I’m intensely horrified and deeply saddened with the events over this last week. As an American, I’m ashamed as to how my country is no longer the strong country it was. What was, in my childhood, a proud place to live has now become a battleground over racism and violence.
Growing up in California, of European parents who never felt that the color of one’s skin was something to be judged; that the value of the person was more important to one’s integrity, I never experienced the anger, angst and judgmental thinking that has now plagued us, and the world. I was never brought up to hate, never brought up to think of one person over the other, and felt that the rest of the world saw it that way too.
I am reminded of when my former husband sunk our car in a rainwater-full drainage ditch in the South in the mid-1970’s. After the initial shock, and trying to get my young son situated in the front seat so the car would steady itself, I looked around and saw not one white person coming to our aid. After some critical and funny moments, two African American men came forth and helped us out. One was well dressed, in a suit and the man with him was similar.
Something in their hearts told them we were okay; whether it was the California license plate on the car, my husband’s pony tail, or the fact I had a young child with me, I will never know. But those two men sought out others who would pull out our car, gather together to work on getting it fixed, and most importantly, those two men took us around to buy us dinner and get us a place to stay for the night.
Sitting in the back seat of their car, I had a great history lesson; one I was never taught at home. And I was in tears. I couldn’t imagine the inequality over such kind people, I couldn’t imagine the dreadful treatment they received, and the fact that they were fearful. When I asked them what made them feel they were safe with us, they couldn’t say, but that there was “something about us” that made them see our integrity.
What I later came to realize was that they were like us; outcasts in a world of hate and trying to live. This came to light when I remembered the events of a few days previous and the three of us walked into a restaurant. After driving all day, hot and hungry, with no air conditioning in the car, we sat down at a table. And after about an hour, no one came over to wait on us. We did notice glances and whispers from the all-white patrons, but I ignored them, feeling they didn’t concern us.
Finally my husband called someone over, who un-obligingly came and looked down on us. He knew the situation. “Please”, he asked the white female server, “if you won’t serve my wife and I, could you please give my son a drink of water”. At that moment, three rather large white men stood up from a table. It was then we left. I can still remember my son crying that he was thirsty; that he wanted a drink–he couldn’t understand the hate that went on in that restaurant. An innocent child who had a great need.
Then came the time when I was teaching at an inner-city college. My classroom, or so I thought, was a place for all to come, shed off their cares and learn something new. One particular African American student was having trouble, and was stressed out over something. I could see the tension rise in her. It was then she stood up, and threw her computer monitor at the wall, creating a large hole, and left.
The following day she exploded. What she said in class was exactly how she felt; how she’d been sold on a promise, only to have it watered down by indifference and inequality. Her boyfriend had told her the night before that she would never amount to anything in a white person’s world and that she might as well drop out of school. But school was her haven and her chance to get ahead, out of the ghetto where she lived and into a world of where things worked for her. Her explosion was a culmination of not wanting to believe it and instead believing in herself, knowing the odds.
The first thing I wanted to do was console her, tell her it would be okay, but that it would be a struggle. I wanted her to feel that even though she was an outcast in a world of hate and trying to live, that there were alternatives, much like what my husband, my son and I experienced in that restaurant. I wanted to tell her that there is prejudice, all over, whether you are African, Native American, or even white. But I never could say these things to her; she dropped out. I felt bad I wasn’t able to help; to let her know that there are “gifts in the garbage” that one has to find.
Our world is crumbling. Our country is falling apart when it should be joining together. The current political climate is creating division and derision, hate and a lack of moral integrity. Might isn’t always right. What we need instead is an opportunity to come together; to overcome the hurt, anger, fear and pain. We need to come together as a country and heal our wounds. And not use a political arena to do so. The terror attacks of 9/11 brought us together then; all races. Do we have the courage and strength to do the same now?