“Our baby is going to experience racism someday”
There weren’t many white kids in my first grade class in a California military school.
My first crush (if I may use so strong a word for the affections of a first grader) was on a black boy who was so sweet, he immediately forgave me demonstrating the mad karate skills I’d just learned from The Karate Kid . . . even though I’d demonstrated on his groin.
His sweetness went only so far. He lost my favor before the school year was done. A year is, after all, an eternity to a first grader.
My second crush was on another boy, who—like the first—I didn’t think of as “black” at the time. Just cute.
Returning to my Oregon hometown for second grade was a little jarring. To my young eyes, almost everyone’s skin was colored minor variations of the same tone.
When I was old enough to start questioning things, like whether I was really a Republican like my parents, I remember catching sight of a banner flying throughout downtown Eugene and laughing.
The banner proclaimed we ought: “CELEBRATE DIVERSITY!”
“What, as long as it’s somewhere else?!” I remember thinking with equal mirth and incredulity.
I studied Anthropology in college. Most of my mirth remained, but strands of more analytical thought started creeping in. I found it impossible to wrap my mind around how vastly human experience could vary, and nearly impossible the further my studies progressed to speak in absolutes about “the” human experience.
Still, my engagement was largely intellectual. It remained that way until a couple of weeks after I told my boyfriend, Ba.D., I was pregnant.
Ba.D., you see, is black.
In one of our early conversations, he told me, “You know our baby is going to experience racism someday.”
Wait, what? In Los Angeles? In 2009? No way.
“I’ve been called a ‘nigger.’ Lots of times.”
I started reading articles and finding myself incensed at examples of racism very much alive and present. Even in L.A., today.
I’d rant about these things to Ba.D. only to find myself flummoxed by his calm. It took me a little while and lots of patient explanation on his part to understand this was borne of decades of personal experience. What was new and pressing to me was something he’d already lived for 3.5 decades.
A couple of months into my pregnancy, I flew home to tell my mom I was pregnant. When I showed her a picture of me and Ba.D. from the scariest weekend of my pregnancy, one in which I’d been told I’d just have to wait and see if my baby would live, she said, “So it’s gonna be biracial.”
I wrote about that conversation and what I took away from it in my blog “Race and my mother’s footsteps.”
Although I blogged a response to a racial profiling incident on 9/11/11, I haven’t been aware of any racism evidenced in my vicinity since I had that conversation with my mom. But every hateful word I’ve read has caused me great sorrow as I’ve wondered, “How on earth could someone hate my child without even knowing him? Without knowing how his laugh sounds, his touching concern when anyone around him hurts themselves, how much comfort he brought my mom in her dying days? How can that even be possible?”
When I read about Trayvon Martin, I wept to imagine losing my son over the color of his skin.
I quietly raged at people who waved off the suggestion race played a role in his death, and rejoiced earlier today at this comment #10 responding to such an assertion.
I rejoiced the comment, but not the reason for the blog that began the conversation. Some fans of the The Hunger Games books left the movie outraged by their belated discovery that a beloved character was black, a “discovery” made surprising by the fact it’s clearly stated in the book.
As always, after letting it simmer for a few hours, I eased my raging heart by transferring some of my outrage to print:
A few years ago, Joss Whedon (creator of the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly, to start) was asked why he keeps writing strong women characters.
His response? “Because you’re still asking me that question.”
Along the same vein, I’ve heard questions like, “Why are we still talking about race?” My take? Because the question is still being asked. The fact an asker hasn’t experienced, witnessed or understood they’re witnessing racism doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist or is wildly diminished. The question alone implies a disheartening depth of misunderstanding about internal experience versus external reality.
Today’s real world is still very full of very real inequities. We can’t change that by saying “But look how far we’ve come!” and leaving it at that.
Ba.D.’s response was, as always, perfect to calm and focus me:
Love ya and hold onto that rage. Don’t let it rule you, but let it guide you. Temper it with the knowledge that most people are at least trying. Steel that with the truth that you will have to fight.
Unlike first grade, the fights I face won’t be on the schoolyard. They won’t likely involve punches, kicks (groinal or otherwise) or thrown stones.
They’ll involve words.
If I’m able to mirror Ba.D.’s patience, those words won’t sound like fighting words. They’ll sound instead like considered assessments, and the more I practice shaping them, glimmers of hope.
I do have hope. I have seen horrible things done by the hands of man, but I have also seen great kindnesses, even by those whom I’ve witnessed behaving monstrously.
So I’ll keep reading. I’ll keep writing. I’ll keep struggling to use words instead of inarticulate cries of outrage.
Words are, to me, our bridges to other hearts. When used wisely, to cross over to someone else’s heart or to grant them passage to our own, their power to transform is immense. Not fast, usually.
© 2012 Deborah Bryan. All rights reserved.
Duplication in whole or substantial portion is explicitly forbidden.