Friday, March 8, 2013

Reflections on Selma, Alabama, 2013

Growing up in Portland at Grant High School, I often felt that I was an outsider when I was the only white person in a group of kids. No one talked to me. No one offered to braid my hair. My companions seemed uncomfortable that I was there, which made me feel vulnerable and shy, which perhaps made them think that I was aloof, which made them uncomfortable that I was there…a vicious circle that pushed us further and further apart. I grew up surrounded by white kids half the time and black kids the other half. Some kids from the black half of my social circle were outwardly friendly; most accepted my presence. But one boyfriend was not willing to introduce me to his family. I can only guess it was because he was embarrassed of me or that his grandmother would be angry at him for dating a white girl. I will never know. Was this feeling of discomfort because of skin color? Surprisingly, I think the answer is no. The way the Civil Rights leaders in Alabama embraced me and welcomed me into their educational venues - into their community, into their experience as human rights advocates with very personal, tangible proof of the toll racism has taken on our country - was with love and enthusiasm. They didn’t let my skin color get in the way of “telling it” enthusiastically and with heartfelt emotion. The experience felt far different from my childhood attempts to be a part of the group as a timid, 16 year old, caucasian. In Selma, I was surrounded by amazing black leaders and historic members of the civil rights movement, but even more poignant, I was surrounded by black high school kids in their school hallways and African American customers at Church’s Chicken Shop. If we got a few curious looks - my white carload of young people and me - they were mostly comfortable, good-natured looks, not hostile ones.

My point is this: I am just as white now as I was 25 years ago. But my perception of where I belong has shifted in direct proportion with my courage and personal confidence, and, most likely with the increased courage and confidence of people in the black community. I belong in the company of good, honest, loving people. Those traits cannot be assigned or denied to an entire race, recognized by measuring pigmentation in the epidermis and exclaiming “White” or “Black”. For what are these color names anyway? “Red” for Native American, “Yellow” for Asian, “Black” for African, and “White” for European. None of those races are actually those colors at all! Strangely, “Yellow” and “Red” have fallen out of fashion and cannot be used in polite company to refer to race. But the terms “Black” and “White” still persist in the mainstream. I interpret this naming system as a sign of lingering racism and manufactured conflict, creating a literal opposite in words, where, in reality, we are all just variations on a theme. In Selma, we listened to a few speakers who identified with the black community, but their skin was the same shade as mine.

Our faces look wheat, tan, brown and golden to me. When we stop relying on “Black” or “White” to classify a person, we can understand individuals by their affiliations, their actions and, as Martin Luther King Jr. said, by their character. I think the discord I have been a part of with people of a different race has been cultural, not physical. One person could be a member of a Southern Revivalist church; I am a West Coast atheist. Another might value females solely for their role as eye-candy; I trust that women are just as capable as men to build, improve and succeed on this earth. One might find exposed legs in the summer vain or inappropriate; I find it comfortable. Here is where conflicts arise, not literally in our skin colors. Really, we truly cannot judge a book by its cover at all. Our group witnessed a perfect example of this in the Montgomery airport flying home. We saw a man who intentionally made himself look very different from the rest of us. He had tattooed his entire bald head and face with green and blue puzzle-pieces, he had surgically removed 3 half-circle “bites” from each of his ears, tattooed the whites of his eyes black and had small horn-like protrusions implanted under the tattooed skin of his forehead. If a stranger’s looks could make you uncomfortable, this would have been the one to do it. But as I watched him talk with his girlfriend in a melodic, calm voice about everyday things, I was not the least bit apprehensive of him. He even said “Bless You” when I sneezed.

This man was racially “White”, but truthfully, he was green. The only real information we receive when we hear that he is “White” is that he is a descendant of mostly European ancestors and enjoys the privileges that their hostile and racist policies created. The way we use “White” in this nation is not accurate. Frankly, it covers up the things that we should be talking about – attitudes, beliefs and actions. I say, if we need to describe what people look like, we can use the actual colors of their skin – “tawny,” “coffee colored”, “creamy,” “rosy,” “chocolate”, and now “green” - and do away with the inherently pugilistic and inaccurate terms “Black” and “White”. When these two words disappear from the way we talk about each other, that will be a day worth celebrating. Language reflects how we see our world. When we start speaking about race and culture as many different overlapping groups, complex and varied and not so staunchly divided into the eternal dichotomy of ‘us’ and ‘them’, it will mean that society has encoded the true concept of shared humanity into the language. And the opposite is also true – language shapes how we see the word. If we start using accurate descriptive words instead of the old confrontational classifiers, eventually, people will stop putting us all into little pre-defined buckets for who we are and how we have to live. Language is a valid measuring stick for social progress, a way to prove in our everyday references that we recognize and state clearly our differences without hiding behind the antiquated, contorted vocabulary of the slave trade that undermines the efforts of our people – Americans - to come together, celebrate shared goals and start to love mankind in its entirety.

Under Dr. King’s influence, and others, Selma sure offered up a lot of love for humanity. Our dark-skinned tour leaders treated our mostly light-skinned group with kindness and respect. They exuded confidence and were comfortable in the expectation that they would receive respect in return. Likewise, I want coffee-colored men, and taupe-skinned children and honey-colored women to feel comfortable and expect respect while conversing with this sand-colored woman! I am hoping that when I smilingly approach a fellow brother or sister as an equal, like our leaders in Selma did with us, my new acquaintance will pay it forward to the next person they encounter. From busboys to Presidential nominees, we saw powerful people making a difference in Selma, not the least of which was by the way they treated one another. I will make an extra effort to emulate these role models from now on.

When I watched the 2nd-grade cheerleader team march down Broad Street as part of the Selma Bridge Celebration parade, the only color I noticed was the bright purple of their uniforms. When I walked through the Halls of Selma High School, I saw a sea of bright, enthusiastic youth with such vitality that I barely noticed the many varieties of skin darker than my own. Their ancestors simply left Africa much later than my ancestors did. We are all African down deep inside. History got in the way, but our homo-sapien pre-history, at its core, proves that we are all one, worthy of love and respect, and I plan on repeating that message far and wide.

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