One cannot be a thinker, a writer, a blogger, or even a casual tweeter or Facebook poster without reckoning with the issues surrounding racism that are simultaneously tearing the country apart and bringing people together to talk about things that have needed talking about for far too long.
As a lily-white thinker, writer, blogger, casual tweeter and Facebook poster, I’ve been struggling, like most everyone else, with my feelings, my understanding of my own role in the systemic racism that’s defined our country since the start — and with my honest evaluation of myself and my complicity in that system.
But I refuse to blindly and mindlessly accept and repeat the slogans and mottoes and pat phrases that have become ubiquitous in the past few days, just as slogans, mottoes, and pat phrases always become ubiquitous when serious personal thought and self-examination are in order.
I know you’ll roll your eyes here, but I have always had black friends. I have dated black men. I have worked with black people throughout my various careers. I have learned from black teachers and professors. I lament and despise that any of those friends, lovers, co-workers, and sharers of knowledge exist in a different America from the one I live in. And I will try my best to do what I can to help change that.
But systems start with people, and people are shaped by their personal experiences. I’ll share just two of mine here. And, before I do, I’ll just say it: I know I’m going to get raked over the coals. All I can say is that writing this down and sharing it is part of my own process of sorting things out. If you want to be mad at me, be mad at me. It won’t, as you’ll see, be the first time.
When I was in college, at the University of Maryland, College Park, I defrayed a huge chunk of the expense of my education by becoming a resident assistant in my junior and senior years. I was assigned to one of the larger dorms on the old campus, an all-female residence perched atop Route 1. I ADORED the University of Maryland, I ADORED Montgomery Hall, and I ADORED being an R.A. I think I was really good at it, too.
I had strong and positive relationships with pretty much all the students whose dorm life I oversaw. Like UMCP itself, it was a diverse group of people, which was one of the reasons I loved it. I planned programs, had my shoulder cried upon, responded to medical emergencies and academic crises, and did my best to help everyone in whatever way my position and personality allowed.
But try as I might, there were two women who just didn’t like me. They were juniors, both of them black, who’d secured, through the luck of the annual room lottery, prized places on the top floor of of Monty Hall. In the spring of their junior year, I reminded them, as I reminded everyone, to register for the lottery for next year’s rooms. I put up fliers. I knocked on doors. I held meetings.
As the date drew nearer, I noticed that the two had not registered. I went to them to make sure they understood that if they didn’t register, they would lose their rooms and would have to spend senior year living elsewhere. My hands would be tied. Please register, I asked them.
But they didn’t.
The room lottery came, and they lost their rooms.
Next thing I knew, all hell broke loose on the top floor. I was on duty that night and had to go see what was going on. I was met with a palpable wave of hatred such as I never felt before or since. The women, who had rallied their friends — including other black women who HAD registered and retained their rooms — got in my face and screamed that I was a “fucking white racist.” I was terrified and at a loss for words.
Looking back, I guess maybe I got a taste of what it feels like to be on the wrong side of racial prejudice that night.
Many years later, I was the p.r. director at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, the oldest continuously operating public art museum in the nation. Among my responsibilities was editing all museum publications, not so much for accuracy and content, as the staff who wrote the material could be counted on to have done their research and get their facts straight, but mostly for grammar, punctuation, and style.
I edited EVERYTHING, from the membership magazine to the annual report and much of what our executive director wrote. Everything, including exhibition catalogs. Without exception, the curators whose catalogs I edited expressed appreciation for my having made their writing clearer and more compelling.
Until it came time for me to edit a catalog written by the curator of African-American art. She protested: as she told our boss, a white person such as myself couldn’t properly edit this catalog because white people lacked sufficient sensitivity to African-American culture.
Let me point out that this curator and I had, I thought, a sound and respectful working and personal relationship; I was not aware of my having ever offended her or any cultural sensibilities.
In the end, I edited the catalog, and life went on. Years later, I edited, without conflict or controversy, an acclaimed book called African American Connecticut Explored, of which I am incredibly proud.
But I have to admit, at the time, I felt insulted and misunderstood.
Again: probably what a lot of black people feel all the time.
Let me be clear: I don’t bring these experiences up by way of saying I remain aggrieved, and I of course know that they pale (sorry) in comparison to the experiences my black friends, acquaintances, neighbors, and colleagues endure all the time — all too often at gunpoint.
I only share them here by way suggesting that the ONLY way to make progress is for each of us to face our own facts openly and honestly. If we all commit to break past the slogans and mottoes and really look hard at and think hard about the complexities behind them, the likelihood of our finally finding a way forward, together, has to be greater.
It HAS to be, right?