‘Artful Mistakes’ self-reflection on American racism

My friend and favorite writer, Cynthia Daffron, has written a piece I cannot help but share. With her permission, here it is:

Artful Mistakes

Nothing New       

Posted: 06 Dec 2014 02:34 PM PST

I was talking to a friend of mine in New York briefly yesterday, mostly agonizing over the intricacies of buying a house (I was outbid; oh well), but also mentioned in passing that when not thinking about putting down roots here in Florida, I was thinking about moving to New Zealand.  There are a lot of reasons for that make sense given my needs and values – love of beauty and nature,English speaking so I could find work more easily, liberal policies including environmental conservation and universal healthcare.  It’s a secular nation, and that’s hugely appealing when I see the way religion has been corrupted here in this country, a country founded on the premise of religious tolerance and the division between church and state.  New Zealand is a peaceful place with a lot of open space.  I recently discovered that it’s the first country to give women the power to vote.It’s also got a whole bunch of white people, and pasty gal that I am, I’d fit right in there.That last detail is a little funny, considering that my current desire to move is based not just on my usual itchy feet, and the sense that if I am ever going to live in another country, at 45, I best get on it, but also because I’m just so damn disgusted with my own country right, in particular with how much institutional racism is woven into the system.I’m not a particularly political person. I have a opinions, but I don’t like to argue, and my experience for the most part is that people seldom if ever change their mind based on anything I’ve ever said. More often, they’ve spent considerable energy finding a way to discount my opinion, in some valid ways – from my lack of knowledge or experience – to more annoying ways such as my status as a woman, my history of mental illness, my sexual choices, my variable income and professions over the years, or by detracting points for style instead of content: sometimes, I’m not suitably polite in my argument.I’m that liberal ilk people talk about and dismiss.  Heck, I’m an artist.  You know I’ve got to be flaky.

On the one hand, I get that.  I’m no expert in, well, anything.  I’m not as up on, well, pretty much everything, as I should be, and I’m rather hopelessly naive.

For example: I figured if you shoot an unarmed man in front of many witnesses, and they all agree that’s what happened, well then, that pretty much guarantees a trial.  Someone died. It seems like the least you can do is have a trial to look into how and why that happened. But of course, that’s not what happened in Ferguson.

Another example: if, after restraining a man with a choke hold, he dies as a result of those injuries, and that death is ruled a homicide by the coroner, and there is a videotape detailing the whole exchange, well,  of course there would have to be a trial, right?

Nope.

As noted, I’m naive.

I’m not an expert, but at the same time: I’m also not devoid of basic critical thinking skills and a moral center with ideas of what is fair and reasonable.  Here I come up against: how can this shit still be happening?  How can there be no consequences?

Clearly one thing I need to look into more is what the hell happens in a grand jury and how a group can come to such flummoxing conclusions.

When talking to my friend, and she asked about moving, I just alluded to it not being a proud time to be an American (which I in my head encompassed the mystifying responses of the recent grand juries among other confusing events).  Getting the reference, in the politest way possible, my friend said, “well, that’s nothing new.”

And of course, it’s not new – it’s just getting press right now.  I just float along with my white privilege and figure, huh, if someone bangs my head against ground for selling cigarettes, there will probably be quite a stink about it (I mean, unless I’m at a frat party, in which case, it will be filed under “boys will be boys” and “don’t fuck with tradition” and the ever popular “she asked for it.” But I’m digressing.)

The friend I talked to early today is a black woman who grew up in Memphis and now lives in a rather lovely apartment in Harlem high above Morningside Park, the park where in 1985, a black classmate of ours was shot while allegedly attempting to mug a plainclothes police officer the summer after he graduated.  His death was a startling end to what was supposed to be one of those great success stories – Harlem kid goes to fancy boarding school, gets scholarship to Stanford, makes good in the old white boy network.  It wasn’t supposed to end with him dead in a park, but it did.

I didn’t know Eddie at all, and while I heard bits about his death, rumors as it was sorted through the legal system, I mostly kept my head in the sand, consumed with being 15. There was, of course, a grand jury that found the police officer acted within his rights to use deadly force.  The other participant in the alleged mugging was tried and found not guilty.  Despite a fair amount of press and rumor, I managed to know little about it. As a teenager at Exeter, the reality of race largely just breezed on by me, and great majority of the other privileged white folks in our overwhelmingly white, upper class bubble.

Every once in a while though, there were moments of recognition. One of my more embarrassing oh-my-god, I’m-so-white-and-clueless memories is being at a photo exhibition on the Civil Rights movement at the student art center in 10th grade.  There were disturbing, stunning photos of KKK crosses burning, crowded marches with pickets and slogans, and scuffles in the street with close-up photos of white men screaming in rage at the idea of integration, I looked at the images the way you would something in an old museum, thinking about how horrible it all was, but my nice white folks would never have been that nasty racist – that was other people’s people – so I was off the hook.  I hummed along with how nice it was that the Civil Rights legislation was successful and racism eradicated.

At some point, I looked at my friends next to me, one of whom was black, and finally realized that she was seeing these photos from a very different perspective.  This was not a shameful-but-resolved history (my racist violent forebears, the people I so much did not want to identify with) for her, but the history of abuses showered upon her forebears, abuses that continued on to that day – in subtler ways usually (although obviously not always), but with that same undercurrent of rage, violence, exclusion and oppression.  For me, it was a history I actively wanted to distance, and so happily wrapped it up on a pretty the-law-changed bow.  For her, it was just the earlier chapter of an ongoing story leading up to the current day.

For a brief moment, I realized how unbelievably insulated I was, how much just didn’t even occur to me, and that I had not the slightest idea what it was like to be part of a minority population at such an overwhelmingly rich, white school.  I got in touch with my uber sheltered white girl.

And then pretty much forgot about it.  Because that’s what privilege is like – you see it for a moment, but then it’s gone, and you’re back to being obtuse.  Because you don’t have the security guard at the store following you around, and the nasty epithets screamed out by a driver in traffic doesn’t apply to you, and you never worry that people are afraid to introduce you to their parents because they’re from a small town in North Carolina that believes “like should stay with like” (unless of course, there is sex involved, as that would mean homosexuality, another no-no in the idealized 1950s), because of all that.  I wondered if I wore the right clothes a lot in high school (hint: I didn’t), but I never felt like my skin was viewed as wrong.  That’s a very different reality.

I’ve thought about that moment on rare occasions when I talked to men about sexism and male privilege – rare because I so often get frustrated if they just don’t see it.  It’s not their experience, so it flies under their radar. They’ve never had anyone refer to their ideas and ambitions as “cute” and feel that belittlement or had someone pay them less money because they know you have boobs. They’ve never had their comments ignored until the man standing next to you says the exact same thing, and is heard.

If you are not a straight rich white man, little question marks can intrude into every encounter. Did he not take my ideas seriously because he thinks I’m an intellectual lightweight based on an ill-conceived argument — or because I’m a woman, and he believes women can’t be smart?

The summer after my senior year of high school (having finally graduated high school after dropping out of Exeter in 11th grade), I was dating a Nice Boy that my parents liked because he gave me a coffee maker and I liked because he was a boyfriend, and I’d never had one before.  We didn’t have much to say to each other, but kissing filled in a lot of awkward pauses.  When said boyfriend left for a month of travel, the day after he left, I ended up kissing someone else, who among other things, was the only black guy that ran with my circle of otherwise white friends.  I was young and hormonal and heady with the idea that I could get attention through this whole kissing thing, and he was pretty hot, and funny, and I was pretty sure he liked me, but at the same time knew I was subject to a lot of rules; I couldn’t very well start dating a new boy 24 hours after my official boyfriend had left down, or I’d be That Slutty Girl.

The new guy and I, and a bunch of friends, went to a party, and I remember touching his hand in the car, and thinking I liked him, even though the kissing was, honestly, not so hot, and I was confused. At the party, he avoided me, and then left for a long stretch of time to go get beer, which somehow took hours, during which time I got aggressively and ultimately successfully hit-on by the host of the party, a worldly older man of 24 (who later that summer would wander off with my virginity as well – a persuasive soul with, as it turns out, a tiny tiny penis, a questionable drug habit and a taste for women that were too young for him).  At the party, a whole bunch of drama ensued because when the guys finally returned with beer, I was by then making out with the even newer new guy.  I remember sitting on the porch and trying to apologize but also justify myself, which is pretty much all my teenage years.

I mention all this very old drama because years later, a friend noted that he thought I didn’t want to tell anyone about our make-out session because he was black. For me,  I was worried about my slutty reputation (which, no surprise, I managed to acquire in short order anyway that summer, and on into college).  On any conscious level, I didn’t think that race was factoring in. But I don’t know that it wasn’t in some other fashion.  There were hierarchies.  Maybe I preferred older tiny penis man not just because he seemed so into me, to want me so much (for the one evening), that he was such a fine kisser, that he was older and smart and “more sophisticated” as teenage girls say about their crushes, but also because he was white and the other guy was not.  Doesn’t every gal want to hook up with the Rich White Guy?  Isn’t that the fabulous American dream for women, as seen on TV, to marry wealth and power, items much, much more likely to be found with a white guy?

These many years later, I still feel horrible that the guy thought I ditched him because he was black – and enormous shame that maybe in some way he was right.  That my reaction to his race wasn’t occurring to me consciously doesn’t mean it wasn’t influencing me in other ways

Today, talking to my friend, I wondered if she thought I wanted to move to New Zealand because with all those white people  (so many, because the Maori population was decimated, now running at about 15%), I thought somehow in that homogeneity that I could get away from all the racism around here, because I knew I would “fit in” because of the way I look (as long as I kept my wrong-accented mouth shut).  This running from difference is basically the reintroduction of the “separate but equal” credo of segregation.  And that freaks me out.

When I was 19, I took time off of college, and lived in Boston, eventually living in the North End in a cheap apartment which, in retrospect, was probably illegal since the landlord liked to be paid in crisp 100 dollar bills in person every month.  But it was a great location, close to downtown and work, and with a 24 hours bakery just down the street.  When I contacted another Exeter friend of mine, by then at Harvard and asked if she would visit, she said, umm, I can’t go to the North End.  At the time it was such a notoriously racist area that as a black woman, she didn’t feel safe going there.

It had never occurred to me that it was an issue – happy white girl in a bubble, I didn’t know about the hostility because it wasn’t directed at me.

I only noticed when I didn’t fit, not when someone else didn’t.  I also remember standing in a store in Gallup, New Mexico looking for cheap t-shirts, and suddenly realizing that a couple of people had done double-takes looking at me.  When I looked around, I realized I was the only non-Navajo person in the store.  The few days I was in Japan struck that home much more – never had I been anywhere where I was so consistently The Outsider.  No one was actively unkind, but it was somewhat like living as a ghost, with all decisions and conversations going on around me but without me – and that was not just the language barrier.

During the period of time when I was engaged to a Iranian man, I remember his mother looking at me with mild distaste.  I was so clearly Not Persian – I looked wrong, I sounded wrong, I didn’t have the right manners or beliefs; I didn’t understand her culture and certainly not her son.  And she was right – I understood his American side much better than his Persian side despite my trying to learn more of the language of his birth, the history of his first country.  My brief time with his family visits was my experience of being the one out-of-place.  His experience was every day when someone noticed his accent.  At the airport, even well before 9/11, his luggage was searched with particular thoroughness because of his Iranian passport.  Or so I thought – I never asked him if he thought the same.

But no one shot at me or put me in a choke hold – even then, my white, middle-class privilege applied, and if my almost-mother-in-law disliked me, she had plenty of other reasons too (she was right that her son and I were not happy match). My Harvard friend didn’t want to risk harassment in the North End, and we met in Cambridge instead, neutral territory.  And while I’m sad she never saw my apartment, I’m embarrassed for my old neighborhood, one which for me, and my whiteness, was otherwise one of the safest.  I think about how police might have pursued anyone who harassed her, how it might suddenly have turned into questions on what she was doing in that neighborhood. She had her Harvard card to play, but what if not that?  What if a black man decided to walk around a lovely and very wealthy white neighborhood?  How many “suspicious persons” reports would be called into the police?  And what happens when the police arrive?  More bullets and chokeholds?  Too often, being in the “wrong” place with the “wrong” attitude with the “wrong” crowd or the “wrong” clothes is translated to mean violence is somehow deserved.  Wearing short skirts doesn’t justify rape.  Selling loose cigarettes doesn’t justify that man’s death.  Being a police officer doesn’t provide immunity from the consequences of your actions, doesn’t mean that you can use excessive violence up to and including killing someone without there being any repercussions – or at least, it shouldn’t, in my mind.  Many grand juries seem to disagree with that idea, and I find it harder and harder to hide in my naiveté.

It feels in some way frivolous to talk about my middle-class liberal angst about worrying about my own internalized racism.   It’s self involved and narcissistic, and yet at the same time, the only way that change happens is when it starts from within, when I, or anyone, starts to pay attention, when we can extrapolate from our own experience to someone else’s, to see the similarities and differences and take the time to understand why they might exist and how they impact experience.

In wanting to do right over the years, in trying not to offend, I’ve often not asked the questions that might have educated me. I’ve not had conversations that are uncomfortable – race, sex, class, these are all hot buttons, and I avoid them because I’m tired of those arguments that don’t go anywhere, I’m horrified by a system that still ignores the death of black men, I’m horrified by my own desire to run away and hide from the tough stuff, and at the same time, wonder if I have any right to speak given that I am still, essentially, a naive, clueless, spoiled white girl who most days doesn’t give a moment’s pause as to how privileged I am.

I don’t know what to say, and I don’t know what to do, but I do know, even though it’s nothing new, this shit has got to change.  This is no way for any of us to live and die.

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