Sunday, July 21, 2013

I am a racist and so are you.

My life is not controversial. Growing up my family life was stable and of sufficient means. I got to go to camp, and Disneyworld, and eat ice cream cones. I went to a somewhat prestigious university and like most privileged youngsters, totally did not appreciate the academic resources until well after I graduated. I did take advantage of the social benefits of going to school in Boston. I saw a lot of music, met some interesting people, was in walking distance to the Museum of Fine Arts, and often read Plato and other philosophy assignments at the city’s beautiful public library. I experimented with drugs, but never got caught or hooked. In fact, the one time I had a run in with the law in my college years, it was to be arrested for an1800’s city law known as “Keeper of a Disorderly House.” It was thrown out through the work of an amazing public defender, who laudably promoted my penchant for public service and semi-decent grades. In fact, I wasn’t even present at the trial! I was on a 3-month road trip with my best friend, hopping from national park to national monument and living off peanut butter sandwiches. (Jelly was just too expensive.) In my 20’s I moved to California where I got to live and work outside…you know…in nature. I meet amazing people, I traveled to Asia, I backpacked through Alaska, and I rounded it all out with a stint living in the wackiest country on the planet…China. I spent a year and some change in graduate school, studying things like global economics and international law. I got married. I have a truly amazing husband who knows how to cook and fold laundry. We argue occasionally, but in general, we really like each other, which is convenient. While it has been a challenge getting pregnant on this first go-round, I fully expect to have 2.5 children by the time I’m 40.

I am a middle class, white woman. I listen to NPR. I drink coconut water and eat organic food. I do yoga everyday.  Did I mention I’m white? I live a privileged white person’s life. I have never felt the sting of discrimination, other than being the first or second girl picked at team sports in gym class. I’ve stepped outside the box of white culture. I lived in a Chinese town where I was the only foreigner. I volunteered in an after-school program where I was the only white person. I’ve tried to challenge my boundaries. I try with all my spiritual might to be present in my day to day and confront stereotypes that pop-up head on. I like to think I am a good listener and a keen social observer. But my lot in life is that of a privileged, American, white woman.

Which brings me to the topic of race. Yes, a white, daughter of upper-middle class parents, raised in the suburbs of America, who at the time of this writing is wearing $80 yoga tights, I want to talk about race. It seems there are many under qualified people out there talking about race, anyway. While I’m no Cornell West, I have been to a Talib Kweli show, watched The Chapelle Show, and I was an excellent teaching assistant for an undergraduate sociology course on Race and Racism. I think that puts me ahead of the curve. Plus, I am a white person who has some Black friends. No Mexican, Puerto Rican, Peruvian, or Dominican friends, but Black ones. I can only assume the various Spanish-speaking populations of our nation are pissed at being haphazardly thrown into the large stew of “Latino” classification, or since I’m a feminist, “Latina.” I guess that it’s just so much easier when we assume each one’s culture is exactly the same. How else can we keep them straight? Or maybe they don’t care at all, because they can’t speak English and have no idea we, white people, are constantly talking shit about them. Or worse, deciding “what to do with them” vis-à-vis immigration.

Since I’m talking about race, I can only really talk about Black people. So, Asian friends, sorry, you’ll remain excellent mathematicians and poor drivers for the time being. Oh and Native American descendents, we’ve completely forgotten you even exist. Maybe it’s not completely fair to the other minorities, but I still fundamentally believe that black people get to be the backbone of the race conversation so long as America exists as a nation. Least we forget, their ancestors were fucking slaves and for quite a long period of our history Blacks were legally counted as 2/3 of a person. That’s some real shit. No matter how much time passes, slavery happened

OK, here it is folks. Here’s where I bring in the controversy. Since no one else seems to be willing to do it, let me take a bold step where no socially liberal minded, white person has gone before to tell you that, I, Melissa Ann Fitzgerald McLaughlin, am a racist. That’s right, you read that correctly. I am a racist. I will qualify this statement to say that I got mad love for my Black brothers and sisters, but I’m a racist and so are you. It’s not that I believe in the superiority of any race or that I’m a crazy bigot preaching white power or some other nonsense. But I, like all unenlightened human beings, notice race. If I meet you for the first time and you are not white, it would be the first thing my brain would process about you. As my memory of you is being formed, you’re going in as Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, whatever category is appropriate. I do not do this when I meet white people. When I get off the freeway in Oakland after going the wrong way on the 580, I lock the doors of my car, and I have automatic locking doors. If my car is in drive my doors are locked, and I STILL check to make sure my doors are locked. If 3 or 4 young black men in oversized pants were approaching me, at high-noon on a crowded street, I would notice that. I wouldn’t necessarily be afraid of them or call the cops or assume they were thugs, but I would be aware of them.

I am racist, not because of hatred in my heart, but because of the limitations of my mind. I am not color blind. I see race, and I categorize people based on that race. I voted for Barack Obama to become the first black president of United States, but way back when he gave his famous speech at the Democratic National Convention, you know what the very first thing that went through my mind, “Wow, that Black Senator from Illinois sure can give a speech.” That’s some racist shit. And guess what, you’re probably racist too. Whether you’re a Black person with preconceived notions of Mexican immigrants taking your jobs, or a Chinese person harboring some resentment for your Japanese neighbor, you’re a racist too. White people, of course, are the biggest racists of all. That’s just how it goes.

There have only been a handful of people to have ever lived on this planet that could say, in all honestly, that they were not racist. I’m talking Jesus Christ and Buddha territory here, people. Which is why I get so frustrated when a “hot button” race story happens. It’s so interesting to see white news reporters, activists, writers, average citizens bolting to different sides of racial issues faster than they can pick out a movie from the RedBox in front of CVS. It’s as if by virtue of their solidarity with their African American counterpart they prove themselves to not be racist. They shout, “People in Florida are racist!” “The L.A.P.D. is racist,” underscoring their own open-mindedness and lack of racism. Not us up here in the liberal utopia of Marin County, California, we’re not racist. We’re just as mad as Black people about the Trayvon Martin verdict. Well, I would be willing to wager the price of George Lucas’ ranch that if Treyvon Martin was walking around in a Mill Valley, CA neighborhood, where are the homes were worth upwards of $800,000, some white person would notice that. Since we have fewer guns in Marin, Treyvon probably would have escaped with his life, but I’m pretty sure there would be some level of suspicion, even if just a second look. That second look, that’s racist!

The thing that is so frustrating about these issues is that we all react so quickly we lose the opportunity to examine our own stereotypes of race. We lose the opportunity to confront that tightness in our chest when we realize we’ve walked into a “bad neighborhood.” We deny attention to our own relationship to race, in order to prove that we are not racist. This is what liberal white people do, and most of today’s conservatives for that matter; they deny their own racism. “I’m so open-minded and cool, I don’t even notice race.” BULLSHIT! White people of America! Get a grip! You are not Trayvon Martin! You can be upset about what happened in Florida to this young man who lost his life way too soon. But seriously, you are not Trayvon Martin, you are George Zimmerman.

To be fair, in my view, being a bigot and being a racist are two totally different things. Being a racist means being aware of race. It means taking stock of what you’ve seen on the news or maybe even some past experiences you’ve had and bracing yourself around someone you think is a threat because of how they look. As a living breathing human being you have all sorts of personally, socially and culturally constructed stereotypes floating around in your mind that pop up when you see some black dudes standing in front of a corner store. Maybe you walk faster past someone who looks like they might sell drugs or you hit them up for weed, depending on what kind of person you are.

I’m here to tell you, it’s ok. If we ever want to live in this “post-racial” society everyone’s been talking about since we elected our first black president, we have to stand out on our edge and confront the racist that lives in our own mind. Even the minor thoughts of racism, do not deny them. It’s the root of our emotion, the stereotypes about race that need to change, not just the actions that result from them.

One of my favorite Buddhist teachers Pema Chodron gave an interview once about meditating in front of prisons. It was a gathering of Buddhist monks in meditation of loving compassion for the inmates of that prison. An onlooker commented that it was a waste of time. Shouldn’t they be sending out their energy to more deserving humans? Aren’t there more pressing world issues? Those people committed crimes, they deserved to be where they are, kids dying of cancer deserve loving-kindness meditation. Pema Chodron responded, “We’re all just one thought away from being in there too. Granted it’s a pretty big thought, but it’s just one thought.” The point being that, while we may not approach a young Black kid in our neighborhood and shot him dead, if we feel any sense of suspicion, if we momentarily hold our breath, any quickening of our pace, we are just one thought/one action away from being George Zimmerman.

It is our thoughts that we need to examine. It is our stereotypes and the emotions they bring up. Fear, anger, thoughts of ones own superiority over another, whether they be black kids in hoodies, meth heads with missing teeth, smelly homeless people, Mexican migrant workers. Can you really say you’ve never looked down on another human being? Can you walk through Watts on a dark night with no fear in your heart? Then congratulations, you’re enlightened. But for all the rest of us, we require practice.

A yoga teacher of mine, MC Yogi, talks a lot about sunlight and love. He often says, “The sun does not discriminate; it shines equally on all beings. Let’s try to be more like the sun.” If we could shine our love like sunlight, equally to everyone we meet; imagine what kind of world we would create. But a love like that takes work. As Aristotle wrote you have to cultivate habits of goodness.  Giving love is not about being over the moon blissed out all the time, or hugging every black child you come across, or going out of your way to walk through Oakland in the middle of the night with bags of candy. It’s about confronting the emotions that bubble up to the surface right in that moment when they come up. When a homeless person asks you for money, how do you react? Do you quicken your step and look in the other direction? Do you feel angry or put upon? Do you feel pity? Can you meet those emotions right then and there? Push past the awkwardness or anxiety, and try with all your might to radiate love outward. Give him change, don’t give him change, just be right there, not struggling to get away both from the person before you and the emotion within you. Can you meet your prejudice with acknowledgement? Can you sit in your discomfort? Be real with yourself, so you can be real with others.

The Beatles, Dionne Warwick, and MC Yogi are all right. What the world needs now, is love sweet love. But it’s not a cheesy, campy kind of love; it’s the real deal. It’s recognizing that all our differences are illusory. The thugs, the pimps, the physicists, and the president, we are all the same. Sure, we’ve made some different choices, but god does not discriminate, he/she/it lives in all beings and shines down equally upon us. Within each of us there is a big, earth shattering kind of love just waiting to break out. This is the love we need to tear down racism.

Chinese Banquet
I have been blessed to be invited into many different types of communities and commune with characters of different races and cultures. I have seen that kind of big love first hand. There’s my man Ali, from Iraq, owner of the Linden Corner Store in Allston, MA. I used to go in late night on the weekends to take a break from socializing with my fellow drunken college students. He used to give me single cigarettes that I’d smoke behind the checkout counter with him (which was illegal in the state of Massachusetts.) He asked me about school. He asked me about my family. He bought my broken TV when I moved out of my house after graduation. He also had the most graphic porn collection back there and a brother who was missing several fingers on his left hand that I always suspected had been cut off by Saddam Hussein but was too afraid to ask. Or my good friend Chantal who invited me to a BBQ with her family and friends in South Central to drink punch and dance the Electric Slide with her little sisters. One evening when we were together at a stop light on MLK Blvd. in S.C.L.A., we saw two large black men galloping bareback on horses down the center lane of the road. You never do know what you’re going to see in South Central. There are the “trouble maker” scholarship kids that came up to outdoor science school from the rougher parts of San Bernardino County. The kids who had never been to the beach, even though they live in Southern California, just an hour’s drive away. The kids I would take on trail who I would ask to sit silently by a running stream for one minute with their eyes closed. The ones who told me that the sounds were so peaceful compared to the sounds in their neighborhood, the sounds of car horns, fighting, and gunshots. Or my Chinese students in Hunan Province, China who would sing to me when I came into class or tell me “I love you everyday.” My Chinese grandmother who used to give me fruit or told me I would get sick and smack my legs for wearing shorts when it was 85 degrees out with 120% humidity. I think most of all about Andre, the man who managed the afterschool program in Dorchester where I volunteered in college. Andre, the size of a professional football player, has an intimidating physical presence. I think of how if I saw him on the street, I might look away or walk faster or assume him to be something that he’s not. I think about the reality of his life and the service he provides to his community. The fact that he meets criminals and gang members with a helping hand and high expectations of what they can achieve. I literally get chocked up when I think about these people. It is from their friendship and their love that my world has opened. They have been my teachers. Now when I see some terrible crime on the 6:00 news, I don’t think the world is full criminals and thugs. I think about that young black kid that didn’t have anyone to drive him to the beach.

I did have someone to drive me to the beach and as a result I have a surplus of love to give away. I’ve got a lot to spare. It is with that love that I work on my own racism. It is in the spirit of that love that I encourage you to examine your own. To work on my racism, I know I have to acknowledge it. It lives in the darkest corner of my mind, the part of me that I'd rather not reveal to others. I know, however, that I cannot be present with others if I deny that part of myself. I have got to bring my own racism out of the depths and up to the surface. Be real with yourself so you can be real with others. I am a racist, but I choose to fight it rather than pretend it doesn’t exist. I am a racist, but I choose to wage the war for love in my own mind. This is really, really hard stuff, but it’s where progress happens. It’s where the work is done. I cannot speak for everyone on how to fix the racial divide, but what I can try to do for myself is practice being present and loving in my interactions with others. To meet pain with love. To meet anger with love. To meet fear with love. To meet stereotypes, and racism, and misunderstanding and cultural differences, to meet it all with love. It is not an easy journey. Not for me anyway because I am a judgmental asshole, but it’s the work. And if a cynical, East Coast, New York Times reading snob like me can try it, surely you can too?

And as it is appropriate of all white people writing about race, I'll leave you with some words from Martin Luther King Jr.

I accept this award today with an abiding faith in America and an audacious faith in the future of mankind. I refuse to accept despair as the final response to the ambiguities of history.
I refuse to accept the idea that the "is-ness" of man's present nature makes him morally incapable of reaching up for the eternal "ought-ness" that forever confronts him.
I refuse to accept the idea that man is mere flotsam and jetsam in the river of life, unable to influence the unfolding events which surround him.
I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality.
I refuse to accept the cynical notion that nation after nation must spiral down a militaristic stairway into the hell of nuclear annihilation.
I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.
I believe that even amid today's mortar bursts and whining bullets, there is still hope for a brighter tomorrow.
I believe that wounded justice, lying prostrate on the blood-flowing streets of our nations, can be lifted from this dust of shame to reign supreme among the children of men.
I have the audacity to believe that peoples everywhere can have three meals a day for their bodies, education and culture for their minds, and dignity, equality, and freedom for their spirits.
I believe that what self-centered men have torn down, men other-centered can build up.
I still believe that one day mankind will bow before the altars of God and be crowned triumphant over war and bloodshed and nonviolent redemptive goodwill proclaimed the rule of the land. And the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and every man shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid.

I still believe that we shall overcome. 
-From Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, 1964