Last week, an article in the Huffington Post http://huff.to/1I0A0fj To The Lady Who Called my Toddler a Thug, written by Rachel Garlinghouse, a white mother who adopted a black boy, got my attention. Particularly because of her concern that her little boy, just because of his appearance was, innocently and not so innocently stereotyped by people whom she knew. It’s the US, I thought, and it’s a dangerous, racialized society. But it got me thinking about my German parents and their concerns, so many years ago, as they raised me. They did not need to worry about potential physical violence against me as we were living in Latin America. But, as Whites, they understood the antagonism their people harbored toward Blacks. Like all loving parents, they wanted to create an environment and a world in which I felt protected and could thrive. They also did not warn me about potential negativity toward me because of my color. I knew that. But I made sure my behavior was impeccable and so absorbed fully the privileges my parent’s social status offered me. I was darker, but I was culturally no different to others in our German community. My parent’s greatest worry came later, when I had become a mediocre student, rather nonchalant about education. My absorption had included the fact that Whites excelled by their contacts and connections, not necessarily their knowledge. I became the product of a White culture and environment, and as such, I saw the world through those privileged eyes. I was so White that, like most Whites, I felt superior to Blacks.
I remember how one kid in first grade called me “Hitler.” When I reported it to my German mother, she asked why I thought I’d been called that, and my answer, to general bemusement, was simply: “Because I’m German.” Another time, when I was about ten, a neighboring Guatemalan boy riding his bike called me a very pejorative term. I chased after him, tore him pulled him from his bike and jumped on it ruining it. Believe me, he steered clear from me from then on. Later in Germany I was actually given preferential treatment, perhaps because of my fluency in High German.
My wake-up call came the first time I arrived in the US. I had a White husband and lived among his society in California, so that I felt protected by his friends and family. I was dark in a White community and only saw Blacks from the inside of a car. The realizations did not come immediately nor did they come quickly. One week after our arrival, as we were driving to the beach with my husband’s best friend in his Lincoln, and he wanted a car to get out of the way at the gas station, he said under his breath: “Move, Sambo!” Catching himself he looked at me and smiled apologetically. My husband said nothing, and I, at the time, did not take into account that I was a Sambo. When the realization hit, it was a shock. He was our best friend, and although he never again let such a word slip, I registered that Whites like him were comfortable only with Blacks once they new them. It was California in the mid-seventies. The consensus of those who knew me was that I had the best of both worlds: An educated Black with a White mentality. A Lebanese friend made aware that I needed to make sure once my son entered school, the teachers wouldn’t just pass him along. When we returned the US in 1982 after having lived a few years in Mexico, our son entered third grade. Again, we lived in a White neighborhood; there were only two other biracial children in the school district. Believe me, I was on top of his homework and the teachers knew I was watching them.
Right after our arrival in upstate NY, in a conversation with a friend of my husband’s I must have mentioned something about not being comfortable in the US because I was Black. Her response was: “Be grateful that you don’t have that chip on your shoulder.” Hmmm, I did not quite understand her comment, because I actually felt I had a boulder on my shoulder. My reason for the hang-up, as I discovered later, was that I ignored my history. It all changed after I began studying the history of America’s institutionalized segregation. The legacy of inequality and the systematic exclusion of Blacks from receiving the sort of structural advantages and social programs that created the American Middle class and pulled the US out of the Great Depression. Not to mention that Black contribution in the World Wars was also not honored.
I joined the faculty in a very white college in upstate NY that was in the process of diversifying; I was the first Black professor. The other non-White at the Center was a Black woman in a high administrative position. Her “chip” was that she grew up in the ghetto. But she had no reservations about her upbringing and her stories were more immediate and meant more to me than anything I could have read in books. Hers had been a nurturing community of hard-working parents; where teachers encouraged and mentored the children and always made them see their greatest potential; where the Church was central to the community, and raising their joint voices in song on Sundays was an act of connectivity to the Eternal. There were struggles, hard work, and grief but much joy in their racial and cultural pride and mostly, their profound belonging.
One afternoon she came to the office, completely unraveled. Her husband had been stopped, mid-morning, by the police and frisked like a criminal in front of his 3-year old son. His car had run out of gas along the freeway and he and the child were walking to a next station… I felt bad about it, but admit I could not have completely understood her upset and anger when she told us about it. I was as upset as the others, who were White. I realize today, that I had a White upset and empathy, which can nowhere come close to that of a person who lived the Black experience in the US. Such a situation would never have happened to my White husband or my biracial son. They were excluded from any sort of unfair racial profiling.
I have lived as a White all my life and I am comfortable in my environment. I still am the only Black in my little enclave in Sedona, and I act and react without ever considering that I’m darker than my friends. What I know is that I’m very fond of Farai, the man in my life, who is African and very dark. We have been together for almost 9 years and he still teaches me much. Such as when I suggested we not spend the night at a hotel after his late night arrival, but drive the two hours to Sedona, he simply said: “bad things happen at night.” I got it. And it goes for everyone: there’s too much ignorance and hatred out there, so just don’t expose yourself to unnecessary danger.
Race relations in the US, since before its inception, were not intended to offer an even playing field, and it will be a long time before it becomes one. But one day, because change is a law in physics, it will.