So. I’m taking this course, via my UU congregation, and it has several components. It’s a journey for our mostly majority-culture faith to come a little closer to reconciliation around race and ethnicity. They know they’re very white, but sometimes (well, most of the time) can’t step entirely away from white-supremacist culture. That culture shows up when dominant culture members can’t let go of their individuality, and the notion that it is superior in some way. How that shows up is not in hurling of invectives and racial epithets, it shows up in policy and procedure, in linear and hierarchical organizational schemes, in the insistence that business operations are the singular key to success for even a community of faith. It shows up in making things about the comfort of the dominant culture. This is no different from the larger community, but we are supposed to be different, better, past all that. Well, um, we’re not there yet. Not by a long shot. And we need to own that.
So, I’m in this course, and it’s separated into racial identity caucuses – either white or Black Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC) groups. The course content is actually focused differently, which is an interesting concept. Regardless, within the caucuses, participants are assigned to small breakout groups – “learning pods”. My pod met for the first time last night, five of us, four women and one man. We all identify as BIPOC, some of us Black or African American, one of us Latino. Some of us are GLBT, some of us come from evangelical Christian background, all of us navigating a world in which we’re a numeric and theological minority. We all share the similar story of walking through a world that frequently causes us to feel isolated, alone, misunderstood, ignored. These are my people, though we all live in different states, come from different places, are not genetically or even socially related. But I knew them, and they knew me. Fascinating.
Last night, the pod was discussing the first course lesson, which had a lot to do with ancestors, and family, and things in our lives that provide influence and witness for how we’ve gotten to be who we are now. My journey with ancestors is very spiritual, but very much about the people with whom I am genetically connected. There was one member of our group, however, who is adopted. Her adoptive family has absolutely no genetic relationship to her, and they do not share the same apparent race. She was raised in their culture, however, and described the feeling of not quite fitting in completely anywhere. This is a big part of how I feel in navigating this world, like I am partially in one racial group or another, not entirely a sound fit in any. I’ve always felt very alone in that feeling, but here is another woman, who I have never met and do not know, and she is describing the same thing. Incredible. Absolutely incredible.
Hearing my own story from the mouth of another person is an experience that I’ve had only in 12-step recovery work. I hear people explaining the same feelings, the same desperation, the same confusion and bewilderment that we all feel when substances begin to fail in easing our pain. It’s always a mind- and spirit-expanding experience for me when that happens, the call to remember that I am not really all alone in this big world. But, hearing my own story about walking through the big world and feeling alone on the basis of something as foundational as racial identity felt like a deeper and more core issue. A lot of people in recovery describe a feeling of never fitting in anywhere, but in many cases they are not talking about the core elements of their identities, they are talking about a feeling, about social skills, about self-worth, sometimes about family of origin issues. But when you don’t feel that you fit in because you are a different color, or live on the “wrong” side of town, I contend that’s a deeper sense of incongruity. Both circumstances can lead us to the same place, however, so one is not any worse than the other.
So, I’m feeling as though I’ve been fed a bit, nourished, by the experience with my pod last night. Because I am a talker, I was able to share a few things I don’t normally share with my usual posse, which is mostly white. That’s fine, I suppose, because I also heard from others in the pod about that same thing, about having most of your close friends being a different color than you, and loving them immensely and feeling accepted, but yet still feeling there is a niggling hint of some line in the sand, across which they can’t quite understand you (and vice versa). There’s a vague sense of sadness there, but…it is what it is. The same sadness exists when navigating a group of people who look more like us, because…there’s the line in the sand of either different experiences, or theology, or musical taste, or entertainment.
When I’m in a group of all Black people, I frequently feel that I’m on the wrong bus. We’re going some place I don’t recognize, I’m not quite sure I want to go there, and I’m not sure quite how to get off the bus. If I do, will I be in a more unfamiliar place with no way to get back to…wherever I started? For many years, I have understood – and grieved – that I was somewhat pulled out of my neighborhood and, consequently, community when I was sent off to private school in the 6th grade. That private school was an all white, and mostly upper middle class to wealthy. My neighborhood was all Black, and working class. It continued to evolve in that milieu, but I was not there to evolve with it. We still lived there, but there was a separation now. Where I spent most of my time, however, was in school…and I didn’t quite fit in there, either. Even the few Black students were more financially endowed than me, and their families’ social lives were very different. I was kind of half-in and half-out of the school, and the neighborhood. Very confusing.
New Orleans is one of those bizarre places where everybody understands the social rules from a very early age. Rich people lived uptown and in the Garden District, but poor people lived right on the outskirts of those places. So, it was not uncommon for rich people and poor people to be on the same streetcar going down St. Charles Avenue, but back in the day, there were these weird little signs that stuck in the top edge of the streetcar seats. Those were the “whites only” signs, and they were movable, so the white section could be expanded if the car was really crowded. Growing up, you always understood that, you knew that it wasn’t fair, it didn’t make any sense, but you accepted it. You understood that it would be very bad consequences if you did something to resist. For the most part, you didn’t question that practice. It was just the way it was, and usually life just went on in spite of it.
I remember the streetcar signs…just barely. I mostly remember the empty holes, after desegregation, but everybody knew what they were for. We also knew that having those signs disappear didn’t solve anything big, although it was nice not to not have to worry about where you sat on the streetcar or the public bus. Either conveyance would take you to the projects, or the sections of town considered to be Black neighborhoods. The neighborhood we moved to when I was nine was one of the first neighborhoods where Black people were allowed, and encouraged, to own property. It’s no on the National Register of Historic Places – Pontchartrain Park. The Park, as it was called by locals. It had a golf course. Oooo la la! Whatever, y’all. It was in a flood plain, and close to the shoreline of Lake Pontchartrain. There was a railroad track that ran fairly close to our house, and sometimes when it passed my bed would shake a bit, but…no biggie. When it rained (imagine it raining in New Orleans, right?) there would be water in the street, and in the back yard, but just a little, and it didn’t last very long. By the time I left there in 1998, water was rising up to the doorsteps for the normal periodic summer rain storms on any given afternoon. We had no ide of what was to come, either.
Anyway, it was not long after we moved there – about two years – when life fell apart for us. My maternal grandmother died, my paternal grandfather died, my mother was losing her mind, and my father was all into his affair with someone he’d met at work. My parents began the dramatic and arduous process of legal separation…complete with screaming matches (well, my mother screamed and my father sat there in silence), my father beginning to talk to himself while driving me to school, my mother beginning to verbally abuse me, and me beginning to put on the mask of normalcy as soon as the front door shut behind me. Things were weird – when I was at school, things were fairly normal, I was making friends, there was a lot to do and I was learning all kinds of things. When I was at home, things were tense and nobody was particularly glad that i was there, and I got the impression that I was more of a pain in the ass than a child. Two different worlds, it seemed. I felt like a fake artifact in both…pretending. Always pretending, but always cognizant of the reality that I was pretending. It was maddening.
Truth be told, it’s still rather maddening to feel as though your acceptance into a group, a workplace, even a community of faith is contingent on “actin’ right”. The Unitarian Universalists are defined as non-creedal, but…every congregation has its own personality, its own culture, and they do indeed have creeds. They are just not readily admitted, and in many cases are based on the dominant culture’s norms. It’s considered very bad form in most UU congregations to not recycle. There was a joke for a while that if the UUs had a sin, it would be failure to recycle. Failure to have a compost heap is also less than optimal, although living circumstances may be excuse for not having one. Bless their hearts, as they say in these parts.
I am not an anti-environmentalist, by any means. Justice is my gig, so if I can wed environmentalism to justice, I’m happy. I think most environmentalists, no matter what race or creed, understand that communities of color frequently take the brunt of pollution and negative air and water quality on the chin. They understood that, when the toxic water situation in Flint MI came to the forefront of the news. They understood the systemic implications of how that situation came to be, and how many years of neglect and systemic racism, classism had made undrinkable water a reality. What sometimes they don’t get is that things like reducing your personal carbon footprint and doing ethical eating cost money, and resources, that some people don’t have. What sometimes they don’t get is that shopping in places like Whole Foods Market is a privilege, and the neighborhood WalMart or even the neighborhood 7-11 are the more likely choices for grocery if you don’t have a vehicle. As Angela Davis said at one point, freedom is a constant struggle. That’s the part dominant culture folks miss sometimes.
I get the point that when I am dealing with dominant culture folks, folks who have way more privilege than I do, there is a lot they just don’t know. Sometimes they truly do mean well, have good intentions, blah and blah. I get all that, but please…don’t tell ME that I have to assume their good intentions. I don’t know that, and just because somebody smiles and speaks softly doesn’t mean they ain’t carryin’ a big ass stick, the better to hit me over the head with. Don’t explain to me that they – “they” – want to learn and I need to teach them. ‘Scuse me, it ain’t my job to teach nobody nothin’. If I wanted to be a teacher, I would have become one, but I didn’t want to wind up in jail for killing a student so I chose another path. If you want to find out something, you are welcome to ask me about MY experience, but don’t quiz me about a million unrelated things and then debate with me about how I might have handled things differently. It’s my story. And if you want historical references, and books to read, or movies to watch so you can “learn”, please Google that stuff yourself. I’m not a library, or a dictionary, or a history book. And guess what? I don’t agree with every other person of color on the planet. Don’t tell me, “Well, that’s interesting, but Angela said…”. I ain’t interested in what Angela said unless she is paying my rent and feeding me and my dog. So. Do some of your own research, like I do when I’m trying to figure out why the hell stuff is the way it is.
OK, whatever. I am off on a bit of a harangue because in the middle of writing this, I decided to be a good mommy and take the dog out. She was prancing and dancing and making me nuts, so we went out. We stayed in the activity area for quite a few minutes, like at least fifteen, and when she started carrying on and barking at everything that moved, we came inside. Not 5 minutes after being in, and AFTER she got her treat, the damned little shithead cur dropped the biggest, stinkiest load on the floor of the living room. I was more than willing to convert her to airborne mode. She wisely went to hide under the bed while I rattled the window panes hollerin’. That is her least charming attribute, the revenge factor. She was probably pissed off that I didn’t take her out immediately upon waking, and immediately upon her standing on my chest and barking to make sure that I was actively waking. Shit. Head. She is a shit head. She will need to keep her distance until at least the smell dies down.
But, back to me. The weather is rather mild today, a tad overcast but plenty of light. That always does me good. The rainy and dreary spans have started to depress me more and more as I get older, or maybe it’s because the bulk of my spontaneity has been eradicated due to the COVID lockdown. I get my second vaccine dose on April 7th, and I would still be rather poked in the eye with a sharp stick, but I am already feeling relieved that it will be done. Supposedly I will be more than 95% protected against being infected with the virus. Lovely. They still can’t say for sure whether or not a vaccine will be required every year, or every six months, or if you happen to be one of the 5% who still manages to get the virus you can’t be re-infected. So, I’ll do the best I can and get both doses, and then continue to stay the hell away from as many people as humanly possible. I will still wear the mask when I have to be out in public, because there is a sizable contingent of people here who are refusing to get the vaccine, for all manner of ridiculous reasons, like “I don’t trust BIden” or the ever popular “I feel fine, but if I get it then it was God’s will”. Right. They can bury me in this mask for all I care…I don’t want to be sharing molecules, droplets, or what have you with any of those folks.
And speaking of the corona virus in question…SARS-2 I believe it’s officially titled…after all the xenophobic taunts of calling it the Chinese virus and kung-flu and probably getting Asian-Americans harassed and killed, the former head of the CDC is now saying the virus most likely originated in September/October of 2019 in a Wuhan virology lab. I suspected as much, because the whole infected-bat-in-a-wet-market origination didn’t quite make sense to me. Viruses that jump species are kind of rare, I thought. But the whole lab experiment seems way more plausible to me…that’s what virology labs do, is play with viruses, create viruses, mutate and engineer viruses. All it would take was a tiny amount to escape and infect worker, and *whomp* there it is. I have always thought that about HIV as well, but…that’s another story entirely.
Today, I want to clean up some small part of my space, no thanks to the shit head dog, and try not to let my thoughts dwell on the swan song of democracy. It may not be dead, but it’s definitely got a case of the boogie-woogie flu, and there ain’t no vaccine for that one. People have just gotten so cruel these past few years. Unnecessarily cruel. I don’t understand why, either. What difference should it make to anybody whether or not another body waiting in a line to vote get offered a drink of water, or a snack? Are you just afraid then they’ll need to use a restroom? The law usually requires that water fountains be available in public buildings anyway, so what is the big deal if someone brings the water to you or you go and get it yourself? You can’t deny the water, and if you think you can, I’d like to see you try. Yes, judge – I plead guilty to the crime of quenching my thirst, of drinking water. Guilty as charged. Give me a break, people…is this the best we can do???