Monday, December 9, 2013

examining my racism

In Junior High, a teacher mockingly called me 'Mandela.'  And though I knew it was more of a play on my name than a genuine commentary on the sit-in I tried to lead when the boy I liked got expelled unfairly (in the expert opinion of a 13 year old with a crush,) I became intrigued by the great leader.

I am no scholar on his life, but I have been fortunate enough to an admirer of Nelson Mandela from a very young age.  And whether from my fascination with him, or my personal experiences, racism has always been something that makes my blood boil to a point that  it is hard for me to speak rationally and without emotion about the subject.   

And I know that I am not alone.  It is universally an emotionally charged issue and there are people who use that fact for their petty advantage.  I have been in conversations and have allowed people to twist my words and accuse me of being a racist any time I disagree with certain social programs or with President Obama in general.  Then, I react just like they want me to and I sputter and flail and try to defend the fact that I'm not racist instead of redirecting to whatever the issue was at hand.   

Well, I used to... It has happened enough now that I see clearly that calling someone racist is a red herring tactic that people use when they are are losing an argument.  I don't get flustered by the attack anymore, and I see more clearly the person using it for who they are.  

But all that said, two days after Nelson Mandela died, and on my mind is all the reflections I wanted to write about his words that have inspired me, I called the police on two innocent black gentlemen.  And it resulted in a crisis of conscience.

You see, there have been a few mid-day break-ins throughout our neighborhood.  The reports have said there was possibly a white delivery truck seen at the site of the crime and the perps used the back door to enter the house.  On Saturday at almost noon, my husband, our kids and I were leaving our home and I caught sight of our neighbor's home just behind ours.  In the driveway was a white van backed up all the way up the driveway and two gentlemen walking around to the back of the house.  One was holding a long tool, the thing that goes in the truck to let down the ramp? a crowbar? The other had a smaller tool of some kind in his hand and started walking toward our yard.  When he caught eyes with me, he immediately ducked his head and walked back to his truck.  I got in my car and watched as they continued to kind of pace from the front to the back of our neighbor's house every once in a while glancing in our direction.  

My first instinct was to call our neighbor... but, I lost his number.  So there is lesson one... get your neighbor's number.  My next instinct was to ask if I could help them, but when I kind of waved and started saying, "hey, can I..," the gentlemen both ducked their heads and walked back behind the truck again.  I internally argued, people wouldn't rob in the middle of the day on a Saturday, that makes no sense.  On the other hand, this neighbor was often out of town and why would delivery men be walking to the back of the house and checking out the neighbors?

I sat idle in my car and mulled it over... something wasn't quite right and instantly my mind flashed to the stories where people get caught in the middle of robberies and get hurt... 

So, I stopped Rob from walking next door and called the police non-emergency number.  Very apologetically, I explained to the officer that answered the phone that it was probably nothing, but if someone was in the neighborhood and could just drive by, that maybe something was happening at our neighbor's house?

"How would you describe the gentlemen?" came the question, "white, black or hispanic?"

"Black."  And I felt my gut turn... are the police going to think that I'm calling because they happen to be black?  What if these poor guys are just trying to deliver something and I gift-wrapped them for a racist cop wanting to vent some frustration?  

It was after I hung up the phone and they walked once again from the front to the back of our neighbor's house and then up toward our fence that I finally let my husband go while I stayed with the kids because it'd seem to me that if crime was their aim,  they'd of given up by now. 

He had to yell twice and walk all the way to the other house, "can I help you?"  The gentleman with the longer tool quickly walked behind his truck again which made me nervous and I kept my phone in hand.  But the gentleman near our fence finally came closer and with a big grin asked for our help. 

"Do you know your neighbors?  We're here to deliver some furniture and both their doors are wide open, but we can't get them to come to the door.  We tried calling them three or four times but there's no answer and we've been knocking on both the doors.  We aren't going open the doors though..." 

I sheepishly called the police back, "hi, I just called, sorry... the guys are trying to deliver something and the doors were open and...  I'm sure my neighbor just has the volume up... sorry to bother..."

She thanked me for both my calls, said it's good to be vigilant and to have a good day. 

In the car as I drove away, I had a 'come to Jesus' moment.  I honestly tried to analyze myself.  Was I more suspicious because they were black?  My first instinct was to say yes, to blame myself, to believe the hype that I've been told.  Of course you are racist... I told myself, everyone is,  especially republicans, especially people in the south... right, isn't that what you've been told?

But I took a breath and measured the arguments in my head. 

The facts are, I've called the police non-emergency number two other times in my life.  Once when a creepy guy was standing uncomfortably behind me at the dog park and then when I revealed my bitchy 'I will kill you' look, he wandered off toward the only other single girl at the park.  The other time was when an older gentleman at the park had an anger outburst at the swings. Their behavior was suspicious, they both happened to be white. 

As for these delivery men, I was suspicious because their vehicle matched that of the one reported being seen.  I was suspicious because they were walking from the front to the back of the house and in 5 minutes, I didn't witness them knocking on the door or using a phone (probably what they were doing when they ducked behind and into the truck.)  I was suspicious because they seemed to be watching us... which they were, but it was because they wanted to ask for our help.  

But the kicker is that there is a reality that can not be denied here.  They may have been 'acting suspiciously' because they haven't always gotten the best response when asking people if their neighbors are home.  And maybe these two delivery men know the statistics as well as I do and know that if they peek their head in the door innocently -like my pest service guy once did just to make sure I was OK when my door was open- it'd likely be found A-OK in a court of law if they were shot because odds are... they were up to no good.  

Of course there is racism in this world from every race to the other.  And we all make snap judgements about people and events around us with the visual cues we are given and the life experience we have.  It affects us in ways most of us don't even comprehend.  However, the bastardization of the word 'racist,'... the throwing it around like throwing the word 'raped' around, is sick because it makes us all lose focus on genuine issues that we need to work on together.

The second you use racism to win arguments or elections, you've demeaned the work of not only the civil rights leaders whose names we know, but the countless lives of black Americans from the time of slavery who held themselves up to a higher standard by teaching their children to read, by teaching them to keep faith and by promising that with steadfast devotion to striving for a better life, that better day would come.  

The uneasiness I felt had merit and I would've made the call regardless of the color of their skin, I know that.  Through 20/20 hindsight of course I wish I had made a greater attempt to approach them before the original phone call.  But the doubt I had in my own intentions made me sick because it means that though I thought I got past it, I had internalized the accusations of those desperately trying to win arguments at any cost.  

And that internalization made me lose focus.  It created doubt that was like a muzzle that made me feel like I'm not allowed to talk about racism. I let other people set the tone and guide the conversation.

I am ashamed of myself for letting the negative and weak minded so strongly influence me.  And I strive to be stronger in the future and set the tone for progress and understanding instead of name-calling.

But while I'm still working on taking the high road, let me just say that of course there is racism in the world.  And the purposeful cheapening of the word 'racist,' like it means nothing, is one of the plainest places I see it.

thanks for reading,