I've spent much of the past month thinking, talking, and working through my reaction to this culture. In so doing, I've realized I've held most of the predominant mentalities on the question. Let me take you on the tour.
Mentality 1: Classism
|Src: Joe Pappillon|
Mentality 2: Positive Discrimination
|Src: Slate on Fisher v. Texas|
Mentality 3: Color-blindnessAt my upper-class, white all-girl high school, I received a nauseating overload of privilege-awareness, minority-empowerment, and bias-shedding. (My teachers were young and teaching the hip doctrine of cultural acceptance, or they were old and had unresolved guilt from the era of segregation.) In our white, upper-class bubble with little to no involvement with the cultures we were supposed to tolerate and nurture, all this had the opposite of the intended effect: I ached for the day when people would please stop talking about race. Freeman said it, and he's black, so isn't it true? (No: watch how easy it was for me to snap right out of it into something dangerous).
Mentality 4: Overt RacismThen I started residency and realized how well-developed and different black culture really is. I was repulsed by one particularly bad experience during a clinic month: a childish, obese woman and two badly behaved, screen-dependent toddlers made me extremely angry. I felt like I needed the "control of the classroom" that my teaching friends talk so much about! There had been so many patients who were kind and well-behaved of various races, but an unfortunate run of those who were not, all of a single race. And here I met the most frightening mentality I'd ever had: true racism. I was an inch away from attributing my frustration to the wrong thing (race), an inch away from thinking, "All these people are so juvenile and disgusting."
I caught myself, terrified that such a thought could cross my mind.
Gone was my idea that racism doesn't exist: as long as people will enjoy spending time with people who look like them, we'll have different cultures that cluster around different races. And as long as we have different cultures, we'll have the potential to attribute our frustration with individuals to race. But the problems in that exam room was so deeply rooted that I couldn't go to the idea that I or others could somehow "make up" for the complex series of events (since the 1600s) that led us to today. And I couldn't accept the childhood classism: I saw it for what it was in that exam room, just a soft racism. I went home confused that day.
Mentality 5: LoveA week later, I was working in a community clinic and met a black woman who humbled me. At my age, she had four children under six and was pregnant again. She had just left the father of her children because she'd discovered he'd exposed himself and her to HIV, and that he'd had another wife and fathered three other children while he was fathering hers. But she was firm in her plans to raise her children well. Her two year old was with her and very well-behaved. Sitting across from her, I was impressed at how generous she could be in spite of all that had happened to her. And now I knew what to do with my confusion about race.
Her culture, I thought, is broken--it makes for some broken families and selfish, addicted people. So is my culture. Why can't I be mature enough to look at each person as they are without a) dissociating them from their color and culture but also without b) attributing all the negatives attached to that culture to them? Why can't I be prudent enough to combat objectively problematic elements of black culture while also calming down about others?
A classist will whisper "That woman's probably a welfare mom." Positive discriminators say, "We need to pour more funds into the programs that assist STD prevention." The color-blind protest, "I don't see how marital turmoil is relevant to the question of race," and a racist would say something not worth printing. None of those contain the full truth. The right answer is the simplest: love each person without ignoring the problems and the beauty in them and their world.
I'll end with an observation about the beauty of black culture. I'd never heard or seen an ice cream truck until I moved out of my white neighborhood and into the inner city. The first time I heard the truck go by, I was so shocked that I stood up and went to a window. Why hadn't I seen one before? There was more isolation and fewer children where I grew up. (We were one of four families on the whole street, the other three of which had six children combined). We never played with our neighbors and our extended family are all out of state. Last year, among the low-income apartments that I used to distrust, I saw parents (yes, mothers with fathers!) walking children in strollers and whole extended families partying on patios.
It still takes me effort to avoid falling into classism and color-blindness. It's worth the work, though: not only is it the right thing to do, but it's much more satisfying and fruitful to love.
|St. Agnes. Credit: Mike Boening|