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Friday, June 4, 2010

Learning how to chill

Several years ago when I was living in Detroit and working at a bank in Grosse Pointe Woods -- an affluent and very White suburb that juts up against Detroit's border -- I got a lesson about race that is coming in very handy right about now.

It's funny how life teaches you everything you need to know, before you need to know it.

The bank I worked for was typical in that almost all of the employees were women. However, there was a divider. It was race. At any given time, we were usually about half White and half Black, sometimes fluctuating higher on the White side.

When I first started working there, the racial divide did not strike me as very pertinent. I had worked with all various shades of people in my life. I had lived in Okinawa, Japan for three years on a U.S. Air Force base where I worked with more Japanese and Filipinos than Whites. (It seems in some areas of the world, U.S. military men have a penchant for marrying Filipinos, hence, the high number on base.) So, I believed that I had a little bit of insight as to what it was like to be a minority.

Having moved around the world and back, I had become acquainted with learning about cultural differences since I had left my small hometown of Abilene, Texas.

But in Detroit, racial tensions run high, even to this day.

When I moved to Detroit, I was a naive 26-year-old. I had had a number of friends who were of different races and skin colors, but for the most part, I was sheltered from any major racial divide growing up.

It didn't take long for me to realize the division at work. I was used to women taking sides with each other during the fights that are usually a result of a hormonal imbalance. But no matter who your friends were, the racial division was as clear as Moses parting the Red Sea when a the fight was between a White woman and a Black woman.

While living in Okinawa, my best girlfriend was a Black woman from Cleveland. In my naivete I told her once that I believed the United States had eradicated the problems with race due to affirmative action and desegregation. I informed her that with a few exceptions, for the most part, most Americans were no longer racist. She assured me, in no uncertain terms, that I was highly highly mistaken.

So, there's the background to my story.

At the time this happened, I had been working at the bank for a couple of years. One morning I was sitting in our drive through area -- a small isolated building -- with two other co-workers. One was a Black woman and the other was White.

The White woman was someone who I found particularly annoying for a variety of reasons. She had a cackling laugh. She was a know-it-all. She wasn't as smart as she liked to think she was. She told stupid jokes. Her husband was a dick, but she seemed to think he was god's gift to the world. For all of these reasons, I hated it when she began to speak.

So there I was that morning, drinking my coffee and listening to this cacophonous harpie. Somehow, she got on the topic of what ended her husband's career in the Army

Harpie: "So, yeah, my husband is not afraid to tell anyone off! He will tell you what he thinks about anything."

Me: "Really."

Harpie: "Yeah, let me tell you about why he got kicked out of the Army."

Me: "Ok."

Harpie: "Well, his commanding officer gave him an order once and he did not want to follow it. Oh, did I mention that he was Black? Yeah, his C.O. was a Black dude. And so anyway, my husband told him he was not going to take any orders from a n--ger."

(Reminder that the other co-worker sitting in the room was a Black woman.)

I froze.

I could feel my whole body tensing for the fight I was SURE was about to happen between my co-workers. I was prepared to jump to the Black co-worker's defense and if it came to it, help her make a complaint to management.

Harpie was laughing and looking at me, waiting for the laughter.

I just stared at her.

I looked up at my other co-worker. She was counting money. She continued to count. She didn't flinch. I wondered if she had not heard harpie speaking. But I knew there was no way she could not have heard.

I said nothing.

Harpie continues laughing as if it's the funniest story she's ever told and the other co-worker never said a word.

Later I asked her why she said nothing. Did she not HEAR this bitch using the N word?

She laughed and she said to me, "Martha, you can't tell ignorant people anything. The best way to deal with shit like that is to ignore it. If you let it bother you, then they have won. See, they want it to bother you."

It wasn't the only time I heard that in my years of living in Detroit. But it was the first time.

That incident stuck with me for years and I would play it over and over again in my head. At first wishing I had said something, gotten irate, complained to management myself.

Then I would hear it again from various minority friends as the years went on. I began to accept it as truth, but it still didn't resonate with me because I am used to jumping up and down and screaming for justice. I like to get passionate. I enjoy arguments and debate.

Then this week, something happened that brought this memory to the forefront of my mind. When it comes to what people believe as truth about race (really about anything) you can't tell them they are wrong. Especially when it is an innocent gesture.

You see, the harpie didn't even see what she had said was wrong.

I'm starting to have flashes of what kind of racist comments I'm going to have to shield Annika from. Most of them will not be nearly as obvious as that harpie. Most of them will not realize they have said anything wrong. Most of them will not believe they hold racist attitudes. I know the harpie didn't think of herself as a racist.

I'm realizing that I will have to start educating Annika now to listen to herself when it comes to that feeling of, "I don't know why that bothers me, but it does."

I can't leave it all up to Toyin even though he will likely have had some life experience to relate to her on that level. I don't have that.

This week a remark in an online forum led me to have a conversation with Toyin about racial attitudes. He explained to me that just because people make missteps or just don't get it, doesn't mean I should get all fired up.

We also talked about the apathy I felt last week after the nanny incident.

He said something to the effect of, "Instead of getting pissed off, maybe you should try to educate."

To which I retorted, "Why, just because I have a Bi-racial child, it's now my job to educate people?" 

To which he quietly responded, "Yes."

Oh. Right.

So, I have decided to chill out over faux pas.

I have decided that apathy is not the answer. Neither is fiery anger. Because really it's all the same.

And now, looking back, I realize that if it wasn't for all my experiences and compassionate friends who took the time to educate me, I would not have the knowledge I have today.

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