Tag Archives: racism

A Heart Walking Around In a Body

So.

I’ve been quiet lately.

I can’t get one thing written before another something happens and then I have to sit and think about that, but before I can get my ideas to line up next to words, something else happens. Kap. Tulsa. Star Spangled Banners. Syria. My own backyard. Charlotte.

Today, I found myself in a simple story that summed up some of what I’ve been trying to say. I had a moment in the basement of the hospital that opened my heart to how pervasive racism is in my world.

Part of my job is to share good news. When one employee wants to recognize another for a kind deed or superior service, it’s my privilege to hear those stories and share them with the whole health system. What a delight–I get paid to make sure good people and good work get recognized! I get a front row seat to watch people being their best–the people who are being thanked and the people who are taking a moment to thank others.

Yesterday, I received a recognition note from a nurse up on the floors. She had witnessed a pair of transporters (the people who move patients from one area of the hospital to another) go out of their way to care for a patient. While the patient was being wheeled back to her room from a procedure, she confided that she didn’t have any family nearby who could visit her. Naturally, she was feeling low and lonely. The transporters, a young man and a young woman, decided to cheer her up. They went down to the gift shop and bought her a flower and a balloon, wrote her a kind note of encouragement, and let her know that they cared. The nurse reported that the patient had smiled all day long thanks to their kindness.

Their hearts were filled with love. With the best kind of kindness–kindness to a lonely stranger.

Heart with seeds. Image courtesy Pixabay. Kindness

Heart with seeds. Image courtesy Pixabay.

A few hours after I read this gracious story, I walked over to the main hospital to run an errand. As I turned a corner, I almost bumped into a man in black scrubs–the transporter uniform. I glanced at his name tag and saw that it was the same man who had been recognized for great kindness to a lonely patient.

I had knowledge of this man’s heart.

But my first response to him–the first thing I registered–was his body. He is a tall, broad-shouldered, young Black man. He wasn’t carrying a rose with a balloon tied to the vase. He wasn’t even smiling. In the second before I saw his name tag and realized this was the gentle heart of kindness, I saw his skin and his frame and I reacted as I am programmed to do: you are other; are you dangerous? Should I be afraid of you? In less than a second, I was assessing him based on his body.

What I often forget is that he has been programmed to have the same reaction to me. He almost walked into me and probably went through the same assessment: You are not like me? Are you dangerous? Should I be afraid of you? As a middle-aged white woman who has grown up in Georgia, I know that I am the most dangerous thing a young Black man can run into when walking around a corner. Fifty years ago, he could have been lynched if I had walked into him and knocked us both down.

I wanted to apologize to him for not looking where I was going, and all of that history that neither one of us caused but that both of us carry. I wanted him to know that I knew he had a kind and caring heart. To meet his eye. To strike up a conversation. To represent all white people everywhere and prove that I’m not one of the bad ones.

Then again, I wanted to leave him alone to live his own life without my whole internal narrative being projected onto him. Maybe he was just walking down the hall, doing his job, and didn’t need a bleeding heart white woman all up in his space trying to save the world because the world can’t be easy for him right now. Maybe my feelings about his feelings aren’t central to the story? Maybe I should keep walking and do my errand. Just like with my writing these days, I was thinking so many thoughts that I couldn’t find any words. I missed the chance to say, “Hey! I heard about a really nice thing you did! That was cool.”

Instead, he went his way; I went mine.

I walked away thinking, “What must it be like to be him, walking around in this country today? Where no one knows his heart but everyone sees his body? Does he live in genuine fear of people like me because of his body?” Yes, I think.

I guess what I learned today is this: We live afraid of each other because we don’t have a way of seeing the heart that’s walking around in the body. We have to learn to lengthen those seconds that we spend seeing each other. That which is holy in me honors that which is holy in you.

I didn’t have time or words to get there today, but for a moment I imagined what it’s like right now for that gentle heart to live this life, walking around in that body.

Loving Your Mammy Isn’t Going to End Racism

Back in college, I was asked to sit on a discussion panel about race. I remember feeling honored to be asked, but I only recall one thing that I said that night. We were deep into the session and people began to get honest about the way they saw racial divides showing themselves on our little campus–in the classroom, in the dining hall, on elected boards.

At that point, a young white woman who was a well-known campus leader took the floor and said, with exasperation shaking the bow in her hair, “I just feel like we’re LOOKING for a problem here. I mean, nobody’s stopping anybody from sitting where they want to in the dining hall. I’m not a racist if I want to eat lunch with my friends. I mean, I was RAISED by a black woman…I love black people!”

mamita-y-escarlata

I remember my friend, Terri, catching my eye and looking like she was about to bust. I spoke up and took a chance on satire:  “I loved my Mammy too but that doesn’t fix the problem.”

The punchline worked. It got a good laugh and kept the discussion on track, without saying, “Sit down and shut up, Miss Scarlett.”

And it was true–I did spend several of my formative years under the care of Ms Jenny Mae Bray**, better known in our town as “Quicker.” She never liked her given name so she went by her family nickname, a reminder of how fast she got things done. Quicker watched us while our parents were at work. Now, don’t get any highfalutin’ ideas–we lived in a single-wide trailer with some wooden steps on the front. She had full reign over us and what Quicker said WENT. One time Joe snuck out into the yard without Quicker’s permission and she spanked him with my Bolo Paddle until it cracked in two.

Quicker was a giant presence in my youth. I lost touch with her after we moved when I was in second grade, but my memories of her are sweet and rich. When I was all grown up and in graduate school, Mom took me by to see Quicker at Baby Sister Argroves’ house, where she was working. Later that afternoon, I saw my brother and said, “Joe? How big was Quicker?” He blew out a long breath and said, “Oh man, she had to be six feet at least and maybe 225, 250?” I held up my hand at my shoulder and said, “She comes up to HERE on me! She’s tiny!” We marveled at the truth that time had revealed. And we agreed that we still wouldn’t try any foolishness while she was in charge.

calpurnia

Yes, I loved Quicker. I still remember how, when she gave me a bath in the green tub, she squeezed the washcloth filled with warm water on my shoulder. I do that to my children and think of her. I remember the smell of her egg custard pies and the way she would put a little pat of butter in the center of each while they cooled on the kitchen table. I remember the smell of the iron and how she sang to herself while she ironed shirts in the center of our tiny living room.

I loved Quicker, but I didn’t know her. I only knew the narrow part of her life where it intersected with mine. That’s why I said what I said on that panel about race at Wesleyan. Loving one person through a narrow lens doesn’t mean you understand what life is like for her or her family or her race. Proximity doesn’t equate to intimacy. That’s why the first step in joining the discussion about race in America is listening. Widening the lens that we’ve used for so many years to “see” our neighbors, our friends, our beloved.

Spoiler Alert I’m about to talk about a scene in “Go Set a Watchman.” Yes, I read it. Go ahead and judge me.

A lot of people didn’t want to read Harper Lee’s “newly discovered” first novel because they didn’t want it to change the way they saw the characters that we’ve all grown to love from To Kill a Mockingbird. How could Atticus be a racist? How could Jem not be around? How could Scout be a grown woman drinking booze and kissing men?

In reading another view of them, from 20 years past the TKAM storyline, I might have to widen my lens. Kind of like getting to know someone like Quicker, who had been a big part of my life, but only on my terms.

The scene that most moved me in Watchman was when Jean Louise visits Calpurnia at her home. Calpurnia’s family has suffered a great blow with the arrest of her grandson. The situation is made hopeless by the racial politics of the time (because if the racial roles were reversed in the car crash, and a young white man had hit a drunk old black man, no charges would have been filed). When Jean Louise shows up at Calpurnia’s knee, she is devastated to find that Calpurnia “is wearing her company manners.” Jean Louise is not welcome; she is cast out into her whiteness. In shock, Scout cries, “Cal, Cal, Cal what are you doing to me? I’m your baby, have you forgotten me? Why are you shutting me out? What are you doing to me?”

And Calpurnia answers, “What are you all doing to us?”

With those words, Jean Louise’s lens is shattered because Calpurnia insists on being seen in her entirety, not just as a part of Scout’s life. “She loved us, I swear she loved us. She sat there in front of me and she didn’t see me, she saw white folks.”

Quicker took good care of me. Because I loved her, it’s my duty to honor her too. To seek to understand. To listen. To widen my lens. To right what has been wrong.

tkam_1_635586590822882874

**Edited to change Quicker’s name from Strozier to Bray. My mama corrected my memory. I think the fact that I didn’t even recall her name correctly is a great comment on the point I was trying to make: I loved her, but I didn’t know her.

Stolen Chicken and Racism

chicken_thieves_040613Let me come clean right off the bat:  I stole $8 worth of chicken from Kroger last night.  Here’s what happened…

I got home from Kroger at 7:30pm, frazzled and tired.  As G and I were putting away the groceries, I noticed that the brown shopping bag was missing.  I knew I had taken it with me.  It was nowhere in the car, the kitchen, anywhere.  I tried to figure out if we were missing anything, so I opened the meat drawer.  There was the pound of ground beef and the turkey pepperoni.

“Where’s the chicken?”

G shook his head and said, “I didn’t see any chicken.”  I fumbled through the freezer and checked the countertops.  No chicken.

I cussed a good bit then stomped off to Kroger to claim my brown shopping bag and my missing chicken.  Grrr… grumble grumble grrr.

I trolled the parking lot in search of my chicken.  No luck.  I walked in through the out door, right past the security guard and started checking each bagging station for my chicken.  AHA!  There sat my brown shopping bag, camouflaged by the brown plastic bags.  But still no chicken.  I grabbed the bag.  The cashier who was now working that lane (not the one who had rung up my stuff) asked me if she could help.  “I found my bag but I can’t find my chicken.  I paid for 2 lbs of chicken tenderloins but they weren’t in my shopping bags when I got home.”  She couldn’t help.

The cashier who had helped me came up.  I explained to him and he took me over to the customer service counter to check for returned items.  Nope, no chicken.  At this point, the store manager walked over and I explained it to him.  He said, “I’m sorry about that.  If you’d like, go grab another pack of chicken and we’ll stick it in a bag for you.  If you discover other things that you’re missing, just bring back the receipt and we’ll fix you up.  No problem.”

I did exactly that.  I walked to the back of the store, grabbed another 2 lb pack of chicken and took it up to the front.  They slapped it in a bag and handed it over.  I thanked them then waved a thank you to the store manager.  Home ten minutes later with chicken in the fridge.

This morning, I discovered that I was a chicken thief.  While fixing breakfast, I reached in the deli drawer for some cheese and there sat a 2lb pack of chicken, right on top of my havarti.  I held it up to G like it was a bloody glove and cried, “What’s THIS???”  He ducked his head and mumbled, “I must not have recognized it.”  Dude.  It says “TYSON” and “CHICKEN” right here on the clear wrap that contains a whole bunch of CHICKEN.

It’s not like I could return the pilfered chicken to Kroger this morning.  Or donate it to the Food Bank. So I guess we will eat the Chicken of Shame and move on with our lives.

But the whole incident got me thinking.  Last week, in the midst of the turmoil after George Zimmerman was found not guilty of second degree murder for shooting Trayvon Martin, a friend shared an intriguing quote.  It comes from a one-year-old article that was published in The Atlantic–“Fear of a Black President” by .  I recommend the entire article, but these are the words I’ve been carrying around with me:

“Racism is not merely a simplistic hatred. It is, more often, broad sympathy toward some and broader skepticism toward others.”
 

Sympathy and skepticism.  I’m speaking as myself here–a middle-aged, middle-class, European extraction white woman from a small town in the Deep South.  I walked into Kroger as an unwitting chicken thief and I got sympathy.  Another woman, say with a Spanish accent or darker skin, could have walked into Kroger with the same story about missing chicken and gotten skepticism.  At least she might have been asked to show a receipt or maybe sign something.  Or the skepticism she had faced in other situations would have stopped her from even trying to go back to Kroger to ask for her chicken.

The friend who shared the quote is a middle-aged, middle-class, African extraction woman from the same small town in the Deep South.  She’s a lawyer, dresses a whole lot better than I do and probably has more money to spend.  But she and her daughters have been followed around in department stores due to skepticism.

Sometimes it’s hard to participate in the discourse about racism because we look for simplistic hatred and DON’T SEE IT.  I don’t know many people who treat others with simplistic hatred, but I know well this sympathy/skepticism divide.  I don’t treat people with simplistic hatred, but I certainly waver between sympathy and skepticism based on my snap assessment of them.  If a young black man in a hoodie approaches me in the parking deck at night, I would be more prone to skepticism.  If a young black man in a white lab coat approaches me in the parking deck at night, I would be more prone to sympathy.

Photo credit: Nikkolas Smith via Van Jones

Photo credit: Nikkolas Smith via Van Jones

So that’s what I end up thinking about when I accidentally steal chicken from Kroger on a Sunday night.  I appreciate the sympathy that I received, but I also understand that it isn’t handed out evenly.

“I have a dream, that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. ” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.