I’ve recently come to the conclusion that if I were a woman of color living in America, I would have to remain in bed all day long with the curtains drawn. Because if I ever set foot outside my house, I would never stop hitting people.
Maybe I’d better explain.
A few weeks ago my daughter brought home a note from the principal at her elementary school, alerting me to the President of the United States’ impending back-to-school speech, on the importance of education, to the nation’s children. The President, the note said, would encourage the nation’s schoolchildren to “study hard and take responsibility for their education.”
Hey, good for him, I thought, and was about to toss the letter in the recycling bin, when the next line caught my eye.
“I understand that parents have strong feelings on both sides of national political matters,” the principal went on. “Therefore, if you prefer that your child not view the President’s address, we will make special arrangements for your child.”
Both sides? I thought. Both sides? Who’s against the importance of education? Is the importance of education really a national political issue? I thought it was a self-evident fact, or maybe a given, or even a no-brainer. Who is this letter trying to reach?
For that matter, shouldn’t any parent who objects to education be functionally illiterate, if they’re at all consistent about their beliefs? In which case, why even bother sending them a letter?
My daughter’s principal is, I happen to know, an intelligent woman. I’m certain she recognized the inanity of this communiqué. Still, someone in the school district had compelled her to send it, to reassure me that if I couldn’t bear the thought of my daughter’s tender pink ears being assaulted by our President’s vile pro-education propaganda, the district would make special arrangements to protect her.
I don’t know why I was surprised when the election of a black President drove our country stark raving insane. I really should have seen that one coming. I grew up in the South, after all. Down here, racism is ever-present, timeless, and unmentionable. It permeates the soil, just like the Anthrax spores that still lurk in the grasslands where infected cattle were driven up the Chisholm Trail a hundred and fifty years ago. It percolates underground like the agricultural poisons and petrochemicals bubbling sixty feet deep through the sludge under the Mississippi River basin. You may not see the ugliness of racism when you live in the South, but you breathe it and you drink it, and it kills us all a little every day, whether we’re aware of it or not.
Yet I had thought the rest of the nation was different, somehow, so it’s been shocking to see my fellow Americans, from sea to shining sea, turning upon the sacred office of the Presidency.
Back when I was a wee little Texan, three things—the flag, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Presidency—were sacrosanct in our public schools. Together, they stood for righteousness and justice and the American Way, and our public participation in the rituals surrounding this Holy Trinity proved we were Good Citizens—or what, in today’s terms, some people would probably call “patriots.”
Now, somehow, one of these three American touchstones has become as controversial as sex education or No Pass, No Play. And the very same Americans who worshiped and adored a torture-sanctioning President just a few years ago are now vilifying the office along with the man who currently holds it, spitting out hysterical accusations against the freely-elected leader of our country. The Commander-in-Chief of our armed forces, they insist, is a Socialist, an African, the Antichrist.
It’s seeping back up to the surface these days, not just in the South, but everywhere—this bitter, ugly tradition. And not even the office of the Presidency can resist its stain.
Because all of the curses and accusations and insults aimed at the current president boil down to simply this: “He’s black, and I don’t like it.”
The President of the United States has, ever since George Washington, served as a father figure for Americans. And evidently a sizeable portion of our populace cannot stretch what minds they have around the concept of Daddy as a black man. It pushes them right over the cliff of disapproval and straight into the free-fall of denial, conspiracy theory, and outright fantasy. You watch them plummeting downward, and you realize: Those idiotic arguments they’re making? About birth certificates and secret Muslim fist-bumps? These people think they’re flying.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t this the same country that, two decades ago, couldn’t get enough of Bill Cosby? What was all that love about, was it the sweaters?
I don’t understand this kind of anger, fear, and hatred. Which is passing strange, because those emotions are the medium in which my life is painted; most of the time I understand them all too well. But the more I see of this kind of rage, the less I understand it, or want to.
I saw it up close last year when my friend Laura and I were waiting for some self-defense students to arrive at the dojo. Two employees from the business next door came over to talk to us, looking agitated and scared. Some strange men, they explained, had knocked at their door earlier that afternoon, claiming they worked for a cleaning service. The women, Sherry and Dawna, were in their shop alone; their employer hadn’t told them that any cleaning service would be stopping by, so they made the reasonable decision not to let the men in.
“Do you know anything about a cleaning service around here?” asked Sherry, a frosted blonde with very tight capris pants and the widest eyes I had ever seen. We didn’t, because the students at our dojo clean the school themselves.
But our ignorance only seemed to confirm Sherry and Dawna’s evident belief that the cleaning men were nefarious criminals bent on some kind of hellish debauchery. Laura and I were disinclined to believe this theory, since it was three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon and we were in a well-populated shopping center. Still, stranger things have happened. And anyway, we’re in the business of empowering fearful people. So we congratulated the two of them on taking charge of the situation, being clear about what they wanted, and erring on the side of caution. “You did the right thing,” I assured them.
They weren’t ready to let it go, however. They were certain that the men were still in the area, perhaps planning to come back.
That also struck me as unlikely, unless the men took cleaning a lot more seriously than all the janitors I had ever known, but the women seemed genuinely frightened. Frightened, and angry. So we asked them for more details, hoping that a rational examination of the facts might calm them down. “Were they wearing uniforms?” I prompted.
“I didn’t notice,” Sherry replied. “Dawna, did you see what he was wearing? The one who knocked on the door?”
Dawna, who was younger and quieter and less blonde than Sherry, shook her head.
Then Sherry added meaningfully, “It was a black man.”
She said “black” as if it meant something special, something more than just a color. A red hat or a blue shirt, her tone implied, would just be colors. Black skin was evidence.
Not only that: The man’s color seemed to be the only observable piece of information about him that Sherry had noticed. She couldn’t say what he was wearing, how tall or old he was, or whether he was carrying any cleaning tools. All that remained in her memory was his color, and her fear.
While we were still talking to Sherry and Dawna, trying to sooth and reassure and, frankly, get rid of them, a minivan pulled up in front of our building, and a half-dozen teenage girls, obviously our self-defense students, piled out of it. One or two were white, several were Hispanic, and one was African-American. Sherry’s gaze locked onto this young woman like a rifle sight.
“There’s a black girl,” she remarked trenchantly, pointing as the teenagers laughed and checked their makeup in the parking lot. Her eyes bulged suspiciously, and I wondered if perhaps her pants were so tight they were actually forcing her eyeballs out of their sockets.
I stood there, stunned, and quite unable to react to what I was witnessing. Does she honestly believe, I mused—slowly and ponderously, trying to follow whatever thought process this woman used in place of logic—that there’s a connection between this girl and the man she saw ten minutes ago? Simply because of their skin color? Does she think they are in league somehow? That dark-skinned people travel in packs, for the purpose of terrorizing white women in shopping centers? I wasn’t sure what she thought. I was even less sure what to say.
Laura had no such doubts. “Those are our students,” she said icily.
When she is well and truly angry, Laura gets this look on her face. Those of us who know her understand this look to mean, I am one heartbeat away from ripping your throat out with my teeth. She had that look now.
“Laura,” I suggested hastily, handing her a package of adhesive nametags. “Why don’t you welcome our guests and get them signed in for the class?”
“Osu, Senpai,” Laura muttered, and, with one last knifelike glance at the two ladies, she stomped toward the door. I turned back to Sherry
There are moments—"teachable moments," some people like to call them—when you have a brief opportunity to turn someone’s ignorance into a learning experience. And then there are moments when you just don’t even bother trying. This, I decided, was one of the latter. Because, as my friend Denise puts it, “The teachable moment is often a moment that sucks.” And I had half a dozen impressionable young women on my doorstep, expecting me to teach them to protect themselves. I didn’t have time to coax Sherry half a step closer to the 21st century.
“We’re teaching a self-defense class for teenagers this afternoon,” I explained with what I hoped was offensive cheerfulness, observing her closely for any inkling of shame at the conclusion she had leapt to.
All I saw was disappointment. “Oh,” Sherry said flatly, her eyes still following the girl as if she might manage to shoplift something on her way across the parking lot to our door.
How in the world does someone respond to that? I wondered, as I observed Sherry’s vacuous stare, fixed on an innocent 15-year-old girl.
If that look were ever directed at me—or, God forbid, my daughter—I’d be in jail before an hour had passed. Hell, it was a close thing that day, even though I’m white, and had never met the girl who was being treated so insultingly.
I mean, I’ve been almost completely insulated, throughout my entire life, from the kind of bias Sherry displayed in our dojo. I’ve never had that kind of irrational hatred directed toward me. And it still made me furious. It made Laura just as angry.
And—here’s the scary part—we teach conflict resolution. Laura and I have been trained to feel empathy toward people like Sherry, who are fearful for their safety. And we were ready to throw the bitch out in the parking lot.
As usual, I don’t have any clear idea what I should do about this. I know that if I can’t get past my own anger, I can’t do much to make the situation better. But I know too that for years, well-intentioned white people didn’t get angry when they witnessed this kind of bullshit, and that’s one reason we are where we are now: On the edge of the cliff, or plummeting over it.
As the President says, we all have to take responsibility for our education. And we still have some hard lessons to learn in this country. This presidency is our teachable moment. And Denise is right: It sucks.