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The Subtle Shades of Racism

Dispatches from A Life: Here’s How It Began

This reflection was read to a diverse group of women from The Woolfer. After completing Rachel Cargle’s 30-day Unlearning Racism #dothework program we were asked to write about our own racism. Personal work and daily action continues.

Here’s how it begins:

Cocoa-colored hands. Helping hands, bathing hands, cleaning and cooking hands, working hands. These are Georgia, peanut-picking hands. These are Mary’s hands.

I’m two. Mary holds me on her hip while she cleans the house, while she makes everything smell lemon-scented. Mary makes the best fried chicken and sweet potato pie, she makes the whole house smell like spice and marshmallows. Mary tells everyone I’m her baby, she smooths me over with almond oil and pats me down with powder. Mary has a smile so wide I can see her pink gums above her teeth.

I don’t understand that Mary isn’t part of our family.

Now, I’m four standing on a stool at Southern Farms, my grandparent’s grocery store. Now, I see more working hands. Mary’s husband, Eddie, cuts meat with Grandpa. There are shopping hands pushing grocery carts.

I smile and say “how ya’ll doin’ today” back to all the people who stop by to cash their paychecks. They don’t have bank accounts, Grandma says. But I don’t know why. We go to a bank every Friday. This is Liberty City. This is Brownsville. We don’t live here. We drive back to Miami where the lawns are vast and the people are white.

At home in Texas, Artis is our new Mary, my mother says. Her skin isn’t as dark as Mary’s but her hair smells nice and shines in the same way. Sometimes she wears curlers when she comes in the morning. She wears pink fuzzy slippers when she cleans. She comes every day and makes me peanut butter and jelly sandwiches after school. I’m almost as tall as her large bottom which she pats and says is full of love. She lets me hug her tight and pat it too. I don’t know anything more about Mary or Artis; I don’t know if they have a big family or how they spend their weekends.

They are part of our lives and we are part of theirs. I’m told we have to treat Mary and Artis like our family and listen to what they say. So, I do.They are the only Black people I know. We are the only Jewish people they know.

Now, I’m 17. I believe I understand the world better. I know that many people don’t like Jews. I know that many people don’t like Black people. At least not in small-town Texas. We’re all aware that the Ku Klux Klan still lives here. We all know who the Grand Dragon is here.

I keep my head down when people make fun of me here, when they call me names here, tell me I’m going to hell here.

When I leave for college, I live in a dorm that’s mostly Jewish. I join a sorority that’s Jewish. I socialize with teenagers who are all Jewish. For the first time in my life I don’t feel different.

Working on The Daily Texan, I meet Roger Campbell. He’s the first black editor of the college newspaper. I’m working for him. We work long hours. We laugh and talk about life. He doesn’t ask me what it feels like to be a Jew in Texas; I don’t ask him what it feels like to be Black in Texas.

I move to California and work in the entertainment industry; more of the people here are Jewish too. Tom Bradley is our mayor. Some of our clients are Eric Dickerson and Gladys Knight. We work for them. Eric is from Houston so we talk about being Texans. We talk about people in Los Angeles who think we talk funny. It feels like home talking to someone who understands what it’s like.

None of this feels different. Here’s where it changes:

I move to New York for graduate school. The big city. People are Jewish everywhere here. There are a million delis, there is more than one synagogue. I live in the West Village above a gay bar. I’m believe I’m not a small town girl anymore. I’ve lost my small town accent.

But, I brought my small town attitude.

There are sweaty bodies packed together on subway cars. Black, white and brown bodies. People everywhere. Different languages everywhere. And for the first time I am aware. I am anxious. I hold my backpack closer when young men stand too close to me. When they show up on the subway cars in large groups and announce they’re looking for money, pushing large buckets in our faces. When the news reports say there’s been a “wilding” in Central Park and a woman was attacked who’s not much older than me.

When I return to Los Angeles, the city feels different to me.

It is 1991. I’m horrified watching Rodney King being beaten by the LAPD. It is 1992. I’m angry when the police officers are set free. I’m afraid to leave my house because people are rioting and looting. It is 1994. I’m shocked watching the slow speed chase of OJ Simpson. It is 1995. I’m ashamed when OJ Simpson is acquitted. I’m also aware of the racial divide and people’s differing opinions about his guilt or innocence.

My new husband works in the music industry. We’re surrounded by black and brown artists, we attend parties, concerts and social events with people of all backgrounds. My life becomes a swirl of marriage, babies, children, school, synagogue, social activities and social action.

We send our children to the Title 1 neighborhood school. We immerse them in a community surrounded by black, brown and white bodies — their favorite teachers and principals are black and brown. They are one of only a few children who are white.

We call our babysitters Segunda Madre — second mother. We tell them that Elba and Lupe are family. We pride ourselves on raising our children to have all kinds of friends. We teach them about all of the holidays. I work in a bookstore and we have books about all kinds of people’s lives.

We go to church on MLK day and to Chinatown for New Year. We celebrate Cinco de Mayo. I tell friends in Texas that my children are color-blind. I believe that life is better for everyone.

I’ve built an insulated wall around my life on the West Side of Los Angeles.

I’m working with black and brown people in my own music industry career now too — artists and production people. Some of them work for me. Some of them I work for. Many of them are women. We talk about inclusion — — a lot. To me, this means more women.

I weave a tale of feminism from my childhood, from the stories of my mother, grandmother and great grandmother who were all entrepreneurs. I mentor young women. I speak and moderate industry panels on inclusion. I present myself as a leader in this area. I don’t consider intersectional feminism.

During this time, I pay attention to the news and the murders of —

Oscar Grant Trayvon Martin Eric Garner Michael Brown Tamir Rice Walter Scott Alton Sterling Philando Castile Stephon Clark

These are all black men but some are boys, almost the same age as my own son. I tsk tsk about these tragic events.

And then one day I wake up and Breonna Taylor has been murdered by the police.

And soon after George Floyd is also murdered. My children are now adults. My children are now staring at me, wondering how all of the adults they love have been blind to the racism around us. My children are now angry, wondering how we’ve ignored it for so long and why we’ve done nothing to change it.

My children are now making signs, and joining protests, and working for prison reform, working to change food deserts, to fight voter suppression, to make the world a better place.

My children are now the people we promised ourselves we’d raise. But, who are we?

Now, I had to look at myself — and really SEE.

The answer was challenging and difficult. I’m a white, Jewish, middle-aged, small-town woman who was raised by white and black women, who has been surrounded by white, black and brown people, worked with white, black and brown people but who has focused primarily on life as it impacted me, my children and my own inner white circle.

This makes me guilty. This makes me complicit. This makes me racist. And, worst of all, this makes me — KAREN — realize I have to be a karenforjustice.

Now I have to change my perspective.

Now, I have to become anti-racist.

So, here is where it begins again.

Photo: John Gomes Dreamstime

Please consider following @rachelcargle and this article by Renée Cherez is also a good place to start.


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