It was a quiet, gray day, though a little on the warm side for this time of year. With a nor’easter forecast for tomorrow, we decided to use our afternoon off to take a walk. We’re fortunate to live not far from Minuteman National Historical Park, and so we drove over to Concord to Meriam’s Corner, where the Battle Road Trail begins. This spot commemorates the Battle of April 19th 1775, which was the official start of the Revolutionary War.
It looks no different than anyplace else in New England this time of year – fields lying fallow, trees swept of all their leaves, everything turned a shade of gray or brown. There were odd flashes of blue, though, which turned out to be dozens of these plump little bluebirds:
Bluebirds, of course, are a symbol of happiness, and it’s sort of strange to think of them taking up residence on an old battlefield, however many hundred years ago the battle may have occurred. Especially today, when a different battle is raging in our country.
Growing up in Maine, where everyone looks like you, it’s easy to say you aren’t a racist, and it’s easy to say you treat people based on who they are and not their skin color. When no one is there to challenge you, there’s no real way for you to put those beliefs to the test. I spent 4 years living in Memphis, Tennessee and I learned quite quickly that it’s just not that simple. Maybe it should be, but it’s not. When your white, well-educated, church-three-times-a-week Christian colleagues routinely use the n-word in conversation, it gets complicated real quick.
Those years in Memphis were the first time I lived in a city where I was a minority — at the time, the city was ~65% African-American. There were a few times when I’d stop by the Kroger after a night class and I’d be the only white person in the store. For a long time, I felt guilty about admitting how I felt when this happened: not unsafe, exactly, but exposed. I was afraid that deep down inside I must be racist to have felt that difference, to have even noticed everyone else in the store was black. I wanted to prove race didn’t matter to me and so I’d take extra care to look people in the eye, say hello, chat with the cashier the way one does in the south. And then I’d walk to my car in the dark with my heart racing – but not for the reason you might think. The truth was, the longer I was in Memphis the more I came to know two things: first, if anything happened to me people would blame me for having the audacity to be out after dark by myself; and second, they would find a black guy to blame whether he was guilty or not. Because that’s just what happens in the south.
It was only recently, in conversation with a black colleague, that I realized that the Otherness I felt during those Kroger trips is how black people feel in white spaces. ALL THE TIME. But I could easily get back into white spaces; despite the city demographics, I worked with predominantly white people and the students in my graduate program were mostly white. The problem is, most institutions – most schools, most banks, most legal systems – are predominantly white. Even if they aren’t, the systems themselves were created by white people and, most likely, were originally designed to keep black people out. This is particularly true in the deep south, parts of which still can’t get over the fact that they lost the Civil War. People who say there’s no such thing as white privilege infuriate me, because they are so STEEPED in privilege they take it for granted. We may have taken down the signs that said “NO BLACKS ALLOWED”, but the sentiment is still quite real – particularly in the south – and to deny that is to simply deny reality. And don’t whine that we have a black president now, don’t tell me we’re a post-racial society, because clearly that’s just bullshit.
Anyway. Here’s what I really want to say: back home in Maine, there was recently a really bad accident involving teenagers. The driver was probably texting and two other kids were killed. The driver was given a much lighter sentence than many had hoped for. The weird thing to me was not the public outcry over the sentence, but the number of people who acknowledged she was a teenager and did something stupid and would pay for it the rest of her life. People said, “teenagers do stupid things and this is a particularly tragic example of it, hey it could have been one of OUR kids”…but few people were calling for reinstating the death penalty.
The kid that was shot and killed in Ferguson probably stole some cigars and in the arrogant stupidity that a lot of teenagers have, refused to get on the sidewalk. A police officer subsequently fired 12 shots at him. How is it that one dumb teenager gets to walk away from killing other people and another dumb teenager gets shot dead in the middle of a street for disobeying an officer? How can we honestly say race had nothing to do with it, particularly in a state like Missouri? And more importantly, how are we okay with it?