Lately, everywhere I look there are articles about race relations, bigotry, and white privilege. The revolution has been going on for decades, but it seems to have picked up some steam recently. Another defining moment in history is upon us.
This time, I will be an active participant. And it starts right here.
I was born in Newark NJ in the immediate wake of the riots of 1967. I’m a white lady. Our neighborhood was still relatively white compared the rest of the city, with a lot of light brown mixed in. I had friends from all over the world, mostly Puerto Rico, India, Cuba. There were a few black kids in our grammar school, but I could probably count them on two hands.
My grandfather lived next door. I saw him every day. He was a bigot. I didn’t know it as a young child. It was just the way he talked. And the vocabulary he used was a part of my upbringing.
I can vividly remember the last time I used the word ‘nigger’. It was and remains a defining moment in my life. I was walking to school with a girl friend of mine, who happened to be black. Another friend was walking toward us down the block waving and calling our names. He was too far away and I couldn’t tell who he was. When he got closer and I recognized him, I said, “Oh, it’s you. From far away you looked like a nigger”.
Just like that. I said it.
I still get sad every time I think about it. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.
But at the time, it was just a word to me. Just a word that my grandfather used at our dinner table, along with other words like “chink” and “kike”. A word that really had no more gravity to my eleven year old self than “German” or “ American”. The rantings of a man who had too much table wine. But at that moment, when I said it, I saw my girlfriend’s face and I knew that it wasn’t just a word. It was something that I shouldn’t say.
A curse word. A cursed word. Something I would never say again.
I have tried my whole adult life to surround myself with people who have an understanding of the gravity of the word and everything that goes along with it. So the only time I ever hear it is in movies and in songs.
Until recently. I think it was the events in Ferguson that stirred up the racist pot in my life.
Two weekends ago we were sitting around our campfire in Pennsylvania. Some neighbors stopped by to sit around our fire and have a beer or two. We were having a lighthearted conversation about pets. “Who likes dogs?” “I prefer cats” “I would love to have a monkey”. Out of nowhere one of our visitors said “If you want a monkey, you have to go to Newark”.
I shot him a look and decided to let it go because I thought no one else had heard it. And he was probably drunk.
As we continued talking about monkeys and how they could be trained he spoke again “You can’t train the monkeys in Newark” he said, with a bit of a slur.
Was he looking to get a rise out of me? “Are you KIDDING me?” I said. I looked around as everyone else continued the conversation, barely noticing him. Meanwhile, I was seething. Thankful that my kids weren’t around the fire. Trying to rationalize the fact that he was drunk. That it wasn’t worth the argument. But still seething. I took a sip of my beer and decided, once again, to ignore him.
A few minutes later the conversation turned to sports. Not my area at all, so I basically just sat back and listened. Someone started talking about Jimmy the Greek and the statement that he made about blacks being better athletes than whites.
Oh shit. Here we go again.
“How could he get fired for that?”
Wait. Wasn’t this, like 30 years ago? Are we really talking about this?
“It was a good thing he said. It wasn’t bad”
I can’t hold it in any more..
“It’s a racist statement.” I said, probably loudly. “It doesn’t matter if you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing. If you’re talking about a whole race of people, it is racist.”
As I begin to speak my mind, the anger started to rise up. I knew that I shouldn’t argue, but I could definitely feel it coming.
And then the monkey-man over on the other side of the fire decided to speak again. And the words that came out of his mouth were so horrible, so hateful, so inhumane. They have been turning over in my head for two weeks. I get nauseous every time I think about them. It has taken me two weeks to be able to write them down.
He said “I liked it better when they had fear. When they knew if they acted up they’d be hung.”
HO-LEE shit! Holy Shit! What did he just say? Are you KIDDING me!?!
I cannot explain the feeling. A wave of nausea, anger, heat, coursed through my body. My heart sank to my stomach as my stomach rose up to my throat. All of the injustices in the world swam through my head. And it was just a millisecond, before I was on my feet and some words were coming out of my mouth.
Honestly I don’t remember them all. But I know I said, loudly, “Are you fuckin’ kidding me!?” as I stood up and started walking, and “I WILL NOT be part of this conversation. I will NOT!” as I left.
I left my own fire-pit, my own back yard, and walked inside. I tried to catch my breath while the shock and anger came out in a stream of tears. After a few minutes I heard them drive off in their golf cart and I went back out to our other guests.
Over the past weeks I have remained unsatisfied with my reaction. Okay, he was probably more drunk than I imagine, and an argument would not have been wise. Maybe I should try to shrug it off as just the rantings of some drunk ignorant guy.
But in hindsight, I think I should have very calmly said “Please leave. That shit will not be tolerated here”.
Even though I pride myself on embracing differences and being an accepting person, I cannot accept this. And even though I do my best to tolerate what I cannot accept, I can’t tolerate this.
And so it was. Another defining moment in my life.
I made a very conscious decision two days ago. I will not ever sit by quietly and listen. If the bigots are going to make their opinion known, I will also make mine known. Zero tolerance from this point on.
So, last night we were leaving a restaurant. There was a scene unfolding in the parking lot. A well-dressed pretty white lady was standing by a car. She looked a little bit teary-eyed. A security guard pulled up and the sad pretty lady walked to the driver’s window. The security guard was a young black woman. A car pulled up in front of the security car blocking some of the parked cars, including mine. A white man in casual clothes walked out of the car, visibly upset, He moved quickly with long strides toward the woman shouting “Get in the car!”
We continued walking to our car. John and Shannon were up ahead of me. I couldn’t hear what was happening, but I was afraid for the sad lady, so I moved slowly. There were some words, and then the man took hold of the lady’s arm and they started back toward his car. The lady walked to the passenger door. As the man got to the driver’s side he turned and looked back at the security car. He dramatically, emphatically stuck up his middle finger and yelled at the top of his voice “Fuck you, nigger!”
Oh shit. Here we go…
Not a second was wasted as the anger surged up in me and the words just came flying out of my mouth, probably very loudly, “Are you kidding me? You’re kidding me right?!”
He ignored me, but the sad lady looked back at me, and then at my daughter and said “I’m sorry.” I think I said “Are you kidding me?” again. “I’m so sorry” she said, as the man got in the car and continued to curse.
I looked back at the security lady, threw my hands in the air and said, more like screamed it again, “Are you kidding!?” She just looked at me and raised her hands off of her steering wheel and shrugged her shoulders. The man drove away, as my husband said “Come on, get in the car, it’s over.’ And I got into my car.
“People make me sick. So very sick” I said to John and Shannon, defeated, as I fought back tears.
Thoughts raced through my head as I drove away. Should I have gone to the security lady and demanded that she call the cops. Did she call the cops? I think she must have, because he was probably too impaired to drive. Did she call them? Or did she just shrug it of as the rantings of some drunk ignorant guy?
“What’s going on lately? John said, trying to lighten the mood, “You’re like a racist magnet.”
“Maybe the universe is telling me I have to do something about this.”
Is it? Maybe it is. So I am going to do something about this. It starts right here.
And it is going to be my privilege.