I never quite understood the concept of aligning oneself to others according to the color of their skin. As a child I never thought of myself as “white” or concerned myself with whether my friends were black, white, brown, or somewhere in between. What separated or united my peers wasn’t race, or culture. No. What created our little cliques was money and location.
I spent most of my early childhood in California working long hours in the fields alongside Mexican children. Some of them were Mexican-American children, but I suspect many were not. I never asked. I went to a school filled with a dozen races and a variety of gangs, groups, factions, and religions. I spent most of my time with three white children and four Mexican children from our rural neighborhood. The white children were a bit difficult for me to relate to because all three lived in middle-class households that were like islands amidst the economic ruin that was slowly but surely dissolving our community. One of the white children was the daughter of the foreman of a huge packing plant that employed many of the other parents in the area. One was the son of the school secretary and her businessman husband, who had owned a home down the street from school for many years. The other was the daughter of a local rancher, also in the area for years.
I had much more in common with my brown classmates. We lived in rental houses. We worked in the fields all summer and after school and on weekends. We were poor, and struggling to have a bit of hope that we would ever escape the toil of the fields. I didn’t have to explain to them how weary I was of dragging a cotton sack or cutting grapes for hours on end. When we got together we didn’t feel self-conscious about how we were dressed or that our moms cut our hair.
There were few black kids in our school simply because most lived in the nearby city. In those days it would have been very unusual to find a black child working in the fields with us or wandering the streets of our rural community. But since I had lived and gone to school in several other areas I had some experience with black children and my best friend in the third grade was as dark as any child I have ever known. My transient life was blessed with friends, acquaintances, and neighbors from around the world.
If there were divisions between “them” and “us”….between “those kids” and “me” they were almost always money vs. poverty, and city vs. country. And during my years at Teague there were also divisions between gangs. Gang wars were violent and frequent, and almost always Mexican against Mexican.
I offer that review of my background as the foundation for my current beliefs about race, racial profiling, prejudice, protesting, and politics.
I watched Meet the Press this morning, which focused on a discussion of President Obama’s recent speech regarding race. It featured African American leaders from government, education, and the media. What struck me first was that each of the guests looked decidedly bi-racial. I could be wrong, but that light caramel coloring is usually indicative of a mixed background. And a mixed heritage means some choices can be made about acknowledging that heritage. Even our president chooses to be “African American”, even though that isn’t entirely accurate. I’ve had blond blue-eyed students listed on my classroom roll as “Native American” and I’ve attended college with black-skinned classmates who have also enrolled as Native Americans because of the benefits attached to that label. My own background is Dutch, German, Irish, French, Cherokee, Seminole, and Choctaw, but if I had more than a drop of the latter I might be tempted to label myself as a Native American and cash in on some benefits. I worked for several years with a woman who was Chinese and Egyptian, but thought of herself as Egyptian because her husband, an Egyptian, preferred not to call attention to her mother.
We all want to be unique and special and individual and respected for who we are…until a label or affiliation or membership can somehow benefit us! I believe in the power of group action and there are many ways and reasons to join together to achieve things. However, I do not believe in blindly joining protest movements based on limited knowledge, tenuous relationships, and national media coverage. I’m not going to jump on a band wagon just because everyone on it is old, white, fat, and female.
As for “racial profiling” being a national practice, I would not only agree, but would point out the fact that we use our own profiling skills each and every day. It’s the basis of our survival!! What do you do when you are traveling in a strange city? What do you do when you visit outside your own neighborhood? What do you do when you shop at Walmart? You look at people and access their threat to you based on your past experience with similar people. People with certain looks, movements, habits, or clothing, trigger responses in us and our “alert” system is activated by them. Police officers, airport officials, school administrators, and others who work with the public are aware of “types” of people who are most likely to commit crimes in their jurisdiction. Believe it or not “white, teen, girls” were one of our target groups of shoplifters when I worked at Macy’s. They stole things as a dare or as part of a group initiation. Anytime we saw three or more young girls enter the store together we alerted the security staff. That wasn’t racial profiling, it was caution based on the past incidences of theft at our store.
I know I’m rambling as usual, but my primary point is that we cannot hope to eliminate racial prejudice by either protest or legislation. It hasn’t worked with gun control. It hasn’t worked with drugs or alcohol. It hasn’t worked with moral issues. We are what we are- products of our genes, environment, and experience. Only changes in our personal relationships and experiences will lead to changes in our community, our nation, and our world. I don’t want to be labeled as white or female or Okie or even as a Christian. None of those labels is the sum total of who I am and each will be interpreted by someone else in a different way from my own- based on their experience. I try to be as normal and non-threatening as possible, but I can’t prevent other people from judging me based on their perception of my looks and actions.
Our country is an open wound right now. There is a tragedy each and every day in America and yet we have chosen this one to unite or divide us. Chosen. That’s the blessing and the curse of our country. We are free to choose, even when we choose to do or say or think the wrong thing. I choose to do the best I can to treat each person in my life with dignity and respect.
So just call me Mary… it’s the only label I really need.