes were opened in a grad school class on multicultural issues, I made it a personal goal to think about my race (and how it affects me/the world) on a daily basis, since my privilege dictates that I don’t have to do that. I’m so grateful for your passion that reminds me of that desire! Please please, write about race!

  5. Pingback: Talking to Your Kids About Race « thirty threadbare mercies

  6. This post and the other about Trayvon Martin literally brought me to tears. Thank you for making your blog about real and scary issues like racism and parenting. I realize they go hand in hand for you and I feel so stupid for never even thinking about that before. During your birth all I saw was you and Joel and olive as a beautiful family full of love and gratitude. I never thought about the fear y’all might have about racial profiling. Finally I can understand your perspective. I am from Alabama (embarrassed to say especially when racism is the topic) but I have never viewed people as different from me just because of skin color. It’s so disgusting that racism is still so prevalent! I see racism in my workplace all the time. Your bravery and poisson has given me the push I needed to start a dialogue about this at work. I am ready to take this head on. Thank you, Rhea!

    • And thank you to you, Britt, and everyone who shared their experience here. Never be ashamed of where you come from — it gives you a unique perspective to comment! Please let me know how your dialogue at work is going.

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