Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Maybe we all need tinted glasses

For the second time in a 24-hour period, I encountered racism and I am ashamed of both of my responses: I did nothing. I think my shock of each situation locked my tongue in place. Of course, I think of clever replies AFTER the conversations have ended.
Yesterday, a neighbor was standing outside the apartment complex, smoking a cigarette, when I pulled up. I had just gotten off work, still in my uniform, ready to take a load off, when he asked about Murfreesboro (my car tag still has a frame that says "Murfreesboro, though I have Louisiana tags now). We talked for a few minutes and in that time he mentioned his son just graduated from MTSU, he used to live in Memphis, and how the blacks were ruining this nation.
Excuse me?
Nervous laughter tried to hide my awkward response as we parted ways. He was wrong. And I didn't stand up for what I believe in.
Then today, a lady came into the visitor center. She announced that she was there to see the art since she knew the artist personally. We have several amazing artwork pieces on display by a local artist. He is a man of color and many of his pieces include historical references to African American history. This piece is hand-carved and painted with historical scenes; it is moving, especially to consider the details that went into it:

From researching family history to reading about local experiences, I can only imagine the fullness of emotions that he must have felt while creating the piece. The piece displays vignettes of the Middle Passage, slavery, freedom, lynching, the KKK, soldiers from the United States Colored Troops, among other scenes.
The lady who announced that she knew the artist personally, looked at the pieces and stated, "the blacks need to come in here more." I was about to agree, especially considering we very rarely get any visitors who are not white. I was also about to mention how the artwork draws a crowd that does not traditionally visit, too. Before I could say anything, the lady continued. "The blacks need to come in here and see this place. They need to know they aren't the only people that suffered. My people suffered, too. Maybe if they saw that, they wouldn't complain about their rights so much. They just need to get over themselves."
My mouth mimicked that of a fish. I didn't know to respond, in part because I felt angry, in part because I felt shocked, and in part because it hurt me to know that here in 2012, we still have to grapple with something so petty as the color of skin. "right! I totally forgot that part of your people's story! How they were kidnapped, enslaved, beaten, raped, stripped of all basic human rights for centuries based entirely on their skin color! Oh, wait. That wasn't you..." No, I didn't say it. And no, it isn't right of me to compare the mistreatment of one people group to another. But there is a lot more to the story than "my people were once a victim" for many cultures/regions/populaces.
I felt it ironic that she made her claim next to one of the strongest pieces of the art collection: a carved foot with a shackle bound around the ankle. The artist found a story in the slave narrative of a slave who had been shackled to a tree. The slave cut off his own foot so he could be free. The point of the collection is to inspire thought, provoke questions. What does it mean to be free? What does freedom mean to me? What would I be willing to pay for it? Would I cut off my own foot for freedom? The collection is well recieved BECAUSE there is no finger pointing or blame. It inspires.
So I let another opportunity pass me by. An opportunity for engagement. Maybe an opportunity to enlighten. An opportunity to listen and share. Instead, I just stood there as the lady finished looking and didn't talk to her before she left. I live in an often candy-coated world, viewing my world with rose-colored glasses, forgetting about the ugliness that sometimes exists. And that monster hiding under America's bed, that horrible, snarling thing called "racism," won't go away if people do nothing. Neither will it go away if people lash out all angry-like. So I will use today as a valuable lesson. I know I will encounter racism again. But this time, I will gird myself with patience and diplomacy and ferocity. I will patiently listen and not respond out of anger. I will diplomatically approach the situation and encourage new thought. And I will ferociously stand up for what is right.
Of course, I say those things in preparation of this happening again, hoping that it won't (there are my rose-colored glasses, again).
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