Saturday, August 1, 2015

What Not To Do When Trying to "Build Racial Unity"

I've worn glasses or contacts since I was 6 years old.  My doctors told my parents that I should have probably started wearing them since I was 3.  No one noticed how little I could see until I hit 1st grade and began guessing what my teacher was writing on the chalk board.  I never told my parents this, I guess because I didn't know any better.  I was seeing in the only way I knew how since birth, so it was just my norm.  My childhood was brutal - the teasing, the mocking, the bullying.  You see I wasn't just a little near-sighted.  I was off-the-charts near-sighted with astigmatism.  The lenses in my glasses cost 3 times as much as the frames.  Comparing them to coke-bottles would be an understatement.  I was the 7-year-old who sneaked behind my parents couch and became forever traumatized by that scene from Salem's Lot where the little boy ghost came scratching at the window.  The one who was afraid to take her glasses off while she slept - for 3 straight weeks - because she wanted to be able to see (and defend herself against) what might appear at her window at night.  I was the 9-year old whose glasses were snatched from her face in math class and hidden from her throughout the entire time while her classmates giggled behind her back.  She was too scared to tell her teacher.  I was the awkward 10-year old who dreaded P.E. because, well sweat makes glasses slide right off one's little nose, not to mention all the jumping and running.  I was the the 13-year old who on her way to a family wedding, decided to not wear her glasses for the night.  Why ruin a beautiful dress with four eyes?  She ended up walking into tables, greeting the wrong guests, ignoring others and getting caught drinking a glass of wine.  I was the 15-year old who finally convinced her parents that she needed contacts.The one who thought that this would surely make the boy she's had the crush on for years finally notice her.  He didn't.

A few years ago I re-connected with a distant cousin from my childhood who noticed that I was was no longer wearing glasses.  We went through all the usual pleasantries, "Oh, you look great.  Didn't you use to wear glasses?"   Our conversation went something like this:

"I had no idea you were so blind!  I know exactly how you feel.  I once got my eyes dilated and they just made me sit there and wait for half an hour before I could drive home.  It was such a pain!"  Yeah, that's pretty much how I would feel 24-7 if it weren't for my contacts.

We reminisced a bit back to our childhood years.  He said, "Weren't those the best days ever?"  Well, actually, I'm kind of glad they are over, I was 4-eyed Mae, remember?   He continued, "Oh, kids were just being kids.  We all got teased.  You shouldn't take it so personally.  It's no big deal."  Except that I failed a math assignment the day my glasses were taken away (and have hated math ever since) and regularly hid in the janitor's closet during P.E. class.  

Of course our conversation led us to that fateful family wedding.  "Remember that time you drank wine at that wedding?  You got in so much trouble!  That was a hoot!"  Actually, I was terrified, wanting to fit in so much, I was willing to give up total control of my environment.  "Oh that's silly.  No one even notices if you wear glasses or not.  No one treats you differently just because you have glasses on." 

We began talking about our careers and families.  "See how far you've come?  Those kids didn't mean anything by it.  It was a long, long time ago.  I think you need to stop dwelling on this."  Actually, it was the first thing you mentioned when we met and you're the one who keeps bringing it up.

"I bet you feel more normal now that you have contacts.  You're just like one of us!  We're no different at all."  Actually, I spend about $1200 every year for eye exams, contacts, and glasses.  Oh, and I didn't really feel "not" normal before I wore contacts.
So in the course of our 20 minute conversation, my cousin managed to:

1.  Minimize the totality of my life experiences by saying that he too knew what it's like because he once had his eyes dilated for 30 minutes.

2.  Tell me  my feelings were invalid, and instead offered alternative ways I should feel about something he has never personally experienced.

3.  Discount all my painful childhood bullying experiences by saying "kids were just being kids".

4.  Make the sweeping, uninformed, and careless, statement that no one even noticed that I was different - that it was just all my own perception.

5.  Immediately point out my missing glasses, but then turned around and said that I was the one dwelling on them.

6. Ignore all that he witnessed during our childhood, and all that I shared with him about my experiences, and still insisted that we had the same kind of childhood, that we were no different at all.

Yesterday I unexpectedly found myself in a long and lengthy Facebook dialog with someone from college who told me that I was being racist when I posted this status update:

My white friends say, "Have a safe trip."  My African-American friends say, "Keep your phone charged and your camera working."  #BlackLivesMatter

I wrote it because one of my closest girlfriends was taking her mom on a road trip this weekend, and she was scared about driving.  A few years ago when she was traveling with her white husband, they were pulled over, he was taken from the car until the officer could verify that my African-American friend was not a prostitute.  Hearing that changed me.  Stirred me.  Made it impossible for me to go about my day without calling attention to the fact that as Americans, we are forced to live very different lives, depending on how we are treated.  Depending on the color of our skin.  This of course, all on the heels of the Samuel DuBose shooting by a University of Cincinnati officer. 

And in the course of my back and forth exchange with my college acquaintance, he managed to accomplish all 6 of the above points.  Except we weren't talking about 4-eyed Mae anymore.  We were talking about something much more significant.  We were talking about human experiences and how race impacted those experiences.  And from his privileged vantage point, my college acquaintance believed that he was engaged in a genuine effort to build racial unity. 

Shortly after, another Facebook friend private messaged me. She had been following our exchange and while she initially had discomfort with my original post, she wanted to understand.  She wanted to be proactive in creating a world where people didn't have to live drastically different life experiences.  She asked me how she could start.   In a few moments I will e-mail her the above six points, after I add the word "don't" before each point.  I appreciated her reaching out to me so much.  I told her that if she was really serious about being a trusted ally who could help build bridges, she should consider refraining from asking so many questions like: Why do you feel that way?  Why do you have to do that? Don't you think that's making things more divisive?  

And just listen. 

We don't do that nearly enough.  I'm not excluding myself from that camp either.  Because at the end of the day, if we are truly serious about making meaningful connections with people who are different from us, our opinions on how they should act, and how they should feel don't really matter as much as how they really live and how they really feel.  And how different would the world look if we all navigated life with the same exact clarity, looking through the exact same lens.  In the meantime, it wouldn't hurt for us to help each other get around, and sometimes perhaps, just get out of the way.