I was on Facebook, moved by what I saw, so I clicked share.
It was that picture of Mr. Rogers and a black man soaking their feet. On it was the caption “In 1969 when black citizens were still not allowed to swim in community pools alongside white people Mr. Rogers invited a black police officer on the show and asked him to join in and cool his feet in a small plastic pool, breaking a well-known color barrier.”
It was a touching gesture, an inspiring bit of history, a beautiful picture but the part that stuck with me was the date. 1969. I was twelve that year. I had always thought that this degree of racism was from way before I was born.
1969. That was the year I saw my first real live black man. I am Canadian born. Our country’s racism was centered on ‘Indians’ as we called them back then. Black people were no issue at all as far as I knew. I came from a small town with only a couple of TV channels and no Mr. Rogers. It was easy to be naive, unavoidable really. In fact, I wouldn’t even have known about the hatred towards ‘Indians’ if my parents hadn’t adopted one.
I want to speak about our present-day riots in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, but first you should know a few things about me.
1- I have a strange relationship with color and often don’t know how to differentiate one race from another. This is physiological. As a child I had synesthesia and though I could hear sound I also saw it. Sound was represented by my brain as rays of color. This developed into a racial color blindness I thought everyone had.
2- At the age of twelve I saw my first black man when he came to teach music in our elementary school. It seemed like the whole town gathered out front that first day of sixth grade just to see him come out and ring the bell. He fascinated me because his tongue looked so red. I wrote a story about his watermelon red tongue and the way the spit flew at us from the gap in his teeth. I got the strap and a two-day suspension for that. I was 43 years old before I understood why. Though I was strapped and suspended nobody explained that watermelon and negroes, as we called them then, were a negative association.
3- My adopted ‘Indian’ brother was brought to us because we were a white family. I did not know that. I just thought he was a kid that needed a home and we wanted another boy. My mother showed him off and got him to dance like a native around the living room before cleaning him up and dressing him in fortrell suits. My parents were abusive in very different ways so it wasn’t until I was 16 and had left home that I started to get an inkling of the fact that my brother being an ‘Indian’ meant he was intrinsically despised by my parents. They kicked him out at a young age. Since this story isn’t his story I will leave out all the in-between happenings and tell you that his life ended at 24 when he was murdered for the second time. He was beaten to death and thrown off a balcony. Two years before that he was gutted and his throat slit twice. During both incidences he was homeless and vulnerable. And before you think I didn’t try to save him, trust me I did, and did, and did, and did, until he was gone.
When someone you love is murdered the anger, hatred, pain, is so white hot there isn’t even sadness just rage, rage, rage. I will not do this pain the injustice of trying to put it into words. The only way for you to understand it is to experience it, and I don’t want that for you.
Eventually I healed enough to adopt racially and ability diverse children who sired some more racially, ability and gender diverse children. Our lives are a testament to our integrative style.
Oh, there is one more thing you should know about me. I started speaking out against prejudice at the age of eight when I gave my first sermon on lay sunday. Prejudice has always hurt me, even before I knew that anyone in my life was.
There, those are the relevant parts of my history as they relate to what is happening today.
Now for the story I wanted to share:
One day I was headed to a leadership event. The traffic was so jammed up that the me who would have been an hour early was already running thirty minutes late. I had to pee so bad I was considering just peeing between the cars and risking the humiliation. (Interestingly, and likely because I am white, getting arrested for public urination wasn’t something I worried over.) Suddenly I saw a break in the exit ramp traffic and was able to bolt into position. As I came down the exit ramp I saw an abandoned porta potty that was waiting for the not yet arrived construction men to use. I slammed into the shoulder, grabbed my purse, and ran across the ramp into the potty. The minute I sat down I had an anxious feeling and realized the window of my car was open and I had my property on the passenger seat. An easy grab. I forced urine from my body at hyper speed and, almost finished, heard a car horn honking.
I knew it was for me.
I jumped half-dressed from the potty and a black woman (I think she was black, in passing I get color wrong a lot) was yelling, “He is stealing your computer.” I saw a young light-skinned black early adult male ducking at the side of my car. He was trying to bring his hand back out from inside with my charging cord. I crossed the ramp as the woman yelled, “I can call the police.” I said, “No, it’s ok. Thank you though. Thank you.”
I didn’t really look at the women because I was keeping my eyes on the man. He looked like my grandson.
She seemed irritated with me and sped away. Meanwhile, the young man had run about forty feet away from me.
I put love and acceptance into my voice, my eyes, my body language. (I work with autism so I am used to careful signaling.) I told him I needed the computer. He said he needed it more. I said, “I know”. I was walking steadily toward him. He was shuffling from foot to foot. “I just, I just need the money for school,” he said. Me too, I said. (The car I was driving was missing a window.) I pointed to my car and said, “As you can see, we are both struggling. It’s ok, I understand. But it is mine.” I reached my hands for him to give me the computer. I had crossed the divide between us. He placed it in my hands and I held his in the gesture. “I am sorry you are struggling too.” He let me hug him. “Can I drive you somewhere?” I asked. He shook his head no and wandered away. He seemed ashamed. He was so gentle and, well, beautiful, that I cried while he began to run and increase the distance between us.
I got in my car and went to the leadership event..
I was working on my dissertation for a PhD at the time and losing the computer would have been devastating. Still, even though I had been given a scare, I didn’t back up the files. I was busy. Unfortunately, the cloud sharing function wasn’t working. I felt safe, as if I had narrowly escaped, handled it beautifully, and that this was the end of the dissertation danger story. It was an expensive mac, a bright and shiny object of monetary value, and there was no way at this point in my studenting life I could replace it.
Four weeks later two of my grandson’s white meth addict friends who professed to love me in spades snuck into my house and stole the computer for a fix. It was a crazy time at my house as my grand daughter in law’s mom had just been killed in a car accident. I was being supportive, allowing a flow of grief-stricken friends through the house while also doing a 24/7 stint assisting my in-house patient/friend get off his addiction to prescription meds, not to mention counseling the other four people in transition in my home. I had had stomach surgery three days before and was also caring for my adult special needs son. It was a busy time, an opportunity.
Again, the catalyst was an unlocked door.
Having my computer stolen was easy to recover from. Having my unbacked up dissertation disappear, much harder. But it gave me a life pause, a chance to ask myself, “How do I want to finish this education story? What am I willing to put up with to get off this professor driven control wheel? If it is to be different how do I want to rebuild the story?” I had been dealing with a lot of academic abuse and hypocrisy. These are things I stand up against. Perhaps these opportunistic crimes were opportunities for me as well? How did I want this to play out?
Understand, in my opinion education means more than schooling. It means: “Learning How To Live and Flourish While Helping Others Do The Same.”
In the end I chose to graduate from a lesser school but with a better education.
Turned out that, like the black man, I was an opportunist, while the white man and his friend were opportunistic planners. All of the thieves were desperate and acting on impulse.
Nobody acted out because of their color. They were ‘looting’ because of their poverty, difficult life and lack of workable options. They were behaving as they did because of the ideas in their head, the ones that life had planted there.
So the white robbers stole my computer and the black one gave it back. That doesn’t make one better than the other. It could just have easily gone the other way.
My brother was an Indian raised by white people and the man who killed him was an Indian raised by a family I know nothing about. I do know he didn’t kill my brother because of his skin, or my brother’s skin, or my skin. He killed my brother because he was drunk and in a rage over his perceived romantic rival. He killed my brother because he was a mess, because he was angry, because he was without any knowledge of doable options for problem-solving his life.
The problem has never been skin deep. The problem is on the inside. The problem is hatred. Because hatred breeds hatred and desperation breeds rash behavior and mindless acting out.
I would like to say it doesn’t matter where the hatred started but it does. You cannot rewrite history if you don’t begin at the beginning. I would like to say we don’t know where the hatred started but we do know. It started with the whites. It started with us. It started when we invaded this land and yanked Indian children from their loving parents in order to raise them as white people. It started when we invaded their land to yank black people from their homes and enslaved them in order to increase productivity and ease the burdens of the white society. It started when we made them desperate.
Of course desperate people loot and destroy, they are desperate. Of course, desperate people lose sight of the long term goal and grab onto the short term opportunity, they are desperate, afraid and certain that their life will be short. Of course hungry people steal, they need to eat.
Making people’s lives hard makes them hard. Keeping people poor leads to unhealthy eating and makes them unable to think clearly. Keeping people persecuted creates a constant state of anxiety until instead of taking flight, they fight.
Black people are beautiful. Incredible, really. They rise up despite being held down. They reach for spirituality despite having their spirits broken. They sing out so we can hear them despite having their song fall on deaf ears.
Instead of making their lives hard, let’s make their lives easy. What a thought. An easier life so they can become exactly that, soft and easy-going while they walk easily down the upper-class street they have always deserved to live on. Let’s reward them for their patience and persistence so that we can stop being so married to convenience and learn to be patient and persistent too.
And then, let’s do that for all the other colors as well.