I was scrolling through Facebook last night before I went to bed—something I tell myself not to do and often end up doing anyway. This post, from a friend of mine who is a fabulous, run-of-the-mill, small town, midwestern-raised, dynamic, smart, sassy and all kinds of nationalities woman, was the last post I read before I went to sleep:
“I’m trying to remember the first time I was told to go back to Africa. It’s happened so many times in my lifetime, that I actually can’t recall. But I do know this – the first time I heard it, I knew exactly what the speaker was saying to me and about me.”
I was bothered by it when I read it. It’s not that I don’t see that she is of African descent—for heaven’s sakes, I comment on her fabulous hair nearly every time I see her. (As a side note, that might be an unconsciously racist thing—white people commenting on the hair of people of other races. It’s certainly not how I mean it—I simply do love her hair. But upon further examination, it’s time to stop going on and on about it every time I see her.)
But I digress…
I know one of my friend’s parents is from Africa. But I also know my friend is American. I know her accent is just like mine. I know we went to college at the same time, and I know that I often looked at her across the quad at MSUM, wishing we could be friends but feeling like I would never be cool enough to run in her circle (it’s not just her hair that is fabulous—that’s simply the physical manifestation of her total self.)
But here’s the thing—I don’t care where she’s from, where she was born, where her parents came from. I don’t care if she was born in America (I don’t think she was if my memory is correct); I don’t care if she’s an American citizen or not (I happen to know she is a citizen).
I care that she’s all the things I said above and that she’s an excellent person who is engaged in our community in ways I can only hope to be engaged. She is a care taker, a motivator, a fighter for justice and one bad ass woman. In short, she’s the complete package.
And here’s the other thing—the thing that woke me up numerous times last night and got me up early this morning to write about it: I have three members of my family who are not white Americans, too.
My husband has an Irish passport and a green card. One time, coming through customs, an officer asked him why he had a job in America. Weren’t there Americans who could do his job (you know, be a world-renowned plant cell wall biochemist)? His answer was perfect, “Apparently not.”
My brother’s wife has a French passport and a green card. I can’t speak to whether or not she gets targeted when she’s coming back and forth from traveling.
My son’s girlfriend, of the three, the only actual born and bred American, is a first generation Mexican-American young woman. Spanish is her first language. Her stunning dark hair and eyes gives her the exotic beauty we all envy but have apparently gotten quite comfortable allowing to be targeted for treatment I never believed would be a reality in this country in my lifetime (although why am I surprised when I know the statistics of how Black, Hispanic and Native Americans are routinely treated). She has never even been to Mexico.
My husband could afford to be a little bit sassy—he’s a white, European, highly-educated man. My sister-in-law lives in New York City and likely faces little to no discrimination (my assumption, as we have never talked about this).
I can’t speak for my son’s girlfriend either. Until recently, she lived most of her life in the upper midwest. She holds a degree with multiple honors and distinctions from a major University. She has been and will continue to be a significant contributing member of our society.
And now she lives in Los Angeles with my son, and I find myself worrying about her on a pretty regular basis. Is she more likely to be pulled over? Will she face discrimination in ways I’m not even imagining? Will people say, to her face, that she needs to go “home”?
The thing about having these four people in my life is that I can’t un-know their stories. I can’t pretend that two of them can’t slip effortlessly through their day to day lives, appearing for all intents and purposes to be “regular” American citizens, while two of them, the actual Americans, face everything from simple, (hopefully) naive and benign stupidity to potentially dangerous discrimination and racism on a regular basis.
How do we reconcile this? How do we begin to dismantle all of the history and inequity and outright bigotry? And what can I do? Being born the whitest of white Americans, third generation on my dad’s side and fourth or more on my mom’s, what can I do? What difference can I make? What change can I be that I want to see in the world?
Again, I come back to writing. It’s the only “activism” I can do unless I make the choice to give up my current life and take on a very different role, and I honestly don’t see me doing that, much to my shame.
I hope that my writing gets people to stop and think, to shift their lens a bit and see something, or in this case, someones, from a new perspective. At the end of the day, it’s going to take a whole slew of us making small, incremental intellectual and emotional inroads to dismantle the insidious racism and overt nationalism that pervades our culture and our rhetoric.
It’s not “us vs. them.” It’s you, me, my husband, my friend, your friend, your neighbor, my son’s girlfriend, your mother’s nurse, my sister-in-law, your minister and on and on. We are, all of us, just people. Some good, some bad, but in the end, just people.