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.