My Dear Friend is Dying. In his Honor, I Have Something I’d Like to Say: The US is Racist AF

BBC’s Absolutely Fabulous with Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley.

A dear friend of mine is dying. This feels genuinely sad to me because he is a real mensch. Put another way, he is a thoroughly decent human, if I were in the mood to judge humans in such a manner. He is in his 80’s so he claims his own mortality is not sad, simply the natural conclusion of a life well-lived: if humans were immortal we would clutter up the earth. True. But even worse, we would fail to appreciate our time together. 

We spent some time together recently. We picked up one of our favorite debates. This past year, I wrote a memoir about that time my daughter became acutely ill and almost died. I was transformed by the ordeal, for the better. I am now *attempting* to live a life of non-judgment. To do this, you have to let go of the notion that things are inherently good or bad, they just are.

My friend ardently disagrees. He believes things can be good or bad and right or wrong. To take a passive role is to be part of the problem. Moreover, he is the only person to have read my book and then catalog for me every typo and poor choice of words alongside the exact page and line number. He is a philosopher (how many people can say that anymore?) and I am a psychology professor. In case you don’t speak academic, allow me to translate: This means he respects me. Academics only argue with people they admire. And they only take time out of their own day to improve somebody else’s writing if they care about them. The feeling is entirely mutual. 

My friend is of the mind that if something in your world is not in accordance with your values, then you ought to make trouble. I have been trying not to make everything my business lately, but in his honor, I have something I’d like to say:

The U.S. is racist AF

I think we can agree, I’ve rendered a judgment. I feel okay about this because I’ve collected a fair amount of evidence–some of which doesn’t necessarily reflect well on me. But in the spirit of making necessary trouble, honesty often works. 

Proposition # 1: Privilege

I should preface this first assertion with the caveat that the yarn I’m about to spin took place in the 90’s, back when things were cool at the US/Canada border. I was in my early twenties, off exploring the world, when I found myself camping in Vermont with my best friend Julie (what a great 90’s name). We came to learn that Montreal was only 1.5 hours away, so we thought we might go explore the city. In preparation for the drive ahead, we lit a joint, assuming Canada was also 1.5 hours away. Lo and behold! We rolled up on a tiny border outpost looking like a cross between Cheech & Chong and the ladies from Absolutely Fabulous. I roll down the window, with smoke billowing out of the car, discard the evidence not 25 feet away from the border guards, who find our giggling contagious and betray knowing grins. They check our identification and wave us on with a “Behave yourselves, girls!” The outcome of this interaction made perfect sense to me. It would be weird to get in trouble over a misunderstanding. I didn’t intend to smoke a joint while crossing the border, it just happened. Then again, I didn’t really think about it. In case you hadn’t gleaned from the whole camping in Vermont bit, I’m extremely white. I’m mainly invisible to police.

I pretty much drive however I want–I’ve only been pulled over once and even then the officer tried to give me all kinds of outs. By then, I was onto the whole racism thing and recognized the double-standard. I protested by demanding he write me a ticket. In retrospect, this is possibly the dumbest protest I’ve ever made, because the well-meaning police officer probably just thought I was a bitch, and may not have realized I was conscientiously objecting to endemic racism. I was a special education teacher at what was colloquially (and accurately) described as the ‘all-black’ high school. One of my tasks was to find internships for my intellectually disabled students. They often enjoyed dishwashing as a way to participate in the community, make friends, and earn some income. When they walked home after work, they were stopped and interrogated by police. All. The. Time. For walking while black.

I walk often, with no particular destination in mind and have never been questioned as to my intentions. My point being, it’s hard to conceptualize the absence of something. From a neuroscience perspective, you have to first conceptualize the thing before you can appreciate the absence of it. If I’ve never been stopped by police for no reason, why would I spend time thinking about a non-event? That is the definition of privilege, and why it’s so hard to see. 

Proposition # 2: Judgment 

As I mentioned earlier, I’m extra-white: I enjoy cross-country skiing and arts and crafts. As a special education teacher at the ‘all-black’ school, I also had a cadre of difficult-to-employ students. This ragtag crew weren’t actually disabled, only technically. At some point, they were assigned a label so that they could be removed from regular classrooms for erratic behavior or untamed emotions. These guys hadn’t yet earned the privilege of representing us in the community due to problems with punctuality, language, gold teeth, homemade tattoos and the like. So, I thought, what better way to pass the time than to make gift baskets filled with homemade soaps and candles?

In retrospect, this was a bold move–at the time I was following the advice most novice teachers receive: play to your strengths. As it turns out, my students, who were mostly suffering from boredom, had great fun. We made a budget and sold a certain number of baskets to cover material costs and each student was able to take home Valentine’s gifts for the special women in their lives: Mommas, Grandmamas, and Aunties. One Grandmama stopped me in the street to tell me how puffed up and proud her grandson was when he came home with a gift for her. What’s happening here is I’m trying to cast myself in a positive light so that you won’t write me off as a completely terrible person for what else happened.

Being that we weren’t fit for community interaction, the high school faculty were our target sales audience. The business teacher purchased three baskets and wrote us a check for ‘FIFETEN DOLERS.’ As an overt spelling snob (before I learned spelling is the subject least associated with cognitive ability), I immediately flew into a frenzy of internal accusations with such hyperbolic thinking as ‘she is damaging her students,’ ‘she isn’t fit to be a teacher,’ ‘how could this happen?’ and sadly, ‘how crappy is that HBCU?’ followed by ‘What are they even doing over there?

Maybe you are like me and your first instinct is to condemn from your moral high ground a business teacher who can spell neither numbers nor currency. Well, let me tell you a few more things about her. This business teacher was a positive and energetic young woman–about my age. She was often grinning from ear to ear when students visited her–as they did frequently. If you’ve ever worked with adolescents, then you know first hand how difficult it is to earn their respect. They are angsty, clumsy in their first efforts at autonomy. And they can detect the slightest aroma of inauthenticity. She was a professional role model who took pride in her career. And she was nice. She bought three gift baskets when most teachers bought none, with unkind comments about funding our endeavors. Did I take any of this into account when I decided inside my head that she should be fired? No I did not. She was clearly a bright person. Did I take time out of my day to say–’hey, just FYI, I think the E’s are beside each other in ‘teen’’? No I did not, never even had the thought. Did it occur to me that it’s myopic to judge my colleague on one single criteria in the first place? Not once. Did I see this interaction as my learning opportunity? Not particularly. Well, not for a few decades. 

So here I am, trying to articulate to my dear philosopher friend a cogent rationale for the futility of judging others, then emphatically agreeing with each of his counterpoints (e.g., Hitler. Nazis. That’s a good one. It is hard for me to find ‘very fine people on both sides’). At any rate, this is the best I’ve got on offer: When I judge individuals, I create sides, I create distance. I do nothing. I feel yucky. What if instead I get curious? What does it mean to be literate in this country? How much do we value literacy? A bright, energetic, teacher who spells phonetically is not representative of an individual shortcoming; she has done nothing wrong; she is not bad. She is a product of our societal values–how our systems work–which I am about to happily judge the shit out of:

We do not provide equal access to educational opportunities in this country. We don’t value, respect, or uphold the culture and dignity of extraordinarily resilient communities, when we arrive with our judgments and expectations and rules–which always seem to favor us (by us, I mean white people, especially the kind that live in expensive zip codes). Now just because I choose not to, doesn’t mean I’m incapable of judging individuals. For example: If you believe other people’s children are not your problem, or the problem is too big, or there is nothing you can do about it: then you are wrong and you are the problem. I know, that’s not nice. I’m just demonstrating range in my ability to render judgments, for the sake of my friend. It’s his dying wish. (Too soon?)

Proposition # 3: Savior Mentality

Oh, great. You are eager to do your part and get started right away helping the poor, unfortunate black children–but maybe from a distance, where it’s safe, and before they get too big and dangerous. Thanks for that. But it’s not really as helpful as you are imagining. Allow me to borrow this analogy from somewhere, or else I made up: 

You can’t steal a man’s fishing rod and then pity him for having no fish. He doesn’t want your pity, or your fish. He just wants his damn fishing rod. 

If I may elaborate, most of my students were and are pretty incredible human beings. Two decades later, I see one former student on a regular basis. When I was his teacher, he was seventeen years old and filled with pride. He did not like to associate with the special education self-contained classroom, and with good reason, he didn’t belong there. He was clever and popular. He was on the football team, wore crisply ironed perfectly white polo shirts each day with impeccably pleated khaki pants. He was successful with the ladies too. So, he snuck into my trailer out back each day about five minutes after the bell rang. I gave him that grace. Because he was also completely illiterate. I have no idea why he couldn’t read and his ego wasn’t about to let me figure it out at age seventeen. Oh, he used to work my nerves with his swagger designed to hide his shameful truth. Then one day his friend stopped by our trailer with the simple news report ‘Man, your sister’s dead’ (she had sickle cell disease). Lamont looked me in the eyes, ego lifted, only naked vulnerability remaining, and asked ‘What do I do?’ Tbh, my first thought was ‘We need an adult!’ My second thought was, ‘Oh! I am the adult.’ So I grew up as quickly as I could and escorted him out of the gate to go be with his mother, who lived only a block away, and made certain her son looked sharp for school each morning. Some days the teachers learn more than the students. 

So, what’s a man to do in this modern world where literacy opens many doors? Work himself to the bone. That’s what. Whereas I am a professor nowadays, Lamont is the groundskeeper from 7am-3pm Monday to Friday. But wait, there’s more! He is also the janitor from 3pm to 11pm at another school down the road. He rides the bus early in the morning and late at night, each adding an hour to his day. We stop and chat whenever we see each other. His adolescent ego is only a distant memory and what’s left is a genuinely affable fellow. He has twins the same age as my youngest. He is an adoring father, but regrets that he can’t spend more time with his boys, except on weekends. He also looks about twice as old as me now, perhaps owing to the fact that he is squeezing much more life out of the same amount of time. Do I pity him? No. I stand in awe of him. I am known to complain of exhaustion if I’m meant to stop off at the grocery store after working only 8 hours–and most of my work involves sitting around. I feel sorry for myself when I have to empty the dishwasher. Holy crap. How does he do it? Now that we are both parents, I know why he does it. I just don’t know how he does it. Lamont doesn’t particularly want anything from me or anybody, other than a friendly conversation to break up the work day. His goal is to provide for his family and he is crushing it. Life handed him a bag of lemons and he is making lemonade. But what if he didn’t have to start off with a bag of lemons in the first place?

One can only work with students at the tail end of a lackluster education for so long before getting the sense they are attempting to hold back Niagara Falls with a teaspoon. So I went to graduate school, to solve the inequality problem at a ‘higher level’. That didn’t particularly work either. Lamont’s children are receiving a mediocre to subpar education. Nothing much has changed over the past few decades. As it turns out, systemic problems can rarely be solved by individuals. The entire system can successfully be reconfigured however, if we collectively 1) believe in our ability to change, and 2) get momentum going with tiny nudges in the desired direction. 

I like to work toward solutions. In order to do that, it is helpful to find common ground—to agree on the nature of the problem. Let’s break it down and see where we agree.

  1. Privilege. Hey black friends, remember that time you were innocently smoking a joint while crossing the border or engaging with similar authority types? Then they laughed and admonished you to ‘behave’ as you went on your way? As I write, I am now hoping I am terribly wrong and will be inundated with humorous tales of benevolent authority figures allowing similar leeway for my fellow melanin-blessed humans. But if I’m right, and my appearance had something to do with my clemency, then we must all agree that the rules don’t apply equally. Imagine living in a world where you can’t feel safe around the rule enforcers, even when you are following the rules? If this concept is challenging for you, then you probably have privilege. 
  1. Judgment. Hey white friends, have you ever thought that you deserve all that you have accumulated because you worked hard? And maybe other people have less because they didn’t work as hard? Yeah, that’s a common thought among people who don’t understand that the game is rigged in their favor. Effort does not equal reward in this country as cleanly or as simply as we want to believe. Maybe these ‘other people’ who find themselves with less opportunity should just try harder to be more like you? Firstly, you’re not all that. Second, that assumes you get to work with the same rule book (see privilege). Third, who are you really judging anyway? And how does that feel?
  1. Savior Mentality. Great news. Nobody needs or wants you to feel sorry for them, so we can skip this one entirely. I know, some of you might be feeling tremendous guilt or shame once you stop to appreciate how truly ignorant we (white people) have been. I agree that’s an awful feeling. But spreading it around doesn’t really get rid of it. Use your energy elsewhere. My friend would say: Decide what you value; for yourself, and for your fellow humans. Then try to make that happen. 

As much as I want to end with a bang, the solutions I see are not all that dramatic. We don’t need a bloody revolt or to blow up the entire system. All we really need to do is to be willing to have some hard conversations and to challenge our own beliefs. In brief, we need to educate ourselves. I live in Charleston, South Carolina, home of the largest slave trading port in North America a mere 160 years ago. It’s no secret that this is a red state, or that in our current (and optional) contentious political climate, most folks just vote for their own team down party lines. That’s a shame. Because if we had been brave enough to have more hard conversations, Ellen Weaver may not have been elected as the Secretary of Education. She holds zero qualifications (I am speaking literally). One of her big initiatives is to ban critical race theory. That’s interesting. Perhaps she doesn’t know what that is. Critical race theory is not an educational philosophy, as she imagines. It is legal jargon that posits, while individuals may not be racist, systems can nonetheless operate with racial disparity. For example, slavery. Now how is a teacher supposed to live in Charleston, South Carolina, teach history, and never mention race?

A quick google search reveals ‘Moms for America’ believe critical race theory teaches people to hate themselves. Instead, they fight for freedom and virtue. Well ‘Moms for America’, if you hate yourselves, that’s not really black people’s problem. Perhaps you are spending too much time judging other people and not enough time learning about the real world. Btw, whose freedom and virtue are you fighting for? Do you understand the meaning of these words? It’s not often that a person fights for virtue.

For my part, I’m going to be talking and teaching about race. All. Day. Long. Want to know why? Because there are more slaves alive now than ever before in human history. They don’t tend to be white. If we can’t even talk about what happened 160 years ago, how can we begin to disarm human trafficking today? If this is all sounding a little too woke, rest assured: I’m wide awake. And ready to talk. 

I love you Marty. 

Ever the teacher, you taught us how to die. 

Maybe it’s not so sad and scary to say goodbye to a life well-lived. 

You also taught us how to live life well.

Thank you for reading this post. You may enjoy reading Lady Garland Tames Her Dragons available on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited.

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