« an extraordinary time | Main | The Waiting Game »

To Dream of Equality

Today is Martin Luther King Day. As someone pointed out, he is the only American to have his own day - the presidents all have to share one now. Yet, I feel it is good counterbalance for celebrating Columbus day.

So how does one celebrate? I just listened to his "I have a dream" speech, possibly for the first time. Frequently I hear snippets about how communist MLK was, or the power of his non-violent message. I catch quotes and references that make think I should research him more. As of yet, I haven't found the time.

So, since I can't write much about him. Instead let me confess, or reveal my racial history - the way race has affected me growing up.

There weren't many black people on the commune. At a young age I asked my father why. He explained that black people were currently fighting to gain much of the stuff that the privileged young hippies were giving up. I was always taught racism was bad, that you should never judge people by their appearances and especially not their sex or the color of their skin. Yet I was never taught how I should judge people. The sad fact is there are dangerous people out there and it is important to explain to children how to figure out who they are, as it is to explain how not to figure out who they are.

Years later in a factory a co-worker confessed he was racist. He seemed like a nice reasonable guy, so I expressed doubt. "If I saw a black man in a dark alley, I would be afraid" he explained. I laughed and replied "If I saw any man in a dark alley, I would be afraid." He never tried to prove that he was racist again.

Yet all this debate was cerebral. The fact was I never interacted with a person of color until I don't know when. Even if I wasn't racist, the South I grew up in was segregated enough that I never had a chance to prove it. It was also segregated enough that there were clear cultural differences between white and black people - when I worked at Waffle House, black people were twice as likely to order pork chops.

It wasn't until I lived in Costa Rica for a year that I felt what it was like to really shake racism. I was the minority there, surrounded by Spanish speakers with darker (but not black) skin than I. After a time, something shifted in me; I felt it again when I spent time in India, and then China. I have never been able to look at people of those races the same since. Suddenly all white people looked the same but I was able to differentiate skin tones, nose shapes, eye shape, and various other facial features in a way I never could before. Experience blew away all racial/cultural stereotypes. When I meet a person from these cultures, I no longer had a pre-set idea of how they would behave.

I always wanted to go to Africa, hoping for the same experience, to complete my skin color immersion. That hasn't happened, but bits of Africa have come to me. I work with several people from East Africa and we have a large customer base from there as well. I find I tend to assume now that most black people are African and I am right three fourths of the time. Though lately I am frequently surprised to hear them speak with a southern accent (Katrina victims).

Working in a grocery store, as a floor supervisor, I have had to face any traces of racism straight on. At first I over compensated and felt guilty anytime I thought someone of color was stealing. I would constantly question my motives and not watch the person well. However, as time went on, the cameras and other employees without my extra sensitivity sorted out who was a thief and who wasn't. I am sad to say that large portions of our perpetrators are black. This has less to do with race than the location of our store and the demographics of who is poor (which sadly, is related to race). It wasn't until a year of policing the store, kicking out several white people (including more than one little old lady) of all shapes and sizes, that I have been able to relax a bit more and trust my instincts, ignore the color of people's skin and instead ask more relevant questions: Is the customer uncomfortably aware of me watching them? Are they wearing large bulky clothes (perfect for hiding product in) or have open bags? I also look for odd behavior; a customer coming in several times without purchasing anything, several customers together being loud and boisterous, one customer trying to get my attention by complaining or being needy while his/her friend sneaks off. And of course, as experience has taught me, behaviors don't mean a customer is guilty.

This doesn't mean I never have to question my motives. That is part of life, part of trying to be awake aware and a better person. So, happy Martin Luther King Day. Before we can follow his dream of rising up and realizing our creed that, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,? we need to be aware of when and how it isn’t so.

Post a comment

(If you haven't left a comment here before, you may need to be approved by the site owner before your comment will appear. Until then, it won't appear on the entry. Thanks for waiting.)