Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Someone's Son, My Son

A few weeks ago, my son attended a Zombie prom at the local library. He's a homeschooled kid so he looks forward to these events to make friends, reunite with already made friends, and now that he's older, to flirt with girls. When I picked him up that night, he was waiting for me inside a foyer sitting beside a pretty blond girl. You know the type: cheerleader, what people love to call "all American" because we all know America is white and blond. As I got closer, I realized they were flirting, both enjoying the attention of the other. I caught his eye and stood back to give him some privacy. But as I watched them, this white girl and my brown son, I thought "I wonder what her parents would think?" Because sadly in this world this is what I have to worry about. The perception people have about my son, and the fear that we live in a place where too often "biracial" anything is looked upon with fear and prejudice. I've noted that in our society we have a lot of cultural undercurrents about black and brown men, and with Hispanic men it's a fear that they'll rape, seduce, white women. I've read the fears too many times in the way white women talk about how Latino men area always "checking them out" or the way stories about rapists who "might" be Hispanic are written. And my son is a Latino male, and every day I am painfully reminded of the stereotypes that not just signify him but place in positions that could be dangerous.

When I first moved to the South from Maine, it was a life changing experience in many ways. You see, I didn't see myself as racist. I was married to a man of color, and I had a son of color. I was educated. I had taken the "right" classes, and I thought of myself as a liberal, open minded person who wasn't racist. And then I was in a place where white people were not the majority, a place that was frankly shaped by the blood of slaves. A place where people still dropped the "N" word as casually as saying "Good morning." For a time I allowed myself to feel superior. It was easy to do. Easier than examining my own hidden racism, a racism so insidious that it shaped my world view without me even knowing.

Then I went to teach at an inner city high school for kids who were considered high risk. I had a lot of pretty naive expectations about what kind of teacher I was going to be when I walked in that Monday morning. And those were pretty much shattered with my first class which was filled with some of the toughest, meanest, jaded tenth graders I've ever meet. But the real lesson was all about that insidious racism that laid coiled inside me. I went home everyday and cried to Horacio about how hard it was. About how I wanted to reach them. But what I didn't tell him at first was how much those kids scared me.  I had a whole list of reasons about why they scared me and they all looked good. If I listed them out right now I have no doubt that many of my readers would be "Hell yeah that's scary." But really it was because they were black, and they were not the kind of black people I had come to know. They were the kind of black people that society told me I needed to fear.

One day as I photocopying some papers, an older teacher close to retirement came and started talking to me. I expressed frustration about what was happening in my classroom, and he said "All of our students are bottom feeders." That hit me hard. I was sickened, and disgusted. I went to my class, and I looked at those faces which were drawn, leery, and...scared. Why wouldn't they feel this way? Why wouldn't they hide their fear behind aggression? After all they had likely encountered teachers who felt the same way as the teacher who just spoken to me. When I went home that night, I confessed to Horacio my fear, and he gracisously walked this pathic white girl through her own racism. It was a painful and horrible moment for me. Even more painful then when I been called out by my African-American women's literature professor over some pretty blatantly racist shit that came out of my mouth. I had thought it was gone, weeded from me, only to discover it cropping up when I least expected it.

That moment changed my relationship with my students, and while it was never easy in that classroom things started to shift as if they could sense that I was no longer afraid of them. Slowly over time a few of them even began to trust me. I had students who had punched teachers in the face become my greatest allies and even my friends. When a young male black student threatened me with violence one afternoon, I had to make yet another examination and look at my fear in the face and tease it away from the racism. I remembered talking in a religious studies class about how our culture has worked hard to ensure that white woman fear black men, and how often that is really misplaced. It allowed me to make a choice to diffuse the situation as opposed to feeding into the fear I felt, and fear that he no doubt felt for many reasons. After all I as a white teacher had a great deal more power than he did as a black student. Being aware of how I had been indoctrinated to fear had often masked the power I actually held in my hands, and power held unaware is even more dangerous.

When I read through Darren Wilson's testimony, I couldn't help but be reminded of what I had rooted out. His testimony reads like a textbook example of what happens when you condition a culture to feel fear for a certain kind of person.

"And when I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like  a five-year-old onto Hulk Hogan."

"I felt that another one of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse. I mean it was, he's obviously bigger than I was, and stronger and the, I've already taken two to the face and I didn't think I would, the third one could be fatal if he hit me right."

"He looked up at me and the most aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that's how angry he looked."

I'm not going to speculate about if there is truth in his assertion that he was really scared. It's a familiar enough story at this point that we know he could use it to convince a Grand Jury to let him go free and clear. George Zimmerman used the same words to justify his murder of Trayvon Martin. The myth of the scary black man is a dangerous myth. Not dangerous for white people let me be very clear but dangerous for black men. When those who have the power use powerlessness as a weapon to justify their take down of people who are systemically oppressed it's pretty hard to have a justice system that if fair. It's what I had to learn as a teacher, and I didn't get to carry a gun. The fact that  his myth is perpetuated in police forces all over the country without question scares the shit of me. It scares me because while I am white, my husband and son are not. They are the mercy all too often of those who deny their power and privilege. I am scared because as a white woman I am far more likely to be raped by a white man, and if I reported that rape, it's likely that white man would walk.

The other day I walked into our local grocery store. And as I walked through the store, I realized that who I feared were not the young men of color who were in the store. But the frat boys with their loud shouts, their way of holding their bodies as if they owned all the space around them. I found myself repulsed by their casual mocking of the women who walked by them, or their blatant check outs of the women they thought attractive. When the Latino father walked by me and smiled at Jude, I didn't wonder how many women he might have raped. No that thought was saved for the loud frat boy in the beer aisle.