Some days I feel incredibly foolish.
I know I probably shouldn’t, it’s just that I’ve spent my entire life believing with all my heart that my storied Generation X was ushering in the end of racial prejudice. I used to believe this in the way some people believe in the gospel and others believe that a zombie apocalypse is imminent and they just can’t be convinced otherwise. I knew even in my seven-year-old heart that racism isn’t a natural state. I refuse to accept that hating anyone because they are not like you is our highest destiny.
On a postcard kind of a day on the shores of Lake Michigan when I was a kid, my young swingin’ single mom brought me along to meet a new beau — a professional Puerto Rican soccer player named Fernando. (Cue Chicago’s Saturday In The Park for the full effect.) As he came running toward us, heading the ball with mechanical precision, and dribbling ever-tightening concentric circles around us — I yanked mom’s arm and whispered that I couldn’t wait for my grandparents to meet him.
My teeny heart shattered when she told me that no one else in our family would ever meet this adorable human who had pogo sticks for legs. Nope, they would never meet him because they were… prejudiced. I asked what in the world that was, with my face screwed up real good. Mom said she’d explain later. But she really didn’t have to. I began to put it together right then and there that it had something to do with some people thinking that they were better than the next human, just doing their damndest to navigate the mystery that is life. The older I got, I felt that this distortion in one’s thinking could only be blamed on a facocta (Yiddish slang for ‘fucked up.’ Also super fun to say!) idea about themselves — that the need to feel superior over others is wrought from a crazy-sad inferiority complex. And while that should be a comforting thought, it’s not anymore, when the world’s been turned upside down. But believe this: The tyrant fears the poet. Rise up, poets!
A couple of years later Mom & me moved to San Diego. She was only halfway through law school and couldn’t afford anything fancy. We ended up in an apartment that had a magnificent view of the San Diego skyline, but was in a rundown neighborhood of tall palms shading crumbling craftsman bungalows and half-way houses. Mom being the open-minded young parent she was, enrolled me in a magnet school in an even rougher neighborhood than ours.
For the 5th and 6th grades, I was the lone blonde girl on a practically empty school bus en route to Fred Baker Elementary, where I would become only the fifth white student. Baker was a science magnet, named for the San Diego physician and civic activist, Fred Baker, who was also an amateur malacologist*. Instead of bussing lower socioeconomic students into affluent areas, Fred Baker Elementary flipped the script by stocking the school with brilliant teachers, (most of them with Ph.D.s) in order to attract students to a predominantly black neighborhood plagued with gangs and crime, in exchange for an extraordinary education. I was in!
My 6th grade teacher was Mrs. Smart. I tell you, I never wanted to let that woman out of my arms and she has never left my heart. In Mrs. Smart’s class, we began the day like any other public school classroom, with the pledge of allegiance. But what followed was something Mrs. Smart wrote called the B-7 Creed that the students recited together:
I have the right to be myself in this room. This means that no one will treat me unfairly because I am black, brown, or white, fat or thin, tall or short, boy or girl. I have a right to hear and be heard in this room. I will be free to express my feelings and opinions without being interrupted or punished. I am somebody. I am 10 feet tall. I am loved.
This was 1980, dear readers! You have no idea how long those words rung out in my mind. To listen to Mrs. Smart, who shared so many of her personal experiences with us and empowered and inspired us all everyday, why shouldn’t I think that racism was in the rear view mirror? It seemed like an ugly thing from Mrs. Smart’s day that we saw as part of the horrible past. I thought of humanity and progress as things that could only move in one direction. Forward!
The Baker community cheered on my attempts at singing Michael Jackson at the talent show and on less celebratory days, we mourned together with a black band tied around one arm when one of our classmates’ siblings was lost to gang violence. Dr. Hassan El-Amin was my endlessly patient music teacher who deeply understood my need to vacillate between flute and trombone. I finally landed on trombone, because we were allowed to check instruments out over the weekend and the trombone made the bus ride a little less lonely. Dr. Callaghan was my Spanish teacher who invited our entire class for a sleepover at her 1-bedroom beach cottage so that some of the students could see the ocean for the first time. Mr. Shaheed was always laughing as he told us riddles and fables. Mr. Rashada was quieter, but consistently had a nugget of wisdom to impart — like when I’d walk home with my best friend Queenie on a Friday for a sleepover and he’d tell us a better way to walk around the part of the park where an open drug market was operating.
How could my mom let this happen? I don’t know, but I thank God that she did.
In sports and entertainment, it sure seemed like color was beginning to fade away. As an undergrad in D.C., I was told to avoid the SE and SW quadrants, neighborhoods responsible for earning Washington the unwelcome distinction of being the nation’s murder capital. But it was at American University (ooooh, the symbolism!) a professor told us how the CIA was responsible for planting crack cocaine in South Central LA in the early 80s and had drug dealers on the payroll to fund the fight against the Sandinistas.
I graduated and packed up to move to Los Angeles just as the riots broke out. My co-workers at the Post-Production house where I interned offered me a job and couldn’t understand why I was running off to a city on fire. But I couldn’t be stopped. I was heading to Hollywood to make it as a screenwriter and no one was going to stop me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the CIA’s involvement and tried to share this information with anyone who would listen. No one was listening. So I told the story in a screenplay about an interracial love story leading up to the riots. Even with that kind of fallout from the Rodney King verdict, I still believed that things were getting better.
November 8, 2016. My friend Daphne, an elementary public school teacher returns to her classroom after the election and described the feeling as suddenly seeing herself as a first responder. Wow. How %*&#ing profound. When the entire world seems to be sending one message with their votes (or lack of vote), teachers are in a unique position to teach first, by their own example. So while they are mandated to remain politically neutral, it doesn’t matter because kids have the most well-calibrated bullshit meters of anyone and they know how to judge someone by their personal actions and not the blah-blah-blah that comes out of their mouths. What teachers do can affect the next generation more than any one scary clown.
Essentially, we are called upon to act as teachers — therefore, we all have the opportunity to be first responders, too. Let us respond with humanity and kindness to our fellow beating heart humans. A post-racial world? Why should that be the goal? Race is not going away. Race is diversity and beauty. Race is cultural history and identity. Race should be celebrated and shared, and we can’t do that in a ‘post-racial world.’ Reveling in race and its rainbow of colors and ideas is marvelous, don’t you think?
(*Malacology, the study of mollusks. Not to be confused with Conchology, the study of mollusk shells. Talk about specialized!)