On a journey to find the silver linings

On a journey to find the silver linings

Friday, November 6, 2015

Black, White, and Red All Over

Racism isn't a real problem anymore, and people that think so are just overreacting or being dramatic.
That's what I used to think before moving to Missouri.

We arrived only two months after the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, which, if you somehow don't know, is part of the greater St. Louis metropolitan area, just north of the city proper. It's 35 minutes from where we now live. But when we got here, I didn't know my head from my tail or which end was up; I was spinning from the move across country and the sudden death of my dad. To me, Ferguson was just down the street, and everything we were watching live on the news may as well have been in our backyard. Geographically, I just didn't know otherwise.

The rioting and protests and stories of discrimination were on the news every night. I couldn't comprehend why black men and women were protesting in the streets. I didn't know why everyone was so angry. And I certainly had no vocabulary to respond to the "us vs. them" conversations that were happening at backyard barbecues in my pristinely white neighborhood. Really, the whole thing caught me off guard.

I didn't think people really still said these kinds of things about their fellow human beings, even in a "joking" or "harmless" backhanded way, and I certainly didn't think true Racism - like, "Martin Luther King racism" was still a problem for Americans in our day and age.

See, the home I was raised in was special. My parents were truly accepting of everyone, and I mean everyone. My brother Kip is Sioux indian and was adopted as a newborn. He and I are only 8 months apart so he's been my brother since the day I was born - and believe me, we act like it; good, bad, and ugly. The only racism I experienced growing up were the occasional nasty comments from stupid white people making dumbass remarks about his "red" skin to the person they didn't know was his sister. Trust me, I felt no hesitation saying, "really? That 'prairie nigger' happens to be my brother." That was a surefire way to stop the conversation and shame the riffraff far enough away to leave us alone. And my best friend Winona was my constant companion for almost 10 years until I graduated and moved away. She too is Sioux indian, and I couldn't have cared less. All I saw was my sister - we were "blood brothers," having secretly cut our hands to swap and seal blood when we were 12. If anyone had dared made mention of her race, I'd not only have been confused, but that person would've ceased being a part of my life for good.

But that was back in the '70's and '80's. Times have changed since then - right? North Dakota doesn't have a "real" racism problem, Montana doesn't either - at least not in a sheltered white person's perspective. (Now keep in mind that's mostly because there are so few black people to be racist against). But now Native Americans, that's a different story; for some reason, we don't consider them when we talk about "racism." They're mostly not even considered at all, which is a whole different story in and of itself.

Coming to Missouri, coming here in the heat of the unrest in Ferguson, I found out in a damn hurry that my lily-white naive opinion about racism was just a fractured fairy tale. 

In so many ways, I found out. And now it's my responsibility to teach my kids. To be "Bob & Heidi" to the next generation of "Kip & Tanya's." I thought I've been a good parent, talking to my kids about being kind and loving to all people regardless of their skin color. And when "teachable moments" have come up over the years I think I've done a pretty decent job - decent enough for where we lived, anyway. But I look back now and realize I haven't done enough; not enough for this place. How could I? I didn't know enough myself.

And here we are, 35 minutes from Ferguson Missouri in 2015. "Black Lives Matter" is everywhere here, the morning news is just a recap of the shootings, robberies, and killings from the night before, and how do I explain all of this to my kids? Remember, the police reports in our town talked about cows on the loose and streakers at football games, and now they practice lockdowns, see their schoolmates segregate themselves by color in the lunch hall, and think that driving through North St. Louis means they'll get shot.

How do I teach my kids? Where do I start? Well, none of it makes sense without a little bit of history to give some context, so I started with cinema - that great captivator of imagination and magnifier of ideas. Sophie and I spent the afternoon watching "The Help," and it rocked her little world. She absolutely loved the story and was glued the entire time. I watched her be confused, angry, amused, and heartbroken. I needed to explain some scenes to her and make things that were over her head a bit easier to understand (like the shooting of Medgar Evers, the "shit pie" incident, and when Yule Mae was arrested and beaten for stealing a ring). 

Watching a movie on a Sunday afternoon won't change the world, but it's a start. It's planting seeds in her little mind, giving her a greater sense of the bigger picture, and putting some faces (even fictional ones) to injustice and change. I can keep taking my kids to pow-wows like we have in the past, like my parents did with me, I can get them involved in activities that have a greater mix of diversity, I can watch movies and tv shows that open their eyes. But really, the best thing I can do with and for my kids is to treat everyone with the same kindness & respect as the person before - with no exception of age, color, religion, gender, you name it. I plop myself down and chat with a black man at the hospital the same as I would anyone else. Don't step to the other side of the street, don't make distinctives based on skin color, don't avoid conversation or eye contact. For God's sake, we are all created equal - I finally see we don't really act that way, even when we politely say we do.

"The Help" might be over her head in a lot of ways - she may be too young for some of the themes. But in the world we live in now, in this place we call home that's regularly on the national news for social unrest and cultural violence, 10 years old seems old enough to understand that we're just people who are on this journey side by side; that we're all simply people who are black, white, and red all over. 

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