White Shame

White Shame

June 1, 2020 The Year of Perfect Vision

I am ashamed of myself. And I should be. For years, I have rationalized my choice to not be informed about what is happening in the world. In particular when it comes to Black Americans or African Americans or people of color, however you choose to phrase it. 

My justification has been one where I say, “It’s not MY problem.” And at times, in the past I have harbored the thought, “Slavery is over. Get over it.” Not proud of that.  And I have been so wrong for that. 

Because the truth is it is MY problem if I claim to be someone who tries to love everyone and be in God’s will to do just that so if I am doing that, I don’t get to pick and choose who I love. And while slavery in its original form of people actually owning people like property may be in the past, the repercussions of that are still playing out in the lives of the descendants of those people today. 

I want to be careful here too because I don’t want to pretend I know something just because it might impress you. So, I  hold myself to integrity of being authentic. 

I was born into an all white family. It was 1960. We were wealthy. My father was in show business. White was the norm. Color was the help. Emma used to bathe me and love me and mother me for money. She was the only maternal nurture I had at that time too because my birth mother had nothing to give, living with an abusive husband and having a wonder bread life in public in the limelight of his show business monied career took up all of her time. 

When I look at my childhood for any maternal memories, Emma is the only person who comes to mind. Because in my experience for the first five years of my life, five days a week, Emma WAS my mother. She bathed me. Fed me. Clothed me. Loved me. Which is a verb. 

And in my early racist training that was happening on a subliminal level, I saw her as something other than a human being. I saw her as a servant. Similar to a slave. I once made her cry too when I said she had funny hair. That is the pivotal moment when in a perfect world, my parents would have properly educated me. I am sure they made me apologize.  I doubt that they were even conscious of the depth of her pain at my remark. It went deeper, I am sure than just her hair. But they did not. I was five years old. But old enough to get more of a lesson than I did.

I was too young to have known better. But I know after growing up with my mom that she was a racist. She learned it somewhere. And never unlearned it, so by osmosis, I learned it too. And am still unlearning it, with current events finally getting my attention.

My family did not mistreat Emma. She was a part of the family. But to me, she was hired help. So I see a blurred line in that. I lived in a community of affluence, complete with a white only Yacht Club, where I swam and my siblings learned to sail. And I was oblivious to what was REALLY going on.

Today, I cannot speak first hand for what anyone else experiences when they are marginalized and murdered as a result of the ignorant judgment they suffer based on the color of their skin, because I live a privileged white life. And I have hid in that. But if I am going to fulfill my purpose while I am here, which is to love people, I cannot compartmentalize that anymore and say, “except for those people.” 

I have had two conversations today so far about what is happening in the world today. One, with a friend who is a middle aged white male. The other, a good friend also middle aged and who happens to wear a Sergeant’s uniform with the Tulsa Police Department.  Both conversations addressed the Black Lives Matter concerns that are in the headlines since the death of George Floyd, which looked like murder to me, as cities across the nation are seeing protests, fires and looting to protest inequality against people of color with the focus largely on our Police officers nationwide.  And all of the rest of the injustices that have been perpetrated on African American citizens of the country that I call home. 

There were two protests in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where I live, this weekend. The first, which I was at, which was motivated by the death of George Floyd, was a small gathering of a few hundred people around the deaths of many people of color at the hands of men who wear the uniform of law enforcement.

 Yesterday’s protest was to commemorate the 99th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. And there was a big rally around that anniversary. This was an attrocity that many people know nothing about.

(From Wikipedia under Tulsa Race Massacre)

 The Tulsa race massacre (also called the Tulsa race riot, the Greenwood Massacre, or the Black Wall Street Massacre) of 1921  took place on May 31 and June 1, 1921, when mobs of white residents attacked black residents and businesses of the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  It has been called “the single worst incident of racial violence in American history.” The attack, carried out on the ground and from private aircraft, destroyed more than 35 square blocks of the district – at that time the wealthiest black community in the United States, known as “Black Wall Street”.

More than 800 people were admitted to hospitals and as many as 6,000 black residents were interned at large facilities, many for several days.  The Oklahoma Bureau of Vital Statistics officially recorded 36 dead, but the American Red Cross declined to provide an estimate. A 2001 state commission examination of events was able to confirm 39 dead, 26 black and 13 white, based on contemporary autopsy reports, death certificates and other records.  The commission gave overall estimates from 75–100 to 150–300 dead. 

The massacre began over Memorial Day weekend after 19-year-old Dick Rowland, a black shoeshiner, was accused of assaulting Sarah Page, the 17-year-old white elevator operator of the nearby Drexel Building. He was taken into custody. A subsequent gathering of angry local whites outside the courthouse where Rowland was being held, and the spread of rumors he had been lynched, alarmed the local black population, some of whom arrived at the courthouse armed. Shots were fired and twelve people were killed: ten white and two black.[18] As news of these deaths spread throughout the city, mob violence exploded.  White rioters rampaged through the black neighborhood that night and morning killing men and burning and looting stores and homes, and only around noon the next day Oklahoma National Guard troops managed to get control of the situation by declaring martial law. About 10,000 black people were left homeless, and property damage amounted to more than $1.5 million in real estate and $750,000 in personal property (equivalent to $32.25 million in 2019).

Many survivors left Tulsa. Black and white residents who stayed in the city were silent for decades about the terror, violence, and losses of this event. The massacre was largely omitted from local, state, and national histories.

In 1996, seventy-five years after the massacre, a bipartisan group in the state legislature authorized formation of the Oklahoma Commission to Study the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. Members were appointed to investigate events, interview survivors, hear testimony from the public, and prepare a report of events. There was an effort toward public education about these events through the process. The Commission’s final report, published in 2001, said that the city had conspired with the mob of white citizens against black citizens; it recommended a program of reparations to survivors and their descendants  The state passed legislation to establish some scholarships for descendants of survivors, encourage economic development of Greenwood, and develop a memorial park in Tulsa to the massacre victims. The park was dedicated in 2010. In 2020, the massacre became part of the Oklahoma school curriculum.

(End of article.)

After the rally that happened during the day yesterday, it went on into the night, near where I live and while the unrest that developed on Tulsa streets did not measure up to Atlanta, Brooklyn or LA, I could feel it in my spirit at home. 

My house is less than a mile from where the protest had turned into a volatile scene. I watched live via Facebook feed from our local Fox news as a hundred or so people were filling the streets after Tulsa Police was asking them to stay on the sidewalks. Water bottles were thrown at Police and they responded with pepper balls. 

The crowds were dispersing, but the unrest was there. And it made me uncomfortable. Not for my safety. But for my part. Because I play one when I sit in my safety of white privilege, patting myself on the back to say that I have friends of color, as if that is enough. One , who owns the Oklahoma Eagle, the African American newspaper here in Tulsa, I say is my friend. But am I his?

The truth is, he is someone I rarely talk to. Or reach out to. Or act like a friend would act with. And he has been a friend to me and to my family since I was 19. He probably harbors no ill will to me, but there was a time when he showed up at my apartment, taking time from his busy criminal law practice, to be my friend. I was in the throws of depression and he was doing what God asks of him and of me. Loving all people. And on that day, he took me to a monastery in the Osage Hills. Acting out loud his love. For God. And demonstrating that love. For me. 

My friend who is a police officer is a good man. And a kind human being. He has been a good friend to me. Seen me at my worst and loved me when others were too uncomfortable to be with that. And he is being lumped in with the rest of the law enforcement officers. The ones who are hurting and killing while in their uniforms. And that makes me really sad. When I hear him after those who use his friendship with a phone call for police advice but also post from the safety of their Facebook keyboards unkind things about the police when he is one, hurting my friend who had done nothing to them.

The other friend, who just left my house, asked me what did I think of what was going on? Before that question, we were having a fun chat about love and relationships. But when the topic changed, the mood did too. It ended with a mutual agreement. As he heads to New Mexico to get his teenage son and bring him back to Tulsa to finish raising him, he was mindful of the fact that this child of his has grown up around white people in the desert and that Tulsa will be a new experience for him. And we both agreed that we have a part to play in the educating of our children as well as action to take ourselves to no longer exclude the concerns of the world by saying, “It’s their problem.” We both agreed that as human beings who share the responsibility to love all, we cannot discriminate. Anymore. 

There is no way for me to end this with something that makes me feel comfortable. So I will rest in my uncomfortable. And I am grateful for it. I am getting a wake up call. And if  being responsible to my part in any of this means, I sit in my own discomfort as I search my soul on how I can affect change, I think that is the least I can do.

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