July 23, 2013

Spilling All Over Ourselves

Racism is not an incurable disease that infects our hearts and minds, our communities or our culture.  It is the unfortunate combination of ignorance, anger, shame, guilt, desperation, fear and confusion that when spun together results in hatred and violence. Racism is the inability to see beyond one's immediate needs. Racism is thinking that the obstacles and problems we should acknowledge as our own short-comings as individuals and communities and cultures, are actually caused by other individuals, communities or cultures from a different race.

Racism can be cured. Racism can be treated. But we have to be honest with ourselves, and take the time, and make the commitment as individuals and communities and cultures to acknowledge its existence and talk about it. We can teach racism away, but to do that we must first be able to talk about race across race. We must acknowledge that we do not always understand each other. We must admit that while we pretend to be connected under the one American flag, we are indeed different. If our first African-American president, must explain to white America why black Americans are angry with the Zimmerman verdict, that clearly there is a divide. Most of what we know about each other comes from warped views perpetuated by our media. We must not only talk about race and culture in our media, art, and literature, but more importantly we must talk about race in our classrooms.

The following is the story of a time in my life when I was racist. It was a brief and confusing time in my life, but a powerful time for my identity creation. I hope that by telling my story,  I can share something that might help young people today think and talk about race.

In 1991- 1992 I went through a racist phase was racist. I was a senior in high school and for a variety of reason I will discuss in this post, my friends and I found ourselves on the ugly side of race relaions. At any given time, we could be caught saying things like, “Man, there were lots of niggers there tonight." We were listening to a lot of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and while I never went so far as to wear a confederate flags, I had friends who did. There was a lot of fear and ignorance about a culture that at the time, at least to us, seemed to be taking over the world. It was intimidating, different and scary, so the easiest thing to do was to hate it. We didn't know what else to do and there were few people helping us deal with it.

Little bit of context first. I grew up in Marin County, and although Marin is known for its yuppy meets hippie charm, there are pockets of the county that make little sense. The first such enclave is  Bahia Vista or “The Canal” area, and the second is Marin City:
The Canal Area includes low-income homes (almost all of which are apartments) which are inhabited mainly by immigrants (documented and undocumented), from a variety of countries. Seventy percent are Hispanic, 11 percent Asian, 10 percent Caucasian, 5 percent African-American and 4 percent are of other ethnic groups... via wikipedia
Marin City was developed for housing starting in 1942, to accommodate war-time shipyard workers and other immigrants to California. After the war, the area became predominantly African-American, as white residents were able to move freely to private housing elsewhere in Marin. Since the 1980s, additional development has changed the makeup of the population while providing more local jobs. The population in 2010 was 2,666. Marin City's socioeconomic and racial makeup contrasts with the mostly wealthy and Caucasian populations in Marin County. In 2004 the community had high levels of poverty, crime, and recreational drug use. Marin City began to enjoy a newfound celebrity in the 1990s as the home of rapper Tupac Shakur... via wikipedia
What do these two places have in common? The lack of white people. As an Iranian immigrant family, we moved to Bahia Vista in 1979. I was five years old, and I do not remember having one white friend throughout my elementary school experience. I spent my time with African Americans, Haitians, Vietnamese, Hispanics and a plethora of other victims from failed 1980's Reagan foreign policy adventures. 

I never remember thinking about race as a child, because where I lived there was no majority. We were blissfully blind of being the minority in our little corner of paradise. It wasn't until middle and high school that our minority status became obvious and each ethnic group separated into isolated clans fighting for identity in the predominantly white upper middle class population of Marin County. Someone had knocked over the melting pot and we were spilling all over ourselves.

"Dude! You're totally white." These are the kinds of assurances my friends would sometimes sprinkle in casual conversation. If only I knew then what I know now, I may have had an easier time finding myself. In grade ten, I had finally found a group of friends who despite our confusion about race, seemed to understand me. True that they were all white, but so was I they assured me; acceptance can make a teenager do and say the strangest things. I was no longer the poor minority kid from The Canal, I was one of them. One of us. (Let me just say here that these friends, have since found their way and have done some amazing things in their communities. Their stint with confusion and race was temporary like mine.)

We would cruise the streets of San Rafael blaring N.W.A. one minute and sing along to Axl about police and niggers the next. The irony of our behavior was lost on us. I was unperturbed even when he mentioned building a "mini-Iran." I was white now, and it felt good to sing along.

Although I grew up as a minority in a predominantly minority neighborhood for most of my life, the lure to be white and normal was too much to pass up. During my senior year in high school, it felt easy and obvious to project my fear and hatred on the "other." 

This was the year of Boys in the Hood, Spike Lee’s Malcom X and Rodney King. Things were shifting in terms of how we viewed race in America and Afrocentricity seemed to be everywhere. I was fascinated with black culture, but had no idea how to relate to it. Even at my worst, I never hated black kids at school, on the contrary I was curious. But the black friends I had in elementary school, like me had picked sides, and suddenly they were all wearing these. 

They were identifying themselves as different, connected and empowered to a story I was never told. Even if I had wanted to pick their side, my skin color and ignorance kept me out. They were becoming a Them that I could not ignore or join. I was white now and everyone knew it.  Because we had little to no understanding of black culture, we were ill-equipped to deal with race, as the kids from schools in Marin City began to encroach on our neighborhoods. Things began to feel more confrontational. Suddenly, "gangs" of black kids wearing puffy sports parka were in our midst and their presence was threatening.

It happened on Halloween 1991. We had been drinking and looking for something to do when we pulled into the parking lot of the Montecito Shopping Center-- a place where the youth of Marin County congregated to release their testosterone. Packs of teens, like animals, expelled their machismo. Lost in a sea of alpha-male peacocks we were drunk, bored and confused.

I will not make it more dramatic than it was. Words were exchanged. Black and white. Fear transformed by gusto. Punches thrown. Teeth lost. It was the tipping point, we had been "jumped" by  "niggers" from Marin City. The pseudo-racist identity crisis I had been dealing with, now had an anchor event with which to stay grounded. Up to this point, I had not ever really believed in all the racist talk-- I was a member of the Peace Club and had marched against the first gulf war, but now the race card felt real. I could taste the blood in my mouth. I could feel my missing tooth. The confusion. The humiliation. The pain. The anger. The hate.

What did I do with these feelings? How did I deal with the emotions? Who did I talk to? No one. No one from school. Not my parents. No one. Years later, I think it was this lack of conversation about race that was the root of our problem. We had no outlet to untangle our tightly wound knots. We had no outlet to discuss identity.

Twelve years of school and I had never honestly, openly or critically talked about race. It was (and still is) the elephant in the room that everyone felt was okay to ignore. We studied slavery in school (briefly and with little depth), but that was the extent of our knowledge of what it felt like to be black in America. Slavery and N.W.A songs.  We were never taught black history beyond superficial tales of victimization or violent aggression. We never learned about Frederick Douglas, The Black Panther Party or Sojourner Truth. Beyond Marin Luther King Junior's Dream, black history was a blank chapter in our history books. We simply never got to it. The present is the part of history we always ignore in schools.

I may have inadvertently painted an anachronistic segregated school. This was not the case. I was lucky enough to attend a diverse high school, but our diversity was never celebrated or discussed in class. According to our curriculum, race was a problem that had been solved and to talk about it now could cause tension. So we watched the news about Rodney King and the riots in LA, but never once were we urged to talk about it in class.

It wasn't until years later after I read Langston Hughes, Eldridge Cleaver, and Mumia Abu-Jamal on my own, that I began to understand the pain of the African American community. As an independent learner, I was finally able to explore a culture with which I had always been fascinated. Until both white and black kids in the suburbs (and inner cities) start to explore and study black history,  and honestly discuss what it means to be black (or white) in America, we will have racism in the USA. 

It is embarrassing to admit the stupid things I thought and said while I was in high school.  It is embarrassing to admit who I had become, when I was young and confused. I hope I will be forgiven. But how many young people on both sides of the race fence are going through the same identity game today? Unable to name their emotions when dealing with race, awkwardly trying to build an identity in a world that pretends race is history.

It has been a few weeks since the Trayvon Martin verdict, and I can't stop thinking about it. It lays heavy in my heart. I am sure there is so much more to say on this topic, but I felt I needed to break the ice with this confession. I am neither proud nor ashamed of my behavior. It was who I was and helped me become who I am. 

My brush with racism helped me realize that race is a wound in America that is far from healed. I am not sure how much closer I am to understanding race relations as an adult, even after living in Mozambique for two years or working in The Bronx. But I do know that life experience, exposure to different cultures, critical self-reflection and an open mind and heart have been my way forward. 

In closing, I wanted to say that I have been wrestling with this post for several days, and I am not sure where it is taking me. Writing it feels awkward. It is missing the eloquence, I would like to have employed in such a post. Perhaps it is time to set it free. I think the purpose of this post was to start a conversation. What do you think? Both about what I have written or your own experience with race in America or around the world? How do you deal with race in your life? Would love to hear what you think.

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