On Monday, I chose to be part of the revolution, or at least, show my support of Concerned Student 1950. I canceled class and encouraged my students to see the change that was about to happen on campus. I didn’t know what was going to happen, but something had to.
I saw social media posts from only white people saying how irresponsible it was of teachers to cancel, when they are being paid to teach. I can’t think of anything I teach in my composition class that is more important to teach students than a civil rights movement in their backyard.
Tuesday night was scary. There were reports and rumors about all of the things happening on campus: the anonymous threats of violence against black people turned out to be true and two people were arrested. But before that, students were emailing me, concerned for their safety. I stayed up pretty late trying to be informed about what was happening. I heard that the KKK was on campus; this turned out to be not true, or at least, unconfirmed. I heard, third hand, that there were white guys in trucks waving confederate flags and shouting at black people. I believe that, even if it wasn’t caught on film. I believe someone when he tells me someone shouted something racist at him. Whether I saw it or not. Whether he called the cops or not. Whether it was tweeted or not.
I’d like to teach you some vocabulary.
Nigger Knocking: is when you knock on someone’s door or ring the bell and run away.
Nigger-Chaser: is a bottle rocket when you’ve ripped out the stem
Nigger Rigged: is when you’ve fixed something half-assedly, or temporarily.
Nigger: any African-American, or my white cousin since she tanned so easily
Nigger: something you call someone when you’re playing around, the way you would use the word, “asshole.”
I know these definitions because I heard these words and sayings my entire childhood. Well, that’s not exactly true; most recently I heard that awful word from a second cousin, just back in September, when he was trying to tell some story. I said, “No. We’re done.” And I walked away from him.
And you might remember last Thanksgiving when I wrote about my cousin joking about “coon hunting” in Ferguson. What you might not know is, not too long after that, I received a message from his mom (my first cousin by marriage) wherein she told me I should’t’ve chastised him in public (on my blog) because he has black friends (and by the way, they are very educated), and then I was told that the family had been very tolerant of my “choices” and had treated all of my “friends” with respect because they loved me. I’m still trying to unpack all of this. I guess the logic was I should tolerate his racist comment (or not put him on blast, though I never used his name) because they were never mean to my girlfriends. And wife. Don’t forget I was illegally gay married for a large part of that.
One of my family’s favorite stories about my grandpa is, apparently, the time Sammy Davis Jr. and Nancy Sinatra performed together on some tv show. Grandpa was a big fan of Nancy. The story goes that at the end of the song, she kissed Sammy Davis Jr. and so Grandpa got up from his chair, turned off the gotdamn tv and never listened to her again. He was one of the people I remember using that horrible word the most.
Did I ever tell you about my white high school? One person at my school had a black dad. One. And when her boyfriend, who happened to be black, came to see her one day, a group of white guys got up to blockade the door. To confront him. All these guys wore confederate flags, either on shirts or belt buckles, and boots. They threatened him. His kind was not welcome here. Is what they actually said. The principal told him to leave, for his own safety. I heard that later he came to a basketball game and was beaten up. There were no cell phones in those days. Did it really happen?
In her last weeks on earth, my grandma told me that my aunt had a crush on some guy. But she couldn’t date him because he was “colored.” I knew my grandma was using some antiquated language, which, to her, was a respectful term. So, I just said, “why can’t they?” To which she smiled, shrugged her shoulders and said, “You’re right. It doesn’t really matter, does it?” See. People can change.
A faggot is a guy who can’t play sports.
A dyke is a girl who can.
A fag-tag is that strange loop that appeared on men’s shirts in the late 80s.
Gay-wad was also a popular word when I was younger.
My students still say something is “gay” if it’s stupid.
There have been times when horrible words were used against me. I’ve feared for my safety because of who I am. Because of a part of me that I cannot change.
- I came to school and found the word “Dyke” keyed into the paint of my gym locker. I told teachers. It was infuriating and hurtful. My school had less than 250 students. I knew them all. The people who did it were people I’d known my whole life. I wondered what strangers might do to me. No one in administration spoke to me about it. The next day it was painted over like nothing had happened. I understood the message: We don’t care that this happened.
- I was in Houston. Kissing my girlfriend on the sidewalk. A truck drove by. With two white guys who yelled, “Fucking dykes!” And sped off. It’s not just what they said, but the growling hate in their voices when they said it. We were scared and went home.
- Walking outside a mall in St. Louis alone at 5:30 in the afternoon. A Jeep full of white guys, college age, drive by me, honk, and all in unison yell “FAG!” at me. I stopped. As they drove off, one turned around and said, “Oh, shit. It’s a chick.” I was shaking. There were so many of them. I went to the mall and had one of my first panic attacks.
I don’t have pictures of these incidents, but I keep them with me wherever I go. In public with my girlfriend, I look around to see how many people might care, or how many people might do something about it.
Does that count? Does that prove to you that homophobia exists? If your lesbian friend is harassed on the street when you’re not there, does she make a sound?
Think really hard and you’ll recall some times when your friends did something like that, to be funny. Or told a story about a time they did. If you’ve never experienced anything like this, you’re privileged. I’m privileged it’s happened only a few times. If you’re white, you’ve heard those racist comments and jokes, maybe not aimed at anyone specifically, but you’ve heard them. Or you’re lying.
If I came to you during any of these times and told you what happened, you wouldn’t blame me for feeling really, really shitty. When someone in a position of power, a white man, yells a word at you that’s been used to oppress, well. That is a scary and dehumanizing thing.
Privilege is being able to count those experiences on one hand.
I was 19. It was some fast food place in Houston. My girlfriend and I walked in, ordered, and sat down. We started eating. But something felt strange. I looked around. The place was full. We were the only white people. I was shocked. I’d never before experienced that. I was ashamed.
I minored in sociology in college. I took an African-American studies class. I was the only white person. I was afraid to speak up in class, even when I knew the answers. I was afraid to talk to people. I made no friends in that class. I thought everyone hated me.
I took another class: Mexican-Americans in Houston. I was the only white person. One of the assignments was to interview a Latino artist in Houston. The whole class started talking to each other about who they might interview. I almost cried. It felt so unfair. How was I supposed to find someone like that?
Then. I got it. As much, I think, as a privileged white girl could. I don’t pretend to know what it means to be black in America, but I’m doing my best to try.
In my experience, the best way to be an ally comes in two easy steps.
- Listen Up
This step is hard because it means shutting up. When I learned of the walk out, I tried to find out all of the information I could before forming an opinion. I’m new to campus, have never experienced racism there, and had heard nothing about it. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe it happens. Of course it happens. As the information rolled in, I educated myself about the history of campus. I read so much to understand.
- Speak Up
Those vocabulary words I gave you are still being used where I’m from. They’re used where you’re from, too. You’ve heard them recently. Your family members have said them and you felt awkward and walked away. Or maybe you just sat there and kept pretending to listen when all you could hear was blood rushing into your ears. Maybe you have no idea about what’s happening on campus and you don’t want to “take a side.” Fine. But there are things you need to be doing anyway, in your home, at that holiday dinner. When someone says one of those things, say something. Make the situation uncomfortable. Call people out. It doesn’t get easier, but it does get better.
To be honest, I’m nervous about posting this. All of the hate that’s been going around is contagious and disgusting. But. This is what I can do to speak up.
It’s never easy.
There’s one more word I could put in that first vocabulary list. I’ve been called it a few times. And this post might prompt someone to think it of me. If you know what word I’m talking about, then you might be someone who needs to listen up.