Sunday, June 14, 2020

Rose-Colored Privilege

I’ve had the worst time even thinking clearly about my perspective on everything that has been going on in the world, let alone articulate my thoughts out loud or in writing. Even now as I know what I want to say and am actually motivated to express it, I worry. Who am I and who gives a shit about MY perspective? Am I being oppressed right now? Nope. But anything personal is risky, so here goes...

Over the last several weeks after George Floyd's death I have been thinking and reflecting a ton. I have been thinking about my own privilege, which I recognize in the same way other people do...people don't follow me in stores, or check my receipt at Wal-Mart.  But I also have a unique one I think. I don’t even know what to call it and I hesitate to give it a name. Maybe it’ll come to me as I write this.

Growing up in the 70’s and 80’s in Pasadena and Altadena, my surroundings were always diverse. Always. Both my parent’s homes were on blocks where I can name several families who weren’t white. There was one white trash family a couple doors down from my mom…and we did experience what THEIR racism looked like by how they treated our other neighbors. When we saw that, we spoke up (and by spoke up I mean that my 8 year old self and my friend Matt threw rocks at their house and yelled at them). But they were the minority, they were the weirdos who didn’t belong.

When I was school aged, busing had just begun. I don’t know which kid it was, if it was me or one of my siblings, but there is lore of my mom standing with one of us outside Longfellow Elementary with a sign that said “welcome” when it started. As a result, my schools were a gorgeous mix of everyone. It would have felt completely bizarre to me if I had ever been in a classroom with only white people. I can think back to my school pictures and I don’t think it ever happened. It STILL feels bizarre and uncomfortable if I’m in a large group of people and everyone is white. It feels unsettling to me, and just not as familiar and relaxed. Being in a diverse group was normal, it was what was expected. I don’t ever remember having a deep conversation about racism with either of my parents. My mom was a big time activist in a variety of areas. My dad was a high school teacher who was disappointed when his students from San Marino (a very wealthy, mostly white and Asian suburb) referred to his town of Altadena as “Afrodena” because of how integrated it was. I remember him telling me that he called them on it. But beyond that? It just WAS. Being a decent human was the only option. You just didn’t do it because it was wrong. Don't rob people. Don't hurt people. Don't be a racist asshole. And I suppose we watched our parents not be racist assholes. So I grew up with black friends and spent time with their families and became close. My  brother has been with his wife, a black woman, since I was 10 years old, 40 years! Her family became our family, and growing up, I ate greens and macaroni and cheese and monkey bread. My two favorite kinds of food to this day are Southern food and Mexican food. My older brother was a DJ, then a music writer, and now an entertainment attorney. So I listened to Prince, Stevie Wonder, Earth Wind and Fire, and Marvin Gaye growing up, and I didn't see it as being novel or unusual.  

Even though I knew some of the stories when we were younger, I have been heartbroken to hear the awful stories from the black folks in MY life that I never knew until now. Again, the upbringing was such that it honestly didn’t come up very often. There were some instances when I was younger that I actually was either a part of or witnessed. I was disgusted then, and I reacted and spoke out then. But I had absolutely no idea how prevalent it was at the time. Thinking back to my 17 year old self, it’s not as though I knew nothing at all about racism. As far as formal education is concerned, I can confirm that they didn’t teach us much. I knew the general, palatable version of Martin Luther King Jr. Annnnnd….I think that’s it. I never heard of Malcom X until college. I will say that our Humanities teacher Mr. Barnes did show us the film they made about Jane Elliott’s “brown eyes, blue eyes” experiment, and I remember us being outraged. But that experiment took place in 1968, none of us had been born yet. It all just felt so far removed, as if racism happens/happened according to one of these options: 
  • Racism happened a very long time ago.  
  • Racism only happens in the south. 
  • Yeah, there’s some racism, but it’s not that prevalent. When it does happen, it's an outlier.  
That pretty much incapsulates my belief system in my teens, because my environment and the people I surrounded myself with didn’t allow me to ponder the possibility of it being any worse than what I wanted to believe. Now, 30+ years later, I’m learning about these stories of people I love, some of whom have been in my life for decades. And I didn’t know. I mean, we didn't ignore these issues. We all went and saw School Daze and Do The Right Thing and Boyz n the Hood in the theaters when we were young. So it's not as though it was totally unreal, but I didn't realize it touched so many people I know and love, on an absolute regular basis.  I assumed that everyone grew up with a similar experience as mine, why wouldn't they? It was 1988, we were evolved, correct?  INCORRECT. 

Not only is the rest of the world not like that, neither is our country, California, or sections of Los Angeles for that matter. While in my weird ass freshman year of college in Palos Verdes, I felt like I’d landed on a different planet, it was insane. The diversity there was nearly non-existent, with the exception of the basketball team. It was mostly white, sub-par students like myself whose parents were willing to pay a lot for a private junior college where the students could live “on campus” at apartments a couple miles away in San Pedro. It was complete and utter culture shock and I remember really struggling with it. A group of people I’d just met would tell the most horrific racist jokes, and I wasn’t having it. I’d speak up every time because it was disgusting, but also because WHAT?  What the hell are you talking about, you can’t say that! Because saying that kind of shit in my home town was not accepted. That situation evolved to this person actually saying to a group in my presence, “Hey, we can’t joke like that around Jane. She likes black people.”  That was so stupid and absurd that I made a joke about THAT. I believe my response was, "Yes, that's true. And I know every single one of them."  I didn’t hang out with that guy much after that. When people would come over to our apartment and look at my pictures and cassette tapes, occasionally I would get crazy looks and a couple of “do you think you’re black?” from the wealthy white bread girls. Again, absurdities…I know I responded, but it didn’t register or really stick with me in a horrible way because it was so stupid. Racist rich white folks snorting cocaine and driving new BMW's was not my speed. 

I only had that experience for a single year, but it was eye opening. I was blessed to make two very good friends who I have to this day, and neither of them really belonged there either. From there I went back to Pasadena to attend PCC, then to San Francisco State, then UOP in Stockton. All of those environments were diverse and inclusive, so I think I was able to write off my experience in Palos Verdes as an anomaly.  It's not as though we didn't see awful stuff happening. I was in San Francisco when the whole Rodney King thing went down, and we protested downtown. I returned to LA to see one of my best friends graduate from Loyola, and my dad and I had to drive through South Central LA to get there. We saw all the buildings burned and destroyed, and it was heartbreaking. I knew we had a long way to go then, and I had no idea we would still be in such a horrible spot 28 years later.

When I was 24, I met my now husband when I was in graduate school. He had to go to Jacksonville to work for awhile and the company flew me out there to see him. I still don't know how or why, we weren't even engaged yet...but anyway. I knew nothing of Florida, just Disney World and Miami and I'd never been to either. Whooooo, Jacksonville! It's basically southern Georgia, and it was insane. Lots of pickled eggs and boiled peanuts and racism that was so ingrained that it was a normal way of life. Mike heard horrible things while working that I won't write here. But what I saw, and still sticks with me is when we went to see a Jaguars game. We had to park in a neighborhood that was mostly black, and walk to the stadium. People were on their porches watching the people walk through, and I smiled. People didn't smile back. It wasn't hostile, it was as though it was easier to pretend we weren't there. Inside the stadium, we were seated behind a black family. A little boy was standing on the seat, he was maybe around 6 or 7. He suddenly slipped and started to fall backwards. I caught him and said, "whoa buddy, are you okay?" He looked at me completely confused, as his parents did. Not angry, but maybe a little surprised and shocked? I gathered in the week I was there that black and white folks all lived there, but they really didn't interact and everyone just accepted it. Would letting that child FALL be accepted more than me trying to catch him? It felt so unnatural and wrong, and I mostly just wanted to get back to California, in MY world where everyone could interact and it wasn't weird. Because that is what I wanted to think the world was. My world needed to stay like John Muir High School in Pasadena, circa 1988. 

In my job, I have to compartmentalize a lot just to be able to emotionally manage it. So I think I've been able to do the same thing to an extent when it comes to racism and injustice. I've never ignored it, but I'd be lying if I said I haven't avoided it. I haven't watched "When They See Us" or "13" yet. I have read "The Warmth of Other Suns" and "On the Laps of Gods" and I'm glad I did, even though they broke my heart. I have "White Fragility" on my nightstand and will read it when I'm done with the book I'm currently reading. But you know what I have honestly never really done before now? Imagine my children in these situations. I haven't imagined Stephen at 15 being cuffed and slammed against a police car for nothing. I haven't imagined Maddie at 19 being yanked from a car during a protest with a gun pointed at her head. I'm trying to do it now, and it fucking hurts. Lots of tears and nightmares and sleeplessness, empathy is a bitch. But it's truly important and I understand that. People I know and care about it have had to live it, not just imagine it. When a co-worker talked to me after Eric Garner was killed, he shared what he has to tell his two adult sons when they leave the house. I was so upset he has to do this, and he just shrugged and said, "that's the way it is."  If people have to live with this insane, illogical reality, the least I can do is try to put myself in their place, which is a place I will never truly have to be. 

So last night when I couldn't sleep, I thought about the term Rose-Colored Privilege and how I could link it to my experience in my home town. Pasadena is known for the Rose Bowl and the Rose Parade. Some refer to it as Rose City and we spent many many hours in Rose City Diner as teens. So Rose-Colored Privilege seems to fit the bill in more ways than one. Thinking about it now, I got to benefit from all the gifts of being accepted in a culture I wasn't born into. I got to have the friends and family, eat amazing food, dance and listen to the best music. But I didn't have to deal with the downsides very often. I didn't get pulled over all the time, or accused of things I didn't do, or get followed and questioned constantly. And that feels really fucked up and unfair. THAT is some privilege right there. I wouldn't change how I grew up for anything, and I would do anything for the people I know who have had to shoulder this shit since day one. I don't think that racism in this country will ever disappear, I'm not that naive. The people who want to learn are trying, and the rest of the folks who can't grasp the BLM analogies don't really want to understand. What I feel has happened is this: The nasty ass roaches have always been there, but someone turned the lights on and they are everywhere, scattering into every corner. They need to go back into the dark, back into the garbage where they can hang out with the others. Back to where their ignorant vitriolic nonsense isn't accepted or tolerated. I'm seeing some signs of hope, but it's not going to be easy or fast. 

My glasses have been comfortable and reassuring, but I can take them off. Who else is willing to?