Responding to Racism

Hola mi Gente,
I quickly realized that my work is a burnout mill. I have to be careful.

Coming Home

 06-15-16_ Responding to Racism

That’s the risk you take if you change: that people you’ve been involved with won’t like the new you.
— Lisa Alther (1944 -) American author


I am often asked why I write on race and racism and why I never write about solutions to the “race problem.” I would say that everything I do and write about is solution-centered. After all, the first step to any healing process is the acknowledgment of the disease. The careful reader would observe that my writing is all about solutions. The following is an attempt to address that inquiry in a specific way. I believe it hits its mark…

One day, when I was very young, my mother caught me littering on the city block where we lived. We lived in the ghetto, there was litter everywhere, and my mother’s anger annoyed me. Always the precocious one, I challenged her, pointing out that there was garbage everywhere, the implication being that my little transgression didn’t make much of a difference. And then she told me something I have never forgotten. She said, “That’s the reason! The reason why it’s so dirty is because everybody thinks like that!” And with that, she made me pick up the gum wrapper I had discarded.

I don’t know why that made such an impression on me — I was all of maybe five-seven years-old. But it did. It struck me as so true; I was able to see both the cause of the problem, its consequence, and its solution. In fact, since that day, I do not litter. And I live in one of the dirtiest of the great cities. I often walk around with wrappers and assorted garbage in my pockets or my backpack.

Equally influential was my mother’s impeccably clean house. We were poor, we lived in rundown tenements, but the apartments we lived in were always clean and were so well decorated visitors would often remark on the beauty of our living space. I guess I could say my mother taught and led by example. My mother’s admonition made sense when I would come home from school and experience on a daily basis the contrast between the decrepit hallways and the cleanliness and serenity of the apartments we rented.

I say all this to make an important point. We often think of racism as something external, or about black people, or people of color — them. We usually think of social action as something “out there,” outside of our personal lives, apart from the way we live and relate to others and our environment. But if our ecology has taught us anything, it has taught us that there are no walls that separate “us” from “them.” If we adopt a broader perspective, we learn that even something as seemingly unimportant as dropping a gum wrapper has larger consequences when we multiply that action exponentially. My mother was right: that seemingly insignificant little gum wrapper did matter, and it matters now more than ever. Something as simple as using a reusable cloth bag instead of opting for the plastic supermarket kind would make a huge difference if we all considered it.

I am not proposing that this simple action, taken collectively, would solve our global problems. I am saying that it would have a significant impact. Or to borrow a phrase, “think globally, act locally.”

I grew up in a household that was a center for activism. Our living room was the site of meetings for rent strikes and teach-ins. My parents were organizers before the term was coined or graduate schools offered community organizing degrees. I would come home and some of my public school teachers would be right there in our living room debating the political issues of the day, or getting involved. It was what I knew growing up. Eventually, when I became a parent, I was concerned with passing on those same progressive values to my son. I wanted him to care about the gum wrapper, to care about others, to respect diversity, and see governance as a solution, not a problem. I wanted him to see civic engagement as a responsibility because in their own way, that’s what my parents taught me.

When I was married, we lived in a culturally diverse community. Anthropologists studying the subway line closest to my home(the no. 7 Flushing line), surmised there are over 200 different cultures represented along the trail of that elevated subway line. My son’s birthday parties included Muslims, Hindus, children of parents from all parts of Latin America, Asians from Korea and China, Irish, Buddhists, Catholics, and Jews. I would look at that and smile, knowing it was good.

One day my son suddenly asked me why the husband of one of my relatives referred to African Americans as niggers. I had somewhat reluctantly sent him down south to visit family as part of his summer vacation one year. As he told me this I could plainly see he was conflicted and he was also afraid that if he told me, I wouldn’t allow him to visit my family. He was taught that it was wrong and there was a part of his little seven-year-old conscience that was bothering him.

More than anything, we harm our children when we teach them to hate mindlessly. I felt anger at the predicament the adults in my family put my son in. He was even encouraged not to say anything to me, causing him psychic pain. I used the occasion to talk about racism with my son. It became an opportunity to point out the poison, how to study it, and most importantly, how avoid its infection. We need to talk about race and racism in our homes, folks. And we need to talk about it from a systemic perspective.

As in my mother’s example, change begins in the home. I quickly realized I could never purge the racism and sexism that saturated my son’s world. Sure, as a parent, it was my duty to protect him from the influence of bigots, but children don’t need to be protected from racism. They see it all the time. What they need are the critical thinking tools necessary for recognizing, analyzing, and creatively responding to the many different manifestations of racism. Television, a prime vehicle for racist stereotypes, became an opportunity to deconstruct the embedded messages. Buffy the Vampire Slayer became an opportunity to discuss the creation of gender roles and how they are negotiated. Commercials pushing pills for everything from depression to erectile dysfunction became fodder for comedic teachable moments. “What is anal leakage,” I would ask my son and we would laugh. Soon, he began to pick up the habit of looking behind the veil of manipulation on his own, even while enjoying a TV show or film.

I tried, as best I could, to create a living environment that reflected the contributions of a wide range of cultures. I introduced him to the art of questioning, and in that way he was able to learn how to protect himself psychologically. Before long, my son would be pointing out the embedded racism in cop shows, the objectification of women in beauty pageants, and he and I would have fun doing it. I also tried to encourage my son to be part of the process of creating our living environment. My goal wasn’t to create “political correctness,” but to create a living space that acknowledged and celebrated the diversity of the people and cultures that make the very fabric of our society. I like to think that it made a difference, but I can’t even say I was or am a good father. I can say it certainly made a difference for me, as I learned from my son as much or more than he learned from me.

I am an activist/ advocate by profession, but you don’t have to be one to be a force for change. As a professional, I can tell you that I measure “victories” by small increments. We live in a historical period hostile toward progressive values and change. Real change begins here, in your heart. It begins in the way you live your life and the actions you take when you think no one is looking (which is also a good working definition of spirituality).

That’s how it starts. It starts perhaps by the simple act not littering, or by seemingly small acts that mean something over time. If you’re not doing this, then I am afraid you are part of the problem and not the solution. Actions, words, ideas matter and if you are not doing anything, you’re saying all this hate is OK… You can’t be neutral on a moving train.

My name is Eddie and I’m in recovery from civilization…