After a bit of a writing drought, I just submitted a pieceto the Huffington Post about, oh, you know... something light and non-controversial: race and the Trayvon Martin case. Why do I do this? I must be a glutton for punishment because I can pretty much predict given the topic I'll get some tasty comments. I’m a little terrified. (Maybe they'll bury the piece and no one will see it, which could be a mixed blessing.)
The point of the piece was that instead of hyper-analyzing the minutia of the case, we should turn that scrutiny inward and examine our own biases. We still live in a profoundly unequal world and there’s too much evidence that the typical American harbors subconscious biases – especially when it comes to race and crime, which doubtlessly played into the verdict. I suggested that we honestly air our own views about race in order to scrutinize and even cleanse them. So…. I guess I should go first:
So, I’m going to take a nice big breath and try and write from the heart about my own history with race in America...
I was brought up on a diet of 'Free to be You and Me" and the rainbow (muppet and human) of Sesame Street characters. We didn’t have nightly discussions about race and racism, but we lived in a community of immigrants (Russians, Chinese, South Koreans) and judging anyone because they looked or spoke differently was simply not tolerated in our house, and we never heard my parents say anything derogatory, really about anyone.
Being Jewish, we learned of our own oppression and the unfairness of being sorted and placed at the bottom of the heap based on superficial differences. Every year at Passover we were reminded that we were liberated, once slaves ourselves. My Hebrew school teacher bore a tattoo from the holocaust; we recited the banner of the aftermath: “Never Again.”
Even though we moved to a less diverse area, middle school reinforced this liberal pluralistic credo, and, I, like so many other children was outraged when I learned in detail about the treatment of Native Americans and African slaves. Ghandi and Martin Luther King were easy and popular heroes to obvious past injustices. But it was easy to feel indignant and self-righteous in a homogenous suburb of Chicago, never having to face the fallout of resentment or lingering marginalization or my place in the resulting unequal distribution.
Still, other things sat uncomfortably and unspoken. My grandmother, a short, spunky woman who was rough around the edges of her enormous heart, seemed to best reach across all social and cultural divides. She called everyone from the diner waitress to the bus driver to her grandchildren “honey.” She’d touch their hands affectionately with a conspiratorial twinkling in her eyes. Even at the end of her life in the assisted living community, the staff – all immigrants and minorities – would pull us aside and tell us she, who they nicknamed “the mayor,” was their favorite, the one who treated them all like her own grandchildren. But as a child I remember watching an episode of Good Times with her, Thelma dancing to disco music in her hip hugging flared bell-bottom jeans, hearing my grandmother say, “those people sure can dance.” My brother, sister and I shifted uncomfortably in our seats, knowing that “you shouldn’t say such things,” but finding it hard to square this with the woman who said them.
In college, I had my ideals both refined and tested. I learned about the subtle structural inequalities that pervade our education and justice systems and the efforts to redress them. I learned about the messy intertwining of race and class. The Bell Curve, that racist tract disguised as science, had just come out and we took down the arguments piece by piece. We considered ourselves open-minded, even mind expanding. But I looked around and saw that the college cafeteria was self-segregated, as were the parties and most of the student housing. The only places true mixing was taking place was in athletics or the arts (for me it was my dance troupe), where some deeper common passion had the chance to override our differences.
My sophomore year, I spent a semester abroad here in Kenya. Again, I studied the colonial history and braced myself to be hated for the color of my skin, for my implicit association with past evils. But instead I found myself welcomed, something in between a curiosity and a celebrity, even admired, for my skin color. And I wondered if this wasn’t somehow worse.
I lived with a family in a small informal settlement in Nairobi, the first time, at 19, surrounded, enveloped, completely by people with darker skin. I thought about deeply segregated Chicago, where the newsmedia covered the distant all black neighborhoods only for crime – gun violence, drugs and murder. I examined my feelings honestly, still unafraid to be self-reflective aloud, and I remarked to another American student, “It’s funny, I think I associate darker skin with danger, even though I know that’s not fair and I know I shouldn’t.” The other student shot back, “well, in my family, we learned to see all people equally. It’s just how I was brought up.” It shut me up and made me feel ashamed and also misunderstood. But I learned not to voice these things.
But that was the wrong lesson, and it’s taken years to unlearn it. I still get nervous talking about race, for fear of being misunderstood. Maybe that’s typically American. But overall my life has blessed me with an opportunity to come to know and to love people of vastly different backgrounds, and that helps break down false assumptions. It’s part of what I cherish about living abroad and among people who come from different backgrounds and perspectives, who teach me, in ways lessons about Ghandi and Martin Luther King cannot, that we have more in common than not.