Saturday, October 19, 2013

A Southern Girl Confronts Her Racist Past

I grew up in East Texas, in the age of segregation. Less than a hundred years out from the Civil War, it was still being fought by some. My home town was Tyler, and my high school was named Robert E. Lee. Back then we were called the Robert E. Lee Rebels. Our team's mascot was the Rebel Guard in full Confederate Uniform and a cannon, with a giant Confederate flag that covered a large swath of the football field. The band played Dixie as the team ran onto the field. In our segregated oblivion, where African Americans lived in a small part of town called Tiger Square with their own high school, we lived very separate lives from each other. In such an environment it is so easy to tell lies of the other and believe them. When I graduated from high school, I was in the hospital from an accident. The principal and the head of the school board came to my hospital room and presented me a diploma, while a rebel flag was draped across my pillow. I was in traction and could not get up. The press were there to record the moment for posterity.

I was pretty ignorant in those days. I bought the lies that the war between the states was over state's rights, acknowledging only partly that the rights they wanted to protect was the right to hold human beings in servitude. I was taught to be proud of my ancestors who fought in that ugly war. They were I was told standing on principle and it was right for them to be honored thusly. Furthermore there was a complete society surrounding me to support that illusion.

Years and time have changed that vision. I sensed pretty early that the separate but equal meme was not what it said. It was abundantly clear that schools in north Tyler were funded no where like the ones I had attended. In college I met my first African Americans outside of a maid who came in once a week to help out, which all southerners seemed to have done, paying pennies on the dollar for housework. I even participated in a couple of civil rights protests in those days. Some years after I left high school, Tyler desegregated and was sued and the team name changed to the Red Raiders. I sat in that school board meeting where the name was changed, and listened to the folks whining about it. They cried out about tradition like it was the end of the world. But also represented were African American students to tell how the name and the flag affected them every day. Perhaps for the first time, I listened. It was the beginning of a long journey to unlearn the crap we learned growing up in the Jim Crow South. It's been a long journey filled with missteps and wrong turns. I was fortunate to pick a job where the upper level management and many of the workers were African American, and well represented by other racial minorities as well. On the job I was the minority, and if I got it wrong, I got called on it. You know, privilege is blinding, and sometimes you need somebody to call you out on it to realize what's happening. Especially in recent years, I've actively been working to confront that racism that permeates our society north and south, and especially the privilege so many are still blinded by. It's been said and I think I agree that many are blinded by their own whiteness, a luxury most people of color cannot claim.

There's a story I've told before and it's worth telling again. It's how the veil lifted from my eyes most dramatically around matters of privilege.Some years back I began my transition from male to female. It's no easy journey, even in a big city like Houston. On my job, no one had ever transitioned before. My boss was a man who did not hold women in high esteem. Coming from Vietnam, he often lamented coming to this country because he could no longer control his wife. My transition was authorized by the regional head, so he had no say in that. However one staff member had huge issues with what I was doing, and spent her spare time trash talking me at every point. Furthermore, she was responsible for clerical functions related to my job, and she actively set out to sabotage me. Every day I would come to work to her hateful glare, and my boss was content to let her do it. When I complained told me it was my fault for not working it out with her. How do you work it out with somebody who hates your very existence. At one point my boss screamed at me not to bother him again about it. In that environment, a woman in another unit in the building came to talk with me. She was African American, and she told me, "I don't understand why you have to do what you are doing, but I do recognize discrimination when I see it, and I can't sit still and let it happen." She worked with me and we organized a body of co-workers ready to stand behind me, all of them signing a petition. I went back to my boss, and when he started to yell, I interrupted him and explained we had a set of work rules for all employees and this worker was in violation of those work rules, and if he did not take action, I was going to sue her and I was going to sue him as well. Not for EEOC which at that time did not protect me, but for disparate treatment. (one of the people on the team of supporters, made up mostly of African American women, worked for personnel). He talked with her and the problem ended. But also, for the first time, I saw the world through different eyes. It was I without the privilege, and I literally flashed back over the years when I had seen similar events take place and I had no clue what was going on. I wonder to myself, if I can have this sort of an epiphany, can others as well? Racism was constructed in the early 1600's. Can it be deconstructed?

In recent years I've seen an ugliness sweeping the nation. Perhaps it stems from a changing population and the fear that comes from those changes. Politicians have certainly played an active role in perpetuating the politics of fear and division. It culminated with flying a Confederate flag outside this African American president's home. I thought back to that day, and those students, in a room filled mostly with white faces, and an all white school board, and reflected again more strongly on how painful this all must have been for them. Some elements of this society still long for a utopia that never was in the form of the old south. Most southerners did not own slaves, yet the war which destroyed so much was for those who did. There was nothing ideal of holding human beings in servitude, and those ancestors of mine who owned slaves should have been ashamed and those who did not should not have been so stupid. It is time for the great lie around race to be exposed once and for all. It is time for white people to realize our whiteness and what is bestowed by that whiteness, then work to dismantle a system where that can be so. It is time to leave behind the civil war once and for all, and become the people we can become. It's time for other white people like me to confront our racist past, and transform a system dependent upon a permanent underclass based upon color. My high school graduation was in 1965. The way I viewed my world then was a mistake. I've got to own where I got it wrong, then move forward. That flag outside the White House, flown by the way, by a Texan, is not a source of pride, but of shame. It's no longer 1965. No one benefits from repeating the same old justifications from 1865. The construct of racism (in full swing by 1665) must disappear completely, and I think the time for bringing about that change is now!

We began our human journey as one. Every single human being derives genetically from one specific man and one specific woman found in Africa. That means nothing less than we are every one of us related to each other. I like to think of us as brothers and sisters under the skin. We are family. May the healing begin. It will not be perfectly done, but with open hearts and ears with which to listen, I think it can be done.

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