People you may not know

I googled “What happened in Charleston.” Try it. 0.35 seconds returns about 26,500,000 results. Four days ago a 21 year old man shot and killed 9 people at a church meeting. A relatively young, white man killed nine members of a historic black church. The trolls on-line are out full force to proclaim “It’s not about race!” ‘Cause it’s never about race. The civil war was about economics, the killings were about religion and religious freedom blah blah blah. Some think this is about mental health, access to care and not about evaluating people on race.

If you believe that I have a bridge to sell you. . . .

Still don’t have a judgement? My former neighbors put up a white supremacist flag soon after I moved into my old house. I never read my neighbors the riot act. I believe in freedom of speech. I also believe actions have consequences. My neighbors had no right to assume I would like them. My reaction surprised some. Some felt I had no cause to take offense. “It’s not a racist flag,” “Willow” said, “it’s a ‘confederate’ flag.” I pointed out, nicely, the Confederate flag does not have a burning cross. What can be expected from a society that proudly flies the Confederate flag from its capitol building? We can expect denizens who romanticize troubled race relationships.

Four words: slavery, Jim Crow, segregation and inequality.

Eleanor Roosevelt may have said no one can take advantage of you without your permission but she never said that to Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City Bomber. Come to think of it, she never said it to the victims neither. I know, I know, if you’ve been reading carefully you might point out Timothy McVeigh isn’t a racist, he’s a terrorist. But my point is, and I do have one, that people CAN and DO oppress without permission. Only the majority of society has the power to change cultural norms for the betterment of society. My personal opinion changes nothing. Your personal opinion changes little. Lots and lots and lots of opinions must changes for norms to change.

That, dear reader, is why racism still exists. It’s not because of the racists. The kind of people who would go into a church assembly and murder is a tiny tiny percentage of the population. The kind of people who display a confederate flag or a KKK symbol ? Another small percentage. The kind of people who find racism offensive are only a slightly larger percentage. The number of people who don’t give a fuck? Huge. There are far more slackers than haters any day o’the week.

My former roommate Will, and others like him don’t dislike people of color. Will would never fly a flag with a burning cross in the middle. Had my neighbors not posted their offensive flag I would have never guessed what lurked beneath Will’s easy going surface personality. Will and Willow were just two of the locals I quizzed on the racist flag next door, who thought I was mistaken and my neighbors were cool. “Mexicans can put up Mexican flags,” “Bill” the tow truck driver pointed out, “so why can’t your neighbors put up a flag that shows their pride in being white?” yeah Kumari, what makes you think the flag is designed to be inflammatory? Is it the burning cross?

Nice people of the 21st Century talk about kittens going viral not race relations.

I bristle when someone telling a story mentions race/religion/sexual preference/weight non sequitur. When such markers have no connection to the story, why mention ’em? There’s a metamessage underneath the message. Names like “Dick” or “Jane” conjure up images of middle-class white kids of the 1950s. Maybe I don’t want you to image every person I am not-naming is white, ’cause they’re not. I steer clear of using my air quotes around names that create unnecessary associations. I could employ names like “Shiva” and “Shakti” but that would create an alternate (no better) bias. Images of young, handsome Hindi people might pop uninvited into your head. Even words like “Pink” and “Blue” divert attention away from the story if the event I’m chronicling has naught to do with gender bias.

Years ago my blonde-haired blue-eyed co-worker called a friend to report a “black man” was at the nearby Fort Tejon. I asked “Blondie” why she called her friend. She retorted, because earlier in the week there had been a reported attempted rape. “So why does it matter if the guy is black?” Blondie stared at me blankly. She clearly did not understand my question. I tried again. “Why did you mention to your friend that a ‘black’ man is at Fort Tejon?” Blondie rolled her pretty blue eyes.

“Because he IS black,” she replied. Imagine the adult version of saying “duuuhhhh.”

Frustrated by her response I pressed her, “Aren’t black men allowed to visit Fort Tejon?” Blondie calmed repeated an attempted rape had been reported. But what did that have to do with calling her friend with black-men-sightings? Blondie did not answer. If she had a fear of black men she certainly wasn’t going to admit it. Neither would she admit that she assumed the black man was responsible. But the metamessage came through loud and clear.

We miss the mark when we think racism is limited to economics, slavery, Jim Crow and inequality. Underlying assumptions, gross generalizations, hate, fear and entitlement are the seed. Inequality is the fruit. Ignorance and apathy are the fertilizers. I HAD A JUDGEMENT. And so should you. The next time your friend calls to tell you a “black man” is at the park, the supermarket or next door – ask your friend “Why are you calling me to tell me this?”

And if she replies, “Because he IS black,” maybe you should re-evaluate the friendship. Do you really need your kids to grow up thinking black people are suspicious? Wouldn’t it be better to teach your kids suspicious looking people are suspicious? How are they going to tell who looks suspicious ? It’s pretty damn hard to tell. Will, Willow and Bill sure had me fooled. The most effective murderers are the ones, like this young man from South Carolina, whom no one suspects. He looked like anyone. He looked like everyone. The people who knew him in high school report they thought of him as more of a stoner and a slacker than a killer. Too bad they were wrong.

One of the best ways to fight racism is to get to know people of other races. Don’t stop at saying “hi” to the cashier at the bookstore (although that is a very good place to start.) Keep going. Go to schools, parks, churches and yoga studios where people of all races and religions are welcome. When I lived in Hawai’i people were curious about other cultures. We got to know each other by asking questions. By laughing, joking and eating together. By sharing work, by working together. We all kidded each other about ethic food/clothes/proclivities. On the mainland? Not so much. Speaking of differences is taboo in a culture where everyone pretends to be colorblind.

“Because he IS black,” Blondie said. That still rings in my ears. How sad that a black man would feel unwelcome to tour the Fort Tejon just because some person of unreported color had earlier in the week caused trouble. Sad, but not tragic. Not as bad as the Charleston murders.

Now Y’all play nice!

Sat Nam