Yes. This is what White privilege looks like. For real.
Yes. This is what White privilege looks like. For real.
Paula Deen is delusional. This isn’t in reference to the obnoxious public apologies (both of them)–begging (quite literally) for forgiveness. Nor is it to the butter-slathered, heavy cream dishes which coat her arteries as she ponders her diabetes and weight issues. Nor is it in reference to her apparent alcoholism, and questionable relationships. I’m talking about the bizarre nostalgia she and others like her hold for the antebellum South: where ‘men’ were white wealthy landowners; women were pale, fragile accouterments; and ‘coloreds’ were friendly, happy helpers on the plantation and in the house, willing to offer hand and heart to anything the landowners desired. But she’s not racist. No. Not at all. She just pictures the ideal wedding reception as the bride and groom in dazzling white, and the wait staff all Black skinned with white gloves (so as not to contaminate the food?). But that’s not racist. That’s nostalgia for a simpler, better time, right? That’s just old school ‘class(ism)’? Right? For a woman who’s made a career on creating food as a key component of hospitality, her life has taken a strange twist–being outed as someone with one of the least possible hospitable mindsets–racism.
Recently a friend I went to high school with brought back some old 8 mm home movies his cousin had taken in the 70s and 80s. His purpose: get these converted into a digital mode to preserve for future generations. A nice idea, indeed, and truly a gift to his family. My father was his pastor in the mid to late 80s, and he invited me over to view some of the films, as I would enjoy seeing folks and reminiscing about old times–even though the films were all of a time before my family lived there.
One set of films was taken was a series of women’s ‘slumber parties’ sponsored by the Nazarene church women. The films depict these holiness women being silly and playful, and it was fun to see this side of them. But on occasion, the men of the church, possibly feeling left out of the ‘fun’, would burst in and surprise the women. They only stayed a short period of time, and usually performed a silly skit and left. All of this was very amusing, and fun to see everyone when they were young. Amusing, that is, until the men ‘busted’ into the slumber party and performed a jamboree in blackface. Horrified, I watched these holiness people play washboards, beat on over turned wash tubs, and act silly. Their audience giggled and danced and delighted in the fun. This film was taken during the Regan era–not the Kennedy era.
I don’t know why I was so shocked. You see, a large portion of that church lived out on a country road that was known commonly “Nigger Lake Road“. Back at the turn of the century, some Black people moved to town and purchased the cheapest land in the area: a place prone to flooding. During flood-times, those good ol’ country folk began calling the road that ran through that area, naturally, “Nigger Lake Road.” Eventually, it was too difficult (socially, financially) for the Blacks to stay in the area, and once they’d abandoned the farm land, the surrounding farmers decided to build a drainage system in order to keep the land usable for farming. But in order to apply for a government grant, it was determined that the name of the road perhaps needed to be a bit more benign: so it was changed to “Sand Lake Road”. The name didn’t change until 1996.
I’m confronted once again with the mental gymnastics required for white holiness church people who proclaim the love and hospitality of Christ, to so very easily dismiss for so long the blatant racism in their midst. And I realize there is a certain form of nostalgia that comes along with privilege: a rose colored lens through which events in the world are seen.
I am so ashamed. We are so delusional.
My cab driver this morning was pretty quiet, until he asked me what route I wanted to take (about 10 minutes into the fare). I told him “I don’t care… you guys know better than I do what the traffic and construction is like in the city. Take whatever route you think is best.” That somehow seemed to open us up for conversation.
He began asking me the usual: if I’d always lived in Chicago, why I moved here, etc. I find these questions are often an inroad for these immigrant men to talk about their own lives, so I’m always happy to oblige. I answer their questions and then turn the same questions back on them. He mentioned he was from India, but had lived in the U.S. now almost 20 years.
“What do you do for a living, ma’am?” was the next question. “I work in technology. Educational technology.” He nodded in acknowledgement, then remarked about the scarcity of jobs these days, and asked if I thought getting an education was worth it any more, with college tuition now so high, and income so uncertain. I responded with my industry standard (as someone who works in a for-profit educational institution) “I think the youth are going to have to focus on professions instead of liberal arts.” And then I paused, because I was feeling a bit dishonest. “Liberal arts are important, and give you a broader perspective on life. But it is very hard to start out in such deep debt. I don’t know. To be honest, my heart says kids should definitely get an education, but my head knows it is very hard to pay for.”
He looked at me skeptically in the rear view mirror. “Look,” I said, “You are talking to a woman who did doctoral work, but is working in a completely different field now just so she can pay her student loans.” He seemed surprised. “You have a doctorate in technology?!?!” he asked with more than a hint of incredulity. No, I reassured him. I studied theology.
He stared straight ahead and said nothing more. Then I noticed his shoulders began to shake. A hand reached up and he wiped his eyes. Finally, he simply pulled over, apologizing the whole time. And that’s when I realized he was laughing.
“You spent 20 years studying theology and you manage a technology group?!” he roared, cracking up. “That is the best thing I’ve heard in a long time. This is the story of immigrant cab drivers. Not of a white American women.”
And I had to laugh too.
I got stuck in traffic on Lake Shore Drive Tuesday night, the first night of the Stanley Cup finals between the Bruins and the Blackhawks. My cabbie was visibly frustrated as time passed with little movement. He counts on multiple fares each hour to meet the cost of renting the cab each day, let alone make a profit. Sitting for over an hour in traffic doesn’t bode well for his income for the day. I caught him watching me in the rear view mirror. He’d been pretty quiet thus far in the trip.
I smiled and told him to put me on the clock, instead of charging me by the mile. He smiled REAL big and said “You understand taxi drivers, yes?” I laughed and said, “Well, I understand what it is like to be struggling to make a living wage. And I want to be fair with your time.”
We chatted about the usual ‘stuff’ then, the ice apparently broken by reliving his financial anxiety. We talked about places we’d lived, and about the city of Chicago. I asked him if he was a hockey fan (seeing that night’s traffic was due to the first game of the Stanley Cup finals). He shook his head no, but then said “Wait. That’s not fair. Let me explain…”
“I do not care for the violence, ma’am. I have seen too much violence in my life. But then, it is not any more violent than any other sport, is it? At any rate, it is not a sport I grew up with. But I must confess that I rejoiced when Patrick Kane made that goal last week. That goal paid a million people.”
I looked at him quizzically. He smiled. “You see, he scored that goal, and hotel workers, airline workers, cab drivers, restaurants… all of Chicago benefited. That goal set in motion (like a trigger or a catalyst) a series of events which will ensure that we have plenty of work, and good income. For that goal, I thank Allah.”
And I smiled, pondering the thought that it takes more than a village: it takes a hockey goal.
My remarks here are written in response to this blog.
Several years ago after my Grandmother died, I was sorting through her things for the sale, and found, tucked in the piano bench along with her favorite hymnals, the aerogrammes I’d sent her from Papua New Guinea as a child. I sat on the floor next to the piano and read the ramblings and concerns and the joys of a little girl away at boarding school, trying to explain the world as I knew it in the jungle to someone on the farm in Ohio. Sprinkled throughout those letters are hints of homesickness coupled with fears of returning ‘home’: such tensions for a little girl to hold!
In a filing cabinet I found a bundle of the aerogrammes my Mother had sent her Mom. Many of them detail the same events or the same time period, but told instead from the perspective of a very young woman, trying her best to make good decisions for her children, and trying her best to serve the Lord in a very patriarchal, patronizing mission station. Her grief on so many levels was evident, even among the more heroic claims of faith.
The juxtaposition of the two sets of letters was very healing for me. And Grandma, bless her, managed to hold both close to her heart without betraying confidences. Those thin pages wielded a mighty balm!