About a month ago – for reasons too vast to explain in a 1,000 word blog post – I found myself creating a timeline of “Racism and Immigration” in the United States for the convent’s biannual community gathering.
And because I can never do anything half-way, I wound up filling 21 large bulletin boards for the Sisters.
The only reason I stopped at 21 is because I ran out of bulletin boards.
Seriously. There was no shortage of information.
I’m considering creating a wallet-sized version of my work so the next time I hear someone claim this nation was founded on Christian principles, I’ll just whip this puppy out and say, “OH YEAH?!”
The magnitude of the information I found was overwhelming. There were times I had to get away from my computer. Take a walk. Breathe in some fresh air.
The weird thing is that I knew this stuff. I was a history major. My studies focused primarily on American history. I even took a course on Civil Rights.
Still. When you see everything together, all at once… it’s maddening…
And once again, it was plain to see how much my family benefited from America’s racism.
Sure, they were poor immigrant farmers who worked hard to make a life for themselves in Dakota territory. But the only reason they were allowed to make a life for themselves in the Dakotas is because they were white and the people who were forced off the land weren’t.
So there you go.
Did my family understand what was happening? Did they care? I have no answer for that.
My guess is they had some kind of awareness, but they looked the other way. After all, it’s what most of us do. We see things we don’t like, but it doesn’t affect us — or it somehow benefits us — so we look the other way.
Except my work on this timeline meant I couldn’t look the other way. It stayed with me long after I left work.
It’s with me still.
One of the photos I spent a lot of time with was a familiar one. I’m sure you recognize it:
We usually see it every February during Black History month.
The year is 1957 and the girl in the white dress is Elizabeth Eckford, one of the “Little Rock Nine” — the nine African-American students who desegregated an all-white high school in Little Rock, Arkansas.
I got to thinking about the woman behind Elizabeth. The one baring her teeth. A look of sheer hatred on her face. I wondered what she thought of the photo. I mean, if I’m seeing it every February, she must see it too.
How do you live with something like that? How do you explain it to your kids?
Or is it something she’s proud of? “Yes, that’s me and I’d do it again!”
But that’s freezing her in time. Not allowing her to grow as a human being.
A little bit of snooping gave me the story: her name is Hazel Bryan and she was 15-years old when the photo was taken.
Fifteen years old. Let that sink in a bit.
How many stupid things did you do when you were fifteen? How many expressions of hate crossed your face?
Yeah. Me too. Only in our case, there was probably no camera around to catch it.
As it turns out, Hazel was ashamed of that photo. It pained her every time she saw it. Years later she apologized to Elizabeth and it looked like they might become friends, but that’s a Hollywood version of the story. Real life rarely plays out so sweetly. (You can read the more complicated story here.)
Speaking of Hollywood, one thing I thought about as I looked at the picture: who would I be in the story? Had I lived in Little Rock during that period, would I be one of the people walking behind with a smirk on my face? Or if I was friends with Hazel — would I be sneering too?
I know who I’d like to be. I’d like to be the girl who broke from the pack. The one who stood next to Elizabeth and became her friend. The one who made her feel welcome and included.
You know. The one who never existed.
But if I’m being completely honest with myself, I’d probably be the other girl in the photo. The one who looked away just as the picture was taken.
Because that’s the way I’ve always been. I’ve never taken part in a protest, marched, or did any other daring activity. Heck, even when I saw friends and family showing their insensitive whiteness on Facebook regarding the Kaepernick/national anthem controversy — did I leave a thoughtful comment, lovingly correcting them? Or even a snarky comment?
I did not. Instead, I just avoided Facebook until the controversy died down.
I looked the other way.
But there’s no looking the other way anymore. We can’t wish this gone or pretend we’re colorblind. We’d just be fooling ourselves and that doesn’t help anyone.
As the speaker told the Sisters during one of their meetings (they let me sit in for one of the days), “Racism is more than racial prejudice. It is more than individual attitudes and actions. Racism is the collective actions of a dominant racial group.”
Meaning whether I’m a nice person or not has very little to do with it. If we ain’t gonna change the system, it’s just gonna keep happening…
I could easily have continued the timeline to the present, but I decided to end it with the “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 and a challenge by Martin Luther King Jr. — a paraphrase from the book of Amos, 5:24:
“Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
I figured the Sisters would appreciate it.
If you’ve been keeping track, you’ll notice I’ve only shown you 19 bulletin boards when I claimed I did 21. The fact is, I didn’t take a picture of the other two. One was an “Additional Information” board, where I left copies of speeches, in-depth articles, and other items I couldn’t fit on the timeline. For the last one, I put up a blank poster board and asked the Sisters to add their thoughts and memories. My hunch was they’d have some interesting ones.
It was one of my better ideas.
Remember how in a previous post I told you these Sisters were a bit radical? Back in the day, several of them were involved in protests, some took part in civil rights marches, and a few spent time in jail. In other words, they never looked the other way.
I’ve so much to learn.
Listen, I realize this was a heavier post than I usually write, but it’s been occupying my thoughts for some time and I needed to let it out. Fortunately, I came across something funny that is related to the subject at hand. (No, really!)
Imagining myself in the “Little Rock Nine” story led to think about White Savior movies. You know the ones I mean, right?
Wikipedia has an interesting entry on the genre. I particularly appreciated this bit:
(…) continued cultural hypersegregation led to the common misbelief, by many American white people, that the nation had reached a post-racial state of social relations. (…) That reappearance of the white-savior narrative occurred because the majority of white people in the United States had little substantive social interaction with people of different races and ethnic groups.
Seems pretty clear, right? The less social interaction we have with each other, the less aware we are and the more insensitive we become. Meaning the less willing we are to support real social and political change, and then… my God… we get movies like this:
All kidding aside, I don’t have an easy answer to any of this, probably because no easy answer exists. But interacting with people different than us, following a wider circle on social media, reading books and novels written by people of color (I recommend Jessmyn Ward and Paul Beatty), dismissing the white savior flicks and watching “BlacKkKlansman” instead (or hey, have any of you seen “Sorry to Bother You” yet? That’s a trip!) — all of these seem like a good first step.
And if you know of any second, third, fourth… tenth step? Let’s get this conversation started…