White Guilt And A Patchwork Quilt

My dad is an immigrant with a permanent resident Status that he acquired when President Reagan loosened the application restrictions in 1986, creating immigrant amnesty. (Reagan was today’s Democrat or something. I don’t know, because I was three.) My dad is Greek, just like my Big Fat Greek Wedding.  He’s also kind of racist; you see guys, a lot of that shit also exists in Europe. It’s real, and it’s not something we stand to gain anything by denying. It’s maybe an ego bruise or a pride-sting, but it’s a real thing with a name and a feeling and a dictionary description.

The thing about my dad’s kind of racism is that he never wants to revoke the rights of other people; he doesn’t think they don’t deserve to live, he just makes really harsh and sweeping generalizations that are still damaging and not okay.

My dad hides his racism really well, and doesn’t identify as being bigoted. He doesn’t actually think he’s doing anything wrong. He usually just whispers something under his breath and out of earshot when he’s watching TV.  As a kid I didn’t realize that he was in fact embodying the form of racism we heard about in school, when we had assemblies and councilor sessions about appropriate language. It’s the sort of thing that people have to hammer into your head before you really see it for what it is.

Like a lot of people, he’s not open with it, he’s not targeting anyone, but he does not get racial sensitivity. He doesn’t get gay people either, or how that’s “a thing”, but he doesn’t give a flying fuck if they get married, he just doesn’t fundamentally get it.

As I grew up, and learned how to stand up to my parents, I found it easy to tell my dad when he was being racist.

“Can you believe that girl, with all the black guys!” he would say to me when he would see someone he knew with another new boyfriend.

“Dad that’s racist.” I would flatly tell him, giving almost no tone of surprise, shock, or distaste. That is really the only way to talk to my father.

“Okay Chrissy.” He would say in his thick accent as he turned and walked away from me. Maybe he was being dismissive.

I knew I wasn’t changing him, he wasn’t turning a new leaf, he wasn’t ever going to declare himself an ally to anyone, but I also knew that I could tell him when he was doing it and that he would stop. I also knew I was saving him from saying that shit too loud. You can’t be publicly racist. At least you couldn’t be, seven days ago.

We don’t need Alanis Morisette to tell us how ironic it is that the immigrant who is racially stereotyping people looks shocked when I react to his slurs.  

I recognize racism because I grew up with it. My mom was even a little racist. Just the traces of it. She dropped slurs casually that I didn’t know were slurs. Like “Chinky,” which sounds adorable to a kid and not so bad, but it is bad, don’t tell your kids to say it. I said it until I was a teenager having no idea what the hell I was talking about. I didn’t even know I was being racist; it was just one of those things that gets handed down like a quilt or tacky gold earrings that were very popular during that Reagan era.

And my mom was the white lady who was best friends with the only black woman on our street; mom was sort of racist like dad was, yet she empowered our African Immigrant neighbor to get her license by giving her driving lessons and teaching her how to drive in our old, white Honda Civic.

My mom sent us to play with the neighbor’s kids, who watched Saved By the Bell on their grainy, small, barely in color and very non HDTV too. They cooked strong, odorous food that I had never seen before, most of it turned out to be seasoned beans or rice, but I was used to Macaroni and ultra-palatable food that was all the same color. They had hair that took a lot of combing and conditioning. They had these dark, wooden tribal masks on the wall that scared the hell out of me, but they were cultural—I understood that much. They would speak in a version of French to one another, but easily slide back into English for me. Eventually I realized I was picking up keywords in their dialogues. They were quiet and obedient to their parents. They had a structure to their household relationships that seemed more formal than mine, but I didn’t see any enormous differences when you consider what it must be like to come to Vermont from Africa. We were friends with them for years. And for most of the time, they were the only black family we knew, but my brother and I didn’t notice it until we were much older.

None of that sounds like true, cold-blooded, hate-filled racism, right?

So I get that a lot of people supporting Trump are saying that they’re not racist. Because like my family, being half-way kind-of racist means you are kind to people of all races, but you are willing to overlook the use of slurs and stuff that seems innocent. It’s not innocent, though. And not hearing those slurs, or standing up to those slurs is allowing someone to be branded with the hot-poker of hate.

I was finally of drinking age, waitressing nights in my parents restaurant across from a popular bar that always hosted live bands. After work I scooted over a lot to see music and friends and get drinks. My old neighbor was still living in Brattleboro, but divorced and with a home of her own in a different end of town now. She still went out dressed beautifully in traditional, vibrantly colored kaftans. I could spot her from a mile away; she was cheerful, always emanating a joy from her soul as though nothing got to her. She was out dancing with her friends at that bar. I didn’t talk to her much—loud music, crowded house.

Sometime in the following days, a familiar woman came in to eat at our absurdly tiny seven-table pizza shop. A frequent customer, she had to have been in her 90s. She walked with a cane and a serious curvature to her stooped back. I always felt a soft spot for her being that her appearance was so frail. I whispered to my mom, “It’s kind of sweet; she’s still independent and comes in for pizza.”

My mom whispered to me in a less hushed tone that left me feeling embarrassed, “That lady ain’t got nothing sweet. She had the nerve to walk up to my friend who was minding her business out dancing the other night, grab her arm, and tell her to go back to Africa. She called her a Nigger.”

My mouth gaped in horror, I stumbled over words. “What happened next?”  

“My friend is an amazing woman; she stood up, shook the woman off and said, ‘Leave me alone, I’m dancing!’ And then she did exactly that, smiled at her friends and didn’t let it stop her fun. That was the best way to shut that awful woman up.”

“Mom, are you going to say anything? Are you going to refuse to serve her? Should we kick her out?” I asked, genuinely concerned, and having never heard of such a thing happening before in my springy, peach-white skinned life.  

“No,” my mom said, continuing her work cutting bread for sandwiches.

The conversation ended just that abruptly.

We continued to serve that racist old lady for many more months. I never said anything, quietly serving her food, knowing she was full of hatred straight out of the MLK docuseries I saw in high school. Justice to me would have been kicking her out for her hatred, the way so many black people were dehumanized and kicked out of diners before I was born.

Someone I knew to be good and virtuous was publicly branded with the hate and anger of a perfect stranger.  It was not her responsibility to carry the dark shadow of someone else’s resentment. She had handled herself perfectly, and unfortunately I’m sure she had practice.

Everyone who stands out has. My dad is called a Muslim by intolerant people who can’t tell that his accent is Greek and that his flag is blue. He’s been called a “White-Nigger” and I’m still not sure what that means, but it seems like we affix the term “Nigger” to attribute hate to just about anyone.

It feels different somehow: using the language that was designed to oppress an entire culture of people from Slavery to Segregation feels like a far more dark and painful type of racism than jokes about Jews or calling Muslims terrorists. I understand. But somewhere we left a door open.

And we can dig in our heels, appease our guilt, or our fear of being represented as bad, and say we don’t carry those sins on our backs anymore; we leave the past where it is, because it’s not ours anymore. We have atoned, we are nicer now, too much time has passed, are they trying to punish us for things we didn’t even do? Should I feel guilty for being white?

Maybe. But only if we keep doing nothing. We packed away the dogs and firehoses and the Jim Crow, but racism didn’t die when that bitter old woman did. We handed it down, like a quilt or some tacky gold earrings.

Act with kindness. Think.

An Homage And A Tearful Goodbye

I was a really nervous fourth grader; even as a child I hated new experiences. The butterflies were never exciting ones, they were always weighted down inside of my cockles with dread. This particular day we were taking a class field trip to a local private school to do a workshop with kids from another school program, probably to “branch out” or “broaden our cultural experiences.” For whatever reason, my hippie public school teacher with feathers in her hair and earthy perfume had orchestrated an embarrassing exercise in which we would run improvised short plays. She made me act as the person who kicks Rosa Parks out of her seat on The Bus. You’re probably going; “What?”

I agree, there is absolutely nothing great about being the fourth grader who gets assigned the most racist role ever.

I walked into a small classroom with my large class and met the students of the class we were invading. There were silent, shy stares from both classes. None of us understood why we were there. While I quietly and blankly observed the faces of the new kids sitting in a semicircle in front of us I was also taking in the details of the room.

It was vastly different from my stark-white cement brick classroom background.  These floors were hardwood, not thinly carpeted with an itchy, blue rug. The walls were softer somehow, with trimming and details and large windows framed with wood. Back then the bookshelves seemed so big, and the kids had bean bag chairs to sit on while they read. Having no architectural or stylistic idea of what I was appreciating as a fourth grader, today I know it was warmth and natural light, soft color palates and nothing harsh, metal and industrial like you’d find in just about every other school building I’ve been in.

It stayed with me, both the humiliation of yelling at pretend (and very much white) Rosa Parks and having only half of a clue what that meant, and the feeling inside that building. I wanted to keep it forever, carry it home in my pocket and try to transform some area of my life into a safe and cozy nook.

I grew up down the street from that school in a Formica house of hard lines and no yard. As I got older I went trekking up the enormous, winding dirt driveway that lead at first to a mansion transformed into offices, used mostly for Yoga, and then just beyond that is an inlet for public hiking trails. Nestled up there on top of that huge hill just beyond that mansion is a school house. Made of wood, neutral tones and big windows, sitting in the shade of ancient trees, there was the warm feeling I’d always wanted to recreate.  It’s a unique location, off a busy street, and close to downtown but built so far into the woods that the cars are only noticeable if you crouch down and peek through tree branches. Life up on the hill feels a little like Shangri La.

I called the school as soon as my son was about to turn three. I knew I immediately wanted to enroll him in the place that had resonated so deeply with me. I potty trained him quickly to get him enrolled. The pee accidents still happen, but some kids just do that. The good news is that the school no longer requires potty training for enrollment. We agreed to send him there for preschool, and I thought we would keep him there forever. My husband agreed to send him there until he was old enough for public school, but the agreement wasn’t something we really talked about. I assumed that like everything else I would be able to change his mind.

School pick up was, interesting, maybe inconvenient but not everything in life is designed to be easy, but it builds character and glutes and that’s just facts. I adapted to walking up that steep and long road during heavy snow when my minivan would give out halfway up and I would be forced by the elements to have to back very slowly down the hill and park on the main road. I would hoist my youngest onto my shoulders and hike, feeling grateful for the workout but honestly displeased with the snow.

At Christmastime there were no Santas or forced themes, but there were kids sitting at picnic tables out front, knotting wire around rocks and handing them out to parents as ornaments.

I took the kids out to explore the trails, and they would get a few opportunities to go on them with their teachers and memorize a few trails. It was my preschooler who showed me how to use some of the trails I’ve never been on.

Every day I walked up to the door to pick up my big kid and he ran out, excited to see me, holding art projects and books in his hands, showing me his latest invention or spewing a ton of crazy stories about alien robot dinosaurs.

The parents met on the playground and chatted, when the kids came out at mid-day they would run to play structures and have built-in play dates.

In the micro chasm of preschool half day pick up I have seen families have new babies, talked about anything and everything with other parents, broken up spats between kids, chased my own three kids and watched them grow as they learned to navigate the playground equipment, the stairs and the big slides. They fearlessly took on the woods, the bugs and the salamanders. They played in the snow, only staying indoors on the most unlivable of northern New England days.

The school day wore them out for me. I would bring them home ready for naps. They played with all their might, playing chase or super heroes or some made up game that no adult could possibly follow, running back and forth across the hillside.

I picked my Five year old son up and drove him home on his last day at Neighborhood Schoolhouse, with three exhausted and played out kids in the car I felt stressed, but happy and emotional at watching the end of this truly awesome childhood era.  My son from the “way back” quietly called out; “Mommy, why is today the last day of school? I don’t feel like I’ve learned enough to go to my new school.”

And at that I allowed a smattering of tears to flow down my cheeks.

There wasn’t going to be a way to hold them back anymore.

With the wet heat of an overdue cry stinging my eyes, I assured him that he had learned so many wonderful things and he would be so ready to take on his Kindergarten year.  He’s learned the basics of reading and writing, without any academic pressure to perform. He was able to pace himself and every time we sat down to read he recognized more and more words, and towards the end, he has been adding and subtracting numbers. My heart pumps with pride knowing that we made a great choice for giving our kid a healthy start to his formative education.

I walked our dog tonight on the trails that lead up to the school. She’s familiar with the scents of those woods and eagerly pulled me towards the trail that leads to school. I was tempted to walk the whole way but felt myself abruptly overcome with emotion at the idea that I had to say goodbye to something I felt so deeply connected to, something that fit better than any pair of jeans I’ve ever tried to wear. I lead the dog back down the trail and let myself cry like no one was watching. My husband didn’t understand why I came home with red eyes, and I had difficulty explaining my attachment and my strong reaction, but when a place resonates with you, you react strongly to it. I said goodbye to my playground friendships, and my son said goodbye to some children he’s known for nearly half of his very short life.

It represents some form of an idyllic childhood, simplified. Where preschoolers and elementary kids experience nature and friendship, and education seems to find its way into that innate curiosity on its own.

On a side note; I haven’t seen a single kid since I was in fourth grade be forced to reenact a civil rights abuse, so either times have changed for the better or my acting ruined racially tense improv  for everyone.

We may have to move on to establishment education, white-painted bricks, and state curriculum but the two years we spent on the hill in the woods will always be worth the money, and the time. Unfortunately, not even my tears could make my husband change his mind about the educational plan he has for our son, not any more than my tears could make money appear in my bank account.

Soon, my heart won’t feel as stung by this sense of loss.

But there are few places that evoke such a sense of closeness and security and I encourage anyone to look closely at the happy little faces playing under the Hemlock trees and think that maybe, this could be a dream for their kids too.

This isn’t goodbye, it’s see you later.