It was as hot a day here in my part of the F-L-A as I can remember. And I’ve seen a lot (aka a half century) of hot days in my native state. The city pool where I take my water fitness classes was busy to capacity, as is typical for a summer morning. Swimming lessons, lap swimmers, retirees getting some sun. About halfway through my fitness class, a group of kids in a city-sponsored summer camp arrived; you could hear them before you saw them. They were excited, and rightly so, about having a chance to goof off and cool off. On this particular day, my aqua fitness class wasn’t crowded, so there was room in the shallow end of the pool for other swimmers. The summer camp kids soon started a spirited but orderly game of Marco Polo; they policed themselves, watching to make sure they didn’t interfere with our class and only got asked not to run and jump by the lifeguards a handful of times. A couple of the girls copied our Zumba moves, dissolving into giggles when they missed a step.
After class was over, I went to the side of the pool and continued stretching, trying to extend my time in the cool water because it is hotter than the surface of the sun here in Florida right now. Two of the Marco Polo players were standing on the steps; I smiled at them and asked if they were having fun. Thus began a delightful conversation during which I was asked how old I was (they guessed 25; I immediately made them my two favorite people in the world), did I have any kids, what my favorite sandwich was and did I want to come play Marco Polo with them?
Oh… did I mention that my two new friends were black? And boys? Aged 10 and 7.
I’ve been thinking about them a lot over the past two days, in light of the police shootings of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. About how charming our conversation was. About how we all felt comfortable chatting – a middle-aged white woman and two black kiddos. About what their future will look like in this society under these conditions. About how that scares me to tears.
We – yes, WE – have a racism problem in this country. This is not new information. This is not secret information. This is cold, hard factually-based information. It runs deep. It runs long. It’s ugly. Shameful. And it’s time to talk about it. Past time, honestly.
For a long time, I observed. As a child, I listened as older relatives matter-of-factly showed their bigotry, whispering the words “negro” or “black” in the manner one does when one is discussing something distasteful. This was the post-Civil Rights Act South with pre-Civil Rights Act Southerners. My kin were good people, raised in a different time. I don’t know if that excuses their attitudes but being only a generation or two removed from the Antebellum South, I’m not sure there was room or opportunity for alternate thought.
As a young adult, I heard tell of the time my parents were driving the back roads of north Florida and came across a Ku Klux Klan rally in an open field. Hooded figures. Lighted torches. They didn’t stop or play lookey-loo to gather more information, to make sure that what they thought they were seeing was real. The smart decision. This was the early ‘60s. One hundred years after the Civil War. So much had transpired. So little had changed.
I am a middle-class white woman. I have had opportunities along my path my entire life. I have had privilege afforded me my entire life. Some because of my abilities and talent. Some because of my family. Some because of the color of my skin, my professed religion. I’m not special. Not by any means. I've been fortunate.
Apologies if this sounds awkward. I’m not sure how to say what I want to say. But I’m trying. Because I think it’s important. And in some small way, I want to help. It does feel a bit presumptuous commenting on this because it’s not something I’ve experienced first hand. Not sure it's my place to say my piece.
But. My heart hurts every time I see a hashtag roll by that signifies another black life has been taken at the hand of law enforcement in a questionable situation. It’s all very wash/rinse/repeat: he should have listened; he was wearing clothes (like a hoodie) that raised suspicions; most police officers are good people; he had a record. Evidence is discovered; eyewitness accounts are taken; questions are raised about both. The adage about shooting first and asking questions later is both antiquated and offensive. And yes, there are so many brave women and men in law enforcement who have lost their lives in the line of duty. We mourn for them; we are better for their heroism. But wanting those who serve and protect to be held to accountable standards is not mutually exclusive from that. Both can and should exist together.
This issue of race and bigotry is much broader than police shootings. What happened to Philando Castile and Alton Sterling is part of a bigger problem. Which has existed for centuries. This hot button is not symbolic of a racism revival – I think it’s more currently visible because our means of communication has multiplied greatly in this age of technology. What might or might not be covered hours or days after it happened on a TV news broadcast 30 years ago is now viewed in real time across many platforms. I personally do not get my news from traditional mediums – Twitter gives it to me via both acknowledged news source accounts and by people who give eyewitness reports in 140 characters. Sometimes I feel like I know about events almost before they happen.
Those 140 tweet characters can also show you the nature of someone’s character, of his or her belief system. Racial slurs. Religious bigotry. Sexism to the nth power. Homophobia. It’s amazing how much vitriol can be packed into such a small space. It’s also amazing how much empowerment, protest and support can also fit into those 140 characters. Social media is many things for many people. But for all of us, it’s the stethoscope for the pulse of society.
I put myself on social media time-out the other day for breaking some of my personal rules: reading comments on news articles (talk about something that will raise your blood pressure); discussing religion and politics in an open forum; beating myself up for breaking my rules. But after learning about Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, I lifted that time-out rule and took to writing. It’s all become too much. More often than not, when you catch up on current events, *something* has happened. A white college man rapes a woman and his excuse is that he drank too much while she is victim-shamed for the exact same thing. A nightclub frequented by members of the LGBTQ community is decimated by a shooter with an assault firearm. I could go on and on. Suffice it to say, enough is enough. For me. It should be for all of us. I am tired of biting my tongue in polite company when the conversation takes an offensive tone. I love my country deeply, fiercely, passionately -- but there are things that need to be fixed in its society. It's tough love time.
The worth of a life should not be evaluated based on skin color.
The color of one’s skin does not make one automatically a better person or a lesser person.
No one is all saint. No one is all sinner. We are all human. Yes, there are differences between us – that individuality thing which makes us unique and keeps life interesting. But to hate someone without just cause who you do not know because of the color of his or her skin or his or her religion or his or her sexuality or his or her gender… that’s wrong.
There’s a phrase from Hamilton that resonates deeply with me:
Talk less; smile more.
This concept would seem to be very applicable when trying to bridge a divide. Talking less opens you up to listening. Never a bad thing. And a smile is the easiest way to break the ice.
It’s what I did with my young friends at the pool. And look what happened there.
We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their CREATOR, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.