I grew up watching LeVar Burton in “Reading Rainbow” and later, in “Star Trek” alongside Whoopi Goldberg and Michael Dorn. Skin color was about “significant” as pointed ears or angled eyebrows; it might set you apart and make you more interesting than the rest of the population, but nothing more.
And I thought racism was dead. The laws had abolished it. I’d read in school how, through the various amendments and court proceedings, blacks had been given equal rights with whites. There was no division anymore. We were all American, and our skin color and hair color and ethnic background were just unique aspects of who we were, not identifiers for discrimination.
I even wondered why there was affirmative action. If there was no more discrimination, why did we need it? (If anything, didn’t it further the problems of the past in an inverted way by encouraging white people to resent those with an ethnic background because they got special treatment? Because they got scholarships we couldn’t even apply for?)
I’d never experienced racism or discrimination. Though I’d heard tales of how the Irish had once been avoided and held back by others because of their heritage, no one had every belittled me for my being part-Irish. Or French. Or Norwegian. (They made fun of my glasses; that was about it.)
Portions of American history and American attitudes had been awful–shameful, dreadful, and abominable–but we were moving into a new century. We had been taught differently. The problems of the past were finished. People were just people now, variations on a theme, with unique strengths and weaknesses and tastes, but equally beautiful.
Then, earlier this year, a friend of mine (who lives in NYC and has had an opportunity to face and confront her own ethnic isolation) challenged me on this. She argued that we aren’t as colorblind as that, that ethnic names on applications can still cause the reviewer to pass over and move on. She claimed that race still influenced our thinking to the point that we needed affirmative action to offset it. To be equal, because human beings were still flawed and biased.
And not long after that, I read “No Ordinary Sound,” the newest novel from American Girl. (I’ve read almost all of them and have been an American Girl fan since I first encountered them in the early ’90s). The book explores the challenges faced by a young black girl growing up in Detroit during the 1960s, and while it isn’t the most amazing fiction in the world, it got me thinking.
The main character, Melody, struggles with race and racism. She is told to leave a store because she is black and they claim that she’s going to steal something. Her aunt and uncle can’t buy a house they like and can afford, because the neighbors don’t want blacks in their neighborhood. And, because this was during the Civil Rights Movement, I kept worrying that protesters were coming to break something every time someone came to the door of their house or their store. I could feel tension growing as I braced myself for race violence to take over on the very next page (it didn’t; American Girl kept the content appropriate for young girls).
And this startled me. I’d never read the other American Girl books with that kind of anxiety, save for the ones set in wartimes. Sure, Samantha had her troubles. She had to come up with a Christmas gift for an unexpected guest and a neighbor who put salt in her birthday ice cream. Josefina had to deal with an unruly goat (as the granddaughter of a farmer, I could understand that worry, firsthand). Kirsten had to cope with blizzards and bears and “pet” raccoons. Kit had to give up her bedroom so her family could take in boarders during the Great Depression, and Maryellen was belittled for her age and for being a girl.
And while the books do take on tough issues–child labor in the early 1900s, sickness and death and orphan trains and soup kitchens and finding yourself without losing your past–I never felt violence threatening. Even when reading about Rebecca, a young Jew whose family came from Russia and whose story discussed labor strikes and fair wages, I never felt like the characters and their families were in trouble.
And I realized that this is the biggest difference. This is the “white privilege” that so many of us don’t seem to understand. We may have struggles. We may even deal with similar problems, but we don’t face the same fears. We aren’t in a place where a person might come to our door wishing us harm. We aren’t concerned that someone will shoot us for our skin color. We don’t face that kind of hate.
And the hate is the problem. Not the police officers, though there are some who should never be placed in a position to serve and protect anyone–but where there is power, there is always corruption, for some will be drawn to power for the wrong reason. Not the black people and their advocates, who raise their voices and ask for justice –though there are some who go too far and seek violent retribution instead of peace. Hate is the problem, and hate always seeks to divide.
Hate only breeds hate, but love–truly caring about someone and reaching out, despite the differences–will bring down walls and heal the gap that years of isolation, misunderstanding, and distrust have created between us.
Hate and strife looks at our differences and says, “You can’t trust them. You don’t know them. They don’t listen to the same music. They don’t wear the same clothes. They aren’t like you.” And it pushes us away when the answer is to come together. To walk towards each other and to get the point where we don’t see color as a divider, but only as a reminder of those we love. Where we say, “You remind me of my friend” or “You look like my sister” and not “You’re a criminal” or “You’re a threat.”
“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails…” 1 Corinthians 13:4-8
Copyright 2016 Andrea Lundgren
hoto by rosevita and imelenchon, Creative Commons