I am a horrible person.
I’ve known this about myself for quite awhile. I lack compassion for my fellow human being, I’m mean both intentionally and unintentionally, I annoy the crap out of people in real life and over the internet, I’m opinionated and not always with a reason, and, as it turns out, I’m racist. As I said, I’m a horrible person.
I was driving home one night, listening to NPR’s “Fresh Air” and they were interviewing a Nigerian woman named Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on being black in America but not being an American Black, which happens to be a subject in her 2013 novel, Americanah. The interview was interesting and I was riveted (honestly, part of my fascination was with her voice; it is gorgeous) I checked-out the book in question, thinking I would be able to connect to the story, having lived in another country, myself, but more important, hoping that reading about someone who was discovering white vs black racism in America would show me what it is I’m just not grasping, thus enabling me to learn to be a better person. While the story, itself, isn’t as inspiring as I’d hoped, it still made me think, made me ponder how I could rewire my own thinking.
See, I’m one of those white women who is freakishly oblivious. Up until my 20’s, I think I’d only ever known one black person (in elementary school) and I wanted to be friends with her because we had the same sweater. Well, and maybe also a little because she had the hair ties that had two bright marbles that you had to twist around each other in some intricate, sophisticated, non-understandable fashion.
Mostly, though, I wanted us to wear our matching sweaters on the same day – Twinsies – but we never got to because we couldn’t be friends. She hung out with and was one of Those Girls, the ones who had impressive collections of Lip Lickers tins. I had one, cherry-flavored I think, that I got in my Christmas stocking until a friend took pity on me and gave me her used bubblegum one because she’d received a duplicate for her birthday. Those Girls, though, they had the double tins and some of them even had all the quadruple tins because their parents could afford such things; it was extravagant. I mean, who needs that much lip gloss?
I had my one legitimate tin and my second-hand tin and I wasn’t invited to play with those girls so no Twinsies for me. I was jealous of the one black girl even though I had my own set of friends, girls who had fantastic imaginations and weren’t afraid to play in the dirt with the little white trash kid. And now I’m going to say something bad, almost as stupid as “I’m color blind”: It wasn’t that she was black that made me angry at her, it was because she had things I didn’t and I wanted them, namely tins of Lip Lickers and posh little friends.
Not so long ago, I was in grad school and I said horribly offensive things to a classmate because I have that white guilt thing going on and when someone gets defensive about their race, I get defensive about mine. WHY? Because I’m a moron and can’t seem to get out of my weird little brain, to understand the greater problems in society. I say seriously assholey things because, to me, hearing “White Privilege” translates into “You should feel bad about being white” and then I do feel bad but then I get angry that I have to feel bad about my being born with skin when that’s the whole point of the conversation in the first place, to stop making people feel bad about their skin color. But do you see how I turned that all into something about me instead of being sympathetic to everyone who is treated differently because they are not white? It’s almost as if I will acknowledge it happens only if I can be part of it, too. I know what it’s like to be excluded because I’m poor, because I’m a female, because I’m small, because I’m not atheletic, because I’m not religious, but it appears I also want to be excluded for having skin. Again: Moron. That’s what makes me racist, though, my own unwillingness to not get defensive and not come up with reasons, excuses, explanations on why America has not yet progressed beyond racism. That’s my whole problem. It’s not that I’m running around hating on everyone whose skin is darker than olive, no, it’s that I can’t seem to accept that people with skin darker than olive still feel disenfranchised in this country solely because of their skin color. I want to argue with the feelings of an entire group, nevermind the reality of racism actually still existing. That makes me racist and it makes me wrong.
But the worst part is that I think of myself as being fairly open-minded and inclusive and all that crap. In addition, I think I’m pretty special and amazing because I’m the first person in my family to get a college degree and the first in my extended family to get a Masters (though there were several right on my tail) and I bought my own car without having someone else sign for it and I bought a house and I made decisions that kept me out of poverty, away from drugs, and out of jail as well as gainfully employed even though the odds were against me. I know exactly what it’s like to have to fight for what I should be able to just have/do/get – yes, I realize I didn’t have to fight as hard as others because I only had gender and socio-economic status to contend with but that doesn’t mean it was easy, either – and yet I can’t seem to find within me an empathy for the rest of the human race. What is wrong with me?
I don’t know the answer but I may have found a way to stop being so awful. It came about while I was bitching about how I don’t like feminism (see? Bad person!) because of its exclusive nature. What good is it to raise women up to the level of the idea of The Great White Male – I say “idea” because while that guy still exists in abundance, it’s not correct to assume all white men are that guy or that The GWM is always white – when it’s really only going to be decently-educated straight-looking white females above the poverty line who are able-bodied/able-minded and literate who benefit? Yes, that would be me, I would benefit from being promoted to the same status as The GWM but I’m not the one who needs those benefits. I’m doing fine climbing this cliff. I’m making opportunities for myself as I can because I can and I get that. I don’t exactly need a shoulder up yet. It’s when everyone is at the level I’m at that we will all need the last shoulder up, when my husband doesn’t have to worry about being fired because of his bipolar disorder, when my sister doesn’t have to feel losery because she doesn’t have a college degree, when my neighbor feels confident in applying for a job that doesn’t involve cleaning hotel rooms, when my professor doesn’t have to worry about standing in front of a classroom full of people who may be assuming she’s a terrorist because of what she’s wearing, when that guy going through the trash can in front of the gas station looking for something to eat doesn’t have to look for food in gas station trash cans. Shouldn’t we work on getting all of us to the same level, not just women? Not just black Americans? Not just war veterans? Not just children who are addicted to drugs from the time they’re born? Not just people who can’t walk or can’t read or can’t see? It all sounds so Pollyanna, I know, and it will never be possible for everyone to be equal. It cannot happen because the world is populated by humans and humans have this need to stratify, to be better than other humans, to be Sneetches.
I am sure it’s some sort of biological imperative and it helps keep the strongest of the race alive so that people can keep living on the planet and that’s fine, but it would be nice if stratification were based on a whole bunch of other things, more controllable things, things that don’t allow for such mean groupings. I don’t know what those things are and it would probably end up looking like some dystopian novel anyhow, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still try to get us all to the same place. Right?
There’s a name for this kind of thinking, apparently. It’s called Intersectionality and a patient woman gave me the gift of this term in a comment on someone else’s blog. I’m learning what I can about it and I like what I’m learning. Maybe, if I keep up with it, I will magically become less of a jerk and more of an understanding person, someone who doesn’t take other people’s hardships and try to assimilate them so that I am just as hardshipped. Maybe I will be able to grasp the bigger picture, to know that there is wrongness going on and there will always be wrongness going on but that I can help reduce some of it. And maybe I can find other jerks like me and we can all learn this together?