33: Black History Month

“How many of you have ever been stopped by the police?” my professor asked.  Everyone’s hand went up.  “How many of you had to get out of the car?” All of the African Americans in the room kept their hands up.  “How many of you have had your car searched?”  All of the African American men kept their hands up.

I was raised in a small Wisconsin farming community.  “Diversity” in our town was defined by Mexican migrant workers brought in to work at the world’s largest sauerkraut company and two or three adopted kids.  I don’t have any memories of overt racial animosity.  I wasn’t raised around people using racist slurs, in fact to the contrary my parents would tell me it was important that people be treated equally.

Living in Charleston, South Carolina at 19 years old was the first time I lived anywhere that was truly racially diverse.  While attending a local college I interned at the Charleston County Solicitor’s Office, our equivalent of the district attorney.  When I didn’t have an assignment I was encouraged to watch court.  What I now know are totally routine hearings fascinated me, mostly because I just had so many questions.  Why were all the defendants black and all the lawyers white?  How does that even happen?  I started reading the charging documents as I did my filing.  A man wearing only socks zapped with 10,000 volts of electricity five or six times before police put him in handcuffs.  A stop that resulted in confiscating a small amount of marijuana for a tiny crack in the passenger side window.

My first job out of college was at a rape crisis center as a child victim advocate.  Part of my job was to attend crisis calls and forensic interviews of children who had potentially been physically or sexually abused.  I would follow up with their parent for ongoing referrals or crisis counseling.  I also helped to facilitate a weekly group at Florence Crittenton Home for Unwed Mothers.  Most of our clients were black.  I think back to that time and cringe thinking about how I was so worried about seeming knowledgeable and professional that I didn’t recognize my complete cultural ignorance.  Though well-intentioned things like refusing to conform to the habit of adding “Miss” before a mother’s first name or the way we went about teaching pregnant teens about AIDS in the African American community dismissed important history.

In his dense and meticulously researched book Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen highlights a number of eras in American history that have been systematically whitewashed.  What stories we tell, the hero, why they are the hero…all of these questions are answered through the lens of white people.  Not only do we not tell the stories of minorities in this country, but we actively perpetuate systems that disproportionately affect people of color.  Whether consciously or unconsciously, our  history as a nation has included racism from the moment white Europeans set foot here and that racism continues to be woven into the history we are writing now.

“So long as our textbooks hide from us the roles that people of color have played in exploration, from at least 6000 BC to the twentieth century, they encourage us to look to Europe and its extensions as the seat of all knowledge and intelligence. So long as they say “discover,” they imply that whites are the only people who really matter. So long as they simply celebrate Columbus, rather than teach both sides of his exploit, they encourage us to identify with white Western exploitation rather than study it.”  ~Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen

I am part of this.  I have accepted these simplifications as true.  I have ignored that they matter.  I haven’t always taken the time to sort out what my role and responsibilities are as a person with racial privilege. Last year at a small group talk-back session after a one-woman show about the aftermath of Ferguson, we were asked to talk about a character we identified with.  I described a white character who felt stuck about when and where to speak up for racial justice.  I relayed a scenario that happens with some regularity where a client uses the n-word in conversation with me, not directed at anyone but just as they are relaying the story of their case.  It makes me extremely uncomfortable.  I have a physical reaction.  I also never know the thing to do.  Should I stop the conversation and tell the client that language is unacceptable?  That could jeopardize the trust I’m trying to build with this person.  As I was talking about this to a group of about six people of various racial backgrounds, hearing the words come out of my mouth I immediately knew that the right thing to do was to say something.  I was embarrassed I struggled so much with this question.

Discussing race is uncomfortable.  I worry about inadvertently saying or doing the wrong thing.  It is really tough to know whether I’m doing things that help or hurt.  But I am trying to learn.  I live in a diverse city that also happens to be the most racially segregated city in the U.S.  I work in a field that requires me to be that white lawyer speaking on behalf of so many clients of color.  I am grateful to have a diverse group of friends.  I need to be better for all of these reasons.

February is Black History Month.  Why do we need Black History Month when there is no White History Month?  Because we already have a word for White History.  We just call it “history.”  For a variety of reasons, impressive African Americans who overcame all obstacles to achieve history changing things haven’t gotten the air time that their white counterparts have.

For the tenth year, friend and Milwaukee municipal court judge, Derek Mosley, invites Facebook followers to read and share a daily post about an influential African American in history.   Some posts are now receiving over 70,000 shares.  Read more HERE . The Baby Buddhist is proud to share these posts for the rest of February at my Facebook page.  Also watch for more Black History Month-inspired weekly posts this month.