Race in America. Black and white. Christians and Muslims. Gays and straights. Rich and poor. We live in a society where we draw dividing lines based on all manner of arbitrary classifications. For most average middle class whites, we probably don’t even think about it at all, until suddenly something hits us in the face. A teenager in a hoodie is murdered walking home with a bag of skittles because he looks dangerous. A leading politician cuts himself of mid-word as he is calling the President of the United States a nigger.
Today in America, it is taboo to be a racist, and that is a good thing. But we still see it: covert racism, overt sexism, and blatant homophobia. Our dividing lines are still strong and pervasive.
This is on my mind right now because of a number of things that have randomly come together in recent weeks: the Trayvon Martin killing, a viral blog post on Jezebel about so-called “hipster racism,” the passage of the constitutional amendment in North Carolina banning marriage and civil unions between same sex couples.
More than anything, it’s on my mind because I have a young daughter who is growing up a black woman in a society that places less value on black women than it should. It’s on my mind because I want her to grow up in a society which values her just as much as white men, I want her to grow up in a society where, as Doctor King so eloquently put it, people are judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.
This may be a bit of a long post, but I hope you’ll stay with me for the whole thing. I’m going to talk a little bit about my own upbringing, about what I’ve discovered about my own attitudes about race and other dividing lines, and I’m also going to write a little but about what I think you and I can do about it.
I’d like to open by attacking racists. By condemning the George Zimmerman’s of the world; by attacking the racists and homophobes and misogynists who are tearing apart our society.
I’m not going to do that. That’s too easy. It’s really easy to sit here and pass judgment on someone who is overtly racist; it’s all too easy to attack the people who voted for North Carolina’s marriage amendment; it’s trivial to say that the people who murdered Matthew Shephard or Brandon Teena are monsters. It’s too easy to say that Fred Phelps and his evil Westboro Baptist Church are monsters.
It’s not so easy to look at my own attitudes. It’s not so comfortable to look deep inside and turn over the beliefs, attitudes and wrongs in my own psyche. But isn’t that the place to start? Isn’t that the place where we should all start? If you want to erase dividing lines, the place to start is the lines within yourself, not by simply drawing new lines.
Georgia in the 1970s
So. I grew up in Georgia in the 1970s. Segregation was a thing of the past legally, but in reality, it was still part of our lives. And when I look back to my own past, I’m going to tell you there are things I’m ashamed of. My parents weren’t particularly racists – I don’t recall, ever, hearing the “N” word in my house. Race wasn’t particularly discussed at all. But we lived in a white neighborhood, and until I hit elementary school, I don’t think I’d ever met an African American. There were few blacks on television (probably none in the limited television I saw, but I don’t really remember). My first concrete experience that I can recall in my life of meeting an African American was in the second grade. What do I remember about that incident? I got in trouble because I said she looked like a “burnt tootsie roll.” A couple years later, we were living in Roswell, Georgia, and I remember cracking up as a friend stuck out his tongue to make his upper lip look huge, then said “I be’be a jigaboo.”
Today I’m embarrassed and horrified to write this and publish it. But I also ask myself – where did I get the idea that this stuff was funny? It’s not like I knew any black people. The fact is, I’d absorbed attitudes and ideas from everyone around me. No one had directly taught me to be racist. It was just accepted. It was who we were. I took it for granted, and never really thought it until years later.
In middle school, however, my parents moved into the city. I ended up going to a middle school and a high school that was fifty percent black. My high school was the Performing Arts magnet. That was the beginning of the changes in my own attitudes, attitudes I wasn’t even consciously aware that I had.
Chuck, I have to tell you something. I’m gay.
The eighth grade was the first time I was faced with a crack in my own attitudes about people on the other side of dividing lines.
I want to tell you about my friend, who I’m going to call Mark for purposes of this blog entry. Mark and I were both in the eight grade chorus and musical, Meridith Wilson’s The Music Man. I played Tommy Djilas, the kid from the wrong side of the tracks. Mark and I were tight. We snuck out at night and hung out near the Peachtree Battle shopping center, then the home of Oxford Books. We got sick drunk on his grandfather’s rum during the dress rehearsal. One night, sitting at a table in front of the closed Burger King, he made a confession to me. He was gay.
At that point I was faced with a simple choice. I could move my own dividing lines, or I could give up my best friend. Honestly it wasn’t a difficult choice. I wasn’t going to lose my best friend over that. No way. So my internal dividing lines shifted a little bit, and all of the sudden gay people were okay. Why? Because of Mark. And that’s the first point I want to really drive home here. It’s one thing to hate someone who is abstract. It’s another thing to suddenly hate someone you care about, someone you love, because of a part of their character. When I visited him in the hospital after he tried to kill himself late in the eighth grade, I remember desperately trying to understand and grasp how isolated he must have felt in an environment where “fag” was a commonly thrown out word; in an environment where part of his own family rejected him. And I promised myself I’d never be the person who did that to someone else.
Why we think black people are thugs and criminals
Not long ago I started to re-read one my childhood favorite sci-fi series, Philip Jose Farmer’s “The World of Tiers.” In the fifth book of the series, Farmer introduces the first black character we encounter, Angus McKay: a professional thug, a hired killer. I was disappointed, to say the least. As a pre-teen reading the series for the first time I didn’t even notice it, but now, it stuck out like a sore thumb. Why was the only black character in the entire series a criminal from Watts?
As I noted earlier, growing up, I simply didn’t know any black people. So my only encounters with blacks were in popular culture. And overwhelmingly, blacks in popular culture are poor, criminals, drug addicts, people to be feared. Thank God it’s not as bad as it was thirty years ago, but it’s still there. After all, there was a spate of twitter outrage over casting a black actress as Rue in the Hunger Games. If you’ve read the books, you’ll sense the irony here. OMG – they cast a little black girl to play a part that was intended for a little black girl? Shock! Horror!
As I noted earlier, in retrospect and looking at my own upbringing and history, there have been things I’ve said and done, mostly as a child, that I find shameful now. I don’t bring these up to vilify myself, which would be stupid, but to point out that in order to fight racism, in order to truly be open, we have to examine our own attitudes and ideas. We have to genuinely assess who we are, what we believe.
My seventh grade homeroom teacher, Mr. David Rector, was African American. He was the first person who really encouraged me to follow my dream of writing. He was someone I admired and looked up to. But even so, as late as high school, I still had some attitudes that I look back at with a little embarrassment. There’s a scene I described in my diary from junior year of how I felt bad about not remembering to save a seat at an assembly for my ex-girlfriend, who ended up having to “sit with a bunch of ‘home boys.’” By then I knew plenty of African Americans, and had made some friends. But there was still some distance, some attitudes I’m not so proud of. There were differences in culture and language that I wasn’t able to get past then.
I can thank the United States Army for permanently purging me of those kinds of ideas. Whatever else you might say about war, the fact is that when your life depends on someone, you start to forget all about race. And, in my small part of the Army, we were as multicultural as you can get. My tank crew consisted of me (white-bread mostly European mutt), Sergeant John Lino (Hawaiian), Chuck Griego (Apache), and Sean Day (African American).
I’ve lost touch with a lot of those guys. But they changed my life. They opened up my eyes to a much wider world.
How to build a better world
Want to know how to eliminate racism and hate from our society?
It’s simple. Make friends. Reach out. Love people. Treat other people right. Find out who they really are: not just the color of their skin, but who they are inside. Value them.
The place to start isn’t by attacking the racists. The place to start is with ourselves. Start by reaching out to someone and being their friend. Don’t start with “tolerance,” because tolerance implies that there is something to tolerate. Instead, start with embracing what is different from you. Reach out and touch something outside your comfort zone. Make a friend with someone who is gay or black or white or transgender or bisexual or whatever.
It is the ties that bind us together that erase the lines that divide us.
Confront your own attitudes. Erase the lines in your own heart that divide you from other people. Then, together, we can work to become a better society.
A world where the Trayvon Martin’s aren’t afraid to walk home from the store at night.
A world where my friend wouldn’t have felt the need to end everything because the pain was just so bad.
A world where people who love each other can get married, no matter what their gender is.
A world where my daughter can grow up, knowing that she matters, knowing that being a young black woman won’t hinder her career and life prospects.
I want to live in that world. I want to help create that world. Will you help?