A Critical Journey: Racism is Alive and Well-So Why not Talk About It!
I haven’t written an MTR Brief for some time. Life and work have just been extremely busy; even for someone like me who thrives on keeping up with multiple projects and responsibilities. But, most recently I had the opportunity to sit through ” The Black/Jew Dialogues”, a performance expertly delivered by a Black man and a Jewish man highlighting racism and prejudice in America and it’s impact on our society and especially on individuals. They expertly deal with the pain and impact of racism and prejudice using humor and historical events.
Part of the performance reminds us of our history and the coalitions of all races who worked on civil liberties and freedoms so that today we enjoy better equality as a people. The performance made me experience a mix of emotions all at once; nostalgia, sadness, joy, and laughter as the actors very astutely used humor coupled with history to raise awareness about where we have been and more importantly where we ought to aspire to get to as a people occupying this richly diverse planet.
But, the one question that has stuck with me since attending the performance with my husband and other colleagues last month, was when we were asked to think of a situation where we felt discriminated and/or when we felt treated differently because of race, ethnicity, language, gender, sexual preference and/or ability/disability.
A flood of memories took over my brain at that moment and all I could think about was: well there are so many. I could share that when I was ten the teacher yelled at me and sent me out of the classroom for speaking Spanish at lunch with the only other Puerto Rican girl in fourth grade. Or, when the school system demoted me two grades when I arrived as a child of nine, and spoke no English. Or I could talk about when as a young couple, my husband and I pulled into a driveway slightly just to turn around on a dead-end street and a woman came out with a broom yelling: “get out of my driveway you f….n spicks!”Or better yet, perhaps is the one where I’m the only person of color at a national meeting and undoubtedly at some point, someone says, but ” you are so articulate”. Or when we showed up to see an apartment in the ’80s and the owner said: “oh, you are the Rosa‘s?” And, even another owner, a retired police officer, who upon showing us an apartment told us how he knew about our kind. He went on to say: you know, two people move in and then you move many more people in after approved. Or when I was running for office and a white male introduced me as the Spanish candidate. There were so very many memories such as the ones I have shared that the time passed and the dialogue ended before I could share even one my experiences. But the question has stayed with me.
And you may say, well but those memories are from 1970’s/1980’s/1990's a different time; one might say. Certainly these things are not happening today. I’m second generation Puerto Rican in the US and I grew up here having come at age 9. My children were born here, third generation Puerto Rican US citizens. They have no accent, they have only been to PR as travelers on vacation but they have experienced racism just as much as I and maybe more. There is that first job as a teenager when one of my children was asked by his white male boss if his people wore shoes and if they still live in huts. Or when one of my children was stopped multiple times because of driving a nice car. A teacher once asked me if my child was having difficulty with science because English was the second language. Now my children have lived in an English-speaking environment and Spanish is actually their second language not their first. So, I will not share my response to that teacher. But the worse experience by one of my children in 90’s was when another child asked to burrow their finger because they needed a brown crayon. Just thinking about it is painful!
And, not to bore you: but my husband and I very early, taught our children especially our son, how to ask for a police officer’s badge number and name or for a manager in charge if they felt ill-treated or discriminated. I will never forget when one of our children called because the star market did not want to allow that they buy the newest dated milk gallon saying they had to take the almost expired gallon. Needless to say all of these experiences were painful for our children and for my husband and I, I was not happy when my son said the MBTA bus driver did not want to accept him with his student pass because he was wearing a leather coat and gold chain and having been at the East Boston – Maverick station, did not look like a student. Teaching our children to respectfully stand up for themselves in these circumstances was a priority in my household; we knew it could save their lives. We knew they needed to learn to keep their guard up and not take comments that felt racist lightly. I remember saying to my children: ” No one, regardless of their position in life, has the right to disrespect you. You deserve to be respected, you are special and you are somebody!”
I’m positive the types of conversations my husband and I had with our three children on how to speak up for themselves, protect themselves and stand up against racism perhaps don’t take place in all homes. It was important that our children knew, how to respectfully put people in their place while defending themselves and that they trust their intuition when something was being said to them just did not feel right. I’m sure, most white households do not often find the need to have these conversations with their children. My children are now wonderful adults and when we look back we talk about these experiences. But we move on, and we don't make assumptions that every circumstance is racially driven or motivated.
But YES–my friends–racism, prejudice, white privilege and entitlement are Real. They are alive and well in this country. Just look at how our first black President has been treated; politics aside, the disrespect has been astounding! And if you don’t know racism is an issue and that we continue to need affirmative action, and equal pay campaigns, and advocacy for vulnerable populations and civil rights lawyers to fight the good fight, all you have to do is turn on the news. Black and brown boys and men especially experience discrimination much too often; the story of Trayvon or Ferguson reminds us and very pointedly highlight that racism in this country remains a huge struggle. Just, today I read a story written by an African-American father who thought if only he gave his children a wealthy upbringing, enrolled them in diverse private schools, and taught them how to dress and speak well they would not endure the same racism he did. Yet while enrolled at an elite, private boarding school summer program his son was called a ‘nigger’ by two white man driving down the street he was walking on. The experience scarred the young man to a point where he stopped going places on his own.
Recently, in a conversation about the need to focus on diversity and inclusion issues, a white female colleague said to me: “I am so surprised diversity issues are an issue. I thought we were over it, especially here.” With a perplexed look on her face, she continued, “I thought we had dealt with racism in this country.” I know exactly what she was thinking, and then she said it: ” I thought that after electing Obama we were in a much better place”. Not sure why I was shocked by her statement; I have heard this before from white colleagues. But, my only response was, “No, racism is alive and well!” And, I thought to myself: Ignorance is bliss and if you are from privilege you may very well think that we are no longer living with racism and prejudice; moreover when you turn on the news you don’t even recognize it.
Now, I’m not someone who thinks race is at the heart of every injustice I have experienced or heard about. But I have been around a few decades now, and when it exists I believe we ought to call it what it is. Let’s respectfully engage in dialogue that moves us to a new understanding of ourselves. Don’t ask me what being Puerto Rican is like, do your homework then we can have a conversation. The internet is a wonderful learning tool. Use it!
Join the dialogue or start one with your friends, family members and colleagues. Expand your circle of relationships. Get to know those around you, don’t judge. You don’t know a person’s journey or the experiences they have endured. Be kind to one another and open yourself to learn. Tomorrow is not guaranteed to any of us; respect for each other and our differences is not too much to ask. Have patience and enlighten yourself. Ignorance is not an excuse!
Keep the dialogue moving, this is an important journey. Ask yourself and others: how will we move forward on these issues? How can we make sure that our black and brown boys stay safe, building their confidence and fulfilling their dreams? How will we work together against injustice? How do we create safe spaces where we can discuss these difficult experiences? How do we create broad coalitions with intentionality? How do we get to a place where we care sufficiently about our fellow-man/woman to insure a just society? Can we reconcile the hurts of the past to build a society where our black and brown sons don’t have to fear for their lives because of the color of their skin?
And for those of you who have not experienced the Black/Jew Dialogues I highly recommend you catch their performance when they are in your area. Check them out on YouTube!
Keep in mind: Respect-Dialogue-Laughter-Humility and Humanity-words to live by!