An End to Anger
Born in Washington, D.C. a blonde white girl, I grew up there in the 1950s. My parents allowed no talk of racism in our home. In kindergarten, I experienced my first crush, on a black classmate, Ricky. No one told me that wasn’t okay. I was allowed to believe that Ricky was a person, just like me.
Every summer, throughout my childhood, I traveled by car through the South. I saw, with formerly shielded eyes, separate schools, bathrooms, eating facilities, and water fountains, their peeling paint belying the assertion they were “separate but equal.” In Greenville, Mississippi, a huge banner offered welcome to the home of the “blackest land and the whitest people.”
I saw windowless tenant houses, with tiny girls called “pickaninnies” on the porches, with tightly braided hair and faded, flour sack dresses. I saw older men drag racing in cheap cars, laughing in the afternoon sun, displaying their manhood for one, quick moment, in the only manner possible in that restricted society.
My southern grandmother, generous and kind to all in need, of whatever color, explained to me when I protested racial inequity, that God had made things that way, that Negroes were simply inferior to whites.
At 13, I read the book, “Black like Me,” the story of a white man who disguised himself as black and traveled through the South, experiencing for himself and transcribing for all, what it meant to be a black man in mid-century America.
A black, visiting chemistry lecturer in my high school physics class, inspired me with his brilliance in a time when it was widely held that black people were less intelligent than whites.
At work in a hospital emergency department, I heard our black psychiatric technician say he would never sign an organ donation form, because some white man would kill him to steal his kidney.
Another teacher was Ken, a graceful, elegant young black man with an Afro and a gold front tooth. During long conversations, he shared his constant fear of arrest, his being stopped on the street and offered stolen televisions for sale from car trunks, and something of the social and family structure in his community. I shared stories about my very different upbringing.
Racial anger has again risen to the surface in our society.
We, all of us, fail to understand that it’s not just color, or more broadly, religion or style of dress that divides us. We, members of this mixed society, come from different worlds.
Ken, to whom I teasingly lamented my lack of opportunity to buy stolen televisions, and Nick, the emergency tech, grew up in a different world from mine. Racial segregation enforced a separation that perpetuated differences in language, customs, history and lore among our two races. I could not begin to judge their views and customs, or even their I.Q. scores, without understanding this. Thanks to the lack of racism in my home. I was open to learning.
I’ve lived in other countries, and can say with certainty that similar disparity exists between them and us Americans. Only when we learn their perspective can we begin to connect with them.
In the 1980 Philippines, people wouldn’t save the life of a stranger. This was hard for me to understand. The reason, it turned out, was the cultural mandate that saving someone’s life makes you forever responsible for them. Since another mandate required responsibility for all your relatives, it was just too much to ask. This choice, to them, was perfectly moral. Once I understood, I really chuckled when hired by the military to teach basic life support to Filipino shipyard workers at Subic Bay.
Police live in a different world, too. Their life is filled with sudden, inexplicable violence, often directed against them. It’s a wonder so many of them show so much restraint and caring, given their experiences. ISIS has called, in Europe, for a battle against police. Their wish may be coming true here.
To end this anger and fear and move forward as a unified society, we must all suspend judgement based on our own little cultures. We must accept, with respect, the sometimes unimaginable differences among us, and accept that these run deep. We must give up thinking, “Live according to my values, or you are wrong.”
To change society is complicated. Not just police or white Christians must do penance. Black people must forgive the past and offer welcome. Immigrants must stand for America. Muslims must take a public stand for their true core values. The press must report objectively. We must agree, and personally make the effort, to assimilate, welcoming unique contributions to our society.
Anger and fear serve no one.
The only way is forward.