“I can’t believe this is happening in America.” “This isn’t who we are!” “We are better than this…..” All of these statements are understandable, given the anxiety and fear that has gripped the nation, and much of the world, in the past few months. The Covid-19 pandemic, colliding with increasing support by many in positions of power for white privilege and terrorist activities, has created the perfect storm.
Yet, those statements of disbelief and longing to return to “who we are” are beginning to sound to me like a liberal version of “Make America Great Again.”
“This” is happening in America because too many of us were unaware (at best) or didn’t care (at worst) that it was already “happening in America.” Yes, the Declaration of Independence expresses lofty ideals as the foundation of the nation and the Constitution enshrines the principles of equality and justice. But these are only words, and if the promises expressed in these words on a page are not transformed into daily reality on the street, then they are meaningless.
One of the ways to begin changing “This” is to take a fearless and honest look at how so many of our fellow citizens have been marginalized and brutalized. We need to listen to their voices, acknowledge their experiences and come to understand in a very deep way how simply having a different color skin can elicit insensitive comments (at best) or dangerous assumptions (at worst). A good place to start is with this article: “What I Said When My White Friend Asked for My Black Opinion on White Privilege.”
During my life time, I have had a few encounters with prejudicial assumptions or attitudes directed at me because I am a woman, or because I am overweight, or because I was a Quaker and disagreed with military solutions and discrimination. I have been lucky, though, that most of these encounters have been minimal and not difficult to deal with, and none of them posed any danger to my life.
Then I became the mother of brown skinned children. Due to infertility, my husband and I adopted our daughter and son from Peru. (The fact that we were able to do this is itself evidence of white/financial/cultural privilege.) Because we were blessed with a wonderful circle of friends and family in a mostly welcoming and accepting community, there were not many troubling incidents. There were some, however.
When our infant daughter was first brought to the local clinic for a routine checkup, the doctor noticed bluish markings on her lower back. Looking at us suspiciously, he asked how they had happened. “Mongolian spots,” I told him, “birthmarks that sometimes happen with darker skinned children.” He still seemed suspicious of me, although whether he really was or not, I do not know. But if I were a woman of color, or looked poor and uneducated, would this (ignorant) doctor have decided I was trying to cover something up and felt compelled to call CPS?
When our son was about three years old, he was pretending to be a super hero, and while holding a stick in his hand jumped off a bench, scratching his eye with the stick. At the emergency room we went through the usual long wait and intake procedure, until we were finally taken into a cubicle for evaluation. A resident came in, looked our family up and down (white father and mother, brown-skinned children) and asked: “Are they yours?”
Truthfully, neither of these experiences were evidence of extreme racism or ill-intent, and surely they pale in light of the daily onslaught that others face. The fact is, though, almost thirty years later, they still feel like that proverbial pebble in the shoe. What if I had to encounter experiences and stupid questions like this day after day after day? What if I didn’t have the words or sophistication to explain to a doctor what he should have already known and then had to allow CPS into my home and life?
It is happening in America.
My beautiful, polite, brown-skinned son now works in the restaurant business in a large city where there have been demonstrations resulting from the murder of George Floyd. There is a curfew in place, and masks are still required in public due to Covid-19. Now I am in the shoes of every Black, Brown, Hispanic mother who has to tell her son to be careful, please be careful, don’t walk into a bank with a mask on–just use the ATM, please don’t go to the demonstrations, there might be white terrorists or a policeman might think you are a danger, be careful walking home from your job with a mask on because some random person might feel threatened and call the police. Be safe, please, I love you. Please God, Please.
©Martha Hurwitz, 6/4/20