It’s time to talk about race. Time to talk about how we are raised and how that changes over the generations into what feeds or [mal]nourishes our children. How social media, tv, movies, and the ever-powerful, unreliable fictional world of “the news” affects it all.
I was raised in Seattle during my formative years: West Seattle, Beacon Hill, and Capitol Hill. As a second generation Italian whose father immigrated from Naples, I was raised around different views on race. The stereotypical Italian racist definitely exists in my extended family. They will argue that they aren’t racist ’til their deathbed, but use statements like, “The guy was so black, in the dark all you could see was his teeth,” and “I’m not racist, but all the black people I know steal things.” That kind of racist. My maternal grandfather was, surprisingly, the LEAST racist in my observations. He condemned it when he saw it, was matter-of-fact and blunt in the face of it, but didn’t give it too much of his time.
When I was four, my mother remarried, and my stepfather and his family came into the picture. I truly feel like, in my tweens, I had my first taste of a race discussion and remember how it made me feel. My stepfather’s youngest sister was just 10 years older than me, so we got along well, and I always felt close to her. As I neared 10-12 years old, it was made evident through the careful but sideways comments of our family that she liked to date black men. I found these statements so confusing, and didn’t understand why this mattered, or what the whispers and shady looks meant. At one point, someone even said, “I think she is trying to pull out the inherent racism in people by dating black guys.” I remember clearly saying to my sister, “I am confused as to why it’s a bad thing…”
There was never outwardly obvious racism, more like the passive-aggressive Seattle thing. Clearly pointed questions and awkward moments, never blatant but always skirting. It was clear my aunt was aware of the change in atmosphere when she would bring a boyfriend home, and I remember her staying respectful but standing firm. To this day, thinking back, I was impressed by her resolve.
“Racism is a disease of white people” – Albert Einstein
I went to middle school and some of high school in West Seattle and Beacon Hill. Back in the 80’s, the Seattle Schools had a program where they made an attempt to diversify. So although I lived in West Seattle, six blocks from West Seattle High School, I was bussed 45 minutes south to Cleveland High School in Beacon Hill. There were lots of mixed opinions about this decision. Some parents saw it as the district putting their children into “bad neighborhoods” for the sake of diversity, and others appreciated the opportunity for their kids to be around a more diverse peer group. Cleveland High School’s race statistics when I went (I know this because they sent them out with a letter to parents explaining why their child was being bussed) was approximately 30% Black, 65% Asian/Pacific Islander, and 5% White. I only attended Cleveland for one year, but that one year gave me almost a decade of learning. It was socially rich, and a year that will forever have a part in making me the person I am today. It was evident that my parents thought the school was unsafe and they needed to remove me from the city to the suburbs. So at the end of my Freshman year, we moved 20 miles outside of the city to Issaquah, and I started my Sophomore year at Issaquah High School.
The story of life is this: static. One hand is always fighting the other hand, and the left hand is kicking much ass. – Radio Raheem/Do the Right Thing
I moved from a diverse school, where I was the minority, to an almost all-white school in the suburbs — where the drugs were just more expensive and the kids had less to do, so pills, coke, and meth were there to help them pass the time. The first day of school, on the bus, I naturally gravitated to the only person of color on the bus. I sat next to her and started to chat. There was a loudmouth jock with a letterman’s jacket who clearly wanted to be the center of attention, trying to tell a joke. I wasn’t interested and kept talking to the girl next to me. Clearly Mr. Jerkface didn’t like that, so he walked to the seat in front of us and said loudly, “Hey newbie, why don’t you and your N*gger friend shut up so I can tell my joke!” I was INSTANTLY heated and looked to my left. The girls head went down, horrified, but she said nothing.
REMEMBER: I was coming from CLEVELAND HIGH SCHOOL, where I watched a Samoan girl smash another girls head onto a toilet seat for calling her a “Sole in a skirt.” So this? Nope, not on my watch – my year at Cleveland had taught me well. I stood up, punched him in the mouth, and was suspended for two days. Quite a first impression.
For the rest of my three years at IHS, I avoided the “cool kids” and spent most of my time smoking weed and cigarettes in the woods between the high school and the alternative school with the few friends I had. I tried out for the dance/cheer team with a routine to “Burn Hollywood Burn” by Public Enemy, and needless to say, I didn’t make the cut. I bought N.W.A.’s album “Straight Outta Compton” on cassette, and liked to play it loud from my room. I believe I bought it a total of four times. Why four times? Because my parents heard the lyrics and threw it away each time, saying it was trash. So I would just go and buy another one.
I’ve been wonderin’ why
People livin’ in fear
Of my shade
(Or my hi top fade)
I’m not the one that’s runnin’
But they got me one the run
Treat me like I have a gun
All I got is genes and chromosomes
Consider me Black to the bone
All I want is peace and love
On this planet
(Ain’t that how God planned it?) – Fear of a Black Planet/Public Enemy
When I met Ryan, as I’ve discussed in other posts, he was part of the Baha’i faith. I have a lot of love for the years I had as a member of that faith. We traveled to other countries during that time, one being Zambia, Africa. I truly thought I would be able to get a grasp on racism and how to “fix it” by traveling to Africa. I was so mistaken. I witnessed such different race issues than the ones in America. I witnessed cultural practices and issues that almost need a post all of their own because of how deep that rabbit hole goes. Everything you have learned about freedom, slavery and equality here in America – as twisted and horrible as it was – it’s a different level and whole other world in Africa. In short, let’s just say I was incredibly humbled by my time in Zambia (almost two years), and learned that the complexity of economical and racial poverty-stricken areas have taken generations of colonization and racism to get to the state they are in. They can’t be figured out or fixed by any expat or missionary with quick repair. It will take time, humility, and a lot of listening and learning. The experience gave our young daughter, who was there between the ages 2-4yrs old, a great view of the world – however, it exposed her to a lot more than most kids her age. When we returned to the states, and moved to Monroe, one of the first things she asked us was, “Where are all of the black people?”
“My people, my people, what can I say; say what I can. I saw it but didn’t believe it; I didn’t believe what I saw. Are we gonna live together? Together, are we gonna live?” – Mister Señor Love Daddy/Do the Right Thing
I realize that during my time as a Baha’i, some of the things I encouraged, some of the things I said about race as part of the teachings, weren’t helpful or acknowledging real issues at hand. They were incredibly dismissive and while, seemingly unifying, didn’t address the current problems. Things like “We are all part of the Human Race” or “I see no color” or even “One Planet One People.” In theory, of course, they are lovely sentiments — but when your “PEOPLE” aren’t treated as one, when ALL COLORS aren’t equal, that problem needs to be handled first.
Our first situation as parents regarding racism was when we lived in Monroe in 2004. Monroe, a small logging town northeast of Seattle, was where we gravitated upon returning to Washington after 10 years. A lot had changed and we could no longer afford Seattle, so had to go out of the city for cheaper rent. Monroe was predominately white in those years, and the largest minority population was Latino. Our family rules in regards to race and racism have never wavered. You never treat anyone less than you would want to be treated. And if you ever witness anyone being treated badly because of who they are, you stand up for them and help them – at the very least, stay present and be vocal.
One day, Madison had a friend over from school. The little girl’s dad worked for the city, drove a monster truck, and her mom stayed at home, always making excuses for her husband’s angry exterior. Their daughter seemed sweet enough, and so she came for a sleepover. As they hung out, one of the neighbor kids, Pati, came to see if Madison wanted to play. She was Latina and one of Madison’s favorite kids on the block. Madison was excited to introduce her two friends to each other, but the little white girl wasn’t thrilled. She looked at Madison and Pati, then looked like she had tasted something bad. Her attitude was downright rude. I was watching from the kitchen, ready to step in, if needed. Pati clearly felt the weird vibe and decided to go home. After she left, the schoolmate looked at Madison and said, “Why do you play with THOSE people? My parents said they are dirty and we shouldn’t play with them.” I put down what I was cooking and made my way to the living room, trying to stay cool, knowing this was a learned behavior and not this little girl’s fault. Before I could get there, Madison stated “She is one of my favorite friends and nicer than you anyways. I have decided I don’t want you to spend the night anymore. It’s not okay to treat people that way. I want you to go home.” The girl, in tears, looked at me for some validation or help. Madison looked at me and said, “Mom, she is going home I am going to play with Pati” and that was that. She wasn’t mean or angry but blunt, truthful, and real. She didn’t excuse or brush it off, she handled it immediately, and had the courage to speak up and stand her ground.
If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor. If an elephant has its foot on the tail of a mouse, and you say that you are neutral, the mouse will not appreciate your neutrality.” – Desmond Tutu
The current state of the American race problem is volatile and painful. I have lost friends, grieved over my rapidly diminishing respect for certain family members, and have tried my best, as a white person of privilege, to find my voice and use it. I have had discussions with friends, who fear for their black children every time they leave the house, looking to me as a white mother of a white female, who is now a young adult – for support and help. I have debated and pleaded until I am out of words, to try to wake up other white parents who claim “ALL LIVES MATTER” and that ALL mothers and parents worry about their kids when they leave the house every day! It is exhausting. Here is how I am explaining it to EVERYONE I know and to other youth that may still not get it:
One of our dear friends has an amazing son; we will call him Q. He is 18 years old, six-feet tall, handsome, plays football, gets good grades, is going to college in the Fall, and is an all-around good kid. My daughter Madison, 19 years old, beautiful girl, dancer, went to PNB two-year program, got good grades, now starting her career. She is also an all-around good kid. They have known each other for almost a decade. BOTH are the kids of rappers, both kids are WOKE, and both kids know their rights. Madison is white, Q is black. NOW – lets say, hypothetically, both kids are stopped separately on the street by a police officer for a “broken tail light”.
Now those of you who know Madison, know she inherited her dad’s fire. I am willing to bet she would be mouthy, sassy and MAY even snap back about her rights to the officer. And yet, since Q was in his young teens, his mom has told him the following: “Son, if you are ever stopped by police, don’t talk back. Do everything they say. Lay on the ground, hands on the wheel, whatever. Don’t sass. Don’t move. Call me as soon as you can.” What are the odds that our kids will NOT be treated the same? What are the odds that Madison will get off with, WORST CASE, a call to her parents and a slap on the wrist, but if Q displayed that same behavior we would be seeing it on the evening news? What are the odds? I will wait.
How many of you WHITE parents can honestly say you have had this discussion about how to behave if stopped or challenged by a police officer with your WHITE child? How many of you have worried daily about the chance of your child being a victim of racism from the very people paid by all of our taxes, to serve and protect? Again, I will wait.
“The irony of American history is the tendency of good white Americanas to presume racial innocence. Ignorance of how we are shaped racially is the first sign of privilege.
In other words. It is a privilege to ignore the consequences of race in America.” – Tim Wise
I can go on asking questions for hours. I can try to UNLEARN people and WAKE them for days. But how can we help and try to move forward and rebuild? That is the million dollar question right now. Many, including my husband, think that you can’t rebuild until the current institution displaying bigoted racist power is taken down. There is truth to this, but it won’t happen with one person, or even two. It will take the constant and loud voices of MANY, and my feelings are that it won’t go down with violence, but rather with intelligent and courageous voices that multiply with each day, no longer letting these acts of terror by without accountability. I have to make sure I am doing what I can and need to, before I can preach and tell anyone else what they should be doing. So how do I become an example of a woke, informed, privileged white ally for my daughter? How do I use my voice to no longer tolerate the abuse and murder that continues to wreak havoc on just a select group of humanity?
To be completely transparent, this entire blog was written early last week, with the exception of this paragraph. Then late last week, my experience as a parent dealing with fear and violence took a dramatic turn. I have spent the last week lamenting and trying to find the words to explain what happened, and realized that I needed to share from my perspective as a parent. We hosted a gathering at our house to discuss the issues of race, fear, media driven violence, police violence and how we can make a difference and start to change things at a local level. A few close friends of varying races and our daughter were in attendance. The discussion got heated, and very heavy. We went outside for air, as a group, to be unified — to take a moment to refocus and breathe. Oh, the irony in that statement. As we stood in the alleyway at dusk, near the street lights, a young white male in a hoodie came around the corner with a gun in both hands. He pointed at us and opened fire, yelling “Get off my property!” In that moment, several things happened. In slow motion, I watched the faces of people I love change to total and absolute fear. I saw my daughter, closest to the gunman, with a weapon mere feet from her face. I saw myself become fearless in the line of fire, only concerned with making sure my daughter and husband were out of the way. Within moments we all looked around, realizing no one was hit. They were blanks. We were all alive. We could have been dead and we were all alive. But the aftermath continues: processing, consistent relooping of the event in our heads, more processing, anger, and now trying to heal and move forward.
As parents, we focus on the importance of teaching our kids about things like morals, safety, responsibility, finances — but how much time is spent on social justice? There is a book I read, several years ago, called Lies My Teacher Told me, which discusses the lies in American history that are fed to our children in the school system, and how we can UNLEARN ourselves. It was my first look into how controlled and manipulated we truly are when it comes to the past, the history of America, and how we have been lied to for so many years. I challenge you all to do some real unlearning. Don’t believe what you see on the news. Show your children how to investigate the “truths” they are taught and to understand the difference between what is real and what is exaggerated. To listen more than they speak. To nurture truth and weed out racial sensationalism and bias. When ALL people matter EQUALLY in the eyes of the police and other government agencies, then and only then will ALL lives truly matter.