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Learning and trying to be kind and living my life as fully as I can stand it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Dinner time

Yesterday we left the house at 5pm to go check out Off the Grid--a gathering of food trucks in downtown Walnut Creek. My cousin is in town and I wanted to show him a little of the life out here. Plus I needed to feed myself and him and the kids. . . so it seemed like a good plan. We got some looks.

The kids were fussy when we arrived; one was asleep. We rarely leave the house in the evening. My cousin and I held toddler hands and pushed the double Bob, trying to converse. I love food trucks--that's my favorite way to eat, tasting different flavors, getting to choose from among a host of different options. Expecting everything we do to reach some level of chaos, I have a hard time differentiating between what will be hard but doable and what will be just plain silly for us to attempt. Can't quite say where this experience fell.

For the most part we camped out in a shady spot between the front of the hot dog truck and the back of the lobsta roll truck. I forgot to put shoes on the little girls because I'm still adjusting to the reality that they are almost walking. In short order the soles of their feet were black with dirt. People walking by looked curiously at the little girl crawling on the dirty cement, a pork dumpling in one hand, remnants of curry chicken smeared on her face and shirt. My son wore a a dress--sky blue with white swans and a lace collar, pulled on over a blue polo shirt and plaid shorts. His buzz cut is growing out but he was unquestionably a little boy wearing a dress. We got some looks.

My kids took turns crawling under the large, shiny bumper of the hot dog truck. My husband came to meet us and we three adults took turns balancing a child, taking bites, and taking in the scene. I saw a mom I know from my moms' group. As we left, I ran into two of my former co-workers. They stood in the frozen custard line as I scrambled to get us out of the crowd. We stopped to chat a bit and they admired my filthy, adorable children. I wasn't sweating, which I sometimes do when things get really tough. I go into tunnel vision mode--must get out of here. Wasn't quite at that point but was getting close. A band was playing, people had to step back to make room for the stroller, it seemed the looks we were getting had more kindness than before. . .was that true or had my perception shifted?

At one point, before we left, as I sat on the dirty ground in front of the hot dog truck my two-year-old feeding me forkfuls of curry, my one-year-old crawling into and out of my lap seemingly for the sole purpose of rubbing food and grease onto as many parts of me as possible, I took a deep breath and pulled my shoulders down from around my ears. Was I having fun? Not really. At least not in a way I would have formerly recognized as fun. Yeah, no. I still wouldn't call it fun. But with the deep breath and the rolling of the shoulders I brought myself back to myself. With happy kids, tasting different tastes, in a sea of people. Nothing we do is easy.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

On race--an awkward, unedited beginning

When I was a senior in high school I took a theology class called Ministry, taught by my father. The course was a combination of reading, discussion and volunteer hours spent in different shelters in San Francisco. One night I was working at Hamilton Family House in the Haight. It was a homeless shelter for families and my work consisted mostly of playing with the kids. At one point a boy asked me if I was part Chinese. My eyes are a bit hooded by my full eyelids. No, I told him. But I realized I was glad he had thought so. I had been feeling out of place; I was one of the few white people in the room and that was not an experience I was used to.

Later that night I heard a black grandmother call her grandchild to her--"Come here, baby." The word in her mouth was a casual, velvet caress and I decided that was how I would call my children to me once I had them.

That night in the shelter got me thinking. I'm not racist, I thought. At least I don't think I am. But I don't really have any black friends. I would be attending Boston College in the fall and when I received my housing form I checked the box for the multicultural dorm. When I got the letter telling me I would be living there, in Xavier Hall, I burst right into tears. Panicked, I wondered what the other dorm mates would think of me. I wasn't multicultural! I wouldn't be welcome. I would stick out. I was scared.

I wasn't the only white girl on the floor my freshman year--we were a mix of white, black, Puerto Rican, Dominican (which I didn't even know was a thing to be until I moved to Boston), Asian. Puerto Rican directly from the island, Puerto Rican from Woocester. Light-skinned, dark skinned, good hair, bad hair. My education had begun.

Boston College at the time had a student body of about 8,000 undergrads, 6% of whom were students of color. It looked a lot like my high school--a Jesuit school in San Francisco that was mostly white, with a huge focus on sports and partying. I had a hard time there--thought about transferring my sophomore year because I wanted a more intellectual environment, but I was too scared that I would make the move and not like my next school either. I played soccer for two years which was grueling and almost no fun at all, which definitely influenced my time there. And I mostly hung out with the black and Latino students--which is one of the main reasons I'm writing this essay.

What do I want to say? I'm back in California now and once again have hardly any friends of color. This country continues to erupt with violence against men, women and children with black skin--nothing new there except people have cell phone cameras and there are alternate news sources and Twitter so common occurrences can be captured and shared and discussed. Most of my white friends are silent on Facebook. So am I. I've been afraid to say the wrong thing, afraid to get into heated debates or fights. And I'm tired. I'm raising four little children and my bones and skin are tired. But that is one of the many examples of the privilege of having white skin in this country--I can opt out of the conversation because I don't have the energy.

Here are three tiny stories:

 My sophomore year I went with some friends to visit their extended family in the Boston area. There was a 2-year-old boy in the house and he fell in love with my long, blonde hair. I held him in my lap as he faced me, running his fingers through my and making admiring sounds. The adults in the room laughed at his reaction--everyone in their family had black, curly hair and we all thought this reaction to the difference was cute.

My senior year a group of us went to Martha's Vineyard for the weekend. My friend's niece was brushing my hair. At one point she asked "Can I put grease in it?" No thanks! I replied, imagining how my long, fine hair would react to hair grease.

Spring Break senior year, a bigger group of us went down to Miami. Many of my friends got their hair permed. This meant straightened, not curled. Once down there, those same friends stayed out of the water because they didn't want to mess up their beautiful, expensive hair.

This is hair we're talking about. So much to learn and so many differences--without even going into anything "big" like violence or racism. In my time at BC I learned more about hair than I knew there was to know--that not all stores carried the hair produces women of color needed, that not all salons could style black hair, that there was "good" hair and "bad" hair.

Why am I going on and on about hair? Because it is one example, a mostly non-painful one, that points to the fact that if we don't know and spend time with and learn from people of different skin, and hair, types we can't possibly understand what their experience in the world is. I think we can follow this logic to bigger topics--if I don't have black skin and I don't have people in my community with black skin, how can I say what people with black skin experience at the hands or in the eyes of police officers? If I don't share my life with people of color, witnessing and asking questions, why would I think I have anything of value to add to the conversation about racism in this country?

It's overwhelming. Where do I start? What do I read? What if I make people mad? It's also hard to be in a conversation, Facebook or in real life, when there is so much anger directed at people who look like me. I can feel my defenses rise when I read "That's why white people. . ." No matter what follows that beginning, I already feel like saying "Hey! Not me!" But that's not useful in this conversation.

At Boston College, I often felt like I didn't fit in. In a school where the majority of students looked like me, I was at dances at the Rat where I felt like I couldn't find the beat. Where very few of the students looked like me. I took part in conversations, vacillating between keeping my mouth shut and expressing my own opinion, where friends would say something disparaging about white people and then say to me "Oh not you, you're not a real white person." And I would think quietly to myself Yes, I am. You can't take me out of that group just because you like me. I mean, I was honored in some ways--I was being accepted. And I also knew that wasn't true. I didn't want to represent white people but I didn't want to disown them either.

When racist cartoons were published in the conservative on-campus newspaper, I attended the town hall. My roommate didn't. I was then surprised at the rage in her voice when she talked about what was happening. I thought "If you're not going to get involved, why are you getting so mad?" I wish I could go back to that year and sit at her feet and ask her to talk to me. To just listen and try as hard as I could to really hear her.