Stardate: November 4, 2008.
Race, the Final Frontier.
These are the voyages of the United State of America
Her Mission: To explore strange new worlds.
To seek out new leaders: Diverse in race, ethnicity and gender.
To boldly go, where America has not gone before...
Last night was a monumental shift in America. For some of us this was a triumph over a hidden shame. That of the failure to act.
There is racism. There is prejudice. And then there is that "other thing." To me, they are all based in fear. Racism comes from so much fear that people actually believe they hate someone...just because he is of another race. Prejudice is fear of the unknown, the unfamiliar. And that other thing? The failure to act. Not speaking out. Cowardice.
The election of Barack Obama as the first African-American President of America has helped some of us vanquish our cowardice. The cowardice that kept us from saying something, anything, to those preaching racism, bigotry and prejudice in our midst.
I've spent the last nine months talking to my therapist about Barack Obama, the election, and how much I hate racists and neoconservatives. She sometimes says she doesn't think she should charge me to talk to me about politics. But it's something I really care about, so it's okay. I've been trying to figure out why Obama's speeches make me cry--not the "being moved to tears because they are so inspiring" kind of crying. It didn't feel like that. If felt deeper, unpleasant. It hurt. There is a theory that the thing we cannot tolerate is the thing we cannot abide in ourselves.
Last night I think I figured it out.
I spent the first 21 years of my life in West Virginia. I vascillated between not giving a damn and bucking the peer pressure, and worrying about whether people would like me if I didn't go along. During those years the state population was about 96% white. I wasn't raised in a racist home, even though my maternal grandmother was from "the Deep South." But in our town, the schools were segregated. There was an unwritten code. You knew, as a white woman, if you danced with a black guy at a night club, no white guy would ask you to dance. Even our CHURCH locked the front doors during the day, because some "black man" had wandered in one day. Much of the state has changed. But a former classmate's comment on her facebook that today she was "in shock" tells me there are still undercurrents of racism in the town of my birth.
And even though I wasn't "racist," historically I never stood up against racism. I was guilty of "that other thing."
I moved to Houston after college. On the short end of self-confidence, I cared more about having friends than speaking out. Don't get me wrong. I could speak out about "safe" topics. Among my friends that meant a woman's rights to privacy over her reproductive system. In my circle of friends, racist jokes were commonplace. While I didn't initiate them, and didn't repeat them, and did not appreciate them: I didn't say anything to my friends who told them. I had two sets of friends. My African American and progressive friends, and those who fell somewhere along the specturm of bigot, cracker, homey and whitey. And for the most part, they didn't mix. I kept them separate; pretending that if grouped together, they would somehow get along. Knowing full well, this was a fairytale.
It wasn't just the racist jokes. But the promulgation of stereotypes in basic conversation. The worst point was Thanksgiving at a friend's house in 1999. I had taken my new boyfriend from 'up North'. I was mortified when the afternoon got progressively worse. As my friend's family and friends consumed more and more wine, their statements grew more and more racist. Rather than saying anything, we just left annoyed.
I knew it was wrong. But I also felt powerless to do anything about it. The real enlightenment came in law school in Toledo, Ohio, where the population is very diverse. One in four children is bi-racial. I took a Civil Rights class in my third year, taught by the adjunct attorney Patricia Wise. On the first day, self-seating was segregated. On one wing of the "U" shaped seating were me, another woman, and all of the African Americans in the class. The other win of the U were the moderates. And in the middle, were the bigots. The class was structured to encourage discussion and debate. And in reponse to some of the most ignorant biggoted racist comments coming from LAW students, I began to find my spine.
In part this was due to the way Professor Wise taught the class through films and readings. We watched films documenting current practices of housing discrimination. And historical films about the Civil Rights movement. That's when my shell of blindness to my complicity began to crack, and the light, or pain started to get in. Whether I had conveniently forgotten or missed the news, I didn't know how bad it had been.
I remember watching incredulously as law enforcement personnel turned firehoses onto children, and beat adults. Beat them! Because people wanted to vote. Because they wanted to peacefully march across a bridge to protest discrimination. I remember calling my mother, and saying, "I didn't know! How could they have done this to human beings? How could people be so vile, so ugly, so hateful, so truly hideous; that they would block children from going to school, so that the Federal government would have to provide as escort, while parents of white children stood buy shouting the ugliest of comments." That's when the painful tears began.
Once I moved back to Houston, it just wasn't the same being around my friends. It made me uncomfortable to be around them. And it only got harder when I started working on the Obama campaign. Somewhere in the middle, I just couldn't talk to them anymore. Especially not until after the election. Watching Sarah Palin stir the pot of hatred and bigotry to frothing followers who shouted "kill him" I couldn't abide anyone who supported the McCain-Palin ticket.
The final straw was when I got a "facebook" notification that a friend had joined the group, "1 million strong for Sarah Palin." This wasn't some hillbilly redneck friend from my hometown in Appalachia. This was a highly educated professional woman. A feminist I'd met working on Roe v. Wade support projects. It was like a betrayal. Because I knew in my heart, that she didn't support McCain-Palin because she agreed with their policies. It was because she couldn't support "the black man."
And it wasn't even so much about my friend. But what it said to me, about me. About me, the coward. Me, the person who had spent hours campaigning for, donating to, and volunteering for Barack Obama. The same person who spent 15 years feining amusement at racists jokes and racist comments. The person who never opened her mouth and said "Enough!"
During this election season as it got closer and closer to November, I couldn't get through an Obama speech without the painful tears. Even commericials hurt. Watching the GOP convention and Sarah Palin stoking fear and bigotry was simply unbearable.
For so many of us, I think that's what this campaign was about. Yes, we were inspired by Barack Obama. He gave those of us idealists who had all but given up the small flicker of hope that we could right our wrongs, and in the process change the world. That collectively we could combine our voices, locked arm-in-arm with the youth and diversity of this nation who weren't carrying the secret guilt. Together we could set about vanquishing the hatred, the bigotry and the downright stupidity of the notion that thought, for some asinine reason, that only White Men could be President.
In concert with over 200,000 people last night, I realized why, when the race was called, I couldn't stop the tears from flowing. Because I, too, was Free at Last. But for me it was the freedom from my own cowardice. Freedom to speak out against the hatred and bigotry that has kept this nation divided. Freedom to stand together with my fellow children of God, and say, "Yes We Can."