Tuesday, February 19, 2013

During Black History Month Listen with your Heart to Stories of Racism


Throughout her life my mom has experienced all manners of career success. As an elementary school educator, she forever touched the lives of countless Battle Creek residents. She was awarded the prestigious Excellence in Education award in 1986. Mom also served on the boards of several organizations, traveled to Japan as part of a state-sponsored cultural exchange program, and hosted educators from Japan here. These and her many other achievements warm me with pride. There's a lesser known side of mom’s history she rarely discusses. It involves prejudice, racism and discrimination inflicted on her.
What makes her story so disturbing is that what she experienced didn’t occur in the Deep South. Rather, it was in Ohio. The North, where racism of the kind typically associated with former slave states of the South supposedly did not exist. But in fact, America’s dirty little secret is that in the North, racism was/is all too alive and well.
During a recent road trip, my mom shared with me some things that happened in her childhood. These events helped frame her perception of race and racism in America. It also blew the door open on some of my own misconceptions of what I thought was her largely ideal upbringing in a small coal mining town.
As mom entered grade school, she increasingly noticed that her own mother (my Gram’) complained about the way she was treated by some of the white folks in town. Gram’ had a darker complexion than my very fair-skinned mom. The people about whom Gram’ railed typically took the form of people who possessed institutional forms of power. One day at the general store, mom was with her father (who also possessed a very fair complexion). During the visit, mom observed how welcoming the store owner was to her father. On subsequent trips there with Gram’ however, mom noticed Gram’ was treated consistently with a coolness that was the opposite of what happened when with her father. It was then that mom started realizing some white people treated people of color differently. Initially, she shrugged off the difference to ‘personalities’ and ‘bad attitudes’ of a non-specific nature. That soon changed.
That's mom, far left.
Things crystallized for mom when she started middle school. See, mom had to commute one town over (maybe a mile) where the only middle school in the area was located. On her arrival and to her pre-adolescent shock, it was in that small Ohio (Ohio!) town that she saw first-hand, posted outside stores, restrooms, water fountains and other public places, signs that restricted access to whites only. Mom found this initially confusing, then ultimately humiliating. It was then that she began to understand the anger Gram’ held. That my mom is able to carry these hurtful memories yet not bear similar malice is beyond me.
As America recognizes Black History Month, for those who do not believe racism plays a significant factor today for African American, I urge you to seek out a person of color; one you trust. Ask them if they might be willing to share stories of racism with you, for the purpose of understanding. Try and listen with an open heart. Work to refrain from mentally dismissing their truth as mere paranoia or innocent misunderstandings. Engaging in this very simple act, listening to another human being tell their truth (and not actively judging or contradicting), can go a long way in promoting the healing process that must occur around this historic scourge. Yes white people, it might be painful to hear but remember: you only have to listen to it; the black person talking had/has to live it.

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