Operation Caffeination

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My mother was present in the crowd the day that Martin Luther King told us about his dream. She lived in Mississippi in a house staffed by a black yard man, an elderly black cook and a black nanny who left her own children behind every day to care for my mom and her three white siblings.

It will shock none of my readers to hear me say that my grandmother was racist. She was a “sweet” racist who believed that employing black people was a charitable thing to do; that they were simple, childish people who benefited greatly from her patronage.

My mother and her siblings have struggled all their lives to reconcile their cherished memories of their mother with the blatant reality of her racism. My uncle has made a career out of seeking social justice. My mother became a public health nurse, eager to find ways to give back to the underserved community that her favorite nanny introduced her to as a child. All of my relatives are slow to talk about racism and quick to point out the good qualities exemplified by the previous generation: grandmother always visited the yard man every time he went to jail. She used to take her kids to visit the elderly cook in the state-run nursing home she ended up in once her declining health forced her to stop working. Her African-American servants liked her; she was racist, but she was a nice racist, and I guess that is supposed to make it all better somehow.

I never met my grandmother. She died of ovarian cancer the year before I was born. I grew up in the South, though, in an all-white neighborhood not too far from where she raised my mother. I remember the first time a black family visited our Southern Baptist church; I was eight years old at the time, and fascinated by the way the light seemed to glow from within their skin, the colors they wore, the way ice purple eyeshadow shimmered against the mother’s perfect eyelids like a frost in early spring. Her name was Christine, and I still feel a thrill when I think of her, so tall, so stately, so perfectly composed and dignified as she graciously ignored my stares, let me observe her and her family without showing any of the completely justifiable fury I certainly would have felt if I’d been in her shoes. She must have guessed that I had never seen a black person before. She was patient and gracious and invited me to her home for tea. She listened quietly without interrupting when I asked her nine year old daughter why all of her Barbies were black, and shook with laughter when her daughter replied, “It’s because they drink too much chocolate milk. We love that stuff around here. Did you know I was white like you when I was born? But then I started drinking chocolate milk and would you look at me now!”

My mother still complains about the vast quantities of chocolate milk I consumed in the weeks after that visit. I mean, deep down I knew it wouldn’t really change the color of my skin, but…it didn’t hurt to try, right?

I will always be thankful for the gift Christine gave me in letting me get to know her family, being patient with my childishness and ignorance, not abandoning me to a de facto inheritance of racism and bigotry. It was because of Christine that I became obsessed with Addy the American Girl doll and devoured her accompanying books, begged to be taken to Civil War reenactments, memorized speeches by Abraham Lincoln and Booker T. Washington. Somewhere along the way I was introduced to feminism through Sojourner Truth. Later, I found myself completely swept away by Alice Walker, Billie Holiday, Maya Angelou, bell hooks, Audra Lorde.

These women’s lives and messages resonate with me in a way that I can’t fully explain. Part of it is what we share in common. I was denied access to education and prevented from making autonomous decisions. I still don’t feel like I’ve been able to claim my sexuality as my own. I have a long way to go, and honestly, I’m never going to fully recover from what’s been done to me. I was taught from infancy that I had a place in society, and that place was at the very bottom of the heap. And I knew in my soul that it was wrong, that I was hearing lies, that if I fought back hard enough and long enough I would eventually succeed in claiming control over my life. Other women’s stories of perseverance and anger are deeply meaningful to me because that same fire and innate sense of truth has been my salvation.

On the other hand, though, as I explore the lives of these great women I am torn apart by our differences. I think the differences between our lives impact me on an even deeper level, because I know that it’s not right. I hear Wanda Sykes laughing bitterly about the racial disparity in prisons and I know she’s right. I can get away with absolutely anything and I know it because I’ve done it. I stole candy from the store all the time as a kid. As an adult, I stole diaper cream when I was too broke to buy it and my son broke out in a painful rash. I have taken off with grocery carts when I had no other way of carrying food home. I have been let off the hook for letting my tabs go a month past their expiration date, snacking on leftover food at work, smoking on our non-smoking building property. I am never, ever carded, not even at my twenty-first birthday celebration. People assume (wrongly, often enough) that I am up to good things when they see me, because I look “normal,” meaning white. I consider myself to be a basically good person and think well of myself and my moral judgment, but when I consider how often I’ve intentionally screwed up it’s humiliatingly obvious that I have nothing to congratulate myself about. I have not had problems with the police because the police don’t suspect me, not because I am morally superior to people who get caught.

I don’t really know how to make sense of my racist heritage, or how to continue the trend of progress in my children’s lives. I find myself agonizing over the most ridiculous things sometimes, like, should I provide my children with multicultural dolls, or does that send the message that other races of people are commodities to be collected? This particular dilemma is exceptionally silly because neither of my kids are even a tiny bit interested in doll play, but I continue to cause myself to break out in hives over this and other questions like it because I deeply want my kids to just see people as people. I want them to feel free to marry a person of color and have babies who won’t share my frizzy red hair and know that that partner and those children will be loved and accepted into the family. I want them to feel free to dislike a person of color without going into hiding for a few weeks to unravel whether or not their negative feelings are fueled by racism. I want race to not be a thing for them. I want them to just have friends and know people and be seriously horrified someday when I tell them how far we’ve come as a family from the days when our ancestors were fighting in the Civil War on Stonewall Jackson’s side.

I don’t know how much progress you can realistically hope to make in one generation, but more than anything else…I just want this to be over.

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Written by GRSeim

May 19, 2012 at 7:35 am

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