The Uncomfortable Truth: Learning to relearn
Updated: Jun 17, 2020
I have struggled with what I want to write, with how I want to speak about my feelings in this newest outrage. My words, truthful as they are, seem like just more fluff from someone who is not directly affected by the brutality at hand. But I realized the important and saddest part is, my voice may be heard when others’ voices are not.
As a child raised in the Bible Belt in the 70’s/80’s, there was a socialization that was intrinsic to my society. It was not directly addressed or promoted aloud, but it was absolutely everywhere. (I will not attempt to break down the history of the American South in a blog post, but this statement will not come as a surprise to most.)
Our friends all looked like us. Most of our classmates looked like us. They worshiped like us. They lived like us. For heaven’s sake, I can still remember the exotic discovery of a “Jewish kid” that lived on our block, and how we all wondered what he ate and what “really went on in that house”.
And as I grew older, moving through middle school in the late 80’s and hitting high school in the 90’s, the world around me was changing. Expanding. Opening up. I began to form my own thoughts and opinions and doing my own learning apart from what was handed to me. I also realized I was gay.
I’ve only had the privilege to live in New Hampshire for a year and a half now. The entire rest of my life was spent among states below the Mason-Dixon, which I have learned since moving up here is not a reference any Northerner really makes, because it’s ridiculous. So I cannot speak to how things were up here during that time.
In the South, however, being gay and being black were both terrible things – to be judged and rectified if possible, ignored if not, and abolished if not able to be ignored. This created the strange effect of giving those in the LGBT+ community a visual reference for safe spaces.
If I walked into an establishment and it was full of only white people, I knew instantly it was not a safe space for me to be found out as gay. When I was younger, this often meant I stayed anyway and just pretended not to be who I was or only engaged in surface conversation. As I grew older and more secure in myself, it meant I would not patronize that business or remain in that space.
For me, the presence of black and brown people was a comfort, not a threat. It meant this was a place where the ignorant would not bother to go. It meant I could relax. I could breathe. I could not worry about holding my wife’s hand, or forgetting to take off a rainbow necklace.
It meant I could have a nice dinner without the constant fear of confrontation and all my senses on high alert, rather than having some random drunk pound on the window over and over next to where I was eating with my wife and kids, screaming “fucking dyke!” after he left because I asked him to stop screaming the word “faggot” around my small children. Just one instance.
If there were people of color around me, it meant I was surrounded by others who knew what it was to be afraid. And that made me feel safe. Whether or not it was warranted, whether or not it was fair to judge spaces and places or even people like that, it was a survival mechanism.
But it was not until my 30’s – my 30’s! – when I was discussing this paradigm of feeling safer in spaces where POC are present with my friend Joe, that I came to understand my ‘shared fear’ experience and interpretation of that community was largely as a tourist. People of color had been a safe marker for me, but there were very few, if any, safe markers for them.
The way Joe explained it is still burned in my brain years later. He’s a tall, strong, hilarious black man. Soft spoken, but one of those people who always surprise you when they do talk because it’s so funny or poignant. I, on the other hand, am a small, white, often opinionated woman (smaller back then, but weren’t we all), full of unknown white privilege.
So on this day, he purposely took a seat so he wasn’t towering over me, and sat with me eye-to-eye. He told me he was glad I found comfort in those spaces, but that I needed to understand that was a privilege. I did not, indeed, understand.
At this point (and now, as well), people would not know my sexuality just by looking at me. I did not look like what was considered “a typical lesbian” in that time – I had small children, drove a minivan, had long hair and wore mostly flouncy skirts. Most importantly for this conversation, besides some Cajun and Native American blood knocking around in there somewhere, I am neon white.
Being white was a tick mark in the right column. That was an automatic entry that Joe could never have. The other stuff could all be altered or changed, or I could simply glide through life without ever having to address my sexuality in a public venue if I didn’t want to. It was possible. People had been doing it for centuries.
I can still see his eyes as he told me, “Jeni, I can’t take off my skin. There’s no escape. There’s no avoiding it or just not mentioning it. Yes, being gay is part of who you are, but it’s only a part that people see if you want them to. The first thing people see about me is that I’m black, and everything else is affected by that.”
I was shocked. Not at the truth of that statement, because of course it was true, but by the fact I had equated my own struggle – which was entirely valid and important – with a struggle I had no concept of.
It changed how I saw absolutely everything. It wiped away at least a layer of the privilege that had been taught to me as some kind of gross right of being born with a certain amount of melanin. It wiped away my anger at how I was being treated by the people around me, and created a new paradigm where I could be angry about how ALL marginalized people were being treated. It got me out of myself and into the journey toward realism.
I didn’t think much about this comparison of white spaces being intrinsically unsafe for me until we moved up here. Suddenly I was awash in white faces, and my survival instincts kicked in hard core.
Not safe. Don’t hold her hand. What is that bulge - is he carrying? Don’t say wife, say spouse. Should I take the stickers off my car? What do I tell my kids? They were freaked out, too, because though things are moving (so, so slowly) forward in the South, the overall situation is pretty much the same. So they had learned the same lesson.
We were on high alert, ready for a fight. My son chose to mostly just stay to himself. My daughter took the yeah-what-about-it position that comes so easily to teenagers. We steeled ourselves for the onslaught of judgment and sideways looks, wondering if we had made a terrible mistake.
But the fight never came. The looks were all kind. I ventured out into the community and found open hearts and open minds behind all those white faces like mine. I saw a Black Lives Matter flag with a Pride flag on the UU church downtown, and I teared up. What WAS this place?
We were all confused (save my wife who was raised in Merrimack and never completely understood the depth of my fear in the South), and my body literally had to readjust to not being flooded with adrenaline on a constant basis. I’m still not there yet.
Moving to New Hampshire was a challenge in relearning to trust people who look like me, and in relearning what had been built into my subconscious without my knowledge.
And that is what this period in our history is calling for.
I thought I knew what it was to be afraid and oppressed. And I did, to a degree. But I was making a false equivalency between the plight of POC and my own, and that was wrong.
Acknowledging this difference does not invalidate either experience, nor does it detract from them. Instead it gives the real picture, and allows my energy and resources to be spent where the need is the greatest. It allows me to let that pain in – the pain I struggle to imagine as a mother – of black mothers everywhere who are afraid for their babies, and to realize that is a more urgent pain right now than mine.
And I would like to say here that while I am eternally grateful to Joe, both for the revelation and for his friendship, it was not his job to teach me those things.
It is not the place of POC to educate those who have oppressed them. That is on us.
No, we are not responsible for what our ancestors did. Neither are the black and brown communities. What we are responsible for is the systems of oppression that have grown up over those acts of our ancestors and worked to keep others ‘in their place’ since the founding of our country. Yes, it’s embarrassing to admit our own ignorance. Yes, it’s uncomfortable to talk about.
But this is not a competition, guys. This is not to see which lives matter more than others. This is a time to explain why Black Lives Matter is not a call to arms to destroy the white race, but a reckoning for us to realize that for all lives to matter, ALL LIVES HAVE TO MATTER EQUALLY TO EVERYONE.
Right now, that is not our reality.
Our nation is in triage, and the worst wounded get the most attention first. That is where we are. No one is invalidating my pain, or your pain, or anyone else’s. We’re acknowledging the pain of others right now in a conversation that is so ridiculously overdue. We are thinking beyond our own fear, outside of ourselves, to feel the fear of the collective.
This is not an ‘either/or’ situation, my friends. This is a ‘yes/and’ situation. We all deserve love. We all deserve to be recognized and seen and respected for our inherent value as a human being and a divine soul. The people of color in our nation have not had that privilege. It’s time they did.
No Justice, No Peace.
All love, fellow travelers.