February 28, 2009: “Nation of Cowards”?

My dear friend Delia sent me a New York Times op-ed piece by Charles M. Blow re Attorney Eric Holder’s comment that we’re a “nation of cowards” because we don’t have frank conversations about race.

“I take exception to Holder’s language,” Blow says, “but not his line of reasoning. Calling people cowards is counterproductive. it turns the conversation into confrontation—moving it beyond the breach of true dialogue and the pale of real understanding.”

For what it’s worth: This week, I bumped into a bi-racial Somerville couple I’ve known for many years. We’re not close friends, but our lives overlap in several ways so we keep in touch. After we’d brought each other up to date—I’d asked about their daughter; they’d asked me how book sales were going—this husband-wife duo proceeded to tell stories about race and passing. Words we’d never spoken in each other’s presence before, words like “colored” and “Negro” and “prejudice” were said aloud.

Now I’ve known this couple for twenty years, I think, but this was the first time our “racial difference” (to quote a study mentioned in the Charles Blow piece.) was discussed.

Why now? First of all, because they’d initiated it. (Honestly? Even now, right this minute, looking back. I have no idea how I could have brought up the subject of race. No idea.) So why did they initiate this conversation? I think  because they’d hoped that the woman they know slightly who’d written Way Opens might be open to—and fascinated by—their stories. And they were right.

So, yeah, I’m perfectly willing to label myself a coward. But, I’d also like to humbly (Really!) suggest that some relationships, like the breezy, Hi-how-are-ya? interactions with a neighbor (who just might be a person of color), or the friendship/acquaintanceship I’ve had with this biracial couple, don’t offer much in the way of openings to begin “true dialogue.”

Or am I just being cowardly?

February 10, 2009: A teachable moment

Like Dickens, who walked the streets of London twenty miles a day, walking though my beloved community is integral to my writing process. This morning, delighted that the recent thaw meant I could actually stride entire blocks along Somerville’s Summer Street without watching out for ice,  I was mentally revising yesterday’s work and plotting  today’s writing when a voice behind me shouted “El-lah, el-lah.” (At least that’s what I thought I’d heard.) I kept walking. “El-lah, el-lah;” this time more loudly and emphatically. I turned around. An older woman, Haitian perhaps, wearing school crossing guard gear and carrying two empty cardboard cartons, pointed to my purple gloves which had—again!—fallen out of my coat pocket. (These gloves have the worst karma; they’re constantly almost lost. One time they fell onto a busy street. When I picked them up, they reeked of cat piss. How is that even possible?)

Now I’d already walked past this woman just as she’d been emptying those two cartons by tossing their contents into the street. Not cool. And, I must say, I was a little disturbed that a crossing guard’s command of English to be so minimal that she couldn’t shout, “Hey! Lady! You dropped your gloves!” (Again.) What if, God forbid, she had to warn a child of imminent danger? Huh?

So, I’m afraid, I was less than gracious when I picked up my gloves. I did not smile nor reward her with fulsome praise. Instead, I sort of glared at her, then muttered, “Thanks.” And kept walking.

Not half a block later, that same thinking-while-I walk process kicked right in, this time about what had just happened. Almost immediately, I realized several things:

1. My ungracious behavior very easily could have been explained by this older woman of color as racist. How easily my annoyance could be understood simply in black-white terms! She couldn’t have known how upsetting her trash-tossing had been to me. (Just writing this, I want to shake my own shoulders and shout, “Get over yourself!”)

2. “Maybe I should have used that moment to teach her a little English?” I wondered. Did I just blow a teachable moment? (And, yes, “The Class,” a French movie about teaching and race and blown teachable moments has been very much on my mind lately.)

“Whoa, girl,” another and wiser voice counseled. Teachable moments only work in teaching/learning settings. That woman had not signed up for your on-Summer-Street-on-a Tuesday-morning tutorial. No matter how warmly and kindly and lovingly  you’d instructed her: “Say ‘Excuse me!’ ” she would have, no doubt, decided you were no better than those other “English only” jerks. AND a racist to boot.

So. Not a teachable moment for her, apparently, but maybe a teachable moment for moi? One of the many ways Quakers talk about God, Spirit, etc, etc, is the Inward Teacher. Sometimes, like this morning, when I’m so caught up with my supreme righteousness that I am unable to be civil, i.e. to politely say “Thank you” and smile, I apparently need a Kindergarten-level Inward Teacher!

November 3, 2008: “Cook on a Slave Ship”

As noted when I guest-blogged for Hope, last Wednesday’s meals-and-sharing dinner conversation got a little heated (I’ll link what I wrote when Hope posts it.) At one point I tried (foolishly) to persuade “An Angry Black Man” to treat me like the person he’d known for 2 years instead of lumping me with the rest of the “White Devils” he was railing against. Kevin, another man at the table, decided to come to my defense. “Patricia’s like the cook on the slave ship who’s really nice to you and gives you extra food,” he said.

What? (Or, as I read on Hope’s blog that someone else’s mother said: WTF?)

Hard as it is to admit this, there is a painful truth in Kevin’s metaphor. (Simile, actually) When it comes to today’s systemic racism, I am complicit. Actually, the painful truth gets more horrific: I could have quit my cook job. But how do I get off this present-day ship?