As Natural as Breathing

A 1965 episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show shows Rob Petrie (Dick Van Dyke) and his wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore) accepting an award on behalf of Rob’s boss, Alan Brady (Carl Reiner). The award, given by the fictitious Committee for Interracial Understanding, is for Alan Brady’s contributions to understanding and honesty between the black and white communities.

Mary Tyler Moore, Dick Van Dyke, Joel Fluellen

One sentence in Rob’s acceptance speech gets to me. “It seems to me understanding should be as natural as breathing,” he says. “And you don’t get awards for breathing.”

Understanding in the racial divide is hard work. I’ll be the first to say, I don’t get it, I don’t get what it’s like to be black in America.  I’m white, I grew up in an almost exclusively white neighborhood and school district, although as an adult, I entered into much more diverse scenarios.

I have two things going for me in my desire to bridge the gap (well, hopefully more than that, but we’ll start with these two): I was raised in the 60s by parents who believed God made everyone equal, but fully recognized life didn’t treat them that way, and as an adult, I frequently worked with and/or lived in diverse neighborhoods that helped me be at ease with people of numerous ethnic backgrounds.

My high school. Photo c Mike24.

There was a small amount of interracial contact throughout my teenage years. In high school, out of approximately 2,400 students, only one, Tony, was black.  Tony moved to my town in his junior year to live with his mom, and a year later, moved back to stay with his dad, where he could go to a school that was significantly more diverse. I was the same age as Tony, and he ended up going to my church, so I got to know him fairly well, in particular because he became close to one of my best friends.

When Tony moved, he didn’t tell too many people he was leaving, so we didn’t get to say good-bye. He did talk to my best friend, Carolee, and she told me he didn’t want a lot of fuss. You see, Tony was incredibly popular, wonderfully talented and in demand socially. He knew we wouldn’t understand why he would want to move to a small town in the middle of nowhere with a K-12 school that had fewer than 400 students. After all, our school ruled.

I didn’t understand. We liked him, and we treated him in the manner you treat someone you like. What I couldn’t see, couldn’t feel and didn’t live was the disconnect between the races, the incredible alone feeling Tony no doubt felt every day walking down the halls of our high school. I knew a lot of the girls stared at him because he was good-looking, but there was no way for him to differentiate between those looks and the stares that came because he was black. For that matter, a lot of girls probably stared because he was good-looking and black. That, I’m willing to wager, is a different look. The element of the forbidden, the socially questionable to a teenager is, well, what makes a simple crush a great romance.

At the church Tony and I attended, there were a handful of black families. Three of those families were related; the husbands/fathers were brothers, all very close in age. They also looked like they could have been identical triplets. Ever the blunt one, I asked my friend Alethea (also black) if it was a problem I couldn’t tell them apart. Did all black men look alike to me?

No, Alethea assured me, she’d known the family for years and the easiest way for her to tell these three men apart was through their wives. The wives were easy to distinguish. So I, too, got to know the families through the wives, as well as their children, who were all under the age of five.

Candy Stripers — a little before my time, but you get the picture.

At the same time I was working as a candy-striper at the local hospital. In case you don’t know, “candy-striper” is the nickname for volunteers who wear a red-and-white striped pinafore, white blouse, and in my case, white ankle socks and white tennis shoes. I worked Sunday afternoons, and the nature of that shift meant we spent a lot of time in the maternity ward.

One of the families I spoke of above had just had a baby. I was walking through the infant viewing area, and the man I thought was the new father was standing there, admiring the newborn, a thoughtful, musing look on his face.

“Congratulations!” I said.  “I heard in church this morning you had a daughter.”

“Oh, it’s my niece,” he said. “It’s my brother’s baby girl.”

“I’m so sorry,” I apologized. “I’m always getting you and your brothers mixed up.”

“Everyone does,” he said, smiling.

“Belinda!” my fellow candy-striper, Karen, hissed at me as we walked down the hall. “I can’t believe you didn’t know he wasn’t the father!! He goes to your church!”

“Oh, it’s okay,” I replied. “They’re brothers. They all look alike.”

From down the hall I heard a deep, full-throated burst of laughter. I have no doubt that story was told time and time again in their family. I hope I came across as the girl I think I was: nice, kind, perhaps a little naïve and (please, please) not racist. Well, the story would be better that way, so maybe I did.

Was I ignorant? In many ways, yes. I simply didn’t understand.

No matter how funny that man and his family may have found the story, and I hope they did laugh, the underlying issue isn’t funny. Was I ignorant about racial issues? In many practical ways, yes. I simply didn’t understand. If you were black or any other minority and I was your friend, if I treated you as well (or poorly) as any of my other friends, what was the problem between us? If you were a complete stranger I passed in the store, a customer in my teller line at the bank, a sales associate at the cosmetics counter where I bought eye shadow, why would there be a racial problem if I spoke to you with respect and dignity? And yet, there was. I just didn’t always know it.

An offhand remark might be misinterpreted. That isn’t exclusively a racial issue, that’s human communication. Some of it is regional; terms that mean one thing in California have an entirely different connotation in Minnesota or Arkansas. I learned not to use the phrase, “jerk someone around.” In some parts of the country, it means to treat another person poorly, in other parts, it’s a very sexual expression. I had a hard time keeping it straight.

Some of it is coming into the middle of a conversation and hearing a phrase out of context. I’ll never forget when, in my late teens, one of my friends and I were talking about a third friend’s abusive relationship. Gina, the one I was talking to, was a literature major, and would use literary terms in everyday conversation (which drove us crazy), including the word “dark” to describe anything bad or evil.

We were waiting to be seated in a crowded restaurant, and there were two hostesses, one white, one black. Our name was called, and as we approached the hostesses, Gina, referring to our friend’s situation, was saying, “she needs to throw that dark dog in the river.”

Both young women tensed up. Gina, feeling passionate about our friend’s plight, was only making things worse. I don’t recall the rest of what she said clearly enough to recreate it, but it did sound bad out of context. I was uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say without further digging a hole.

Our waitress had no problem with it. Young and brassy, she, perhaps inappropriately, confronted Gina about the term “dark dog” as well as the rest of her rant.

Image c RetroClipArt — Adobe Stock

“Did you mean a dog, or a black man?” she asked. “Because this is a nice restaurant, and we don’t tolerate bigots or puppy killers. Those girls,” she pointed to the hostesses, who were out of hearing distance, “are my friends, and they were offended. I just want to know why.”

Now I was incensed. “We were talking about a friend’s boyfriend,” I said sharply (and loudly). “Her white boyfriend.” That didn’t sound so good to surrounding diners, either.

Gina was perplexed. “Come on,” I said, “let’s go.” We left, both upset and confused. We weren’t racist, surely not?

I stopped telling that story after several people told me Gina’s statements actually were racist and we didn’t realize it. I’ve struggled with that one. So much of our language is indeed subtly racist, under the radar and pervasive. It is perhaps the most difficult to challenge and change. Gina, a typical college student, was under the spell of all she was learning. I’m willing to bet she was showing off more than putting down by using the word “dark.”

Jean Adair, Josephine Hull Arsenic and Old Lace
Jean Adair,  Josephine Hull in “Arsenic and Old Lace.”

Is the term “dark comedy” racist? I do not know. I use it to describe movies such as “Arsenic and Old Lace,” in which two elderly ladies kill off their gentleman callers and bury them in the cellar, hence the darkness in the comedy, and I’m far from the only one to do so. I don’t even know what the racial connotation would be in the term (I get the correlation between “dark” and “black,” but it’s the further definition I’m unclear on). Maybe that’s the problem. I don’t know.

We are all equal in God’s eyes, but we do not live in a society that treats us that way, and our view of ourselves and our world is shaped in part by how we’re treated. Several years ago I attended an annual statewide convention for people who, like myself, worked with others with developmental disabilities. The keynote speaker was a woman who was black and in a wheelchair. I don’t know what her disability was, but I surmised it had been lifelong.

“When people ask me how I identify myself, as disabled, black or female,” she said as she summed up her talk, “I tell them I identify myself first as African-American, than as a woman, than, as a black woman with a disability.”

That was an eye-opener. I gained a much greater understanding about why the phrase, “I don’t even see [name of black friend] as black anymore. He’s just [name]” is so degrading. I had long ago realized how bogus it was to say that. If you can see, you see another’s race. What I hadn’t realized was if you’re black, it’s part of your identity. An essential part. If you’re white, it rarely is a significant part of the equation of identity.

When a white person says they don’t see race, they mean, “I’m not adding something to our relationship that would separate you from me.” As I understand it, if you’re black, you’re hearing, “I’m acceptable if I deny an essential part of who I am.” There’s a huge discrepancy in meaning there, and a cartful of issues to sort through.

I’m always timid about adding my comments. Will some barely disguised ignorance show through?

I have several blogging friends who are black, and I follow their blogs and interact with them because I like them. Some of them address race more frequently than others, and I’m always timid about adding my comments to their posts. Will some hidden arrogance, some barely disguised ignorance show through? I’ve had some people reply sharply to my comments, but fortunately, I’ve been smart enough to respond and try to work through any misunderstandings or subtle feelings of whatever I may be expressing.

I’m acutely aware of the danger of sounding condescending. Plus, when you’re leaving a comment on a blog, the context of Who I Am isn’t there. If you haven’t interacted with me, all you have is my little profile picture, little white me in my pink blouse, to give you any insight into who I am.

Image c RetroClipArt — Adobe Stock

I can never fully understand the black experience. I want to be open, empathetic and supportive of all races and other minorities. Even as I write that, I’m reminded I was chastised once for using the term “races” synonymously with “minorities.” I felt like I couldn’t win, although I did have a decent discussion with that blogger.

I’m reminded of Rodney King, victim of terrible racial abuse, who, after his ordeal had been addressed by the courts and the public, said, “Can’t we all get along?” Some people mocked him for saying it, some called it simplistic and even foolish. I don’t want to brush over the evil or painful, but I do want us all to get along.

I know it isn’t that easy.

I’m asking my black friends to bear with me. I sincerely want to do better. I’m asking my white friends to seek understanding.  For that matter, we should all seek understanding. The learning and growth are a strengthening process for all of us.

This is a turbulent time for our country, but it’s also a time of opportunity. I hope someday understanding is, indeed, as natural as breathing.

As the man said, you don’t get awards for breathing.

Image Credit, featured image: International Children © BigStock; Television, Movie Images © their respective studios and used under the Fair Use Clause of copyright law.

As I Appear Before You

How do I know who you are? And what do you know about me by looking at me?

As I write this, I’m wearing clothes that need a good wash, my hair is in desperate need of styling, and any makeup I put on earlier today has worn off. I need some groceries, but I hesitate to head to the store. I don’t want to be judged by my appearance. It probably wouldn’t be complimentary.

AdobeStock_98604038 [Converted]

Yet even at my best, my most cleaned up, there are going to be those who judge me in a negative way.

Just as so many make assumptions about others. We all do it to a certain extent, sum a person up with our first impressions. That quick assessment is based on our beliefs and previous experiences, and is likely to be limited and narrow.

You won’t know me until you talk to me, and even then it will take some time. You won’t know me until you see me in separate circumstances, and most people don’t have that opportunity.

We have our beliefs about others that are tidily summed up in stereotypes. The Germans are stoic, if you’re from Latin America, you’re passionate. There is some truth to those beliefs culturally, but not necessarily for individuals. Each of us has our life experience that shapes our unique personality.

In America, if you’re from the south, you’re a bigot, a racist. Yankees are rude. For that last one, I’ll tell you as someone who’s lived in both southern and northern states there is a more genteel, some might say passive, approach to manners in the south. So in contrast, those from up north do appear rude.

bigstock-Cute-Cartoon-Fairytale-Princes-111350732 [Converted]For example, the idea of mirroring someone’s statement to show you understand them is simply not done at the very Southern company I worked for several years ago. It’s considered rude, confrontational. Instead, you should… well, frankly, I never did figure out how you’re supposed to handle it.

And while I wouldn’t call all Southerners racist, there is a remarkable them/us view with many of the people I know born and raised south of the Mason/Dixon line. They don’t see it. In fact, they justify every word of their own beliefs. As do I, with my own beliefs.

There are times when I need to challenge those beliefs. For example, you might arguably say I have some prejudice against those from the southern United States.

We make broad judgments based on a person’s race, ethnicity, gender, manner, clothing, accent, and whatever else we take in during those first seconds of meeting someone. And those judgments stick with us.

Some stubbornly maintain their beliefs, while others are willing to challenge themselves. Some give others a second chance, some are one-and-done.

AdobeStock_98604035 [Converted]Some have seen me at my worst, and don’t want to risk knowing me any further. My disappointment at those times is a challenge for me overcome.

People who know me know I’m a caring person, compassionate and kind. They know I’d do anything for my family, and that includes my cats. They know I shrivel up inside at the thought of hurting my friends.

They know other things about me, too. Things I won’t list here, because why spell out my faults?

They have forgiven me my insensitive moments, my selfish moods.

Each of us is complex, even those who seem the most simple. We all can surprise those who think they know us with an unguarded moment.

So who you think you see is not who I am. Nothing is at it appears, no one is as she appears.


Image Credits: © sapunkele — Adobe Stock

hold your child’s hand, talk a little longer

Last week, our hearts were broken.

In response, my friend Wanda organized this silent vigil in our community for the victims of the Emanual AME Church shooting.

Silent Vigil at Crystal Bridges Museum
Silent Vigil for Victims of Mother Emanuel AME church shooting, June 24, 2015. Photo by Ali Wingood

Wanda has two daughters, ages 12 and 14. They’re learning what it means to be black in America. They’re black, so there’s that, and then there’s the bigger picture Wanda is helping them understand.

More to teach everyday, no doubt. It’s hard to be a parent.

In November of 1960,

Ruby Bridges made history. Many of you know the story. Six-year-old Ruby was one of the first black children to cross the lines at an all-white school in New Orleans to claim her right to an equal education in the public school system.

U.S. Marshalls with Ruby Bridges, November 14, 1960
U.S. Marshalls with Ruby Bridges, November 14, 1960

U.S. Marshalls escorted her & her mother to the classroom that first day amidst rioting protesters, including one woman who put a black baby doll in a makeshift casket and shoved it at Ruby as she walked by.

Ruby was brave, no doubt about it. But when I saw this picture all I could think was how much courage her parents had, how deep their conviction and love must have been.

Her mama probably didn’t sleep much the night before. She likely ironed and starched that dress until it could stand up by itself. There may have been a petticoat, given the same care.

The little white anklets, perhaps with flowers embroidered on them. The patent leather shoes, polished until light bounced off them at every step. The bow pinned firmly in the hair.

When I picture Lucille Bridges, I see a woman who believed in what she and her baby girl were about to do. Ruby was going to shine, inside and out, as she changed history.

And she did change it. Today, countless doors have been opened for children everywhere, and each of us has benefited at one point or the other from the education they’ve earned.

All in my lifetime

Ruby’s story never would have happened if it hadn’t been for Abon & Lucille Bridges, her parents. I wouldn’t care so deeply if not for my parents, who raised three children in the turbulent ’60s and taught us about equality and justice as best they could.

We stumble through, work together and listen to each other.

That’s all anybody can expect, to teach the best way — and words — we know. Perhaps down the road we learn our lessons were somehow off the mark. Yet we stumble through, work together and listen to each other.

I’ve kept my heart, mind and eyes open for increasing understanding because of the foundation my parents laid. Whatever mistakes they may have made, at its heart, their message was right. They believed in equal opportunity. They saw people as individuals with value. They recognized the problems and knew the solutions were bigger, but would take time.

It’s hard to be a parent, but you make a difference. May it change your child’s world, and that of those around you, for the better.

Thanks to the Ruby Bridges Foundation,, for facts on her story.
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