Why I Sit, Part II.

The last time I sat while the national anthem played was at Erika’s volleyball game just a few weeks ago. I was the only one. Dad was behind me, back a few rows of those middle school gym bleachers. I could feel his eyes on me. He didn’t say anything when it was done.

Beside me was Gaby, my Venezuelan, now American citizen girlfriend. She always stands, she told me. I asked if she felt that she had to. Yes. Yes, of course she does. She has an accent, you see. I can’t even imagine what people might say to or about a woman with a Venezuelan accent not standing for the anthem.

I’m privileged; I’m white. I talk like you do. I can code switch, too, between city and country folk. So I am positive that, even though you might delete me from social media, hatefully share my writing, or make snide comments on my post, you won’t kill me for who I am.

But you will do your best to shame me.

***

Last year on the Fourth of July, as Gaby and I sat in her yard on a blanket and watched the fireworks, I asked her if she knew the history of the Star Spangled Banner. I told her. How the fireworks represent the bombs exploding, the line about our flag still being there. I was touched and a little teary. Though I am not always proud of my country, I am still an American. I still find myself occasionally getting teary-eyed about the promises our constitution made, about the ideal of what our country is supposed to be. Land of the free. All that. Sometimes I actually buy into it. When I hear stories about refugees fleeing here and feeling so welcomed, so free to do as they please, I cry. How beautiful our country is. And for some people, we are still seen as a place of refuge, a wonderful land of opportunity. And this is what we claim for ourselves, but then, when people are actually in need, we talk about banning them based on a religion we find threatening because it is not a majority here. Which is totally the opposite of who we claim to be. When people who are brown risk their lives to cross deserts and rivers to reap the benefits (which we boast repeatedly) of this nation (whose arbitrary borders have crossed and recrossed theirs) we call them names and tell them to go back to where they came from.

Because a country is just that: a piece of land with a made-up border. Maps are constantly changing, you know. The lines may move, but the people remain.

 

I am told I should stand for the pledge of allegiance and place my hand over my heart. I am told to say, ” I pledge allegiance/to the flag/of the United States of America/and to the republic for which it stands/one nation/under God/with liberty and justice for all.

Amen.

Let’s break it down.

I was told, at the age of 6, to pledge allegiance to an object, but to not have any false idols before me. Do you know how many rules there are when it comes to a piece of cloth? Lots.

I am told, still, to pledge allegiance to “one nation, under God.” Being an atheist, this is silly. Being an American, I cringe because I was under the impression we have separation of church and state.

I am told that I must rise for the anthem and the flag to pay tribute to those who have fought for my right to choose to stand or sit down or sneeze. I am shamed into honoring those who have come before me. So, I should know where I come from, all the sacrifices that have gotten me to where I am today. Okay. I will respect and learn from this country’s history. I won’t forget all that have come before.

But my black brothers and sisters are told to forget all that has happened. The slaves were freed, get over it already. Jim Crow. Civil Rights. That’s all in the past. Let’s think about the future. Everyone is totally equal in this great country of ours; that’s what our white, male, Christian ancestors fought for. Equality.

I am a queer woman. I make 22% less, on average, than the white men in charge of this country. And it wasn’t until last year that I was granted the constitutional right to marry whomever I pleased. Can you imagine being told by your family and government that you were full of sin and didn’t deserve what others deserve, that you were disgusting, that your partner couldn’t have health insurance, that you are not the parent of your own child? What a shame that would be.

Black women earn 15% less than white women. So. That’s 63 cents on the dollar to a white man. Equality.

And black men, well, stay tuned, gentle reader.

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Why I Sit, Part I.

Since Facebook didn’t really exist in 2001, maybe you don’t know that I worked at a guest ranch in northern California. Guest is really just another name for “dude” ranch. That means, of course, people with money pay to come feel like they live out in the middle of the woods. I regaled them with stories of eating squirrel and taught them how to ride horses and shoot a 12 gauge.

I loved it; I loved living in the mountains, far away from everyone. I loved being able to smell sweaty horses and leather late into the night. I loved sitting by the creek flecked with gold bits and listening to the water.

But most of all, I loved talking to all of the people that visited and worked there. What was strange about the workers was that they were mostly foreign. I don’t know how, exactly, but there was an exchange program that got the ranch beautiful people from England, Germany, Poland, Holland, and as far away as Australia and New Zealand. I fell in love with all of them, but a few especially. Our nights were spent around the campfire, drinking local beers, smoking whatever, and telling tales of the silly guests and Sasquatch. I lived and worked there for a total of 15 months.

Again, this was 2001. I was in a hotel in San Francisco with a Polish woman, waking up from a strange night, when she pointed to the t.v. to show me the news. I saw planes flying into buildings. She seemed devastated. I listened closely, something about the World Trade Center. I had no idea what that was. To me, New York was a place I saw in movies. I had no concept of its actual existence. It was a dreamscape, unreal, far away. She was crying and I was watching her cry. I didn’t understand.

What I could understand on the news was that America was under attack. That there might be more planes and more bombs in major cities, so I hauled ass back to the ranch, six hours north, to where I was safe by the fire with my non American friends.

And we talked. And I learned. And it was there, just days earlier that I said angrily that Bush was and asshole and he was going to get us blown up. And dammit if he didn’t.

After that, plane tickets were cheap. I paid 450 dollars for a round trip to Germany. I spent weeks there and some time in Holland and Poland.

***

It wasn’t until the next summer at the Siskiyou Fair in Yreka California that I experienced something that forever changed me.  It was the night of the Rodeo and all I could focus on was getting and keeping her attention. The national anthem started playing, so I stood and put my hand on my heart. She stayed seated and looked at me like I was some kind of freak. “Stand up,” I said, incredibly offended. “Why,” she said, “it’s not my country.”

No one, in my life, had ever remained seated for the national anthem. I didn’t know how to react. Should I immediately cut this person out of my life? But. She had a point. She wasn’t American. If I went to New Zealand and was forced to stand for their anthem, wouldn’t I feel a bit weird? So I told her, if  I were with her, in her country, I’d stand. Then I learned that most countries don’t do that. Like. None. And how strange it was for her to see us all stand and singing along, ” O’er the land of the free/and the home of the brave”  And what did it mean, anyway? It was in that moment, at the rodeo, that I felt, for the first time, how absurd it was. I’d experienced something like this just a few years earlier, in church. Everyone was saying the words, but no one seemed to listen to what they were saying. And then there’s the pledge I had to recite every day in school, “One nation, under God….”

I sat back down. What was I even saying? Why were we one of the only countries to be so proud of our flag and anthems? It was like…brainwashing.

Later in the week, she and I watched the Fourth of July fireworks together. “It’s so American, ” she said. And it was. I was so American.

In many ways, I am still very American.

That was 15 years ago. I haven’t risen to my feet for a pledge or national anthem since then. Of course, I’m no NFL player. The last time I sat in protest was at Erika’s volleyball game, in a middle school gym, just a few weeks ago.

I was the only one sitting quietly as the song rang out through the tinny speakers.

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My White Son

It happened on Saturday,  somewhere between first and second base, the top of the second inning. I peered out among Cyrus’ t-ball team and realized he was the only white boy. I looked out among those tiny hats and tiny cleats, among the six year olds. And I saw another coach on our team: a black man. And I saw his beautiful black son, with his six year old sized ball pants, his genuine smile and love of the game. I saw a small black child and realized that child would grow up to be a black man. I looked at his dad again. I started to cry. I wondered what this man would have to teach his son that I would never have to teach mine. I wondered at what it meant to raise a black man in this country.

And then I thought, for the first time, of my own responsibility; I have a white man to raise. At what age do these two teammates become something other than just children?

  *    *   *

My parents tell a story of when I was about three years old. One night they decided to open a magazine and start pointing to people and naming them. I vaguely remember this night. They pointed to white people. They pointed to black people. They pointed to Asian people. Not too long after, we found ourselves in KFC. A couple walked in with a kid. I jumped up, stuck my head over the booth, pointed, and screamed, “Black baby!”

When they tell this story, they recall the extreme embarrassment. When I ask why they decided to show me the magazine, they can never quite remember the reason. I suppose, growing up in such an isolated community, they wanted me to know that there were more people in the world, people who didn’t necessarily look like me. That couple was quite possibly the first black people I ever saw.

 *   *   *

Cyrus has never been shown the magazine, so to speak. I don’t have any plans to point at people and give them names. I am lucky that he hasn’t grown up in a tiny, conservative white town. His friends and classmates come from everywhere and are sometimes differently-abled.

This doesn’t mean that I’m naively saying, “I don’t see color.” I see color and racism everywhere, since I grew up around it.  I want him to have a deep understanding of this country’s history. I want him to acknowledge his own privilege. I want him to speak out. I want him to do good. I want him to be good.

In order to do that, I have to make sure I’m setting a good example. I know it is my responsibility to be active in the community. I know it is my responsibility to listen. I know it is my responsibility to speak up, when it is my turn.

Now it might be my turn.

White people: You have seen and heard a million racist things in your lifetime already. You know it happens. You know you’ve been complicit in it by turning your back or laughing. How can you possibly think that this racism hasn’t touched every aspect of the lives of non white people in this country? Shut.the.fuck.up. And listen to people of color. Really fucking listen to the narratives of your friends, neighbors, and, most likely, strangers. People are dying just for being. Do the right thing. Your children are watching.

People of Color: I see you. I hear you. I’m listening to everything. I’m angry. Really fucking angry. I am, at the same time, paralyzed and more motivated than ever. I acknowledge my privilege. I vow to do my best to make this world a better place for all of our kids.

I am raising a straight white man. And I am scared as hell.

 

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