You know what I've come to realize? Only white people ever say, "I'm color-blind." Or, "I don't know what race So-and-So is; I only see the person, not their skin color." Or, "I don't care if someone is green with purple polka dots!" I've never heard a person of color ever say those things. Their race is a non-negotiable reality that comes up constantly in their daily lives. It cannot be ignored. I have a black co-worker who started instructing his son to take off his coat whenever he goes into a store at the tender age of four, knowing that his son will inevitably be accused of stealing someday.
At 12, he started talking to his son about what he should do when he gets his drivers license, because he KNOWS his son will be pulled over for "driving while black." He started drilling him FOUR YEARS before he can even get a learner's permit. "Get your license and registration out immediately, before the officer gets to the car. Keep your hands visible at all times. Never reach for anything in the glove compartment. Stick to 'Yes, sir. No, sir.' Never argue." He feels strongly that these lessons about traffic stops could save his teenage son's life, and he's not wrong.
Only white people have the privilege of ignoring the issue of race, because we don't experience racism day in and day out. We can ignore it if we want to. We have the luxury of deciding race doesn't matter. The "green with purple polka dots" comment is a perfect example. People don't come in green with purple polka dots. They come in black and white and brown and pink and beige, and people have DIED over this difference.
I'm the first to admit that I am too Politically Correct. For the most part, I'm proud of it. I want to have my finger on the pulse of what is the most inoffensive way of saying things, but at some point, one must speak. When Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, a major American news outlet with an international audience was so afraid of using the word "black" that they ended up having to run a correction the next day. They referred to Nelson Mandela as the first "African-American" president of South Africa when he's, you know, African. He was the first black president of South Africa. He's never been an American anything.
I was recently working on a story about two sisters who are shooting a documentary about the first black residents in Lockrand County. One of the sisters is an attorney who fought and won a case against a huge real estate development company who wanted to dig up the only cemetery where African-Americans were permitted burial for decades in that county. The developers built the Gigundo Mall anyway, but the cemetery was preserved. It's tucked in between a parking garage and a giant Target, but it's still there. Nothing says eternal resting place like Pottery Barn and Cinnabon.
Anyway, we were talking about race and disenfranchisement and history, and this documentary they're filming. They interviewed a local historian- an old white guy who bears an unfortunate resemblance to the crypt-keeper in all but one photograph I shot of him. He debunks the authenticity of claims that a house in Nyack was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, which I find completely fascinating.
I heard somewhere, probably on NPR, that the majority of homes that claim to have been stops on the Underground Railroad really weren't. It's an interesting manifestation of white guilt, in a way. There were very, very few safe houses. Taking in runaway slaves was an enormous risk. It seems like such an easy way to gloss over the brutal realities of enslavement, to say, "Well, slavery was really bad, but in our town? Well! We had good people who HELPED the runaway slaves! Our town was DIFFERENT." And 90% of the time, it's just not true.
The very, very liberal town of Nyack (where Joel and I would love to live) has an example of this. There's a historical marker right outside the Dapper Dog Salon on Main Street, proclaiming the home of the Hesdra family to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. In reality, Edward Hesdra was a biracial person who was passing for white. He was able to get away with this in part because he was married to a wealthy woman. This wealthy woman was also biracial. Her father was white, unmarried, and very powerful. The Hesdras were able to pass for white in part because of his influence.
As I understand it, there is one verifiable instance where Edward Hesdra brought in one fugitive slave, one time, who was walking the streets of Nyack in a daze. He saved that man's life, definitely, but it's very unlikely he would have jeopardized his family's precarious ability to "pass" in white society by running a full-time safehouse.
I was talking about all of this with one of the filmmakers when my PC White Person ColorblindnessTM kicked in. I wanted to ask about Mrs. Hesdra. I figured her mother was probably one of her father's slaves, but I found that I couldn't just ask that. I simply couldn't say it. Instead, I asked, "So I take it her mother wasn't exactly a celebrated member of society?" The filmmaker looked me right in the eye, and she said, "Oh, he probably raped one of his slaves."
I collapsed in relieved laughter and mocked by own hand-wringing hesitance, saying, "Sorry, that's just my bleeding heart liberal women's studies degree holding White Lady Factor kicking in! That's what I was trying to say, but my PC Censor when into hyperdrive." We started talking about why I struggle to ask about the ugly truth. She shrugged and said, "Just say it. It's what a black woman would do."
On a related topic, Flea, author of buggydoo.blogspot.com, wrote an amazing post about discovering the script of a Thanksgiving play that her son read aloud in class last week. You need to go read her post. No, really. I'll wait. This next bit might not make sense otherwise. Go and come back. *whistles softly, examines cuticles*
Alright, for the cheaty cheatersons who didn't read it, the author's son was learning the myth of Thanksgiving in school about the pilgrims and Squanto and how they all "made friends with the Indians," yadda yadda first Thanksgiving plant-the-corn-with-fish thing blah-de-blah.*
*QUICK DIGRESSION: How come the “Indians” in the children's storybooks about Thanksgiving are always shirtless and clad in, like, loin cloths? DUDE. It was MASSACHUSETTS. In the middle of WINTER. That place is COLD. The pilgrims are in those heavy cloaks for a REASON. Can we see some nice watercolor and pencil drawings of fully clothed Native Americans for once, puh-lease? It's like Squanto saved the pilgrims from freezing to death during the cold, cold winter by warming them with the heat emanating from his magical, super-metabolic bare chest. Sheesh.
Anyway, the author was talking about trying to find a way to talk to her son about the realities of white peoples' relationships to indigenous people without completely overwhelming and scaring him. She writes:
A few years ago I read an essay by a conservative columnist, whose name I won't mention because I can't remember who it was. I remember the article was about her irritation that her son's school was celebrating either African-American history month, or they were studying about Dr. King, or they'd just given a lecture on diversity, something like that. Up until that point, she wrote, her son had no idea about racial issues, or that there was any difference between black children and white. And now she had to explain it all away, so thanks a lot, school..... I understand her reluctance to get into it with her young son. I don't want to get into it with mine, either. Is there ever an appropriate age to learn that your ancestors kidnapped and enslaved a race of people, beat them, raped them, murdered them en masse? ....I don't want to tell him about any of that stuff, either, and the crazy thing is, I don't have to! Our school books will mostly back me up! It's African-American parents, Mexican parents, gay and lesbian parents, and Native American parents that have to do all the heavy lifting. Again. Still.
She's right. It shouldn’t be up to people of color to do all the heavy lifting. Issues of race and ethnicity shouldn’t come as a surprise to white children during Black History Month. I don't know why a lot of white people seem to think that racism ended with the Civil Rights Movement. I don't know why people are surprised when I talk about the Klan having a visible community presence in the region where I grew up. (Although I'm mostly referring to my experiences covering Klan activity at the Dork Raily Yecord, the KKK marched through Lancaster when I was 12.)
I don't know why I'm surprised that a cross was burned on the front lawn of a black family's house here in Stepford, the night before Thanksgiving. This is not the Deep South. It is not 1963. This is practically the WASP capital of America, one of the wealthiest places in the nation. Cross-burning. Here and now, in a town near you and me. Well, me, anyway.