After 4 days of travel delays, I finally made it home. Since I’m flying right back out tomorrow afternoon, I decided to get take-out rather than cook. I didn’t realize how generously sized the portions would be, and was surprised when the waitress brought out two large cases of food. I pondered how to balance two cases of food, two large styrofoam cups, a sleepy toddler, and a “you fiend” purse, and had decided to make two trips (and hope I didn’t get robbed), when a white teenage boy offered to carry both cases to the car for me. I glanced at his southern belle of a mom, who further surprised me by nodding her approval, and thanked him heartily as he grabbed the cases for me, opened the door for me, then carried my dinner down to my little red bug at the far end of the parking lot.
This event surprised me for two reasons:
1. My girlfriends and I had just been whining about how the more self-sufficient a woman is, the less likely anyone is to offer her help. It’s a vicious cycle: have to do things yourself, get offered less help, b/c you get offered less help, you have to learn to do more things for yourself. So I was not expecting an offer of help.
2. I’m back home in the Gump, and, well, when was the last time any of you readers saw a white boy offer to help a black woman (unless she was paying him)? Race issues have been heavy on my mind for a while now, and this is the angle I’ll take with the rest of this post.
My thinking about race began a couple days ago when I went to dinner with a friend. I love to try new restaurants, so was excited to go. However, from the moment I walked in, something didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel right when the hostess pointed me to the ladies room, and the feeling didn’t lift when I returned to the foyer at the same time that my friend arrived. The feeling grew worse when we were seated at the worst table and requested to be moved. My friend was rightfully irritated because the place was practically empty and the other two parties were comfortably seated in the far corner. The feeling so colored my perceptions that when my friend discussed “those people” in the white house, I was horrified; having misinterpreted “those people” to mean blacks, not liberals (as was intended, and quickly explained).
The feeling left me a poor dinner partner, I suspect, because it so occupied my mind that I was rendered useless in holding up my end of what should have been a spirited political debate. With few exceptions, I shrugged off each topic with, “you’ve got a good point,” and returned, inwardly, to my reflection of how different it is living as a black person, even in the most powerful nation in the world.
Before I continue, let me say up front that being black in today’s America is NOTHING like it was 50, 40, or even 20 years ago. My struggles pale in comparison to what previous generations had to endure. I am ever so grateful that they kept on keeping on, that they fought the good fight of faith, and that they persevered so I can be where I am today. Praise God for your sacrifices! I am truly thankful.
As I munched on my stale bread and picked out the mushrooms I had asked them not to include in my salad, I thought how different life was for me and my Caucasian friend. I won’t go so far as to accuse the restaurant of seating us by the kitchen to slight us, because we weren’t in the deep south, but I’ve been in many places where there was “meaning” behind giving my group the worst seats in the house, behind getting our order wrong, and behind serving us poor quality food. My friend requested a new seat, but I was caught off guard by the request because I’m quite used to it by now. Not only have I stopped asking to be reseated, but I don’t even notice it anymore. I would never have complained about the stale bread and requested more because I’m used to it. Again, I’m not accusing that restaurant of being racist (this was after a bad blizzard, and it’s far more likely their supply trucks hadn’t come through) but it got me thinking about all the times when such incidences WERE on purpose.
When did I stop insisting on proper treatment? When did I stop noticing? When did I get used to being a second class citizen? When did I switch from outrage at not being served in a store (“uh, no I’ll take the guy behind you”), to acceptance (that’s just the way it is-go along to get along, don’t rock the boat, don’t make life harder for the rest of us)? How did I go from arriving in the USA as a 16 yr old, ready to experience the melting pot, the rainbow, and the land of the free, being shocked at the “isolated” incidences of bigotry I observed that first summer, to the young woman who doesn’t bat an eye when informed of the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, or told “your son will never attend this school so stop trying.” Perhaps it happened when I moved to a city that has “Cradle of the Confederacy” smack dab in the middle of its city seal.
I tell of my experiences with a smile on my face. It’s a funny aberration of an otherwise great nation. I joke about the “white door” and “black door” some establishments still have (not labeled, of course, but you learn to pay attention after the first time of walking in the wrong door). Why smile, why joke, when it’s really not funny? Because it covers up some of the pain and dissipates some of the anger at not being able to DO anything about it. I tell myself to fight it with my conduct, for as Lt Col Herb Carter (an original Tuskegee Airman) says, “the antidote to racism is excellence in performance.” I try to fool myself by saying it’s a compliment when locals discus, “those people,” or, “the blacks” and qualify their statements with, “but we’re not talking about you.” That is a compliment, right? Right? Yeah. Right.
I thought about a lot more during that dinner, things that I would not feel comfortable printing here, and things I certainly wasn’t going to discuss with my Caucasian friend: experiences with which my civilian, military, and spiritual mentors have held me spellbound, stories they have told us behind closed doors, advice and warnings they have provided that, while contrary to my optimistic, glass-half-full mentality, has always served me well.
In spite of this, I look at how our nation has changed in just a few decades: A friend was telling us how as a teenager she couldn’t go into the restaurants and stores of her home town, but now, in her 60s, she can turn on the TV and look upon a (half) black president. The walls are coming down, the glass ceilings are slowly being broken. I’m not sure things will ever truly be equal, but I do know that my son can aspire to be whatever he wants to be. It may not be easy, but all things are possible. If a young white boy, in the “Cradle of the Confederacy,” is willing to carry a black woman’s packages to her car, and the leader of the free world has some color to his skin, our nation has indeed seen change… change we can actually believe in.
Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Change We Actually CAN Believe In
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