I am having a hard time sleeping. I hear what could be a woman screaming so I get up and check. I open the door, phone in my hand but I only hear the occasional car on the busy street behind my house. No one is there.
Every time I sit down to write about racism, I get up and clean something. My toilet is spotless because that is something I can quickly alter. I can scrub off the shit and make it different.
My friend, Virginia Hampton would teach her African American Studies classes at University of New Mexico that privilege is a lot like flush toilets. Most people in the US have one; many of us didn’t invent them and might not know how they work or how to fix them. They are just there, in nearly every apartment, home, school, office building, stadium, church, waiting for us to flush away our excrement. We only notice them if they break. We don’t think much about the fact that the majority of people in the world don’t have flush toilets.
I read a study in college about a woman named Kitty Genovese in New York City who was stabbed to death in 1964. Many people had heard her scream and no one called the police, no one investigated, no one yelled out the window. Social psychologists called it the Bystander Effect and talked about the Diffusion of Responsibility. I told myself that if I was there, I would have gotten involved. I suspect we all tell ourselves that so we can sleep.
Some people are treated with more dignity than others in our communities. This is not how I want it. I know it is part of my responsibility to talk and write about it, drive a wedge in the ease with which white people can ignore it. I have some privilege and I am treated with respect in many places. It is possible for me to forget about not-guilty verdicts and police racial profiling for a time.
Rosalyn wore rubber bands with blue balls on the end in her hair in pre-school and didn’t have to wash it as often as I did. We couldn’t keep our hands out of each other’s hair; our differences were weird to both of us. I wanted a black baby doll like Rosalyn’s. My parents said we had dolls that looked like us and it wouldn’t make sense for me to have a black baby because I was white.
Why is the neo Nazi movement so popular in Oregon, California, Washington and Idaho these days? What qualities about our communities make it seem as if haters would be welcome here? Is it our fear of saying things that aren’t nice? Is it the cultural norms of aspiring to middle class living? Is it our beautiful, healthy white children who have college funds?
In Portland, it may be our lack of civic response to some of the events from the recent past, banishing Gypsies in 1944 or the shooting of Mulugeta Seraw by white supremacists in 1988. It may be the intense segregation in our neighborhoods because there was the invisible line of Killingsworth where real estate agents would not sell homes to people of color until very recently. White supremacists are moving to the West coast because they feel their ideas are accepted here. That is intolerable and my clean toilet bowl doesn’t shift it.
I worked with Derwin at Little Caesar’s when I was 15. We used to find music that we both liked on the radio so we could sing together while I mopped and he wiped down the counters when we closed the restaurant. I remember the drunk Super bowl guy whose pizza order was wrong and he called us “dumb bitch” and “stupid nigger” and we finally got him to leave the store and locked the door. Derwin was even more shaken than I was but I didn’t understand why.
We are horrified by the stories of the World War Two concentration camps, by the people who knew what was happening and did not do anything. Are we in that situation now? They are taking young black men away. They are making up reasons to do so but many of us know it’s because people hate them and have made a system in which they get profiled and shot, killed or shipped to prison.
In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander cites these stats:
• The United States incarcerates a higher percentage of black men than South Africa did at the height of apartheid.
• An African-American male is sentenced an average of a 20 to 50 times longer prison term then a white male convicted of the same drug crime.
• Over 2.3 million men in America are in prison — about half for drug crimes. Seventy percent of all men imprisoned are black or Hispanic.
• There are 7 million Americans either in prison, on probation, or on parole — mostly for selling or using drugs. In many inner cities, eighty percent of young men have prison records. These convictions will remain on their records permanently, limiting their voting rights and their ability to find employment. Currently, in all but two states, citizens with felony convictions are permanently or temporarily prohibited from voting. The United States is the only country that permits permanent disenfranchisement of felons even after completion of their sentences.
• The United States now has the highest rate of incarceration in the world — higher than Russia, China and Iran.
What will we do?
We can discern what to accomplish with the influence we’ve got. Sometimes, that looks like changing our focus from our own families, streets, tribes and friendship circles towards our larger communities. Sometimes it looks like letting go of our angst that nothing we do will ever be enough. That is not the point and it keeps us paralyzed and addicted to working on only that which yields immediate results. Do something and yes, it won’t be enough. It will be doing something.
Some social change theories say that change begins at a financial level. If we want transformation, we have a responsibility to contribute our money or time to projects that may not directly benefit us but contribute to the world we want to see.
In theory, another level of change is legislation. The school to prison pipeline must be stopped. Racial profiling must be short circuited. Our laws assume that all people are valued equally and we know that isn’t true. We are being asked to think more creatively than we ever have before in pursuit of justice. We must consider that our laws are not reflective of reality, that they must be revised if we want to live in our integrity. It is not the first time.
Another level is art and culture. I do not underestimate the power of art to transmute minds and souls. We have never before had a platform this large nor a connective web that can pass insight on so efficiently. Our evolution can happen in an instant and it is happening.
The Daily Show tells us that the average age of people who watch FOX news is 65. There are more kids today who have never been taught to hate themselves, or to judge interracial or same sex marriages. Even some of the ones wearing organic diapers are growing up without the same levels of violence and prejudice in their hearts. We will outlive the haters; their numbers are dwindling and they have moved underground. Overt racism does not get the same response in public that it did in the 1860’s, the 1960’s; we can change.
I grapple with these questions constantly: What stories was I brought up with that need to be refreshed? What do I assume about people of different ethnic heritages or appearances without questioning those assumptions? What does the media show me that I haven’t examined? Whose faces are missing from the places where I go and what would have to change to widen the appeal of those places?
Where are you spending your time, energy and money? What do you support? What don’t you support and who are you telling about it? What creative messages about race and social change do we want to go viral?
There is so much more that we can do. You name it.