As most people know, today is the day we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr. here in the United States. I grew up hearing Mr. King’s words, holding hands with my friend from India and my black friend (and one of the few black friends I’d encounter in my largely white-washed neighborhoods and school system), and thinking, “We’ve done it! We’ve destroyed all hate! If only Mr. King could see us today!”
Then I grew up. Sadly, it took longer for me to grow up then I thought. It took moving to a bigger city in my 30s, where there were more chances to see the emboldened (and not so emboldened, the mundane, every day) acts of racism than I had in my small, progressive and largely white town. It took moving to a larger city with more diversity to see the minor ways racism permeates our every day. The cashier who gruffly checks out the black family ahead of me with hardly a single word and then chats excitedly with me (a complete stranger) as if she’s a completely different person; the people who cross the street when my black teenage neighbor boy is walking home from school (not knowing that he’d be the one to run and help them, or return their wallets or keys when they drop them, like I’ve done on several occasions); the kids getting stopped by the police as they walk down the street to play basketball – as far as I can tell just because there’s 4-5 of them and they happen to be black.
I’m ashamed to see that we’re still fighting racism today, even while celebrating one of the greatest leaders of the civil rights movements. What’s worse, is that in our enlightened age – black people have to fight to get white people to acknowledge that racism still exists. I know there are many people who believe the Black Lives Matter movement is excitational or a farce – an uneducated, disorganized, irrational movement with no clear goals or agenda. I’ve heard and read these critiques all over the web and from people I love and respect. Yet, when I’m confronted with those arguments, I’ll admit I’m filled with great sadness. In the face of black youth dying for being black and poor, in the face of the voiceless and oppressed struggling to cry out and say, “We matter! We live! We breathe! We deserve to dream of bigger and better things, to walk and laugh and live our lives without fear!” In the face of that message, what right does anyone have to say, “Change your tone! Change your rhetoric! Change your appearance! Change your talk! Change YOU!” Because that’s what I hear when white people criticize the Black Lives Matter movement. They’re more concerned with telling the activists what they’re doing wrong, then saying, “I see you’re struggling. I see you’re burdened and angry by the sheer adversity you face every day, which I don’t truly understand. How can I help ease this burden?” Okay, maybe don’t say exactly that, but certainly you can think it. Certainly you can go out and become educated.
We have not realized Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream. We’re closer. We’re having conversations – well, when we’re not too busy thinking, “What? Me? I’m not racist! How horrible! I can’t believe someone insinuated I’m a racist!”
The simple truth is that we will not realize Mr. King’s dream until we realize that the nightmare, however faded it is compared to his day, is still real. Blacks, although still a minority today, are still more likely to experience hate in small ways and big ways. I nearly cried when a friend’s son pointed a toy gun at me and menacingly said, “Bang! You’re dead!” because the thought of my nephew doing that very same thing terrified me. He’s only 6, but I read the article that calmly stated Black Boys Viewed as Older, Less Innocent Than Whites, Research Finds, filled me with apprehension. In my mind’s eye, I could see him saying, in the same ominous voice, “You’re dead!” and that being it. I can only imagine the fear my sister must experience when he plays with guns outside – well, he simply can’t. If there’s anything Tamir Rice and the many youth who have died with cell phones, candy, and other items in their hands that were mistaken for real guns have taught us is that’s just a terror most of us white parents don’t have to live with. And that’s white privilege. My friend, a mother of a multi-racial daughter wrote about that here.
Nowadays, our racism isn’t quite as easy to identify as it used to be. The men in white hoods were easy to spot (and dammit, they still exist), but it’s here all the same. Racism isn’t all about those men in white hats, anyway. Those guys and their fiery crosses, they’re our symbol that we hold out and say, “See, that’s racism. That hatred. That death, murder, lynching, that’s the face of racism.” Racism is ingrained in each of us in a different way. Nowadays, we know that “racism” is an ugly word for an ugly feeling, a feeling of discomfort that we don’t like to acknowledge that exists.
But it does.
All I ask is that those of you who, like me, grew up in a white-washed area, go take a walk in the poorer neighborhoods, and tell me what you see. Do you see that the marginalized folk tend to be people of color? Here, I live in a poorer neighborhood then I’m used to, a temporary sacrifice so my husband can go to school and so my family can eat mostly organic food. But I’m an exception. My sacrifice is a choice. A choice not everyone has.
I see the families, barely making ends meet, living on WIC and government support, as this area is slowly becoming gentrified. The poor and disenfranchised (and black) are getting pushed to the edges, but still have to make the commute to the schools in this neighborhood, because the gentrified white folks won’t send their kids to school in this area.
What part of that says anything but systemic, organized racism is alive?
If you look, you can see the systemic racism, the built-in segregation through education and policing of the impoverished.
I am proud of how far we’ve come. I am also ashamed that we are so rigid in our determination to extoll Mr. King’s words, we forget to honor his dream. We still have work to do to make it a reality. We’re so much closer.
But we’re not there yet.
6 thoughts on “Celebrating the Light, while Still Living in the Dark”
If I’d had any lingering doubts, they would have been squashed the day I used a Black lady’s picture in lieu of my own on Twitter. Tamir shouldn’t have been allowed to play with a toy gun in the first place, they told me. He only died because “you people” do things like send your kids to the park unattended. “You people” need to accept responsibility for how your laziness hurts you. They could not wrap their minds around the fact that a White lady might try using another icon for a day and ignored my protests that me and my also-white siblings went to the park alone (and even played guns) when we were growing up.
It didn’t matter how quickly he’d been shot. Didn’t matter how quickly others like him had been shot or otherwise killed quickly and without any threatening act.
I don’t watch death videos anymore (I could find you the Tumblr post I wrote on this), but I watched many around the period Tamir died. I watched Tamir die, and another dozen people, too. None had acted suspiciously, but they were deemed suspicious by virtue of their shared characteristic: the darkness of their skin. Whenever someone argues that one of them should have done something differently, I want to say, “Your racism is showing.” You can’t watch all those videos–how quickly and casually life is ended–and still put any faith in news accounts.
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I agree with many of the things you said but as someone who grew up in areas that were not as “white washed” as the ones you describe I can also say that racism goes both ways. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been called names or have felt physically threatened because I’m white (especially considering how timid I am in real life… you’ve gotta be a real douche to mess with someone like me cause I just sit there and take it). I just don’t understand how MLK’s dream has been twisted from one of equality and hope to hatred, denial, ignorance and more oppression! On both ends! And I try not to be racist. But, I’d be a liar if I said my environment hasn’t affected me. In fact, I found your post through your sister’s “no terrorists” post where she speaks of implicit bias and I know I’m guilty of it, though I try not to be. I think we all are. It’s just the nature of life… we acquire our life view through what we see/experience. More recently, I think what has me the most bitter is how our government oppresses black people through programs like WIC, housing, healthcare etc. and how so many people (black and white) either don’t realize it or they don’t care. For example, I work for an online University (and have for 5 years now). I speak with people allll day (mostly lower income, single moms) who are looking for a way to change their lives. Most of them don’t work. Many of them want to work, but they don’t have the education or the social skills to do anything. As a result, a good majority pick their degree program as if they were selecting a meal off the dollar menu at McDonald’s “Uh, I’ll take a business degree I guess.” And mostly all of them take whatever is left of the student loans to pay for bills. I don’t judge them for this, they’re just looking for a way out like most Americans. What gets me are the school hoppers (and there are a lot of them). These are students (most of them black, and most of them women) who literally do the bare minimum to pass drop/add so that they can then intentionally fail their classes but still get student loan money. They then hop from one school to another doing the same thing until they’ve hit their aggregate limit, owe over $70,000 in student loans and have no degree to show for it. Meanwhile, as I stated before, the majority of these “students” also don’t work so they have no way of paying the money back. And that’s just how they live, working the system, selling their food stamps and living off student loans and tax returns in low income housing. I want to blame them. I want to be bitter. I’m so tired of feeding my 2 year old macaroni and cheese for dinner again because I can’t afford to feed him vegetables and chicken, but the woman in front of me at the grocery store is using WIC and has better groceries than I can afford with my middle-class paycheck. I’m tired of taking breaks in the bathroom at work and crying because I’m pregnant and I know that because I make too much money for government help I’m going to have to stop making my car payment, stop paying my credit cards and work 2 jobs just so I can make ends meet, but then I go pick my son up from a daycare where I pay full price and other women who have flawless hair and perfect salon nails pay next to nothing cause the government pays for their childcare. But how can I blame them? If I could get free food, if I could get cheap childcare, if I could get my nails done and my hair done I would live of the government too. I would school hop. But it fixes nothing. It doesn’t fix me. It doesn’t fix them. It doesn’t fix our nation. It doesn’t help our deficit. It just keeps getting worse and worse. And I know this is just the first world sob story of a middle class white girl but I need to blame someone and the only thing that makes sense to me at this point is to point my fingers at the government. I do believe that racism still exists. I do believe that many white people turn their cheeks to the reality of it. I do believe we have a far way to go to fix the relationship between a nation of people who sold themselves into slavery and a nation of people who believed that fact made it okay to oppress them. But our government isn’t helping. Instead of providing black people with the tools that they need to succeed, we stuff them into ghettos and give them just enough food and money to keep them there. Our government keeps the poor poor, funds this oppression with the middle classes tax dollars and continues to find loopholes to write off the rich. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking for a socialist takeover… I’m just saying, “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” -Chinese Proverb. I promise I’m not a loon, haha. I guess I’m just so used to how open minded and kind your sister is, I’m hoping you will see where I’m coming from too. At the very least, I’m grateful to live in a country where I can feed my children at all.
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Oh, Kaily, you are not a loon at all! My sister is amazing. I actually worked for a university for four years, too, although in a different department, but we often had to sit in the admissions office when our computers went down. And you’re completely right (and I wished I had remembered where my sister’s post was on implicit bias last night when I posted this, but my tired brain just couldn’t remember). Bias does go both ways – our system is completely broken and is failing us, and you hit on many points. There are people who will milk the system, who want to do the bare minimum to survive and who truly don’t realize that there’s more to life than barely surviving. And your story (and I’ll admit, mine) are not simply first world sob stories of the middle class – it shows just how horribly wrong our system is set up that only after I became more impoverished were my children eligible for completely covered health insurance. Everything I had after my children were born went to the hospitals, because their insurance didn’t cover everything, and I was barely eking by, and crying in the bathroom, trying to figure out with the “CANCER if you don’t eat organic!” and the “FINAL NOTICE” on the medical bills. It’s simply too much. It doesn’t feel like we’re middle class at all, if we’re still scraping to pay our bills? So please know that you’re not alone, that you have every right to be angry because this is not a simple issue, and there are no simple solutions. You are absolutely right – our system has been set up to stuff people in ghettos and keep them there. My mom was poor and never finished her degree, and I saw her struggling to fill out all the forms she needed to get into WIC, social security, the rejections, and appeals she had to file – and she simply didn’t understand because she lacked the education and became overwhelmed. Sorry, this is rambly! I just wanted you to know that you raised very good points. I don’t know about the “sold themselves into slavery” (since it was a common practice of rival tribes in Africa to conquer other tribes, and sell their opponents into slavery, not understanding that slavery with the white folks was permanent, not for a set time like often was the case with certain tribes in Africa). I may be misinterpreting that, though! 🙂 I am also grateful to live in a country where I can feed my children – I just also hope to live in a country soon, where we don’t have to fret so much about certain things. Having lived in Europe for a couple of years (where there are different things that are going for and against it), I do wish that we could (1) make healthy food less expensive and set requirements for pricing on produce like is done in Europe, and (2) have actual accessible and universal healthcare. There are still issues and inherent classism in Europe, but it was so much easier not feeling like I had to choose between my health and rent. And we actually paid exactly the same taxes. I was completely boggled by that. I thought my taxes would be HUGE in Europe, since, you know, my medication cost me $6 instead of $280 out of pocket. Oh, well, I’m going all over the place! We are all human, and as humans, we err, we are biased, we make assumptions, trip and fall on our faces – but we also try. We try to be better, we try to understand, and to love. That’s my goal – is to try to learn to react with love, rather than hate. But it’s hard. I hope this makes sense, and THANK YOU for your considerate response. ❤
Thank you for your thoughtful reply! After I posted I was like… oh crap, I look like a crazy talk-o-holic haha (even worse, it’s the first time I’ve ever commented on your site, lol). So I’m very appreciative that you took so much time to share with me your experience and knowledge. I’ve always felt WRONG for feeling jealous of people who use government assistance… like a bad person for feeling cheated. It’s actually really refreshing to be able to converse with someone that I see as so open minded and to in a way receive confirmation that the way I feel is okay and that I’m not the only one (but that at the same time, it shouldn’t be that way). You make perfect sense, though. I don’t want to live my life feeling bitter or blaming someone for having what is perceived as less than me for my struggles. I want to approach life and people with as much love as possible. But at the same time, I think a little bitterness is warranted if we want things to change (as long as that bitterness is growing from a place of love and equality and not hate and malice). Europe is a beautiful example of that with their healthcare and it astounds me too that it’s so affordable! I would have thought the same that the taxes would be like half your income! I don’t know. Sometimes I just feel let down by America. I was raised to think it was something so great but the more I see the more I feel we’re just our own kind of broken. Then I think about my husbands childhood in Cuba and all the things they DIDN’T have PERIOD because the government believes in keeping everyone “equally” poor and I realize it really could be worse. But all the same, thank you for letting me vent and not making me feel crazy. And even more, thank you for taking the time to reply 🙂 It means a lot! Here’s to hoping GOOD CHANGE is coming 🙂
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I agree with you on every level! And I’ll admit i tend to ramble, soooooo I can’t be too judgey ever! I think, as humans, we have every right to our feelings, because if we deny ourselves that, we’re denying ourselves our own humanity and diminishing our rights to be heard. If we don’t let ourselves speak and listen to our own needs and hurts, it’ll be that much harder to reach out to others! Although I’ll admit to feeling jealous, too, and (growing up poor at the same time affirmative action was introduced) I was frustrated that my hard work might be dismissed, simply because of the color of my skin… It ended up not being an issue for me, and I later grew to understand the socio-economic difficulties facing poor black high school students was leaps and bounds different, but still… It’s hard. I feel like I’m both incredibly lucky to live in the country and era we do, but also disappointed that we’re not measuring up to where we should be. It’s complicated, but so far, we as a country tend to be making progress! *fingers crossed* and THANK you again! Open discussions always help me think across the issues! 🙂
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