The day after Donald J. Trump was elected, my three freshmen granddaughters, Sunnie, Sophie, and Elizabeth texted me. We’d discussed Mr. Trump’s misogynistic behavior. Of all the back-and-forth texts the one that gut-punched me were two words from Sunnie, my multiracial granddaughter; “I’m scared.”
There are all kinds of wake-up calls. The last four years have accelerated my cultural and racial awakening. I know white male misbehavior first hand and have no fear of confronting it. It explains why I ended three long-term relationships. My partners seemed unable to grow up. I know what I bring to the table and am never afraid to eat alone. Skin color and ethnicity is a different matter. The privilege of white skin and blue eyes was bestowed on me from the cradle, a license of entitlement. Through eyes that lacked an understanding of others’ experiences, I accepted the white culture’s ideals, young women it deemed physically beautiful and money.
Daughter Rakel, a Women’s Study major, is quick to correct my ethnic and cultural ignorances. “Mom, you don’t call people Oriental.” So doing, she explained, I ignored the diversity within different Asian cultures, Chinese, Koreans, Tibetan, etc. It was like people calling all white people German or British. She was right; I wouldn’t like to be called German or British. I identify with the Scandinavian culture. More recently (I can be a slow learner), I asked her seven-year-old son if he played cowboys and indians. This time all Rakel had to say was, “mom!” I saw the insensitivity in my words without her having to explain, a sign of my increased awareness.
Writing this article, I reached out to Rakel for the correct adjective for her niece, Sunnie. She answered, biracial or multiracial, then added, “One thing that comes to mind is that many non-white people would prefer that there is no modifier at all unless it is somehow specifically necessary for what you are talking about. As in you do not want to say, my Indian friend or my black neighbor. You just say, my friend or my neighbor.” I recalled a family-in-law member saying, “Do you mean a dot or a feather indian?” My then college-age daughters were beside themselves that he would say something so inappropriate. “What’s wrong with him?” one of them grumbled. I thought they were making a big deal out of a harmless comment. But their anger was real. I left the issue unresolved, along with other differences that seemed to be growing between us with each semester.
This month, I was talking balcony to balcony with a Colorado neighbor, a black woman, the creator and publisher of Culturs Magazine. Watching me working on my laptop, she asked what I was writing. I explained I was writing about a black man imprisoned for decades. A look in her eyes and, aargh, why did I say that? She would have figured that out without me reminding her of the high incidents of black men’s incarcerations. We’ve all been there. Of course, I could be imagining her reaction, but I don’t think so. A better pondering is how can I get better at being aware and spreading words of equality?
We interpret other people’s behavior through our cultural programming and have a natural affinity with people who are “like us.” Awareness of human diversity can mean choosing non-white dolls for your grandkids. Reading fairy tales where the princess has black curls and brown skin. Sharing traditions held by American Indians. The composition of the U.S. population is changing. It’s time to celebrate our differences instead of asking everyone to fit into our idea of what it means and looks like to be an American. We can be one quilt of many designs. We can be a pot of stew with every piece of meat and vegetable retaining its flavor.
If one white woman actively working on increasing her awareness keeps making missteps, imagine those not trying to change or worse yet pushing against it as in, “now they say I’m a racist.” True, it’s not only white people who are racists but when you are on top of the heap, got there stepping on the backs of non-whites, you have the most to unlearn and relearn. Uninformed, unmindful, unconscious will not make America great. Removing the “un” to informed, mindful, and conscious puts us on the right side of history. Humanity has a common cause and singular destiny.
There is no escaping that tech platforms are with us and influencing how we see the world. They are what the Wild Wild West used to be, a place with no rules or forms of etiquette to follow. We can’t control what others say, but we can take a mindful pause before posting. Why am I posting this? Would I want this on the front page of the Washington Post where it would be challenged? How will my post impact people who read it?
Racism is an invisible wall segregating mankind. More and more of us want to take down the wall of segregation that exists in our minds. Through cracks in the old thinking, we see a legal system that favors white and wealth, we see discrimination in unequal health care, neighborhood schools, and lack of access to healthy food. Learning the history of systemic racism in America transports us from darkness to light. The upcoming presidential election is a referendum not on Mr. Trump, but on us. It’s not blue versus red, but right versus wrong. It’s about who we want to be as people and a country. Some speak of it as fighting for the soul of our country. That’s what is at stake. Number 45 will be a footnote in history while we, through protests, voting, and a growing sense for fairness, will move the bar of justice forward.
John Lewis’ final written words: “When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war. So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.”
Fiction and nonfiction to increased ethnic and cultural awareness:
- The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (American Indians’ struggles)
- The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Battles between slavers and the enslaved)
- How to be an Antiracist by Ibra X. Kendi (The focus on policy instead of changing minds)
- The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson (Migration of black citizens to the north and west)
- The Pioneers by David McCullough (The settling of the Northwest Territory)
- A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn (What you learned is school revised)