Where Does The Tide Go?
In 2014 Vermont received an “F” for the lackluster teaching of civil rights by the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance organization. Vermonters, among others, deny their obliviousness. And then the election results of 2016 startled a whole lot of white folks, oblivious before. All over again the glaring impotence of thinking rights were won and legislation was all set for every issue the Second Wave feminists, African American, Vietnam veterans, First Nations Peoples, Environmentalists, folks with disabilities, Gay, Lesbian and Transgender folks had marched for. We are marching now as we watch every civil thread and right challenged, taunted, or abused. Hopelessness is not an option. It is obvious that lifetimes are required to widen the avenues toward justice for all. If we want democracy to work, we have to pass action on to the next generation as the most important inheritance.
When my son Dashiell was about three we were at the beach as the tide was receding. We wandered further and further into the watery sand of the bay catching hermit crabs and strolling at a pace one only finds in summers with very young children. He asked, “Where does the water go?” In bewilderment I said, “Let’s go see if there is a book at Cricket’s house that will tell us!” We dumped our buckets to return the hermit crabs to their own wandering and trudged up the street to rummage through the guide books. Today, if asked, Google replies:
Tides are caused by the gravity of both the moon and the sun “pulling” at the water in the sea. Because the Earth is constantly turning, the “pull” of gravity affects different places as each day goes on – so when the tide is “out” in your area, it is “in” somewhere else. But the water level at high tide changes too!
Almost two decades after this idyllic beach walk I sit in wonder at how, despite the reliable ebb and flow of the tides, I am still bewildered by new questions. I had never thought to ask about the whereabouts of all that water and since then there have been many more such queries by Zora and Dashiell. We, humans, too are pulled incessantly by parents, friends, media, school curricula, social media and the constant “ding” in our pocket as the phone alerts. Our senses, our physical and psychic energy, are at the mercy of these relentless social and media tidal flows. Curiosity, questioning, finding our rhythm, knowing the truth may have more layers than we see at first glance—this is what understanding is all about. This is acknowledging the world as the dynamic continuum it is.
This summer of 2018, a great number of white people have called police to report people of color while napping, shopping, swimming, or walking in their neighborhood or entering their own home—no other reason, no other apparent activities that would suggest endangerment. Several individuals have been murdered. The dehumanization of Black people started at the very birthing of this nation, and still blights our communities, our nation. The bridges slowly bringing intersectionality across the wetlands of segregation have been undermined by the hatefulness engendered by the current president and those emboldened by him. But the bridges are there—getting reinforced by new candidates running for local and state offices, kids on campaigns to stop gun violence, get out the vote, and sue the government for the climate. The bridges are being built by new entrepreneurial young people in neighborhoods they love and want to keep affordable.
Hope sneaks in and shines light on despair. But then I recall the tall African American social worker standing at the railing of his condo by the bay who warned that when the cute little toddlers got big, people would cross the street when they saw them coming. He could have no idea just how deeply his words would resound these years later. When Dashiell was just seventeen Trayvon Martin was murdered, and the number of Black boys and men killed for being Black and male continues. President Obama’s presence in the White House gave a lot of us tremendous hope that racism in American was turning around. Instead, what was just ahead was the unleashing of a new wave of terrorism on men, women, girls, boys, transgender women of color as well as school children in an era of untethered white boys with access to big guns. Ruth King eloquently explains, each individual murder is a star in a much greater galaxy. That galaxy includes all the Emmitt Tills, Trayvon Martins, Tanisha Andersons, Dee Whighams and Botham Jeans over hundreds of years in the United States.
In Vermont this summer, kids and counselors of color at a camp for adopted children were harassed with racial slurs, taunted at a mini golf venue and made devastatingly uncomfortable in the renowned resort town of Stowe. The representative for Bennington decided to withdraw after winning the primary because of the death threats she and her family received. She has been the only African American representative in the state house and her work for social justice and inclusion has been admired.
Hurt people hurt people, say the men in their restorative justice circles in San Quentin. There are a lot of hurting people. Healed people heal people, I remind my daughter when she comes home after work and recounts a weird interaction with a customer. “Is it because of my skin?” She is intentional in her efforts to be welcoming, friendly, and not at all impatient, so as not to be seen as the Black girl with attitude. This is retail. Is it or isn’t it racial? These so called “micro-aggressions” take hours to shake off. Hurt people are also on that wide spectrum—perpetrating their violence in rude remarks to fatal gunshots — our nation suffers the hurts of all these confusions and unequal regard.
Stares, drive by catcalls of the N-word or other derisive words, questions that could be taken as doubting reliability or responsibility, these are the daily experiences that make up microaggressions. “Death by a thousand cuts” comes to mind, referring to a slow torture practice from ancient China.
Robin DiAngelo has just published a fierce retrospective of her years as an antiracist educator, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Beacon Press, 2018). She is adamant and clear about the squirming and denying most white folks do regarding racism and race. We are soaked in white supremacy by our very existence on this land, we are drenched in socialization that promotes white as normal, white as the way it is, white as right.
I have never met anyone who actually wanted to be racist, though I do know many who are because we have not thought about our own whiteness. Racism is in the air we all breathe, the laws of the nation, the media we consume, the neighborhoods we inhabit, the schools we attend. This is systematic, larger than an individual. We are all born into it. We have to acknowledge our initial naïveté and then get to work.
Prejudice is learned.
Ignorance can be replaced with knowledge.
Ruth King says, “Racism is a heart disease and it is curable.”
Fear can be subverted with conversation, attention, information.
Curiosity can turn fear into a willingness to change.
And still, events occur and hurt prevails.
I know that joy would thrive here, where anxiety has taken hold. Loving and raising two children has taught me about being willing to see the world through un-restricted eyes, colorblindness works both ways. Breaking the stranglehold of white supremacy/racialized and prejudiced ways of knowing–on my imagination, on my responses to events, on my moral compass, on my compassion for other peoples—is my liberty. Seeing the world without the lens of racial denial, knowing the additional layers of non-conforming gender, sexuality, economic agility, age, and living in a rural sociology have taught me about complexity. Every day I come to a deeper understanding of more of what I didn’t know!
Dr. DiAngelo wants us, white folks, to accept that the foundations of this nation have been built on dehumanizing people with brown and black skin, stealing land, and breaking treaties (along with James Baldwin, Michael Eric Dyson, Nell Irvin Painter, and so many others). Our ancestors all came from other places and many were treated horribly until they established their lives, as in assimilating to the standards of whiteness of American. This is a deeply bitter heritage. We can hold these truths and at the same time embrace the beauty, art, science, and majesties that have been able to thrive here. By accepting the past, ending our denial, we may design a better present.
Stamp your foot, holler your refusal. “I don’t want to be racist.” From here we may begin our work to learn, to love, to do something every day to thwart the hate, the vengeance, the fear held by white supremacists, the transphobic, the ableists, the ageists, the Holocaust and climate change deniers, the bakers who will not celebrate nontraditional marriages. Every day. One thing.
James Baldwin always wanted his white readers to grow up, be mature, accept history and reality. Note his last lines here that clarify the racist blame regarding integrating neighborhoods, note the way we have been given twisted information. Baldwin writes,
There has never been in this country a Negro problem. I have never been upset by the fact that I have a broad nose, big lips, and kinky hair. You got upset. And now you must ask yourself why. I, for example, do not bring down property values when I move in. You bring them down when you move out.
We can change the country, 1963
Too often we don’t know what we don’t know—and how easily we have been deceived. We have to find the erasures–of color, women, gay, lesbian, and transgendered activists, to point out a few. We need deep curiosity, not despair and defiant skepticism. As I write this Texas is determined to ban Hilary Clinton and Helen Keller from their history books. White radical women are so despised….
I’ve had students rage at what they have not been taught. I’ve watched as my kids have negotiated their community of “well-meaning” white people, the very people who are shocked at my concerns for my children’s safety locally and more broadly.
I’ve been constantly amazed at how, despite my attentiveness, I keep finding out new-to -me perspectives on the historic record and their consequences. The NASA “Hidden Figures” of Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, and Mary Jackson are good examples of women not easily found even with the feminist quest for revealing silenced voices. May 1, 1865 when black workers dug up the mass grave of Union soldiers and buried them with dignity, prayers and the choir of Black children singing “America the Beautiful.”
The tall African American social worker warned me as the toddlers walked along the bay at sunset about the reactions they would meet as teenagers. Here, tides and years gone by, I fear the rage and even the innocence of white fragility. Growing up, accepting the complexity of our identities and heritage, welcoming the vitality in challenging our assumptions—this is what I’m constantly trying to explain and examine. How is it we are this way? Why are immigrants so despised when they are the new, very much needed new energy, new participants for our democracy? Why are we not the generous nation, truly welcoming and encouraging new citizens as the poem on the Statue of Liberty offers? James Baldwin reminds us that the folks who got on the Mayflower were not successful in England. Relentlessly, the tides prevail, watershed ideas, new technology, our lives keep changing, the water low means the water is high somewhere else.
Swimming I am buoyant. Moving through cold spots, watching clouds, loons, boaters, and paddle boarders. Freedom in the wide-open space of the pond. There are no tides here, but the earliest fallen leaves are on the surface, my body follows the power in my arm strokes, propels with the flutter of my feet. Slowly, with effort, I progress across the pond. In the bay I swim through the waves, breathe in the gaps in the surge, progress only as the tide and my defiant persistence permit. Wind and water, the pull from the moon, the backlash from a storm out at sea, all play their role in my drifting. The elements are all the same—pond and ocean—yet the challenges are complicated differently. White fragility and racism, the elements are all the same—pond and ocean—individual and enormous systems.
As mentioned above, Ruth King talks about the individual event, the single star and the constellations of many stars. This is her description of how we respond to the killing of one Black being as a single star. If we step back, look harder, we see so many individual stars, individuals harmed or murdered. We see the constellation and better understand the magnitude of what is going on.
Which of course, makes me think of Marvin Gaye’s (April 2, 1939- April 1, 1984) song “What’s Going On.” We’ve been wondering—we have to challenge all our impatience, fury, and frustration. Fifty-five years ago, four young girls were preparing for church. They were blown apart in their church basement. Remember this road is one we make by walking, we design each path from the rubble of explosions to mercy and the possibilities we dare dream.
What’s Going On
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, eheh
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Ah, what’s going on
In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on brother
Right on babe
Mother, mother, everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply ’cause our hair is long
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today
Oh oh oh
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
C’mon talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Tell me what’s going on
I’ll tell you what’s going on, ooh ooo ooo ooo
Right on baby
Right on baby
Songwriters: Alfred W Cleveland / Marvin P Gaye / Renaldo Benson
What’s Going On lyrics © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC