Monthly Archives: July 2013

Wise guys…

Two wise guys.

Two wise guys.

I attended a conference in Baltimore this week, and had an evening free to take in the city.  These two guys noticed me with my camera and begged me to take their picture. I asked if I could email it to them, and they said no, they just wanted me to have it to remember them by.  I cracked up.  And sure enough… it worked. I do.

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It’s the rest of the white people…

“I am a racist because sometimes I think I am not and that it is the rest of the white people, not me ….. who need to do the work.”

An excellent piece written by a friend at church, who is in this struggle with me:   http://www.lakeschooling.com/2013/07/i-am-not-trayvon-i-am-racist.html

Thanks PF!

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Baby, I’m a White girl…

I struggled with race when we first moved back to the States from Papua New Guinea. I naively didn’t think it was so much a Black/White thing (although it certainly was), as the fact that I kept expecting African-Americans to be culturally the same as my dark-skinned friends from New Guinea.  I was constantly imposing a set of expectations and social ‘rules’ on African-Americans which simply weren’t theirs to keep.  It caused frequent ruptures and misunderstandings. My particular form of latent racism came with a certain brand of colonialism (borne from life as a White missionary child in a Black country).

I was gifted my freshman year of college by finding myself living on a floor in the dormitory which was predominantly African-American. My cultural expectations were quickly exposed, and quickly addressed.  Those girls would not tolerate my racism.  And I’m better for it.

Virlinda (also known as ‘Vi’ (pronounced VEE)) was all over my case. Any time I said something which exposed my privilege, she’d not let me linger in oblivion, but would interrupt, getting up in my face and demand, “Say ‘Baby, I’m a White girl.'”  At first I’d just stand there, staring dumbly.  She would get more animated and more obnoxious. “Say ‘Baby, I’m a White girl.'”  The line got repeated ad nauseum until I would finally give in and repeat aloud “Baby, I’m a White girl.”  Then she’d grin real big and continue on with whatever we were doing.

It came so frequently I began to dream it: “Say ‘Baby, I’m a White girl.'”

It became my mantra for the year: “Baby, I’m a White girl.” Virlinda wouldn’t let me lose site of the privilege I brought to each and every discussion, each and every interaction, each and every transaction.  For a period of time I hated her.  Then I loved her.

What an education! Thank you, Vi.

Baby, I’m a White girl.

A group of us from the dorm at a college football game.  Virlinda is in the front row, on the left.

A group of us from the dorm at a college football game. Virlinda is in the front row, on the left.

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Driving Miss Donna….

Suddenly this image was all I could think of...

Suddenly this image was all I could think of…

I’ve traveled for work the past two weeks, and am jet lagged and tired. This morning was me in slow motion: unmotivated to go to work, dreading the commute on the train.  I opted to hail a cab, convincing myself that it was a treat well earned–that I’d been working hard and deserved such a luxury.  It took less than 2 minutes to hail a cab.

As I settled into the back seat, I was relieved to see that this cab had a barrier wall between me and the driver: a padded lower portion keeps my knees from bumping the seat ahead of me; whilst a Plexiglas upper portion allows me to see, but prohibits easy conversation.  Again, I was tired.  I rambled off the address to my office building without even a glance towards the front seat and situated my purse and computer bag. I like to know where everything is, so my phone is handy, and so I’m less likely to forget a bag and leave it in the car when I make my exit. I really didn’t pay attention until the driver repeated the address back to me, and said “Is that right, ma’am?”

I cringed.  “Ma’am” is usually a moniker bestowed upon me by a twenty-something. I thought about my graying hair and sighed.  Then looking up, realized that the polite driver was an elderly Black man.  “Yes, thank you, sir.” I mumbled, embarrassed.  And something made me glance at his hands: white gloves.  My elderly Black cab driver was wearing black dress pants, a starched white shirt and collar, and yes… white driving gloves.  He suddenly had my full attention.  And the irony of the past week with the George Zimmerman trial came sweeping over me.  All I could think about was that scene from “Driving Miss Daisy”.  AUGH.  I was the privileged white woman being chauffeured around by a Black man!

Classical music streamed through the cab, along with the chilly draft from the air conditioner. Gosh, it is cold in this cab, I thought.  Oh! That’s why he’s wearing the gloves!  He’s got the air turned on high for me, and he’s suffering in the front seat.  I leaned forward and said “Are your hands cold? Is that why you are wearing gloves?  Because you can turn the air conditioner off if you’d like. I’ll be fine.”  Somehow my comment felt benevolent to me.  I was being gracious.  “No ma’am,” he said. “I like the air conditioner. I wear these gloves because my hands hurt on the steering wheel.  Friction or something.  At the end of the day, my hands just ache if I don’t wear them.”  Gosh, Donna.  It isn’t about you. Get over yourself. 

Gratefully he heard my comments as concern for him, and he opened up.  It seems he’s originally from Nigeria. “I am a wealthy man, you see,” he said. “I live in the U.S. for 6 months, and then at my home in Nigeria for 6 months.”  He pulled out a packet of photos he had on the seat next to him.  “I own 5 acres and have it all walled in.  My home is in there. I have 8 bedrooms, and each has its own running water.  I have my garden there, and my cattle.  Everything I need is there.” He laughs heartily. “I play classical piano.” He nods towards the radio.  “My children all like that hip hop music” but he says that his music has “endurance.”  “My composers are 300-400 years old and they are still being played on the radio.  Theirs will be gone in 3 or 4 years.”

His story begins to unfold: “I became a captain in the Nigerian army on October 1, 1960–the day Nigeria gained independence from the United Kingdom. I am a man of discipline, and it has served me well. I have married, have achieved a Ph.D. in Chemistry, taught as professor, and raised  4 children.  And as of May 2002 my youngest child finished college.  Now I am a wealthy man. I sit in my car, in the air conditioning all day, listening to classical music, and people put money in my pocket to drive them around.  This is not work.  I am a wealthy man. I love life. Life is beautiful.”

This amazing 85 year old man dressed with dignity because it was befitting to him.  Not, as I imagined in my narrow perspective, to fulfill the role or stereotype of ‘servant’.

I have much to learn.

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Today… first steps…

Today I joined the NAACP and also made a donation.  These are small steps, but they are steps. This country has to change.

You too can take these initial steps.  Join at NAACP.

Thank you.

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A recent cultural shock…

I have spent the last week in S. Florida on a business trip.  My whole Chicago office (five people) went to Ft. Lauderdale to meet with our team members there (15 people).  I have been aware in past meetings of the cultural gaps between these groups, so I made a point to note them as they occurred this week.  I have struggled trying to synthesize this material in order to present it in a some cohesive fashion.  But I realize that the cultural differences and resulting culture shock have left me mute.  I don’t know how to wrap my head around them, therefore I will simply list them here.

  1. No mention of Trayvon Martin.  In the week leading up to the closing arguments and verdict on the George Zimmerman/Trayvon Martin case, not one of the Florida residents discussed the case with us–even though the trial was showing 24/7  on the lobby monitors.  This case has been of particular interest over the past year with the Chicago group, and we’ve spent hours over lunches, breaks, etc. talking about racism, what constitutes justice, etc.  It has impacted our lives.  But even after the closing arguments were made, not a single word was mentioned of the case by any of my Florida colleagues.
  2. There is a bizarre combination of machismo and hyperfeminity in the S. Florida office.  The men’s interests were either ‘gay’ (focus on bodies, musicals, and trash talk gossip) or machismo (motorcycles, sea runners, muscles, etc.).  The women wore full make up, mini skirt suits raised up to there and cut down to there, and platform five inch heels: they hobbled awkwardly from meeting to meeting.  The Chicago group wanted to talk politics, reform, ecology, poverty, postcolonialism, consumerism,  philosophy, and religion.  The Chicago women wore slacks, flat shoes, minimal make up: and our feminist hackles were raised over women who hobbled themselves for fashion.
  3.  There was an utter lack of sensitivity to colonialist discourse.  Our boss was downplaying the possibility of any raises or additional perks this year, and said as a means of making her point:  “You know, the natives in third world countries are happy to get a t-shirt.  They don’t expect more than a t-shirt.  They get a t-shirt and think that’s pretty cool.  You need to think like those third world people.”  And later we listened to a presentation about ‘smart tribes’, creature/critter mentality, idea monkeys, and the need for dom/sub swapping (dominant/submissive swapping roles).  The entire Chicago team sat there with mouths agape.  One colleague from Columbia was jokingly referred to as ‘the Drug Lord’.  The Florida team laughed heartily: apparently this is an ongoing joke.
  4. TV: this ice breaker left me cold.  In one of the ice breaker exercises, we were asked to name what guilty pleasure TV show we watched.  The S. Florida team named various reality TV shows.  The Chicago team responded with confusion: “I don’t watch much besides the news and sports”; “I don’t own a TV”; “I have kids… I don’t have time for TV”; “I have a TV but I made my own rabbit ears and they don’t work very well…”; and “It has been years since I sat down and watched TV.”   To which one of our S. Florida colleagues replied, “If you don’t have TV, what do you watch?”  We were speechless. Finally one of the young women from the Chicago group said “I don’t watch anything. I do things–I go out, participate in community theater, I read.”
  5. Reading.  The comment about Chicagoans reading resulted in a certain form of defensiveness from the S. Florida group.  Our boss said “Folk here read. We have readers in our group. But then we go and watch the movie made about the book.”  And once again, the Chicago group just gaped.
  6. Guns.  For the evening entertainment, the S. Florida group discussed the possibility of going to a realistic police training firing range where you can load a video feed of the streets of your home town, and shoot at people. “It is SO cool!”  The Chicago team refused.
  7. Materialism. The focus on acquisition of goods was overwhelming. Waste was viewed as the ultimate luxury. Our boss bragged about having thrown a corporate party with a budget of half a million dollars. “We found this really cute candy store in Manhattan.  It was perfect. The CEO said “Make it happen” so we rented it for the event.  The owner was concerned about his goods, so the CEO just bought out the store to put the owner at ease.  Then we could eat all the candy we wanted.”   The Chicago group were once again nothing short of stunned at the opulence and waste, especially in light of the layoffs we’d been through and the intention with which we strive to not be consumers (wearing second hand clothes, recycling, reusing, etc.).

So I write all this to say that I’ve not experienced that kind of culture shock in a while.

But no… that’s not true.

I was down in Southern Illinois for the 4th of July and we attended the fireworks at the county airport.  We parked our little car on the grassy lot, and were quickly surrounded by large four-door over-sized pickup trucks: guys sitting in the back in lawn chairs, drinking beer, spitting tobacco, throwing fire crackers and smoke bombs off the tailgate, Toby Keith blaring offensive lyrics from ginormous speakers.  I felt in a foreign land.

And now I don’t know how to go on.   There is much disparity in these states we call ‘United”.

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Remembering Trayvon Martin

they sit in ambush in the villages;
in hiding places they murder the innocent.
their eyes stealthily watch for the helpless;
they lurk in secret like a lion in its covert…
they stoop, they crouch,
and the helpless fall.

psalm 10

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