Reflections on Race in my Life

Today I took the boys down to the Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial on the national mall. The Park Rangers were holding an educational event for children, and I wanted them to participate. I didn’t have much hope for Joshua, the three-year-old, getting too much out of the visit other than exercise, but I hoped that Jalen would start to learn some things.

After we parked, we had a little hike to the memorial. Jalen asked me where we were going and why, and I started trying to explain the nuances of racism and how Dr. King fought for equality for all. Joshua interrupted to ask, “Why are we black, mommy? Is it because we have black clothes?”

You can always count on Joshua for a laugh!  Lol.

I remember a time I went to my dad with my own questions about racism. It happened my first black history month in college. I spent most of my childhood and teen years living in the Caribbean, coming up to the “mainland” during the summer each year to maintain our “green cards” (permanent resident status), until we became naturalized citizens of the U.S.. I moved permanently to the Washington D.C. area to attend college. It was a parochial college that hosted Friday evening worship services for the students. The first Friday evening of that black history month, I left the service confused and bewildered – the speaker had seemed so “angry”, and several of my friends and older students whom I admired also seemed “angry”. What was going on? Didn’t we all have white friends (the school had a pretty evenly mixed population of black and white students)? Were we really angry at them? And didn’t all this racism thing happen a long time ago? I got to my dorm room and called my dad to find out if something was wrong with them for being angry, or if I’d missed something and I was also supposed to be angry.

His explanation surprised me. He told me that my having grown up in the Caribbean where I was surrounded by successful black people, and successful black people in leadership, had affected how I viewed the world. In Guyana*, Trinidad*, and St. Croix – whites were definitely the minority (if I ever saw them, and they were many of the times, just tourists). All of my teachers were black – from standard one (first grade) through high school. Every professional I went to (doctor, dentist, counselor, you name it) was black. The politicians were black. The leaders of the countries were black. The lawyers, engineers, architects, teachers, basically everyone around me who was successful because they had attained tertiary degrees or because they were successful tradespeople – was black.

Subconsciously, my dad told me, that made me believe that black people could do and achieve anything. There was nothing stopping us from doing anything. I never had to experience anybody telling me that I couldn’t be anything, and I never saw another race “in power”, or “in charge of running things”. This was not the case for African American blacks, he told me. He reminded me of the time when we lived in the “mainland” while he was getting his graduate degree. That was the late 1970s. “Do you know,” he told me, “there were white professors at my school [Melissa’s notes: a religious institution, mind you – don’t get me started] who told me I’d never get an ‘A’ in their classes because I was black.” This was in 1979. Not 1876. He went on to give me other examples of race-based discrimination that he and other members of our family living in the U.S. had faced.

Many of my African American college classmates, he said, would be able to tell me stories of their parents being discriminated against, and not being allowed to go certain places simply because of their skin color. “Racism isn’t something that happened to them a long time ago,” he said. “It’s something they can remember happening!” Even today, he warned – it still exists. You are probably less likely to see it than they because it hasn’t been a constant part of your life. (This point he made turned out to be an accusation that was indeed leveled at me several times by black college classmates. Many times, Caribbean people “interpret” racist attitudes as someone having a “bad day” – because why would he do x,y or z to me just because I’m black?)

My eyes were opened by that conversation. Although intellectually I knew all about Dr. King and the civil rights movement, it hadn’t really been “real” to me. I was able to do whatever I wanted to in this country, but never really stopped to think about why I now had these privileges, and about the people who suffered mightily so I could have them.

I consider that incident something that happened at the beginning of my college experience. I closed out that experience listening to one of the speakers at my graduation ceremony – a white professor from the English department whom most students, black and white alike, loved – encourage us to change the world that we were about to enter. She talked about white privilege and the horrible ramifications it caused. She reminded us that the ups and downs that we’d experienced at school as the two races tried to co-mingle, were just a sampling of what we would deal with in the real world. It’s 1994, she said, but it’s still a difficult world.

It’s now 2014 – and it’s still a difficult world. The U.S. has elected a black president – something my parents and those older than they SWORE would NEVER happen. But racism is still prevalent. We would be foolish to think otherwise. Things may be better than they were in 1979, but we haven’t reached Nirvana. I fully intend to teach my boys about the dangers of driving while black and the “proper” way to interact with the police. Am I stupid to do this? Not while young black men continue to get shot by police. Not while five young men could be coerced into confessing that they committed a horrible rape and get convicted with little to no physical evidence tying them to the crime (check out the Central Park Five – also now available on Netflix).  Not while three-strikes-you’re-out laws put hundreds of young black men into jail with sentences that should be reserved for hardened criminals (one example – The New Jim Crow; there are many more).

But I’m also going to teach them about Dr. King and his colleagues who fought tirelessly and died to provide the opportunities we have today.  They’ll learn that they can be whatever they want to be, and that it works best if on their way to fulfilling their dreams, they help people along the way.  I’m going to teach them that racism is one of the “bad things” we all have to fight to eradicate, because it’s still true that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” (MLK, Jr., 1963)

*Trinidad and Guyana have their own set of racism issues between Indians and blacks, and the entire Caribbean suffers from discrimination based on class.

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