The Year is Complete!

Please feel free to look back through the 365 days of 2010 sunrises, but "a year of getting up to meet the day" is officially completed. There will be no more new posts.


Thank you so much for visiting.
A one year blog project in which I share a process of transitions: emptying of the nest, reacquainting with my rusty intellect, plowing onward with my first full length book, entering the second half of my first century, and generally reflecting on life.

(see Dec. 29th, 2009 entry for further explanation)

Monday, January 18, 2010

race matters

sunrise: 7:08
a wintry morning.  No sun, but a fresh coat of white to cover the dulled, rutted ground, and lovely highlights on every branch.

I was a lay speaker at yesterday's church service in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.  One might say it's pointless for a virtually all white congregation in the whitest state to talk about racial matters, but I think not.

We started with a poem by Pat Parker, and then a little meditative exercise.  Think for a few minutes about who you are.  What defines you?  What characteristics - five to ten things - describe the person you are?  Try it before you read on.

Here's the poem, followed by the story I told about an experience in my past.

For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend
by Pat Parker

The first thing you do is to forget that i'm Black.
Second, you must never forget that i'm Black.
You should be able to dig Aretha,
but don't play her every time i come over.
And if you decide to play Beethoven -- don't tell
me his life story.  They made us take music
appreciation too.
Eat soul food if you like it, but don't expect me
to locate your restaurants
or cook it for you.
And if some Black person insults you,
mugs you, rapes your sister, rapes you,
rips your house, or is just being an ass--
please, do not apologize to me
for wanting to do them bodily harm.
It makes me wonder if you're foolish.
And even if you really believe Blacks are better
lovers than whites -- don't tell me.  I start thinking
of charging stud fees.
In other words, if you really want to be my friend -- don't make a labor of it.  I'm lazy.

Learning that I am white 
by rcw

When I was in my thirties, living in Rochester, N.Y., I went back to school for a master’s degree in English.  It was a time of exploration for me.  After four children, and 6 years of being a full time mom, I got to be a full time student for a year while my husband took time off.  We referred to it as my sabbatical year from motherhood.

When it came time to register for classes, in the interest of expanding my literary horizons, I signed up for a class called “African-American literary criticism.”  I knew so little about literature outside of what was called “the western canon,” or, DWM literature (that’s “dead white males”), so I thought this class would give breadth to my literary education.

The class certainly did help me to expand, but it was more than just my literary horizons that were opened up.  What I did not anticipate was how far the class was going to push me beyond my personal horizons. 

It was an undergraduate course, so I felt conspicuous because of my age.  It was also the first time in my all too narrow experience that I had been in a classroom where black students were in the majority.  The professor, a very poised and articulate woman with a commanding presence (and younger than I was), was also black.  Even so, my observations of the classroom failed to translate into the awareness that should have shown in our first assignment.

On the first night our teacher sent us home with a task similar to the exercise you just did as a congregation.  In order to explore the perspectives from which we would be interpreting what we read, we were to write a brief essay about 10 things that define who we are.  I focused on my age, gender, family relationships, interests, and life experiences.
The next day the professor canvassed the class and found what she had expected -- not a single white student in the class had mentioned their race in their essay.  For the black students, race was at or near the top of their defining characteristics.  Our professor, a brilliant, successful scholar and teacher, candidly told us that not a day goes by when she does not wake up in the morning with the full awareness of being black.

For the rest of that term we talked a lot about writing, but also about identity.  Many class discussions evolved into stories about personal experiences -- how our experiences had formed us, formed our opinions, formed our assessments and judgments.  We talked about how our life experiences affected our interpretations of what we read, how we think, and whom we meet

I learned a lot about a body of literature during that semester. But far more important, I learned about race, and identity, and the enormous power - like it or not - the enormous power that outward appearance has on every person’s life. 
When I was a child in suburban New York, any time I walked down the street, stepped into a store, played at the playground, or sat in the school cafeteria, I had an automatic, unthinking assumption of belonging.  No one looked twice at me; no one questioned my presence.  I lived in a happy fog of expectation that I was an accepted member in a world of my peers.  The developmental effects of living with those assumptions cannot be overestimatedMy race determined my sense of place in the world, my sense of belonging in my (white dominant) community. 

The other powerful effect that my race has had on me is something I’ll call the privilege of anonymity.  The ability to get lost in a crowd, to blend into the background, is another underestimated privilege belonging to members of the racial majority. 

This privilege is a paradoxical companion to that sense of belonging.   When you are part of the --  appearance majority --you feel automatically accepted and included.  And yet, you can also be left alone.  You can hide when you want to, fade into the masses.  You can be private in public.  This, too, is no small thing in the formation of a human being.

So many of us in the racial majority go through life in the mistaken notion that, although we are very sensitive and open-minded about race and racial matters, race doesn’t have a personal impact on us.  What I discovered, I was embarrassed to confess, was the obvious fact that my race had been one of THE MOST SIGNIFICANT factors in my experience of the world ever since I was born.   In short, the most important thing that I learned in that class about African-American literary criticism, was something about myself that I had somehow never really understood.  I learned that I am white.
So what difference did that make, that enlightening knowledge that I am white?  In many ways, of course, my life didn’t change a bit.  Especially since my family moved from Rochester, NY to central Massachusetts, and then to central Maine.  Our hometowns have grown progressively whiter. 

But even though it might be easy to continue being oblivious to race, I believe --- I HOPE --- that my revelation of 17 years ago did change me.  In realizing my own racial identity, I recognized the degree of privilege in my life -- automatic, unspoken, inadvertent privilege, based solely on my race.  I recognize that race is something that affects EVERYONE, for better or for worse. 

Another result of my changed self-awareness is that I do NOT believe in being “color blind,” pretending that race doesn’t matter, because I most surely believe that it matters a lot.  But of course, I DO believe in striving to treat everyone equally.  How do you treat everyone as equals, while acknowledging that they’re all different?  It is a conundrum like the one in Pat Parker’s poem:

The first thing you do is to forget that i'm Black.
Second, you must never forget that i'm Black.

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