Thursday, February 15, 2007

The post you all have been waiting for

Well, maybe not all of you but perhaps some.

Things got a little heated over at Neil's earlier this week. Well, they did for me at least. The thing is that what I wrote in comments there was only the tip of the iceberg for me. So here goes. And please pay attention because I don't know if these words will ever come from me again.

I grew up middle class. I was a deb. I briefly attended law school. These things I can hide if I choose but there's one thing that I will never be able to hide -- my race. Please bear with me if along the way I end up retelling stories previously told. I don't have the energy to go back through all of my posts for that kind of editing effort.

I was born and raised in California. My parents are Southerners who moved to California a year before my birth. Berkeley was a wondrous place to them. They had met white people before but they had never interacted with the level to which they were introduced when they chose to move to California. Because my parents are Southerners and they grew up during Jim Crow. And even if they now have White friends, there will always be a level of distrust of Whites for them. I understand completely. Needless to say, this caused many a clash when I was growing up. So much so that my mom and I ended up in family counseling over the whole thing my junior year of high school.

My high school was a strange place. It's located in a neighborhood that makes most people nervous after dark. During the time I was there, it was also the best high school in the district so the kids from the hills also went there. These were the majority of the people I saw in classes everyday. I learned to be a chameleon who could easily glide through all worlds. And along the way I felt like I had lost a huge part of myself. By my senior year, I could be in a roomful of friends and feel utterly alone. Why? Because somewhere along the way I had lost myself. It took a lot of years before I was able to find my way back. It's the price that one pays sometimes in trying to fit into the dominant society.

I went off to college and met wonderful people. A lot of the people who looked like me left after freshman or sophomore year though. No one had prepared them for the culture shock they would go through once entering college. I stayed because I did feel prepared. It didn't mean it was easy though. There were times when I would walk into my upper division classes and not see another person of color. Hell. Sometimes I could count the women in the room on my hands. And all the while, I would sit there thinking about what the people in the room thought of me. Because sometimes these folks would slip at parties and say things like, "You know. You're a good Black person." Nothing new but it still stings every time you hear it.

Kind of like my first month in law school. I had invited a few girlfriends over for dinner -- White and Black. (Coming from California, I found the lack of Asian and Latino students to be kind of strange.) For the most part, folks of different races didn't really interact socially at my law school. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that the place didn't integrate until the 60s. One of my Black friends shared during the dinner that she had overheard a couple of white males from our class saying, "You know. They don't really deserve to be here." She knew that they meant us. I pulled out the class composite so that she could ID them to all of us. Unfortunately, she couldn't. So we were left knowing that there were definitely people around who thought that we shouldn't be there. It makes you know that you have to prove them wrong.

Right before I chose to leave law school, I spent a summer clerking for a federal judge. He is a Carter appointee and more importantly, he used to live in the city in which I grew up. A city that managed to make it onto 60 Minutes when I was in high school. Why? Because the police officers had used the choke hold on an African American male one time too many. It wasn't the first time that someone died from this action in the city and I'm not sure that it was necessarily the last. But the community had had enough.

Oh and those high school classmates I mentioned? Not the ones from the hills, but the other Whites. Well, some of them had family members who were Klansmen -- or at least that is what I was told. I do know that around my junior year of high school the Klan had a march near an elementary school in my neighborhood right before Halloween. There were no trick-or-treaters that year because parents were afraid to send their kids out into the night.

But back to my law school experience. I learned then that African American males are a large percentage of the prison population in this country. And that when they were convicted of a crime, it was more likely that they would receive a longer sentence than their White counterparts. So when folks argued on Neil's blog that the decision in that particular case was creating two separate legal systems, all I could think was that this has always been the case.

As I stated previously, there were many things I did not state in my comments. Some of these ideas I shared with Neil via email and BWB during a phone conversation. As a person of color, I find it highly offensive for a person of privilege to tell me what equality should look like. Believe me. I'll know what equality looks like when I see it.

And BWB used a word in our conversation that I had not thought to use -- apartheid. But it made sense. Isn't that what the Jim Crow laws were all about? And yes, those laws are gone but there are still those who are benefiting from the system that they created -- the people of privilege. And yes, people of color can make achievements but they have to work much harder to reach those goals than people of privilege do. Because the deck has been stacked against them the minute they were born.

You think it's unfair that these African American youths were not tried for a hate crime? (And by the way, at least two of them are being tried for a hate crime. Probably the two who uttered the words.) I think it's unfair that I, and every other person of color, should have to jump through more hoops to make any form of achievement. I think it's unfair that children of color are made to feel that they have to have money in their pocket before entering a store. (A teacher at a workshop I attended recently shared the story of sending her biracial son into a store to look for a clothing item. He was to report back to her which item he wanted. He told her that he had to have money because even though he wasn't buying anything at that time, he knew that he would have to be able to prove that he had the ability to buy something in the store as he would be under suspicion otherwise.) I think it's unfair to walk into a store as a person of color and to either have people following you around because they think you are going to steal something or to ignore you because they don't think that you have enough money to shop in the store. (This has happened to me more times than I can count.) I think it's unfair that a person of color be pulled over because the police don't think that a person of color belongs in a certain neighborhood. (This happened to one of my college friends in her neighborhood.)

Yes, I do feel sorry for the victims of the crime. My family understands how that feels. Eighteen years ago my stepbrother was killed. He was out celebrating his college graduation and completing his LSATs. An African American male with so much promise gunned down in the streets. From what I was told, it was an argument over a parking space.

But hate crime? Well, at least two of the assailants are being tried under the enhanced provisions. But in some ways, I feel a great discomfort. Yes, literally they are guilty of a hate crime. But that was not the intention of the crime -- or at least not what I believe to be the intention. The intention was to give a voice to those to whom the law previously had not afforded a voice. People who had previously been victimized by the dominant society without recourse.

And so I love all the liberals out there who want to join in the fight for equality but then I am reminded of a song.

Who gave u permission to rearrange me
Certainly not me
Who told you that it was alright to love me
Certainly not me

Erykah Badu, Certainly

When we decide what equality should look like, we'll let you know how you fit into the picture.

I'm sure there's more but I'm getting tired. Probably from too many years of having this same conversation. Because there's always some well-intentioned soul out there who still doesn't quite just get it in my eyes. And besides, I've always loved a lively discussion.

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