Last Wednesday I took a break from writing to go to Sprouts, a grocery store that has great organic produce. There are a few reasons I chose this store, the staff is always friendly, they make a practice of hiring staff with developmental challenges, and they have great sales on Wednesdays. Even though I have a good job, I still live paycheck to paycheck and seek out deals where I can find them.
It was about 95 degrees that day and when I got to the store I was really really thirsty. I grabbed my cart and headed towards the refrigerators. I scanned the delicious array of drinks in glass bottles and selected a lime coconut sparkling water with probiotics. mmmmm I was so ready to end my thirst with thisdrink. I was getting ready to open it with the intention of paying for it when I got to the counter- when a jarring thought occurred to me. What if I were a black man right now instead of the white woman that I am? I froze. If that were true, I would definitely not open this bottle without having paid for it first. I certainly wouldn't assume that people would give me the benefit of the doubt assuming I was going to pay for it. When I was a child an adult in my family probably taught me that this was an acceptable practice. -but I imagine that other children, especially those of color, did not get the same message. I had never really thought about it before.
Even if I were a black man making ten times the salary of the salary that I do, I still wouldn't feel entitled to open that bottle in the store. This realization shook me to the core and I gently put the bottle down. For the duration of my shopping trip I considered my thirst and the mild discomfort of it. It felt like an important discomfort- the beginning of something. -Perhaps it was a small act of conscious disequilibrium.
Back in April of this year, I met John B. Smith, a renowned civil rights activist one of the pioneers of the influential Invaders movement of the 60's. I was invited by a friend to provide music for the an event for Smith's latest project- in which he is inviting people to tell the true stories of lynchings in this country. This is a beautiful and terrifying invitation for all of us to face the shadows and the beastly cruelty in our own history. I asked my profoundly talented friend Aja Black of the pro-social hip-hop band The Reminders and my equally talented friend Harriet- of the solo project, I am Harriet to this with me. We created a hybrid of the Bob Marley's' "No Woman No Cry" and the Beatles "Let it Be." Then the speakers came out and one by one told the true stories of lynching, courageously relaying the most horrific cruelties imaginable. Everyone was in the audience was crying. The pain in my heart was almost unbearable- no wonder we don't want to hide from these things- but we know we can't. I felt heavy and inadequate.
I tried to raise my children as kind and equitable beings. When they asked if we could sing the gospel song "Swing Low", we first agreed that we must try to understand cultural appropriation, and know that that song was sung by people whose reality was so terrible that they were wishing for the mercy of death. I taught them about the difficulty of being a woman in the world, and the realities of rape and violence against women but I never sat them down and talked to them about the lynchings on the south- nor the concentration camps on our own soil for Japanese Americans during WW1. I imagine that the reality in other households is probably different- especially in households where there are children of races that have been victims of oppression. Do they have to learn about potential prejudice before ever even going to school? Probably.
During the presentation John B. told us if the incident in which he was accused of stealing his own gas cap as maybe the defining moment of injustice that finally turned him into the bold activist he became. This event and the painful awareness of the sea of dark violence and cruelty in our history makes me feel inadequate to begin to try to reach past the invisible lines. He looked directly at me with so much genuine compassion and said simply, "You just have to. You are a good person. You can do it. White people have guilt about the past and black people have anger. We can't let it keep us apart."
YESSSSS! 100 times over. I want to do something, anything- yet already I am worried about the response to this post. I have journalist friends who claim they wouldn't dare write about race or racial issues, and many have suggested that I don't try to either. Perhaps doing this will be early career suicide- but I can't live like a coward. I could never be proud of myself or be a good example for my children if I tucked these feelings away to stay safe and comfortable. I promise that I know there is much more to it and much more to be done to address this monumental issue, but we have to start somewhere. We all have privileges and disadvantages be it economic, racial, social, physical, age related, emotional or otherwise.
My daughter who is now 19 grew up with a leg deformity and has had several painful surgeries and procedures to correct it over the course of her life. This year, her senior year in high school, she had another corrective surgery which again put her in a wheel chair after several years of enjoying relatively normal ambulation. During this time she experienced things differently. Many of the changes were positive, people wanted to help carry her books or get through difficult doorways or over curbs. While her leg often hurt, her elevator pass gave her the chance to meet a friend in the elevator who didn't have a left leg. She had to concentrate on the content of her courses through the haze of medication, like many others do on a daily basis. Although it didn't characterize her daily experience, she definitely experienced discrimination. Once while in a retail store that she loved and frequented often the shopkeeper scowled at her and said "Don't knock anything over." and then muttered under her breath "if you do you won''t be able to afford to replace it." My daughter had shopped there many times before without a visible handicap and the staff had been friendly and eager to help. This was an eye opening experience for her.
The interesting thing about this time in history- when we have an elitist president in office who blatantly and publicly favors the rich- we are acutely aware of the ways that oppression has crossed racial lines. It may become even more obvious once the health care bill begins to manifest. This disillusionment, I believe, puts us in a unique position to try even harder to understand one another and connect. Indeed many people are already doing just that.
This truth and dare project has been my way to engage with the world in ways I haven't before. Again, I invite you to come with me. I make no promises, and offer nothing. I don't even know what will happen, but I could use some company on the journey.
Dare to check your privilege
1. Today when you go out imagine you are a different race, or gender. Check in with that before everything you do. How is it different? Can you even know. Write it down.
2.Do the same thing as above but imagine you are a transgender or gender neutral. How would things be different then?
3.Do the same imagining you are handicapped, in a wheelchair or without one of your limbs.
4.Ride the bus- if you don't normally. Talk to someone if you can.
5.Share your lunch with a homeless person. Sit down with them and talk.
6.Try leaving your wallet at home. Instead take only $10 dollars with you. Double dare: take only $5.
7.Read the memoir of someone who has experienced a brain injury.
8.Have a meal at a homeless shelter or soup kitchen, bring your children or a niece or nephew.
9.Read the story of a lynching out loud to anyone who lives with you.
10.Ask anyone over 70 if they remember the civil rights movement talk about it. Listen only and ask questions.
11.Have an evening dedicated to talking about one of the types of oppression this country has seen. Do it weekly.
12. Try going for 3 days without changing your clothing.
13. Leave your jacket at home on a day you would normally wear one.
14. Pick something that you use daily... give it up for the day.
15. Eat a meal that comes from a can. Double dare. Eat it cold.
These are only a few ideas. Please share more if you have them. Give me your feedback- thispost feels lonely and scary. So if you feel like chiming in, comments are enabled, I'd love to hear from you.