Tag Archives: African Americans

Challenging Conversations, Conscious Choices: Part I

14 Oct

The other day, my coworker, Hannah, and I had a talk about race, which is a pretty frequent topic with us—especially these days. She is black and I am white. I come from the Midwest, where it was mostly black and white when I was growing up (that demographic has changed somewhat since my childhood); she is from DC, where there is a huge variety of cultures and ethnic backgrounds. Being from areas of more prevalent African-American presence, we converse with ease about the current racial discourse.

That day, when a coworker overheard us talking, she put on her “mama bear” voice and tutted loudly enough so we could hear it. The space between cubicles is small and the “walls” are thin to begin with. I can only guess that she felt we were getting a little too deep for a coffee break conversation. Or was it because she felt the topic was inappropriate?

Here in the Pacific Northwest, many people, white people in particular, are afraid to speak when it comes to race relations. There is a legitimate societal reason for this—Oregon is known for its tawdry past (and, unfortunately, some current history as well) with the treatment of African Americans. More than likely, folks around here also don’t have enough experience to talk about it with any sort of confidence. Second, and more realistically, they may think that because we are in a predominantly white area that these problems won’t come here…and so they push those topics under the rug. Unfortunately, many people don’t have that luxury.

So many times in Portland I have heard passive racism. A man I was dating once said, “Stop talking like that!” when I sassed him. What he meant was, stop talking like a sassy, loud black woman. But I wasn’t talking like a sassy black woman. I was talking like Becky. That’s me; it’s how I grew up. The way I speak comes from my environment, yes. Maybe the “norm” of sassiness stereotypically comes from black women—we see this reinforced all the time in the media, which in turn bleeds into the way we think. But passive racism is still racism. (And don’t think this sassy woman didn’t call him out on it!)

This past Monday evening, I went to a Science on Tap talk at Revolution Hall in SE Portland. Dr. Larry Sherman was there, speaking about the neuroscience of prejudice. I was fascinated. Before he got into the actual science of it, he gave a little bit of the history of racism in America. He spoke about the theory of colorblindness that was spread throughout the sixties and seventies, which then trickled down to my generation. Our parents were taught not to observe color at all. If a child asked his mother, “Why does that boy have darker skin?” the mother would hush her child and change the subject instead of explaining that people come in all colors. Thus, this topic turned into a taboo one. It was incredibly refreshing to hear Dr. Sherman talk about this “taboo” topic.

Without a doubt, I proudly seek out people from diverse cultures to talk to. I attend presentations like the one Dr. Sherman gave, as well as pursue events in Portland with multicultural emphasis such as the Whiteness History Month at Portland Community College this past spring. I attend cultural festivals, have delved into Middle Eastern traditions through belly dance, and have even developed my education through salsa dancing! For me, it’s all about learning new things and respecting diversity.

When I talk about race, I use my history. I talk openly about experiences and what my truth is. I am respectful in my dialogue with others. I REFUSE to not talk about it. Impeccability with our words is of the utmost importance. You know what’s not impeccable? Being silent. Being a privileged white woman doesn’t give me glasses that block out all the bad things that are happening to others. And just because I don’t have brown skin doesn’t mean I can’t talk about these people as HUMAN BEINGS—humans who are made of love, just like every other color human on the earth. We are all made of that same love. Sometimes it is hard to remember when we are seeing such horrors in the news.

We are trained for shame.

We are trained to have selective knowledge.

We are trained to protect ourselves first.

But.

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Retrain your brain.

Educate yourself. If you have a question, ASK!

Spread love and be love.

Speak with respect and warm intention. It will get you miles further than speaking with arrogance and ignorance.

 

Why: Part III—Origins

20 Jan

This “Why” series is a way to bring me closer to you—by revealing my inner-most thoughts and being 100% vulnerable with you. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for taking my words and embracing them with love and kindness. This is the third and final installation of this series. Read parts one and two here. 

History

In honor of the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday this week, I would like to talk about my roots. So often I shy away from calling myself a patriot. Images of the Bush administration(s) or our recent wars dance in my head, and it makes me feel less than proud to be an American. There is a lot I can criticize about the American Spirit as a whole, and much I can laud. Regardless of all of this, I am an American, which means this country’s history is my history.

I was raised in a small town in Ohio, surrounded by the typical Midwest culture mix—majority Caucasian and African American, with the tiniest sprinkling of other ethnicities. I easily identified with the two majorities, but had very little knowledge of the other cultures, except for what I read in the many books my parents showered upon me in my youth. I also had my Quaker background, which filled me with a curiosity for people from all walks of life. My hunger for information was vast, but actual real-world experience was lacking. Because of this, I felt especially called to understand African-American struggles and triumphs.

Living in Portland, Oregon for the last 11 years, where the population is currently somewhere around 76% Caucasian and the other ethnicities are largely Asian or Hispanic/Latino, I’ve noticed there is a marked lack of African American culture. I find it inspiring to speak to my African American friends and hear their view of living in such a place. Most of them are not originally from Oregon; Portland has a unique saga pertaining to its “whiteness” which most definitely leaves a bad taste in the mouths of African Americans. I won’t go into the whole story here, but if you want to know more about the fascinating history of why this is, read here from the Oregon History Project.

It’s easy to feel defeated about equality and race relations when we hear about stories like those that have happened in Ferguson and even in our own backyard. I admit that my connection to my hometown roots and those larger African American populations in the Midwest and the South is farther away than most, living here in Oregon. I am thankful that I have my small enclave of friends that share either a physical skin-color connection or a mental one concerning first-hand experience with the American outlook on race relations. We often discuss the things that advance America’s viewpoint as well as those that keep it tied down to past negativity.

It is so important to acknowledge our history as Americans, no matter what color we are. As my dear friend Hannah said to me yesterday, “This is your history too! It’s your victory too! White people should pause just as much in celebration. They were freed from enslaving notions, too. It’s a shared victory.” Truer words could not be spoken. We have many stories of immigration and population shift throughout American history, but no one can deny that the African American chapter in our story is one of the largest parts.

The purpose of MLK Day is to make us aware of a few things. Number one, to always remember America’s history and what makes us a great nation, willing and ready to push beyond our past into an awareness of equality, love, and opportunity. The past will always be there, and it is important, but what matters right now is the love we are giving the world. The second is to highlight the importance of serving the greater good.

Service

We may or may not have the fortitude to become civil rights activists in the manner that Martin Luther King was, but we can certainly find peace through helping others and sharing our love. Volunteering at the food bank, becoming a mentor, donating a few dollars to a worthy cause, or just looking in on a friend who is having a bad week is just as important as a march on Washington. It is not the size of the impact; it is the intention behind it. I encourage you to really get to know your American history, no matter what color your skin is, and vow to celebrate the American Spirit in the way it was intended.

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