Saturday, November 12, 2016

Dear White People: Smile, Whether You Feel Like It or Not

I worked for legal aid in Georgia during the summer of 1990, and I saw many upsetting things. I saw large employers who paid training wages and no benefits for the first 90 days and then trumped up a reason to fire everyone before the higher rates kicked in and start over; prisoners with serious medical conditions denied access to care; manufactured reasons for keeping prisoners from the law library and even their own attorneys; restaurant management who apologized to white customers because there were "so many niggers" in the place and promised that they were working on it and much more... including a black activist who suggested to the crowd listening to him speak that perhaps they should kill me, since I was well-dressed and white.

None of that was the worst thing I saw that summer. The worst thing was the acceptance. The kind, smart, accomplished black women I worked with who comforted me and tried to get me to understand that the systemic racism was just how it was. The man who looked at me incredulously in a group of 15-20 people he did not know and confidently said, "Of course niggers are inferior." And, most of all, the number of black men who would avert their eyes, step to the side, even cross the street to avoid coming in contact with me as I walked along the sidewalk, and the way they would startle and look frightened if I smiled and said hello.

I learned that it was kinder not to greet them, though it never came naturally.

26 years have passed and, safely back in Illinois, I've chosen to assume that even in Augusta, Georgia, it is no longer shocking for a member of one race to greet another on the street. I've chosen to believe that no decent, hard-working adult feels he has to cross the street in deference to or fear of a member of another race.

Maybe it was even true. It was certainly true in my Midwestern world, where I'd never seen that sort of behavior in my life.

Like it or not, we woke up in a New America on Wednesday. Since then, I've been experiencing things that I'd never seen in Illinois before, that I saw only in the deep south more than a quarter of a century ago.

Wednesday afternoon, I shouted (at my dog, but he was out of sight) and a Muslim woman who happened to be driving down my tiny residential street with her child stopped her car and backed up, watching warily to see what I would do next. The next day, as I walked down the street alone, and elderly Mexican man stepped onto his porch a few houses ahead, saw me, froze with his hand on the door, and after looking at me for several seconds backed back into his house. This morning, a young Mexican man rounding the corner of his house saw me coming and simply stopped walking and stood perfectly still, half sheltered by the corner of his house, until I smiled and said good morning. He didn't answer, but he started moving again.

I'm not going to live in that world, and I hope you don't want to either.

So, what I'm asking is that if you're white, you remember that the onus is on you. As sick and afraid and angry and depressed and (insert every negative descriptor you know) as we may all be feeling, most of us white people aren't feeling directly threatened.

I find it unsettling, encountering another person on the street and not knowing what's in his or her head or heart. I feel a little bit like I've stumbled into an alien world where I can't tell the humans from the monsters. But, I'm not monster food.

I don't feel much like socializing. I'm not brimming with love for my fellow man right now. I definitely don't feel like smiling. But, I have to. And, if you're a decent human being who happens to be white, you do, too.

If your expression reflects how you're feeling in the wake of this election, every person of color, unpopular religious affiliation or alternate sexual orientation you pass on the street may reasonably believe you're making that face at him or her...and maybe it means you're hoping he gets deported, or that her "sick relationship" is finally torn apart, or even that someone would shoot him. Maybe that you could shoot him.

So smile, whether you feel it or not. Be friendly like someone's life depends on it, because it just might.

Note: I know the past couple of posts here have been unusual for this blog. I have a political/social blog, and of course considered keeping this content there rather than on my personal blog. In the end, though, I decided that there wasn't much that was more personal to me than the way human beings treat one another in the world around me. There are many other things going on in my life right now--a cool book project, a new granddaughter and more. But the biggest thing in my life right now, and I suspect for some time to come, is how I can do my part to make the people around me whose only crime is to have the "wrong" skin color or worship the "wrong" God or sleep with the "wrong" gender feel safe again.

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