December 26, 2016
I think I am going today to see my father die. I bought a ticket last night that will fly me out to Syracuse this afternoon. I spoke to Dad in his hospital bed yesterday, and his wheezing was horrible. All I could manage to say was that I loved him. Repeatedly. He tried to talk but hardly had the breath to support it. And he didn’t know what to say, other than that he didn't know whether he was up or down, and that he was scared. I couldn’t stand being here anymore. It was comforting to get online and buy a ticket. I now knew what to do. It was time to go.
My friend Linda, has been posting on Facebook for the past month one thing she is thankful for, every day. It has made me think about the things I’m thankful for, and right now, I’m thankful that if I must see my father die, it’s at this time of year. At Christmas. Because all around me, I see indications of Jesus coming to earth. Of God becoming flesh and bone. Spirit becoming human. And I am thankful for the mystery of His presence.
Donald Miller says, “It comforts me to think that if we are created beings, the thing that created us would have to be greater than us, so much greater, in fact, that we would not be able to understand it. It would have to be greater than the facts of our reality, and so it would seem to us, looking out from within our reality, that it would contradict reason. But reason itself would suggest it would have to be greater than reality, or it would not be reasonable.”
I got up early, unable to sleep more. I got up to turn on my tree lights and light the candles around the living room, and to sit in the middle of it all. In the middle of this glowing, warm light. The flames bounce and flicker and I remember that in Jesus "was life, and that life was the light of all mankind", and even the smallest flame dispels the darkness. I feel like I’m getting ready to fly into darkness, and I need to fill up on light and take some with me and carry it around in my chest. Somehow in the middle of this pain, there is still joy in knowing that God became Man, for the very purpose of defeating death and the grave. 1st Corinthians: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” I can’t describe the fullness in my heart despite what I know is waiting. I am surrounded by reminders of His love for us. Death can snuff out the life in our bodies, but it can’t touch the joy of knowing the One who came and removed its power. I don’t understand how this joy is possible at this moment. So palpable. I didn’t think it could be like this. But I’ll take this peace, and put it on like a warm sweater. I’m thankful for discovering that the promise of His rest in the midst of calamity, is for real.
It's time to go.
BeCause We Can is now on Facebook:
the BeCause We Can Facebook page is devoted to seeing the beauty in diversity; in particular, within African-Americans, and "Anglos", as I am called here in New Mexico. I was "White" when I lived in New York. In New Mexico, I am considered "Anglo". Regardless of the label, my family is biracial - Black and White. For the sake of this content, and in light of the racial struggles we have seen in our country in recent days, this website is dedicated to fostering positive relationships between people of the Black and White races in an effort to forward understanding, appreciation, healing, friendship, and love.
Visit our Facebook page at Because We Can @ Susan Parlato Revels. I'd love to hear your stories, comments, concerns, or whatever the posts stir in your mind.
- Susan Revels
With kindergarten done for the day, I was hungry for a snack. A plate of cookies sat on the table. The old radio on the counter cranked out a tinny Doris Day. “Que Sera, Sera? Whatever will be, will be.” My mother sang quietly along with Doris as she rinsed silverware at the faucet.
What will it be? Which cookie is the biggest? My finger touched each cookie as I recited the familiar words:
“Eeny, meeny, miny, moe,
Catch a n#$@&r by the toe,
If he hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, moe.”
I reached for the chosen snack, but my mother’s hand stopped me. Her eyebrows came together in a troubled wrinkle when she knelt down beside me. I felt the weight of her hands as she set them on my shoulders. Am I in trouble? Her words came out in quiet, measured tones.
“Susan, I don’t ever want to hear you say that word again.”
“Which word, Mommy?” I had said many words. Which one was "that word"?
My mother drew me close to her. The “N” word struggled out from her lips. “N#$@&r. Do you know what it means?”
To me, the word sounded like “booger”. I had always imagined it to mean a big monster made entirely of boogers all green and yellow and drippy, so of course you would not want to have any bodily contact with him. A toe was a small enough appendage to grasp without getting your hand too sticky. He would not like you gripping him by the toe, so he would open his dark toothless maw and let out a wretched groan. Then, you would let him go.
I thought I knew the meaning of the word in question, but apparently I did not.
My fingers fidgeted with a shirt button. “No. What does it mean?”
“It’s a word that some people use when they’re talking about a Black person. It’s not a nice word. It hurts people’s feelings. We don't use that word.”
It means a Black person? My 5-year-old brain had trouble processing this thought. Why would anyone need to catch a Black person in the first place, and by the toe no less? Why catch anyone by the toe? An arm, maybe. But a toe?
The more perplexing questions were, why was there a word that was meant to offend a Black person when he or she had done nothing to you? And, why was this in a children’s poem? It was my first exposure to the concept that some people devalue the humanity of another because of skin color.
My mother’s hold tightened. “You’ll never use it again, will you?”
“No, I won’t.” I said. There was no reason to, now that I knew what it meant. It made no sense to use it.
Racism. It takes root at a very early age. I had had a glimpse into the world of adults where individuals said things to wound someone else who was merely different than themselves. The purpose was to inflict pain and degradation, without cause. My wise mother had spoken into my heart that afternoon and set a precident. I'm thankful for a mother who seized the moment and planted the seed to examine and question while I was so young. Still, a peculiar door was cracked open that day, and a little bit of my innocence ran through it.
Thanksgiving with the Revels family!
A THANKSGIVING PRAYER FOR 2016
"O God of all Creation: You have cared for the earth, and have filled it with your riches. Abundance flows in your steppes, through the pastures and wilderness. You provide for our land, softening it with showers, bathing it in light, and blessing it with growth.The hills sing with joy; the meadows are covered with flocks; the fields deck themselves with wheat; and together they glorify your name!
On this occasion of our Thanksgiving, we as a nation take rest from our labors to consider your many blessings. We thank you for our freedoms, and for the opportunity to contribute our skills, our attributes and our values toward the good of society.
We thank you for the mixture of our cultures, blending us into one people under God. Help us to be a light unto other nations, and to further the cause of freedom and justice all over the world.
We remember those who are less fortunate than we. We lift up in prayer the victims of poverty and racism, and all those who suffer from forms of political and economic oppression. Let the word that goes forth from our mouths speak of your peace, and let us proclaim our hope in Christ as Savior of all humankind.
We pray that you will bless all those who gather here, as we have come to experience your presence among us. Give us your guidance, O God, and empower us for your work. For we claim nothing for ourselves, but return all honor and glory unto you, and offer our thanks and praise. Amen."
From "Prayers for God's People"
Thomas P. Roberts, editor
So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets. - Matthew 7:12
“To me, the scariest part of what we saw with Donald Trump was not understanding how much racism still existed in this country,” Reiner continued. “It was kind of papered over for a while.” A friend of mine posted this article on Facebook. The author of this article says," So while Trump and the GOP and their racists voters will enjoy their victory now, they have ignited a progressive wave of rage that is going to bury them and drag them kicking and screaming into the future America deserves. http://addictinginfo.org/2016/11/15/director-rob-reiner-moron-trump-is-last-gasp-of-the-civil-war/
These are words by Rob Reiner today. I love Rob Reiner. I love the movies he makes. I love him as an actor. But these words are incredibly disappointing in what they reveal.
In this post election environment, I don't condone the things hate groups are doing in their actions toward others. I have skin in this game. My husband is Black, my children are mixed and the threats being made towards others have personal meaning to me. I know what a burnt rainbow flag thrown in a yard means, as happened in Rochester, NY. It's akin to a burning cross on a lawn. I also maintain that those hate groups do not represent the Republican Party. There are many Republicans I know and none of them are a part of or defend such activity. For Reiner to brand all GOP voters as racist is uninformed at best, and mean spirited at worst.
In like manner, I cannot support the violent, destructive activities being carried out by those protesting Trump's election. Businesses are being destroyed and people feel their safety is being threatened by what have now become hundreds if not thousands of people rioting in the streets. This is not “loving” behavior either. There are Democrats who say the rioters do not represent their party, and neither do they represent Hillary Clinton. I believe them.
I do not know how this will all proceed regarding Trump. I am as eager as the next person to see what happens. Numerous people in this country were going to be unhappy with the outcome of the election no matter which way it went. And so here we are.
One issue stands out above the rest, to me. The "racism" issue being levied against Trump and anyone who voted for him is striking. I have long known there are places in this country where I will not live or travel to because of the hate groups and the intensity of the intolerance that exist there. I won’t put my family or myself in harms way like that. Having lived in Harlem, found a place within in the Black community, and having married a Black man, I know the arguments against racism by Black people have been around an inordinate amount time.
Reiner says, “it was papered over for awhile. ” Papered over? To whom? Not to the Black community.
Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a Black female psychologist and author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting together in the Cafeteria? says:
"Talking about racism is an essential part of facing racism and changing it. But it is not the only part. I am painfully aware that people of color have been talking about racism for a long time. Many people of color are tired of talking, frustrated that talk has not lead to enough constructive action or meaningful social change.”
Mr. Reiner, if you could not see it until now, if you thought it had been “papered over” and ended at some point, you are sadly, ignorant, or blind, or both. I don’t say “ignorant” to be insulting. I mean it according to its definition: lacking knowledge or comprehension of the thing specified; unaware; uninformed. http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ignorant
For a man of your wealth and access to the world, this SEEMS to indicate a lack of intentionality on your part to truly understand those who are different from you. Have you not taken seriously the news this past year? I am saddened to find how far this is from the definition of “progressive”. I hope and expect progressives to be more fully informed, especially a man of your stature.
As a White person myself, I find that White people in general recoil when challenged with discussions of race. When Black people bring up racial injustice, many White people shut it down. They have not stood up and spoken out against the shootings of Black men, women and children by White police officers. They have not "heard" and accepted the pain of this recurring issue. I don’t say this lightly. I do have family members that have been in the police force, and I love and respect those men and women whose lives are endangered every time they report to work. Still, it grieves my heart to hear of “one more shooting.” Yet the White community largely remains silent.
When confronted with "Black Lives Matter", the frequent response is, "Well, ALL lives matter, really." That in itself is dismissive of the message that a specific community is in pain because their loved ones are being killed. When that ache is spoken of in a cry to alleviate it, the “All lives matter” response does nothing to comfort or bring resolution.
This subjugation is felt, daily, in homes of Black Americans across the country. It’s been happening for years, but only now is there a collective White voice speaking out against what they define as racism. In my own writing about self reflection on the part of Whites to examine the possibility of an inner bias, a common response from White people is, "You know, Black people are racist too. What about reverse racism?" That is not the point. Facing the prejudices in ourselves, which is often times unrecognized, does not merit finger-pointing in the other direction. That becomes "transference" and "deflection". White people don't want to consider themselves "racist". It is a heinous thought to most, which is a good thing. But, they don't know what they don't know. And now, there is all this talk about racism and Trump and "the Deplorables" by a vast number of White people. But is it truly genuine? Trump is not the only person to examine. It’s time for self-reflection even by those of us who are claiming racial foul. Are we White people in actuality ready to participate fully and with vulnerability in this dialog? Or is this merely playing the blame game in order to find a sufficient scapegoat? I hope they (we) are ready, because it's time. And if that kind of transparent dialog can come out of this election process, then I welcome it, and have reason to hope in the American people and the healing of the racial divide .
As I recounted in a previous blog post entitled Racist Pt. 1: How Did This Happen?, my experiences with Black people growing up were limited mostly to how people of color were portrayed in the media - characters in Shirley Temple movies, Gone With the Wind, the nightly news. As psychologist Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum wrote in her book "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?", it is not uncommon for many White people to have grown up in environments that are very homogeneous, lacking racial or ethnic diversity. While I did have exposure to various ethnic groups since they existed within my own family, I did not have much exposure to other racial groups. As Dr. Tatum calls it, I had merely "second hand knowledge" when it came to races different from myself.
I do have a distant but distinct memory of the first time I ever saw a Black person. It may sound odd for some people to hear that. I wonder how that experience might translate for Black people in America. Can many Black people remember the first time they ever saw a White person? By and large, probably not, since most Black communities in the United States, being part of a minority population, interface regularly with White people as a daily occurrence. It may feel "taboo" to talk about this topic. But we must dialog about such things, even if it feels uncomfortable.
Back to upstate New York: I was perhaps three years old, not yet in kindergarten. Standing in line with my mother at the P&C grocery store on north Main Street, we awaited our turn at the check out. Several people were ahead of us. I was looking around, keeping myself occupied, when I noticed him. A middle aged Black man stood in front of the cashier as she rang up his groceries. I had, to my recollection, never seen anyone like him. His face, neck and hands were all dark brown. I seem to remember him wearing a fedora style hat as men commonly did in the late 50's and early 60's. As a three year old might do, I stared. Some people have argued that small children are color blind. I heartily disagree. Children do notice people, especially people different from themselves. They may NOT yet associate fear with the differences they see. Or they might, for other reasons. I could not take my eyes off of this man and I recall feeling some measure of alarm. I did not feel fear. It can be described more as a deep level of concern. In my mind, something must have happened to him to change him to that color. I assumed he must have been my color at one point in his life, and some horrific event must have happened to cause such a pronounced change. Had he gotten in an accident? Was he sick? Had he gotten burned? Was he okay?
"Mom!" I said quietly, "What happened to him?"
I don't recall if my mother shushed me. Perhaps she did, since we were around other people. But I do recall her eventually giving me an answer.
"Nothing happened to him, honey. That's just the color that he is. He was born that color."
"Oh...." I said.
I remember feeling an immediate sense of relief to know that pain had not been associated with a color "change". But now I had a new piece of information that brought surprise and curiosity to my small world and a whole new set of questions! He was born that color? Well how did THAT happen? What did his mother think when he was born? Was she surprised to see that his face and hands were brown? And how did MY mother know that he was born that way? He was an older man and she didn't know him. She wasn't there when he was born! Answers such as this led me to believe that my parents knew everything. It was quite a let down for me upon finding out that they didn't. But that's another story.
Seeing this man and hearing my mother's answer did not yet elucidate for me that this man was completely brown from head to toe, that his mother and father would likely also be brown, that brown children came from brown parents (most of the time), and that there was a whole WORLD of brown people out there! That understanding would come with time. And with it would come the realization that brown people down through history and into the present, had indeed experienced their lion's share of pain.
Originally written October 2005 -
"Fall break" for you who are not from New Mexico, is really the school district giving in to the "voice of the people" here. You see, we in Albuquerque are now in the final days of the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta! It is 10 glorious days of the largest hot air balloon event in the WORLD! Balloonists and tourists come from all over the world to see this spectacle.
Different balloon events are held at the Balloon Fiesta Park during this time. Hotels are filled to capacity. All kinds of languages are heard around the city. It's not unusual for local families to keep their kids home for a day here or there to attend the event. So, in an attempt to cut down on absences happening throughout the 10 days, the school district just decided to give the schools a day off, in hopes that families will just decide to go that day. And it works!
Each day a "mass ascension" is held, with approximately 400-600 balloons taking part. Thousands of people flock to the field at 5:00 in the morning, in the cold and darkness. The stars are bright and shining still. Concession stands line one side of the field, where you can buy and wrap your frigid fingers around a cup of hot chocolate, a steamy cinnamon bun or a green chili and cheese burrito to keep warm. People are dressed in wool hats and mittens and wrapped in blankets.
Small helium "test" balloons (the birthday party kind) are sent up to test the winds, and everyone waits to see if the winds will cooperate. Balloonists unpack their gondolas and lay
out their envelopes on the grass in row after row after row down the length of the field.
The "Dawn Patrol", the first balloonists to go up, inflate their envelopes and take a morning test flight. As they fire their burners and ascend, their envelopes glow starkly set against the black predawn sky. Excitement is building. Things are going well! The perfect breeze is blowing, enough to send the balloon riders on a beautiful ride.
The sky starts to lighten, and soon the sun sends its first rays of the morning over the east mountains. The word is given and everything is go! Burners roar and huge fans push the warm air into the envelopes all over the field as the balloons come to life. Crews and ropes and lines control each envelope until they are all standing upright, bobbing from side to side and bumping against each other, straining to leave the ground.
The huge crowd, men, women, children, seniors, babies....are out there too. No standing at the sidelines required here. Everyone is out there, amidst the raucous noise, the burners and the balloons, the radio announcer and the music, staring up into silk globes and feeling the warmth of the propane flames as they blast the balloons awake.
Special shaped balloons are there too. A cow, a bee, a sun face, a chili ristra, a dragon, a soda bottle, a tree, Noah's ark and the Jesus balloon, the Energizer Bunny....shapes you couldn't even imagine...as big as buildings....all creatively stitched together in rainbow colors of silk!
Then the word is again given. The first row to the south takes off! Then the second...the third.....the fourth....the fifth.....as all down the field row after row of balloons fly up each in their turn. After the first rows take off, the second wave of balloonists lay out and inflate their envelopes as the balloons to the north are taking off. New rows of envelopes bob and bounce against each other, crews straining to hold them to the ground until the given moment. Then the second wave takes off, row after row, until the sky is filled with color. The crowd on the ground watches and points and laughs and smiles in awe and takes another 20 pictures. As the sun warms the morning, coats and hats are peeled off. But the party is not over! Have another cup of coffee. Buy a balloon event pin to add to your collection, and wait for the balloon races to begin! Activity is a buzz until about mid-morning. It's such a warm, happy, pleasant atmosphere! You can't go there and not feel happy.
Last night my husband, Scott, had to work late, so I took Cole and Beana to the Glodeo. This is where only the special shapes are set up in the late afternoon.
Once again the crowds flocked to the field by the thousands. At night, the concession stands sell nachos, smoked turkey legs, and roasted corn on the cob. Envelopes and gondolas again lined the field, waiting for the sun to go down. Teen-agers, hired for the fiesta, hawked calendars, glow toys and a wide array of jester hats! As the sky started to mellow and the western horizon became ablaze in a pink, yellow and purple sunset, the burners and fans roared to life again as envelopes were inflated. But this time, they didn't take off. Tethered to the ground, the envelopes thronging the air around us, the crowd wound through the maze of balloons, collecting trading cards from the various balloon teams, trading pins, asking questions , taking pictures and greeting people.
The sun went down and the sky darkened. Individual burners fired here and there to keep the envelopes up and moving, giving off a warm, colorful "glow" against the night sky. But the best part....the most magical part....was when the announcer started the countdown. Then the whole crowd joined in...thousands of people counting in unison...
And every balloon on the field fired it's burner......every envelope filled with light.....and there we were......smack dab in the middle of 300 balloons.....all glowing and warm and jolly! It's like a huge, magical toyland.....supersized! A roar went up from the crowd as it shouted its approval! This same countdown happened 10 times or so over the next hour. It's quite a time!
Then, as propane tanks burned towards empty, envelopes were deflated. Gondolas were packed away for the night. Now all the people took out their blankets and found a comfortable place on the ground. Snug and warm as the desert night's chill started to settle in, hot chocolate in hand, sharp reports started to echo through the sky, and the fireworks began.
Ohhhs and Ahhhhs rose from the crowd with each blast of light and sound. Beana, Cole and I cuddled together on our blanket, watching this event with our stomachs full of smoked turkey. They had their share of comments to make about the fireworks. It was funny to listen to Cole's. For some reason, as the explosions blossomed in the sky, they reminded him of Beana's hair falling in braids around her shoulders. Numerous suggestions came from him such as....
"You should do Beana's hair like that, Mama."
"Ohhhh look at that one! It looks like a waterfall! That would be a nice way to braid Beana's hair....huh, Mama."
"Huh, Mama." Pronounced as "HUmuma", like it was one big word with the stress on the first syllable. Such a sparkling little boy. I like how he sees things, like his sister's hair as beautiful and tempestuous as fireworks! We snuggled deeper under our blankets, our bodies curled up together for warmth, sipping hot chocolate, as we settled in to watch the magic erupt across the darkening desert night.
There's a video going around Facebook of a White guy doing a "social experiment". My friend posted it. Have you seen it? In a White neighborhood the guy holds up a sign that says, "Black Lives Matter". In a Black neighborhood he holds up a sign that says, "All Lives Matter". Then he sees how people respond. In the White neighborhood, people minimally engage him. In the Black neighborhood, he gets physically threatened, chased and kicked. If you haven't seen it, check it out.
I couldn't stop thinking about this video. Numerous things cross my mind. One is that not many folks of any race may feel comfortable commenting on it, for a variety of reasons. We as a nation are not used to engaging in dialog about racism in a functional, respectful manner. We don't know how to do it. It's too uncomfortable.
I'm reading a best-selling book called, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting together in the Cafeteria? The author is Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, a Black female psychologist. In the book she explains the development of racial and ethnic identity. She has some insightful things to say about this issue.
Dr. Tatum says:
"I'm often asked by parents and educators about.....how to combat racism in daily life. White parents and teachers, in particular, often ask me questions about how to talk to children and other adults about racial issues. They struggle with embarrassment about the topic, the social awkwardness that can result if the "wrong" words are used, the discomfort that comes from breaking a social taboo, the painful possibility of being perceived as a racist. Parents of color, too have questions. They are sometimes unsure about how to talk to their own children about racism, torn between wanting to protect them from the pain of racial realities and wanting to prepare them effectively to cope with a potentially hostile world. "
Let's read that last line again:
"(Parents of color) are sometimes unsure about how to talk to their own children about racism, torn between wanting to protect them from the pain of racial realities and wanting to prepare them effectively to cope with a potentially hostile world. "
Please let that sink in a moment.
Dr. Tatum also says:
"My audiences often tell me that what they appreciate about my articles and public presentations is that I make the idea of talking about race and racism less intimidating. I help them to see the importance of dialogue about the issue, and give them the confidence they need to break the silence about race at home, at work, among their friends, and with their children."
Lastly, Dr. Tatum says:
"Talking about racism is an essential part of facing racism and changing it. But it is not the only part. I am painfully aware that people of color have been talking about racism for a long time. Many people of color are tired of talking, frustrated that talk has not lead to enough constructive action or meaningful social change."
In my opinion, we desperately need dialogue on these issues. So here's my take, all awkwardness aside and forget about being embarrassed about this topic anymore. It's time to hear each other. Although I think this video was an interesting social experiment, I think it has the potential of reinforcing the negative stereotype of, "See, white people just verbally express their disagreement while Black people get violent." This does not represent all Black people. I've had many great, sensitive and mutually respectful conversations about racism with Black people, and they didn't threaten me with physical harm.
Dr. Tatum writes about how often her White students would ask, "There's still racism in this country?" She makes the point that that kind of answer becomes dismissive of very real, tangible racial inequalities. If you disagree with the organization of "Black Lives Matter", then what about just the concept of Black lives mattering? When White people, as in this video, disagree with or do not show support for Black Lives Matter, it can be dismissive of a very real problem in our country.....that problem being that for too long Black lives haven't mattered. Accept this. They haven't.
When a Black parent has to STRUGGLE with wanting to "protect (their children) from the pain of racial realities and ...to prepare them effectively to cope with the potentially hostile world" .....that's a problem! I know those kinds of conversations happen every day across our country. Being part of an interracial couple, my husband and I have had those very conversations with our children about how they will be perceived by people outside of our home, by people of different racial backgrounds, by potential people to date, and how to react to police inquiries. Especially with our son!
"the pain of racial realities......the potentially hostile world....."
Those are realities that I'd say, in general, White people are clueless about. I was. For a long time. Or they don't want to face them. Or they don't think they have a part in perpetuating them, so they avoid the dialogue. THEY NEED TO ENGAGE IN THE DIALOGUE.
The violence in the video by the Black men toward the White guy with the sign? While I can't support it, I can understand what lies behind it. I believe it goes back to what Dr. Tatum says has happened for too long: White people dismiss the problem and say that racism doesn't exist. Or that Black people have been discussing racism for a long time and are frustrated that change hasn't happened more quickly. When frustrations are dismissed, especially when those frustrations involve life and death encounters for yourself or people you love, the potential for volatile reactions increases.
I would love to have seen a third video. What if the White guy went into the Black neighborhood and held up a "Black Lives Do Matter" sign. I would love to see what would have happened with that. That message just might build bridges.
(Continued from previous post "Self-Revelation")
So I was a racist. It was sobering to realize that that heinous word applied to me. I sat on the bed in my college dorm room contemplating exactly how and when that happened. It didn't just pop up out of nowhere. It had to start somewhere. So I began to go back through the years and revisit where that "superiority complex" could have taken root. I didn't find the answers immediately. It took some time.
I thought about my early experiences with Black people....which were few and far between. I was born in Buffalo but moved when I was three to a small town in central New York State called Oneida with a population of about 12,000 people. In addition to growing up in a small town, we also lived in the country. My closest friend lived about 3 miles away so my daily playmates were my 4 siblings. My elementary school had one classroom per grade level up to the sixth grade, and none of the children who attended the school were Black. Everyone - students, teachers, support staff - to my recollection, was White.
I am also a second generation immigrant on both my mother's and my father's side. Two of my grandparents went through Ellis Island. My mother's father heralds from Glasgow, Scotland. My father's father "came over on the boat" from Valledolmo, Italy on the island of Sicily. My father's mother was first generation Polish. Those paternal grandparents were both bilingual and it was common to hear Italian and Polish spoken on visits to my Buffalo relatives. Scottish kin came down from Canada speaking a brogue I could not yet decipher at 5 or 6 years old. The influence of where I came from played heavily into the development of my own ethnic identity. I identified significantly with my Italian heritage mostly because my last name was obviously Italian. "Parlato". But I had no first-hand experiences with Black people.
My limited knowledge of what it meant to be Black came from the television, and we were a family of movie watchers. I loved seeing Shirley Temple as she tap danced with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson and other Black actors. Those Black actors sang and danced wonderfully, but were not characters of strength and power. Theirs were roles such as butlers, chauffeurs and other service oriented positions. Little Shirley Temple seemed more empowered than they did. "The Ten Commandments" cast Black actors as dancers for entertainment, as litter bearers, as conquered people. "Little Rascals" had Buckwheat with his exaggerated facial expressions and unkempt hair. And of course there was "Gone With The Wind", with Black characters that reinforced stereotypes of subservience, enslavement, and ignorance. As I grew older and the 60s started to unfold, the next round of Black people I saw were from newscasters, harbingers of negativity, criticism and fear as the issue of Civil Rights made front page headlines.
In her book, "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?", Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum states more succinctly the conclusion I arrived at.
The impact of racism begins early. Even in our preschool years, we are exposed to misinformation about people different from ourselves. Many of us grew up in neighborhoods where we had limited opportunities to interact with people different from our own families. When I ask my college students, "How many of you grew up in neighborhoods where most of the people were from the same racial group as your own?" almost every hand goes up. There is still a great deal of social segregation in our communities. Consequently, most of the early information we receive about "others" - people racially , religiously , or socioeconomically different from ourselves - does not come as the result of firsthand experience. The secondhand information we do receive has often been distorted, shaped by cultural stereotypes, and left incomplete.
These were the role models that as a very, young child began infusing stereotypes into how I thought I understood Black people to be. These "second hand" experiences left my thinking deformed and inaccurate. As I began to understand where my prejudices came from, and admit to myself that I was indeed, "prejudiced", I knew I needed to put myself in situations where those biases could be challenged and countered with real relationships and truth. This was a new road for me to walk. I knew it wouldn't be easy, but it did prove to be fruitful. My hope is that other White people, like I had to, become more introspective and examine what biases they might harbor because of how or where they grew up, and the experiences that influenced the development of their identity from their earliest years, forward.
(To Be Continued...)