“This is America and I can say what I want.”
I stare intensely down at my salad, as if the perfect retort were hidden somewhere under the leaves and blue cheese dressing. My mother’s voice is stubborn, laced with a proud defiance that one more often hears from the lips of rebellious teenagers. It’s also a bit too loud for the polite restaurant setting, and I shift uncomfortably in my seat, embarrassment seeping in. I think she recognizes it. I think this is why we end up having so many heated conversations in restaurants – she knows it’ll keep me in check.
“You really don’t understand why a white person saying that word is different than a black person saying it?” I ask her, fighting to keep my voice down. My dad watches with interest, but says nothing. “Maybe I should buy you a set of U.S. history books for Christmas this year.”
That last sarcastic bit was the wrong thing to say, and I know it immediately. Nothing shifts my mother into Defensive Victim Mode Level 10 like suggesting she’s uneducated. It doesn’t matter if it’s true. In this case, it actually is true, as evidenced by the fact that until that meal, she didn’t even know there were any SCOTUS decisions made that week, let alone a decision that took the teeth out of a landmark civil rights act that was born just four years after her.
The only news she had been following was Paula Deen-related, since that’s what her coworkers and the tabloids in the work break room were interested in. I point out that the deep-fried Deen controversy and the VRA decision are two different examples of the same problem: America is racist and super defensive about it. (Sort of like my mother, but I don’t voice that particular comparison out loud). “You need to be aware of what’s going on in this country,” I say. “You need to have at least some knowledge of current events.”
“Oh, well I’m sorry I’m so stupid,” she spits, in a not-at-all-sorry tone. “I’m too busy killing myself at work to read the news.” I catch the eye of my father, who works two jobs, yet still finds time to at least be aware of world events. I launch into a brief explanation of the Voting Rights Act, hoping she’ll find it boring enough to calm her down. When I’m finished, Dad is smiling.
“This is why I like talking about politics whenever you come home,” he says. “You’re informed.” My mother looks like she wants to leap across the table and throttle him.
“Anyway,” I say quickly, “Paula Deen’s career is over, as it should be.” I know this will please/pacify my mother, as she hates Paula Deen. Not because of her horrendous racial slurs and systematic workplace discrimination based on skin color, mind you, but because she finds her voice and makeup choices annoying. Mom straightens up and starts listing all the ways the Barefoot Contessa has a better show anyway (“she doesn’t act crazy and never has her tits out like that Giada”), and I wearily return to my meal, feeling defeated. I’m not sure what winning would have looked like.
My mother is a prime specimen of the Northern Racist, a breed that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as its more famous cousin, the Southern Racist. When We the People discuss racial strife in this country, the images that are shown in cable documentaries and American History classes are predictable: crosses burning on Georgia lawns, an Alabama church destroyed by bombs, mobs violently protesting desegregation outside of Ole Miss. When I was a child, I thought that racists lived in the South, and wasn’t I lucky to born an enlightened New Englander? I thought these things in my all-white classrooms, in my all-white school, in my all-white small town, surrounded by my all-white friends. I clearly didn’t think hard enough. It wasn’t until I was 18 and a freshman in college that I met and befriended people whose skin tone didn’t match mine. At least by then, I had an inkling of how fucked up that was.
Northern Racism doesn’t often look the racism that we learn about in school (except for when it really does). Northern Racism looks like the Boston area, where places like Roxbury and Dorchester and Mattapan just happen to have the most people of color and the least access to reliable public resources (see: education, transportation, nutrition, employment, etc.). Northern Racism looks like other places in the Boston area, too, like the Back Bay, Beacon Hill, Brookline, and Cambridge, where the vast majority of the population just happens to be white and extremely well off. Funny coincidence, eh?
It’s important to note that Northern Racism, especially in the Boston area, often comes dressed in liberal clothing. The average resident of Newton or Hingham or Concord votes Democrat, and probably proudly sports an Obama/Biden sticker on the back of their Prius. And yet, every time a low-income housing complex is proposed in the midst of these liberal bastions, controversy erupts. Northern Racism isn’t racist at all, you see — as long as “those people” don’t move in next door. It’s sure easy to pretend racism doesn’t exist when there’s nobody around to be racist toward, isn’t it? Northern Racism has it all figured out.
Whenever I drive through Springfield, MA with my parents — which happens a few times a year, as it’s where the Peter Pan bus from Boston arrives and where both my parents work — my mother will inevitably begin to wax nostalgic about her childhood there “in the good old days.” The product of Italian and Irish immigrant families, she was raised in 1960s-1970s Catholic schools alongside the products of other Italian and Irish immigrant families. The streets of her youth were filled with shops and diners run by people who looked like her, talked like her, and had last names like hers. Today, those streets are home to people who don’t, and that makes my mother angry. “This place has sure gone downhill,” she’ll say. “These people ruined it.” I’ll press her to explain who “these people” are, even though I know exactly what she means — the mostly Puerto Rican, mostly Spanish-speaking folks who make up a significant portion of Springfield’s population. “These people,” she’ll repeat, annoyed at the tone of my voice. “They have no respect for anything.” Northern Racism refuses to speak its own name.
Rage is an emotion with varying degrees of power. It’s a flame that has the potential to become a forest fire, spreading ferociously and licking at the heels of injustice until the populace has no choice but to notice. Rage can also remain small, manifesting as an exhaustingly slow internal burn, devouring wicks of hope and leaving behind desperate piles of ash where no one can see. Rage can empower, or rage can consume. In either case, rage is born from the realization that something has happened that is deeply, unforgivably, criminally wrong. Rage is George Zimmerman: a free, living, breathing man, reunited with the gun he used to murder a child who had the misfortune of being born the wrong color in the wrong society. Rage is the realization that, as John Oliver put it, “we could get a verdict like this, not because the system is broken down, but because the system worked exactly as it’s designed.” When Barack Obama was elected the 44th President of the United States in 2008, the media crowed that we had entered “post-racial America.” Welcome to post-post-racial America.
My rage feels impotent. I bang the keys violently to post angry manifestos to Facebook, Twitter, and this blog. I rant to my friends, repeating phrases like” I can’t fucking get over it” as if they were incantations. I read every news story and opinion piece on the verdict that I can find. I wish, in my sincerest of hearts, that Zimmerman will never know peace for the rest of his days. I wish that no matter where he goes, he’ll be treated like a pariah, a monster, a murderer. I know that, ultimately, none of this rage amounts to anything more than sound and fury.
I don’t talk to my mother about the verdict. I doubt that she’s even heard about it, or if she did, cared enough to commit it to memory. She doesn’t want to change the way she thinks, because she doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with it. Or, maybe, she knows deep down that it is wrong, but admitting so means bringing something ugly to the surface and confronting it. That’s too frightening a prospect, so she sinks back into the comfort of her life and lets that disturbing thought evaporate into the ether of suburbia. My mother is White America personified.
I know that talking to my mother will just create more internal rage – and worse, shame. Shame that racism is a part of my bloodline. Shame that I, as a white person, have benefited in so many ways from a system that devalues black and brown bodies to the point of genocide – ways that can be so subtle as to go unnoticed, like an undiscovered tumor. Ways that I wasn’t aware of for the majority of my life. After all, one of the classic characteristics of privilege is not knowing you have it.
Less than three weeks ago, the LGBT community celebrated a major victory when the SCOTUS sent DOMA and Prop 8 packing. But for queer people of color – and really, anybody who gives half a damn about injustice – it was a bittersweet moment, arriving coupled with the VRA decision. Can we really cheer a court that uplifts one minority with its right hand, while devastating another with its left? Can we white queer people, in the afterglow of a battle won, rest comfortably on our laurels and still stand to look in the mirror? I hope we cannot.
“He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it.” A great man spoke these words 30 years before the birth of Trayvon Martin. I’m sure Dr. King dreamed that the passing decades would give way to a much better nation for all people, but our reality is what we must deal with. Our rage must be harnessed and used to energize ourselves and others, not to foster despair; to build outward, not to destroy inward. How do we do that? I wish I really knew. I wish I could find concrete answers, because the abstract is so frustrating. I spend too much time reading comic books, where doing what’s right is as simple as saving people from burning buildings and punching bad guys in the face. In the real world, it’s harder to know in which direction to punch, or even what the bad guys look like. Because sometimes, they look like you. Sometimes, they look like me.
Here are some things I do know we can do. I can do. Learn how to be a better ally. Hint: this is not accomplished by proudly announcing “I am an ally” to anyone within hearing distance, like a toddler who successfully used the potty and is awaiting a reward. In fact, being an ally is about 90% listening and only 10% talking – and never talking over or instead of a member of the marginalized group you claim to care about. This is something that should be noted by white people, male people, straight people, cis people, affluent people – anybody who has power when somebody else does not. Use your privilege against the very system that creates it. Call out racism, bigotry, and discrimination where you see them. Don’t give a crap if it upsets people. Rock the boat that has carried you over the rough waters, where others cling to life preservers. Make the comfortable uncomfortable. Have awkward phone conversations with your mother.
And, in the most productive ways possible, keep raging.