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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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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Little White Lies

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.

More vocabulary:

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.