Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Racism in America

Here is one of my earliest memories, one I have never, ever admitted to anyone.

I was four years old. My family had just moved out of New Orleans proper -- in New Orleans, we lived in a trailer park in Gentilly, which was near the interstate overpass, and very close to the Community coffee factory. Every morning I would wake on the lower bunk of the bunkbed I shared with my older brother (my little brother had the crib) smelled roasting coffee. I still remember how wonderful that smell was.

And we had a playground in the trailer park, and the winter I was three it snowed for New Years -- five inches, which is still the record. I remember because I was all dressed up for a party at a neighbors' trailer, and my mother didn't want me to go play outside with the boys, because I was wearing fancy patent leather Mary Janes. But the neighbor mother said she had an old pair of boots one of her boys had outgrown, and I could wear those. I remember my utter delight, though I don't actually remember playing in the snow.

Shortly after this, in mid-summer of my fourth year, we moved out to the suburbs, into a house, with four bedrooms and its own yard. And sometime soon after that, my mother took all three of us children grocery shopping at a local store, Zuppardo's (still a great grocery if you're ever in New Orleans).

As we were crossing the parking lot, my older brother was tormenting me. He called me this name, he called me that name, and he whispered in my ear that everyone hated me because I was black.

I burst into tears and punched him. He punched back, and my mother -- busy dealing with my little brother, who was about 18 months old then -- shouted at us to stop fighting. At the top of my lungs, I wailed, "But he said I was black!"

Just then, still crying, I looked across the parking lot and met the eyes of a black man, one of the crew who worked at the store carrying out bags for white ladies, and hauling in baskets from the parking lot. He was pushing an enormous line of carts into the store, in the blistering July heat, and he stared straight back at me, an angry and disgusted look on his face.

When my kid was born, there was this one moment, when she was two days old, that I looked down into her eyes, and she looked back, interested and aware. I was struck through the heart with the knowledge that this was a real person -- that the kid was in this baby, looking back at me.

That same thing happened in that parking lot. I was struck through the heart with the knowledge that this man wasn't just some shadowy adult, or some blur called blackness. He was a human, and he was in there, and I had hurt him.

I was deeply ashamed, even at four, and I never forgot the moment, or the man -- I can see him to this day.

You can say I was four, and that I was living in 1964, in a racist world, and how would I know better? But that is my point. 1964 is not that long ago. My parents were good-hearted, well-meaning liberals. Yet the world we lived in taught my older brother that being black was disgusting, that being black was a crime; and that was a lesson I too had been taught.

The black man working in the parking lot that day taught me different, though. I was only four, but never again would I look at black people, or any people, as any less human than I was.

That was the last racist thing I ever said, but I never forgot that I had said it, or the harm that I had done.

We can learn to do better. We can change. But change requires that we recognize what we have done wrong, and what in our world is wrong.

Denying it, or saying, "Hey, black people are racist too!" or claiming that it's natural or inevitable, or acting as though other people's humanity is something to hold a debate over -- that leaves us where we were. It lets us turn aside; it lets us refuse to see the truth about what we have done, and are doing.

I've seen where that path leads. It's nowhere good.

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