Thursday, July 28, 2016

Invitation to My Dinner Party

I have learned, finally, that I do better when I pay attention to my heart. Not the emotional life of my figurative heart, although that's entirely true as well. I actually mean my Heart. The physical one in my chest. It beats faster sometimes, like all hearts do. But it has taken me a lifetime to sharpen my awareness surrounding my physical heart's increases in tempo.

My heart has been a freaking yo-yo for the past week. I've calmed it, then recalmed it... Then read facebook. Then  calmed it. Then watched the news, then clicked on links connecting me to articles. Then re-calmed it. Then re-calmed it again. Then, again.

And I sure as heck know better than to write when it's going gangbusters in there. My experience of a fastly beating heart is lower functioning reasoning skills.

It's finally even.

So here I go.

I think pontificating about sensitive topics in the absence of sharing personal experience with the charged topic is like shoving a plate of food in someone's face instead of inviting the individual to your home for dinner. It's an intrusive, abbreviated version of what could have been a meaningful experience. We are good at not-framing...and getting better. We post and tweet and like and blast and shove all sorts of dinner (often with fastly beating hearts) into recipients' faces, whether hunger is involved or not, without them having the slightest clue about what got us there. Of course, they return the favor with an equally large plate of food. As much as we care not to admit it - particularly when others arrive at places different than where we are standing - I would argue that folks come to conclusions for reasons that would resonate with anyone put in their shoes. Their history, their stories, their relationships, their family of origin, their city of origin, their baggage. Brene Brown is quoted saying, "Maybe stories are just data with a soul." If we separate the soulful data attached to our personal life stories from our talking points, we lose. It takes time, but I'm a believer in STARTING with the story.

I'm starting with my own. And it's going to be a dang long dinner party. Find a comfy chair.

The events in our country's post-Independence-Day-week meant a lot of soul searching for me (in-between fastly-beating-heart episodes), and I needed to go on a wild goose chase for both my deeper, difficult-to-retrieve and right-on-the-surface memories in order to trace the dusty footprints leading me to my beliefs about race in this country now.


NOTE 1: I feel very, very confident that I screwed this up. I am not a real writer or researcher. I have not read one academic book on Race In America. I'm just me. Little ole me. I feel certain that I made at least one inference that was unfair and formed at least one conclusion based on faulty connections and made at least one blanket statement based on lazy generalizations. At best (and what I'll hope for), this will come off as dumb and at worst, potentially offensive and insulting. Please forgive me ahead of time. Whatever this writing experience lacks in smartness, it makes up for in honesty. Focus on that. Honesty. Of the author. Not her stupidity.

NOTE 2: I am not expecting this to change the world. Telling this story to myself is, as it turns out, what mattered the most. So, I wrote it for me. I'm just inviting you along if you choose.

NOTE 3: Memories are crazy things, in that they are often all wrong. Or, at the least, not reliably accurate. I suppose my whole point in encouraging "the telling of the story" is to demonstrate how we all come to the place we are in because of our life-acquired perspectives. Memories are not short of those, either. I haven't filtered my memories through any sieves but the sieve of me. Sorry if you were there, and I got it wrong.

NOTE 4: The statistics about population and demographics almost all came from susburbanstats.org, so as to keep the numbers comparable. When a suburb was too small to be noted on that site, I turned to Wikipedia. I only included four race groups (White, Black, Latino, and Asian), only because those were the most prominent of all represented.

NOTE 5: I began this entry the week of July 12th, thinking I'd hammer out a thoughtful account in one night. When that night turned into the next morning (Sweet Jesus, was that day of parenting tough) and I hadn't scratched the surface, it became clear to me this was a long-term project. It has taken a few weeks, pecking away, to get to publishing.

The Elementary Years

Raised in Louisville, KY.
Population: 597,337  Race breakdown:W(hite): 70%  B(lack): 22%  L(atino): 4% A(sian): 2%

FIRST GRADE:
I went to elementary school with a lot of black kiddos, a few black teachers, and one black principal. Mrs. Hodge-Trice, my 1st grade teacher, was my favorite teacher of all time. She was black. But I remember her most because at the end of each grading period she would buy a slew of toys and place them out on a table and, based on our work ethic in math activities, we were allowed to go select one. What kid doesn't like toys? Truly, human children are shallow creatures.

My principle, Mrs. Johnson, had the longest, most glamorously long legs and wore her hair in a highly-perched bun nearly every day. If I'm being honest, I thought Mrs. Johnson was the most beautiful woman I'd ever known up to that point.

I tell these stories because they said to me, while still color-blind, "Mrs. Hodge-Trice sure is nice. She likes me. I like her. She buys toys." and "Mrs. Johnson is who I want to be... she is smart, happy, and tall." (P.S. When I was in kindergarten, a girl on the bus said that I ought to check to find out if I was a midget... I mention this, because I have always been hopelessly short-legged and in elementary school particularly pip-squeak-like. Tall women made me salivate.). So, there really was no valuable take-away at the time outside of toys and height. But I do think visiting Mrs. Hodge-Trice every few years in her classroom all the way until she retired (The last time I returned with a fellow student, Rachel Jacobs, when we were young adults) sure was cool. And I think observing a black-AND-woman in a position of leadership as a child (principal may have well = God) had to have gone a long way. They were both ladies I admired and respected. And they are both black. That's not novel or all that unique. But it's a very special part of my story.


FOURTH GRADE:
Hillary Jackson was one of my buddies at Chenoweth Elementary School. Maybe I was an idiot, but I don't think I did the best-friend-thing in elementary school. I had lots of girl pals. And Hillary was One Of My Girlfriends. Hillary is black. Things were honky dory until I remember that at recess one day during whatever-game-it-is-that-3rd-graders-play, I must have somehow left her out. Did I not tag her for re-entry into a freeze tag game? Not invite her to do clapping games? Not pick her for my kickball team? Or maybe a group of us kept her "it" too long without offering to switch out? I didn't know what I did then, and I do not know now. But Hillary knew. And she told me about it. Her words were something like, "You're going to be like that... I see," and stormed off. You have to know that I didn't do Be Like That. If I hung my hat on anything as a young tike, it was least-likely-to-get-into-trouble-or-cause-a-rift. I was the essence of innocence, compliance, and non-conflict. Basically, I was a weenie. And so, I was dumb-founded by this. The next day was science fair day and my stand-up presentation board was right next to Hillary's. So I approached her about her earlier words, wanting to understand. "You know what I'm talking about," she responded. I SWEAR I DID NOT KNOW WHAT SHE WAS TALKING ABOUT. What I do know is that although we remained friendly with one another for several more years, Hillary and I split up on that day. Something inexplicable was between us. And I let it happen, because I didn't know what else to do. I'm pretty sure I processed this out with my parents, because it bamboozled me so. I have NO CLUE what they said. None. But I, to this day, have a sad spot in my heart for having lost Hillary. And for her having lost me. It took a few years for me to reflect on this life event with any degree of clarity. But at some point I concluded that Hillary was noticing something that I had the priviledge not to
notice. She was noticing that we 4th graders were slowly ceasing to be colorblind. Perhaps her wordlessness surrounding it reflected that she hadn't quite put all of her observational pieces together yet either. But it was clear that she FELT it.

I tell this story, because it said to me, "Black kids notice stuff white kids don't." Even as I still assert
that Hillary's beef with me that day was most certainly something done unknowingly on my part, it still matters. It STILL matters. It still deserved examination. And discussion. I only wish there had been an opening to do so.

The Middle School Years

SIXTH GRADE:
I went to Westport Middle School for grades 6-8. Westport, as I remember it, was a pretty colorful place. It was also a relatively rough school, although I do not mention those statements back-to-back to connect the two. I do not know how the aggressive behaviors (read: fights) related to race (black vs. black? white vs. black? white vs. white?) or if there was a relationship at all.

But I do have a pretty clear picture of the attendance grid on the gym floor in P.E class.. You know what I mean? When the gym teacher, who has like 45 kids to manage at once, can only take attendance civilly if we are separated out, cross-legged on little masking tape dots, equidistant from one another, and told to be silent until further instruction... I was sitting in my little spot, when I heard from behind me the word, "Cracker."

Yum! Snack time! Who knew P.E. could be so great!

Did I already mention that I was a naive soul? Before too long I realized that it was me who the black girl two grid dots away was talking to and that she was calling me one, not offering me one. My memory says that we did not know one another's names or favorite colors or boy crushes. Acquaintances, we were not. I do remember smiling. Because, that's sort of my thing when I don't know what else to do. And waving, looking into her eyes,  I hollered "Hello." Black-girl-I-didnt-know-two-dots-away looked at black-girl-one-dot-away-from-her (likely her accomplice in the ordeal) pretty confused; they were searching each other's faces for what was next. And there was no next. That was the end of that. I didn't know it, but I think I diffused something. Why were they messing with me? Were they looking for a reaction? Where they hoping to feel some power over a shy, intimidated soul who would shrink and do nothing? Or were they hoping for aggression, excited at their chances to engage in a fight? When I offered neither weakness nor anger, instead nice... there wasn't much else to do.

Again, I know I brought this home to my parents. And AGAIN I haven't the foggiest notion of how they coached me. My guess is that I laid on the nice, with a smile, "hello" and eye contact, ever day thereafter to make it impossible for me to be seen as rude or racist or whatever they deemed as cracker-like.

The reason I tell this story is because it counted as the very first time in my twelve-or-so-year-old life that I remember being part of a REAL, bonified racial moment. And because I learned the power of head-on, looking-someone-in-the-eyeballs, unexpected "nice" in response to a charged moment. I wish I could tell you that I learned those girls' names and sought - at the very least - acquaintance with them. That would have been an even braver and more productive response. Glenn Doyle Melton wrote recently that "fear cannot survive proximity." I believe this. But even though I didn't get closer than the couple grid-dots away during attendance and all I could muster at the time was a smile, "hello," and eye contact, I suppose that counts as proximity when cowering was an option. Even today, when faced with the choice between silent, distant retreat or aggressive, in-your-face rage (the ole fight or flight model), I try really hard to choose neither. Not when the third option of nice proximity is available.

SEVENTH GRADE:
At the beginning of summer, I had a tradition of inviting my schoolmates to an end-of-school-year party in my back yard. We lived in a brick house in St. Matthews, a highly sought-after inner ring suburb to downtown Louisville composed of older, sometimes historic, homes. Although it was modest in size (3 bedrooms), my house's location and charm spoke, "We are well off." I didn't know this for a long time, but we were only able to swing that house because my father's parents had lived in it before we did. We became owners after they passed. All of my neighbors were old and white. I hankered for playmates. When I went girl scout cookie selling each year, since my parents taught me to be respectful to the geriatric community, I had to say "yes" when each neighbor invited me in and consequently satisfy each and every one of their unmet social needs. Lots of Old People = Lots. Of. Stories.

I remember the year Turquoise White came to my party. She was one of my black classmates. I remember her as the most talkative and bubbly soul. Everybody liked Turquoise. And, as far as I could tell, Turquoise seemed to like everybody. When Turquoise's mom picked Turquoise up that afternoon, she lingered for a long time on our back porch, where Mom had set out snackie foods. I only know this story, because Mom retold it lots of times. Otherwise I would be clueless, since Turquoise and the rest of us were busy milking all the play time we had left. My mom had invited Turquoise's mom to help herself to the snacks. And she ate and talked and ate and talked. And Mom kept politely chatting, too. Mom was beginning to wonder if she were planning on staying all afternoon, when all at once she began loading up a paper plate WHILE talking on and on. (It's worth mentioning here that, while everyone loved coming to our house and eating my mom's food, she was NOT a fancy host... I imagine brownies, turkey sandwiches, pickles, and maybe cheetos on display). Turquoise's mom piled high and deep. High and deep. And concluded it with a paper napkin, unfolded and draped over the top layer. Then, finally, off Turquoise and her mom went, perhaps to feed her whole neighborhood. My mom always told this story with warmth. I think she really did think Turquoise's mom was a stitch, just as I had always thought Turquoise was.

The reason I tell this story is because it stuck out to me that Turquoise and her mom were out of their element. I remember it took quite some time (over the phone! imagine that!) to give directions to their family to my house. And that, heck, since it was an ordeal to get there, maybe Turquoise's mom figured she may as well stay a bit. And get a meal in in the process. And maybe one for brother and sister. Although I had several black peers to my house over the remaining years I lived at home (SHOUT OUT TO HIGH SCHOOL TRACK AND FIELD END OF SEASON PARTIES!!!), this might have been the first, and it made me recognized how pale my whole neighborhood looked. I may have gone to a school that taught me the richness of socializing with lots of kids different than myself, but I came home every day to a lot of people looking just like me (except with a lot of wrinkles).

The High School Years

duPont Manual High School was a magnet school in our very large Jefferson County School system, meaning one had to apply in order to become accepted as a student there. It was located in downtown Louisville. If it helps at all, imagine my school bus snatched me up, got me to the local neighborhood high school (which would have been my assigned school) where I transferred sleepily to a different bus, and then made my way along interstate highway to my final destination, a Gothic-style three story building. The whole rigamarole lasted about an hour and a half (for other friends 2+).

It Was Worth. Every. Single. Minute. And then some.

My Manual experience held two magical qualities that I later came to discover were not to be found in most of my college and adult friends' high school experiences. The first magical quality was that everyone wanted to be there. They had written compelling essays and submitted detailed transcripts to ensure it was so. We wanted to be there to get smart, do well, and be successful both there and beyond. It wasn't spoken. It was in the air. In my insecure moments, the full-of-expectation air was sometimes hard to gulp, but - man - once airborne, greatness is viral.

The second was that it was wildly diverse. In. Every. Way. I do not know if this is true, but it felt to me that the minority populations combined came close to equalling the white population. Since it drew from the entire Jefferson County district (which is a very, very large place) and since neighborhood and proximity-to-building had nothing to do with how the demographics shook out, it was like the United Nations. Blacks, Indians, Asians, and on and on. Non-racially speaking, Manual also celebrated as one of its magnet programs The Youth Performing Arts School (YPAS), which drew in whimsical ballet-dancers, piano prodigies, theater nuts, and aspiring painters - so there was an artsy crowd, too, along with all the other typical-high-school subgroups: goth, gay, skater, computer geeks, pot-head, preps, jocks... held together by the common thread of wanting to get smart.  This slice of heaven was where I called home for four beautiful years.

In addition to classes, I ran Cross Country and Track and Field all four of those years. And although my Cross Country Team was composed of only gangly, cooky runners who were white, my Track and Field experiences yielded lots of black friends. Two of my four years running distance for the Track team were under the leadership of a black coach. At some point Coach somehow got his hand on public transportation vouchers and transfers, allowing those who used it to get home free. Because my parents loved that I chose Manual but did NOT love what it was doing to their gas budget and personal time, I rode the public bus home most days (before my driver's license and beater car replaced it). I remember being the only white runner who stood in line when those were getting handed out. Again, part of my story.

While at Manual, I built social skills that made me feel confident talking to any single soul I wanted to talk to. I lifted weights and small talked on strength training days right next to Line-Backer-Looking shot-put throwers (did I mention I'm little?). High School was when I learned all sorts of super-un-important-but-interesting-to-me facts about black people's skin (it CAN get sunburnt) and hair (it is generally NOT washed every day) and was exposed to public display of gay affection and what people act like when they're high and that guys in ballet leotards in Calculus class can be totally fly. On longer bus trips to and fro track meets at different schools, I remember all of us athletes, exhausted from an afternoon exerting ourselves in humid-heat, found time to give shout-outs and high-fives to EACH member of the team, from the mostly-white 1 mile and 2 mile runners to the mostly-black 100 meter and 200 meter runners. And when it came time to pick a senior prom theme song, the Student Council Steering Committee, of which I held office, had bold conversations about how to make selections. In the end, it was voted on by the entire class, but the Steering Committee was responsible for the choices. I remember that it was very on the minds of leadership how not to pick songs that lent themselves too strongly to one population of students or another. We had LOTS of populations, so song-choice deliberation was tedious.

We could roll with differences at Manual High School. And race was just one of them.

I tell this story (of my general high school experience), because it frames my obsession with diversity ever since. It was like crack-cocaine. The growth I experienced from 1993-1997 had a lot to do with Magical Quality Number One. But I give Magical Quality Number Two the same, if not more, credit for the shaping of my launch-into-the-world status on graduation day. Truth be told, it was the hybrid of the two that formed Magical Quality Number Three: young people of every walk of life accepting each other and concurrently working toward the common high standard of greatness for themselves.

The College Years

Columbus, OH
Total population: 787,000 Race breakdown: W: 61% B: 27% L: 5% A: 4%

Westerville, OH
Total population: 36,120  Race breakdown: W: 88% B: 6% L: 1% A: 2%

Even though I went to a big-ger high school, I knew pretty emphatically that I wanted a smaller undergraduate experience; big schools sort of made my head spin. And haven't I mentioned really preferring [intimate] dinner parties? Anonymity is for some. It is not for me. So my search quickly narrowed in on private schools. One of the first stats I looked up for each of the smaller universities I was considering was "% of minorities." I wanted people of color to be at my dinner party!!! Sadly, I learned quickly that single digit percentages were more the norm than double ones. In the end, I landed on Otterbein College (now University) in a small suburb (Westerville) outside Columbus, OH. It barely made it over the two-digit hump at 11% minorities at the time (that percentage has since grown dramatically). And it met all my other criteria... So Ohio bound I was.

When I first arrived, I wondered if I had misinterpreted the brochure. Did they mean eleven TOTAL??? Because I'm a little slow, it took me about a full year to recognize that most of my college-mates came from smaller Ohio towns. Even though they chided me for my southern draw and asked repeatedly whether I awoke to roosters back home every morning, the large sum of my Ohio mates were raised in far more rural settings than I. When I told them my bus hit the interstate to get me to high school every day, it about blew their minds. The interstate was how people arrived TO their towns. Not travelled within them.

So 11% minorities probably felt like the mother-load-of-diversity to them. But, for me, it seemed puny. You should have seen the extra-curricular group I joined, The Gospel Choir. We had soul, thanks to LaJoyce, our director, infusing it... but we were the whitest dang gospel choir I ever done seen. The racial-diversity-addiction I could thank my high school experience for was suffering major withdrawal. And, not sure if anyone is paying attention to the city stats, but Columbus's race-breakdown revealed a smaller white presence and bigger black presence than Louisville - which was NOT what I was experiencing. But, then again, I was insulated twice. Once, inside a suburb several miles further out from downtown Columbus than my old stomping grounds were to Louisville's city center. Second, inside my college campus's bubble. No car = I ate, slept, ran, studied, dreamed, sororitied, doughnut-ran Otterbein College. I tried not to notice, and - honestly - I became a very happy clam at Otterbein, even with one of my heart's longings being only partially met.

Then, one day, I met this guy. The-guy-that-became-my-husband, Scott Arthur. It was at the end of my college experience that we started dating... and for us, that meant long, long talks about EVERYTHING. He was one of the raised-in-a-small-Ohio-town guys, except  - because of several moves - he was raised in several of them (his last residence before college was Logan, Ohio - Total Population 7,152... Race Breakdown: White 97%). As we evolved from fledgling romance to a richer and more vulnerable place, we began sinking our teeth into the tender-er topics. You better believe one of them was race. P.S. Scott is white. Did I say that? Anyhow, now you can picture him All White.

He did not share the optimistic outlook I did about race. For instance, when I talked about how communities and schools diverse with people of color were such beautiful and desirable things, he looked at me like I was literally flesh-and-blood Pollyanna herself. He challenged me by explaining that there were way too many things standing in the way of that reality. Although he didn't graduate with any black or browns in his high school class, by then he had already picked up on the public perception that the more minorities there were in a neighborhood or a school, the lower the quality of either experience. I was horrified and, quite frankly, not sure I liked what he had to say OR him at all. NO NO NO... I said. All you have to do is look at what the social fabric was at my high school. SEE? I didn't make that up. IT HAPPENED! I was THERE! He was interested to know my experience... and he did think it was beautiful. But he also thought it was very, very, very unusual and that it was perhaps naive to believe it to be as re-creatable as I did.

WAIT. Just as I felt that my mostly-homogeneous private college surroundings at the time were insulated, it may have been that my high school experience was just as bubble-like? I thought THAT was real. And THIS was superficial.

Which is it? Which is REAL? And if neither, WHAT THE HELL IS REAL!?

But then I got close to graduating and Getting A Job moved to front burner. So I tabled my existential crisis, and sent applications out... teaching applications to AmeriCorps and Columbus Public Schools, almost-but-decided-not-to entrance applications to seminary and graduate school in order to pursue psychology, and ultimately to Powell United Methodist Church for a Youth Director position.

Out of College

Columbus, OH
Total population: 787,000 Race breakdown: W: 61% B: 27% L: 5% A: 4%

Powell, OH
Total population: 11,500 W: 88% B: 1% L: 1% A: 7%

Powell United Methodist Church is located in Powell, Ohio, a suburb even slightly further removed from Columbus's center. Powell had, at one time not so previous to my calling it home, been a farming town, rich with fields and barns and the like. By the time I worked there, it was quite the residential hub. Columbus executives were like fish in a barrel. It was [mostly] manicured, mall-and-retail-happy, and always providing the construction sounds of large, expansive homes going up.

The youth group that I served there was composed mostly of students in the Olentangy School System (although some Dublin or Worthington Cities), and the schools were populating rapidly with children of these [mostly] affluent Powell families. Since I was raised in a frugal home with nearly no name-brand things, I remember feeling initially very intimidated by teenage girls in my youth group who maintained acrylic nail manicures. Of course, everyone was lovely. Truly, lovely. If there is one thing I've learned, it's that people are people. I fell fiercely in love with my people (kids) at church, as it ought to be. Every single little white one of them.

I am setting the stage for a conversation I once had with some of my older youth. We had organized a first-summer-out-of-college gathering and I beamed as they each shared their coming-of-age experiences that first year in the adult world. Their adjustments had been without too much incident. However, one of the girls, Ashley, shared a thing that troubled her. She said that she felt it was a disservice to have been surrounded by nothing different from her in high school. She said her days at Olentangy High School did not put her in touch directly with any black kids (a few were there, just not in her classes). And, as a student at Miami University (private university in Oxford, OH), where  - again - all of her particular classmates and doorm-mates shared white skin, she felt failed again. She confessed that she didn't know if she had had a conversation or interaction of any length with a black person in her life. And that, at the very least, the thought of having one left her feeling uncomfortable and intimidated. She was not being disrespectful or meaning anything disparagingly towards black individuals (like, for instance, that there was a reason to feel intimidated)... She was being honest. And, if anything, I think she felt despairingly towards herself, as a result.

I tell this story, because - although I had lived and worked with these students for two full years at that time - I hadn't connected the dots that PEOPLE ACTUALLY FEEL THIS WAY. Of course they would, though, when you look more closely at it, which Ashley made me do. And, to perpetuate things (and which Ashley was alluding to), when you get to a certain age and have not claimed mastery over something, there comes a point when it is natural to then avoid-that-thing. Like, "by now I should know this, but I don't. So I'll just put myself in situations where I won't have to actively not-know it." I actually do this with people who've introduced themselves to me more than two times, with whom I find myself often in public places, and whose name I either cannot seem to remember or cannot seem to pronounce. I stop attempting to get that information (THEIR CORRECT NAME), and just say, "Hi" in a noncommittal not-real-direct-eye-contact sort of way.  So, could Ashley - now a young adult - be in a position of resignation, embarrassed about but accepting of the fact that she is and will always be not-comfortable around black people, not ever doing the real-eye-contact thing? If this is a real dilemma, which I know it is because Ashley is real (and pretty awesome), how many young white people have this in common?

My "Second" Job

Peace Corps, Namibia Africa...
Race Breakdown: W: 6% Coloured or Baster (mixed race): 4%
Total populations of the cities to which I traveled:
Otjiwarongo (28,249) and Okahandja (22,639) and Groot Aub (6,000)

Then, I joined the Peace Corps. I could write volumes about the two and a half months I lived and trained in Namibia, an African country just west of South Africa, but I won't. I'll only tell two stories.

The first is that one of the fellow American Peace Corps trainees was named Amona White. She slept in the dorm-style bunk room adjacent to mine where we volunteers were stationed temporarily to undergo the first session of training. She was the only black member of our group, beautiful, athletic-looking, feminine, and introspective. As always happens in camp-like situations (living together, eating together, experiencing bouts of diarrhea together... ), you begin gelling with your peeps. We girls, in those two rooms, found ourselves before bed - spoon in collective peanut butter jar, hair in pony tails on top of heads, feet dangling over bunk edge - sharing little bits of our lives with one another. We shared both our American lives from back home AND our experience of life in this crazy new place called Africa. Once many nights like this had passed, Amona chose a moment to share about what it felt like to be an African American in Africa. First, let's start with what she expected. She explained that, as she prepared to come to Africa for two years of service, somewhere in her consciousness existed this expectation of a homecoming of sorts... not with balloons, and confetti, and big posters reading, "WE LOVE YOU!!!" But a more subtle embracing into a larger community to which she belonged. She was fully American, but she was African by heritage, by all means. But what she experienced was about as opposite of belonging as possible. She actually felt shunned a bit...quite a bit. She said that it was her belief that the ripples of the Apartheid in Africa's southern countries (**primarily the country of South Africa, but Namibia, due west of it, was impacted as well), ending just nine years previous to our group's landing on Namibian soil, was to blame. That, although racism and persecution of black Africans by white Africans was at the root of the Apartheid movement, what came with it nearly a decade later was a certain unshakable revere towards white individuals. She couldn't believe it. She was shocked that the effects were most postively-affecting for white folks, instead of negatively-affecting. I sat there and listened, and thought, "Whites treated blacks in this region like scum. SCUM. And still make out like bandits. What gives?" I saw it in my own host family too, who were a mixed race. In the class system I observed while living with them, there was a superiority the lighter-skinned black Africans held. And, truth be told, there was outright racism from the light-skinned black Africans towards the more native, dark skinned Africans, insofar as their language and their ways were often made fun of (To be fair, there seemed to be infighting between most ethnic groups). And so, it seemed to me that not only was Amona not being celebrated for being the only black volunteer in our American group, she watched US WHITE VOLUNTEERS get treated preferentially. Had Amona not been a stoic soul, I would have wrapped my arms and legs around her and buried my head in her tank top that night and told her that I am sorry people have to SUCK as much as they do.

The second story from my time in Namibia was after language class one day. Vetendoah, one of our Namibian trainers, was hanging out with the volunteers during the free time we had stretched before us. By this time, I had lived in the country long enough - part of which involved the stint in the home of my host family where I went and did EVERYTHING they did - to recognize the strong Christian presence. I had attended Catholic mass with my host family, and it appeared also that all of the Namibia trainers exercised their Christian faith in one capacity or another. I asked Vetendoah, a little nervously, about whether there were any other religions prevalent there. I say "nervously," because the Christian faith-life of most Africans with which I had come into contact was rather rigid. It supported the literature about Namibia we got sent stateside expressing the importance of remaining like Switzerland when it came to religious discussions... basically, just hide anything non-mainstream-Christian so as to avoid major catastrophe. If you're gay, don't talk about it. If you're agnostic, don't talk about it. If - God forbid - you are atheist, DON'T TALK ABOUT IT. Vetendoah, not one to shy away from the truth, explained that there were still some who celebrated their more native spiritual traditions and rituals, often in small groups and often late at night so as to not cause a ruckus. I didn't ask, but I remember immediately imagining a big ole fire and dancing around it. She said, though, that the regular Sunday morning Christian worship was upheld faithfully as well. She also shared that most of the Namibians that she knew had a Christian name in addition to their real name. I asked her hers. I cannot remember what she said, but I remember it being something like "Samantha" or "Mary" or "Alice." And all the Christian names were like that. Although Vetendoah didn't seem to be, I was deeply troubled by this. I don't know the specifics of how the country of Namibia was exposed to Christianity in the beginning, but the European-sounding "Christian names" sure gave me a hint. Did missionaries (many light-skinned?) descend upon this place, seal the native people's fates in heaven with Christian names and Christian churches and Christian bibles, then take off? Forgive me for my ignorance on the matter, and for making Christian missionaries sound like awful people. But I can't sidestep what appears to be both a religious event and a racial event (Christian conversion of African people) all jumbled together. (Note: I am a Christian, a confused one most of the time, and sort of proud of that. But, considering my confusion, I'm pretty devout in my belief that Jesus taught us best how to live and love and that submission to God and His ways are what we're here to do.) I am sure missionaries sharing the Christian message had Jesus, great intentions, and purity in their hearts... And maybe that's what God wanted them to do with their time. But maybe it wasn't. After Vetendoah and I talked, this is what I played out in my head: white Christians with both Christian customs AND white customs evangelize to the African "savages" whose own connection to God (and even whose names) were Not Good Enough. I can't help but wonder if that also meant Not White Enough.

I tell these stories, because while race relations in Namibia, Africa are altogether different than that in the United States (apples, oranges), what followed me there was the same: whites seeming to get the better end of the deal (I know my experience was very isolated - a couple short months in a couple small Namibian towns - so please know that I know that this may not have been at all the case for other volunteers in my group or for other whites across the continent of Africa...but I'm me and these stories spoke to me in this way). Further perplexing, this was in a country where the race statistic were reversed! (United States: Blacks make up 13.2% of total population while whites make up 62.6%, Namibia: Blacks (of all different ethnic subgroups) make up 90% of total population while whites make up 4%). If anything, I was prepared to endure the experience of feeling an outsider, and being treated perhaps poorly as a result of it. The fact that I didn't was lovely, but the opposing result troubled me more.

First Teaching Jobs

Cleveland, OH.
Total population 396,815 
Race Breakdown: W: 37% B: 53% L: 9% A:1%

Cleveland Heights (apartment living):
Total population: 44, 121 
Race Breakdown: W: 49% B: 42%  L: 1% A: 4%

Shaker Heights (first house):
Total population: 28,448 
Race Breakdown: W: 54% B: 37% L: 2% A: 4%

I returned back from Africa earlier than I was supposed to in order to pursue a life with That Guy Scott. We had been broken up when I had applied to the Peace Corps and had rekindled our embers weeks before I left. By golly, distance does make the heart grow stronger. Damn him for wrecking my plans. After 2.5 months of Peace Corps training, I found myself back in the states driving myself to Cleveland, OH, where Scott lived, in search of math teaching jobs mid-year. I finished out that school year in the South-Euclid School system working with at-risk freshmen. The next year, I snagged a SWEET teaching job at Shaker Heights Middle School in the sought-after Shaker Heights School System, where I taught three levels of 7th grade math all day long: College Prep (behind), Middle-of-the-road (can't remember the actual name, but the curriculum was taught at-level), and Accelerated (I always had to study my lesson notes super hard, because these kiddos were bright and way above level). I loved teaching at Shaker Heights Middle School. It reminded me lots of my duPont Manual High School days and I felt I was RIGHT THERE IN THE MIDDLE OF IT... at the intersection of white and black families who elected to send their kids to a school system just as much because of the prestigious history of academic vigor as for the cultural experience. There was just one problem: Unlike my high school days where the demographics seemed to be more equally distributed among high-level classes and lower-level classes, my experience at Shaker was as follows: The middle-level class was a nice blend of races. Yet, there was only one black girl total in my collective Accelerated classes among the sea of white students and there was Not One White Face in my collective College Prep classes.

It was also while living and working in Shaker Heights that I learned about housing... I only know the following to be true, because it was openly discussed by teachers and administration: The white students mostly lived in houses in the community and the black students by and large were living in townhouse and apartments in patches throughout town. I do not know when it was that I personally began making associations between race and socio economics. Probably before this season of life... But this was the first time, as a new teacher, that I saw the race/ socio-economics piece coincide with academic performance. It was stark as I started out the school year, impossible to miss, and by the end of the year my thinking had normalized it to be "just how it is."

During the year teaching there, I worked extensively with my counterparts on professional development days updating the curriculum and pacing charts for those three tiers of 7th grade classes. There were four of us, two white women, one black man, and one black woman. The black woman was named Tracey. Tracy was a woman with a presence. She was a large woman, a smart woman, and an opinionated woman. She and I made no sense in some regards because of what little we had in common (short white running girl filled with optimism and naivety about her teaching career meets wise, seasoned, out-spoken black woman with seniority who has seen a lot go down as she's traveled around the block a few times - in her car), and in fact we had a couple rifts on account of these differing perspectives, but I found a kindredness in Tracey, too. Her ability to not take life too seriously. Oh, and her sarcasm. I definitely loved that woman's sarcasm. One day, during one of those professional development assignments (let the record show that classroom teachers ALMOST NEVER go "out" to lunch), we elected to take her car to grab a bite. It was just us three ladies at the time. And we had pulled up to a gas station while out. The car's conversation had just been about politics, for the 2004 presidential campaigns were heating up. With no trepidations (typical me), I asked her who she was voting for. She looked across at me like I was short a couple crayons from a full box. I said, "No seriously, WHO?" When she told me it was John Kerry, she left me to pump gas with these words, "You'd have to be dumb to be black and not be a democrat." BOOM. I do not know, still, how much credence to grant this statement, for Tracey is one black person, but it certainly caused me to pause. Frankly, I'm still pausing over that one.

When Spring was upon us that same year, and I had learned that I was moving back to Columbus, OH due to a job opportunity for Scott there, I remember being troubled about which school districts to apply to for a teaching job. Tracey found herself in my classroom one day, and when I shared that I loved my job at Shaker and loved the challenge of attempting to meet the diverse educational, emotional, and social needs of the lower kids' needs (because that was where my heart was), but that I was also EXHAUSTED after one year. That I didn't know if I could be a good teacher of at-risk or inner city populations (was considering Columbus Public again) if I too wanted to start a family. She told me this: "Go with the suburban school systems, Tricia. You will find that there are plenty of problems there that need you to help navigate their solution. You need to think about yourself and your family's needs, and there is nothing wrong with that. You won't regret it."

I know this is going to come out wrong, so I'll lead with that. But there was something about an educated black woman who had been-there-done-that in a public school with a robust black-and-somewhat-at-risk population encouraging me to take "an easier job" in the burbs that held more gravity and permission-giving to be released from my own virtuous standards than had it come from anyone else. And so, I ended up applying to the school system of my old stomping grounds: Olentangy Public Schools.

Before I move on to The Next Season of Life, I want to share about Scott's Cleveland adventures. The reason he was in Cleveland was to complete his graduate degree in Nonprofit Organizations at Case Western University. While taking classes, he got into cahoots with non-traditional (read: old) student John Zitzner, with whom he co-founded a nonprofit called E-City (Entrepreneurship: Connection, Inspiring, and Teaching Youth). E-City became the cornerstone of Scott's Cleveland experience. It was a nonprofit dedicated to teaching inner city Cleveland students (67% of whom are black) financial literacy and entrepreneurship skills. As the nonprofit gained momentum, John (who is white, btw) and Scott expanded the staff to include Nicole, a black student and acquaintance in one of Scott's graduate classes. Nicole evolved into a dear friend of both Scott's and mine over those few years. I mention Nicole, because - since teacher-colleague Tracey was a couple decades my senior and all my black students were a decade-and-change my junior - she was the only black peer I spent time with personally during my Cleveland days. And, she was the only black guest at our wedding a year later.

Since Scott and I left Cleveland, John Zitzner and staff have segwayed their mission from after school programming to building schools (John, Nicole, and Scott had concluded that E-City's mission was beautiful, but short-sighted... that, while meaningful to urban kids to better understand financial literacy in a theoretical sense for 2 hours per week, it wasn't moving the dial to translate that their overall life direction was altered for the better... John, never to let a small obstacle get in his way (the man is as tenacious as hell), redirected all efforts in order to produce a new baby: Breakthrough Schools. While still there, Scott learned a bunch in their research leading up to Breakthrough Schools' launching; the three of them traveling to many different urban school set-ups across the country THAT WORKED and PERFORMED HIGHLY. Here's what was shocking to me but consistently true nationwide: in order to have a significant impact on kids in low-income urban households and tumultuous surroundings, the students and their families must buy in to an unconventional school model involving long school hours (less time in their home/neighborhood culture), a longer school year (less summer in their home/neighborhood culture), a dress code (showing no clues of their home/neighborhood culture), and strict guidelines about what behaviors of success looked like and didn't look like (which often ran counter to their home/neighborhood culture). The entire two first weeks of each school year is dedicated to training school culture (it's boot camp), including how to shake an adult's hand, how to maintain eye contact during lessons, and that hallways passing time is to be done silently. It's no-nonsense. And a bit militant. But it works. See at:  http://breakthroughschools.org/

We got married while living in Cleveland. We bought our first house in Shaker Heights in Cleveland. I broke into teaching in Cleveland. Cleveland was a place that I entered kicking and screaming (grieving my Peace Corps dreams, torn from everything I knew, finding it excessively difficult for my bubbly charm break through the social fabric of the communities there...most Cleveland folks I knew had all their friendship slots filled and were quite established there... transient new-comers they needed not), but then I found myself leaving kicking and screaming, too. The two years in-between had been enriching. There's one reason I know I came to love the city. Look at the stats. 53 % black. FIFTY THREE PERCENT (not to mention the rich ethnic landscape of many groups of immigrant Americans - Little Italy's smells were just a mile from my apartment at one time and the restaurants in general were plentiful and interesting, along with the people). Although most of my neighbors and new-found friends were white, there was a RICHNESS to Cleveland's diverse population that trickled down to me.

The reason I tell this story of our Cleveland time is because it cemented what most everyone in America somehow comes to know at one point or another. Large city school systems struggle more than suburban school systems and often more than rural systems. Furthermore, there is a connection between lower socio-economics and urban households sending their children to public school. And, finally, percentages of people of color in larger densely-populated cities are generally significantly higher than either in the suburbs of those cities or rural areas. Put all that together, and we've got struggling big city school systems educating low-income kiddos, many of whom are minorities. At least, that's what I observe to be true. That's serious. Really serious.


I tell the Breakthrough Schools back-story, because it showed me the crazy-high number of families, mostly black, who were hungering for a better school for their kids, even when what they were signing up for meant a complete override of their sons/daughters lives up to that point. Parents were lining up for the opportunity to have their kids... for lack of a better word... hijacked. Because it meant that they would escape what would otherwise be a common future for at-risk city kids: school drop-out, poverty, crime, and all that goes with it. It showed me the opposite of complacency. These parents were willing, honest-about-their-situations, and desperate for another way.

First teaching Jobs in Cleveland and then Back to Columbus, OH


Cleveland, OH.
Total population 396,815 
Race Breakdown: W: 37% B: 53% L: 9% A:1%

Cleveland Heights (apartment living):
Total population: 44, 121 
Race Breakdown: W: 49% B: 42%  L: 1% A: 4%

Shaker Heights (first house):
Total population: 28,448 
Race Breakdown: W: 54% B: 37% L: 2% A: 4%

I returned back from Africa earlier than I was supposed to in order to pursue a life with That Guy Scott. We had been broken up when I had applied to the Peace Corps and had rekindled our embers weeks before I left. By golly, distance does make the heart grow stronger. Damn him for wrecking my plans. After 2.5 months of Peace Corps training, I found myself back in the states driving myself to Cleveland, OH, where Scott lived, in search of math teaching jobs mid-year. I finished out that school year in the South-Euclid School system working with at-risk freshmen. The next year, I snagged a SWEET teaching job at Shaker Heights Middle School in the sought-after Shaker Heights School System, where I taught three levels of 7th grade math all day long: College Prep (behind), Middle-of-the-road (can't remember the actual name, but the curriculum was taught at-level), and Accelerated (I always had to study my lesson notes super hard, because these kiddos were bright and way above level). I loved teaching at Shaker Heights Middle School. It reminded me lots of my duPont Manual High School days and I felt I was RIGHT THERE IN THE MIDDLE OF IT... at the intersection of white and black families who elected to send their kids to a school system just as much because of the prestigious history of academic vigor as for the cultural experience. There was just one problem: Unlike my high school days where the demographics seemed to be more equally distributed among high-level classes and lower-level classes, my experience at Shaker was as follows: The middle-level class was a nice blend of races. Yet, there was only one black girl total in my collective Accelerated classes among the sea of white students and there was Not One White Face in my collective College Prep classes.

It was also while living and working in Shaker Heights that I learned about housing... I only know the following to be true, because it was openly discussed by teachers and administration: The white students mostly lived in houses in the community and the black students by and large were living in townhouse and apartments in patches throughout town. I do not know when it was that I personally began making associations between race and socio economics. Probably before this season of life... But this was the first time, as a new teacher, that I saw the race/ socio-economics piece coincide with academic performance. It was stark as I started out the school year, impossible to miss, and by the end of the year my thinking had normalized it to be "just how it is."

During the year teaching there, I worked extensively with my counterparts on professional development days updating the curriculum and pacing charts for those three tiers of 7th grade classes. There were four of us, two white women, one black man, and one black woman. The black woman was named Tracey. Tracy was a woman with a presence. She was a large woman, a smart woman, and an opinionated woman. She and I made no sense in some regards because of what little we had in common (short white running girl filled with optimism and naivety about her teaching career meets wise, seasoned, out-spoken black woman with seniority who has seen a lot go down as she's traveled around the block a few times - in her car), and in fact we had a couple rifts on account of these differing perspectives, but I found a kindredness in Tracey, too. Her ability to not take life too seriously. Oh, and her sarcasm. I definitely loved that woman's sarcasm. One day, during one of those professional development assignments (let the record show that classroom teachers ALMOST NEVER go "out" to lunch), we elected to take her car to grab a bite. It was just us three ladies at the time. And we had pulled up to a gas station while out. The car's conversation had just been about politics, for the 2004 presidential campaigns were heating up. With no trepidations (typical me), I asked her who she was voting for. She looked across at me like I was short a couple crayons from a full box. I said, "No seriously, WHO?" When she told me it was John Kerry, she left me to pump gas with these words, "You'd have to be dumb to be black and not be a democrat." BOOM. I do not know, still, how much credence to grant this statement, for Tracey is one black person, but it certainly caused me to pause. Frankly, I'm still pausing over that one.

When Spring was upon us that same year, and I had learned that I was moving back to Columbus, OH due to a job opportunity for Scott there, I remember being troubled about which school districts to apply to for a teaching job. Tracey found herself in my classroom one day, and when I shared that I loved my job at Shaker and loved the challenge of attempting to meet the diverse educational, emotional, and social needs of the lower kids' needs (because that was where my heart was), but that I was also EXHAUSTED after one year. That I didn't know if I could be a good teacher of at-risk or inner city populations (was considering Columbus Public again) if I too wanted to start a family. She told me this: "Go with the suburban school systems, Tricia. You will find that there are plenty of problems there that need you to help navigate their solution. You need to think about yourself and your family's needs, and there is nothing wrong with that. You won't regret it."

I know this is going to come out wrong, so I'll lead with that. But there was something about an educated black woman who had been-there-done-that in a public school with a robust black-and-somewhat-at-risk population encouraging me to take "an easier job" in the burbs that held more gravity and permission-giving to be released from my own virtuous standards than had it come from anyone else. And so, I ended up applying to the school system of my old stomping grounds: Olentangy Public Schools.

Before I move on to The Next Season of Life, I want to share about Scott's Cleveland adventures. The reason he was in Cleveland was to complete his graduate degree in Nonprofit Organizations at Case Western University. While taking classes, he got into cahoots with non-traditional (read: old) student John Zitzner, with whom he co-founded a nonprofit called E-City (Entrepreneurship: Connection, Inspiring, and Teaching Youth). E-City became the cornerstone of Scott's Cleveland experience. It was a nonprofit dedicated to teaching inner city Cleveland students (67% of whom are black) financial literacy and entrepreneurship skills. As the nonprofit gained momentum, John (who is white, btw) and Scott expanded the staff to include Nicole, a black student and acquaintance in one of Scott's graduate classes. Nicole evolved into a dear friend of both Scott's and mine over those few years. I mention Nicole, because - since teacher-colleague Tracey was a couple decades my senior and all my black students were a decade-and-change my junior - she was the only black peer I spent time with personally during my Cleveland days. And, she was the only black guest at our wedding a year later.

Since Scott and I left Cleveland, John Zitzner and staff have segwayed their mission from after school programming to building schools (John, Nicole, and Scott had concluded that E-City's mission was beautiful, but short-sighted... that, while meaningful to urban kids to better understand financial literacy in a theoretical sense for 2 hours per week, it wasn't moving the dial to translate that their overall life direction was altered for the better... John, never to let a small obstacle get in his way - the man is as tenacious as hell - redirected all efforts in order to produce a new baby: Breakthrough Schools). While still there, Scott learned a bunch in their research leading up to Breakthrough Schools' launching; the three of them traveling to many different urban school set-ups across the country THAT WORKED and PERFORMED HIGHLY. Here's what was shocking to me but consistently true nationwide: in order to have a significant impact on kids in low-income urban households with tumultuous surroundings, the students and their families must buy in to an unconventional school model involving long school hours (less time in their home/neighborhood culture), a longer school year (less summer in their home/neighborhood culture), a dress code (showing no clues of their home/neighborhood culture), and strict guidelines about what behaviors of success looked like and didn't look like (which often ran counter to their home/neighborhood culture). The entire two first weeks of each school year is dedicated to training school culture (it's boot camp), including how to shake an adult's hand, how to maintain eye contact during lessons, and that hallways passing time is to be done silently. It's no-nonsense. And a bit militant. But it works. See at:  http://breakthroughschools.org/

We got married while living in Cleveland. We bought our first house in Shaker Heights in Cleveland. I broke into teaching in Cleveland. Cleveland was a place that I entered kicking and screaming (grieving my Peace Corps dreams, torn from everything I knew, finding it excessively difficult for my bubbly charm break through the social fabric of the communities there...most Cleveland folks I knew had all their friendship slots filled and were quite established there... transient new-comers they needed not), but then I found myself leaving kicking and screaming, too. The two years in-between had been enriching. There's one reason I know I came to love the city. Look at the stats. 53 % black. FIFTY THREE PERCENT (not to mention the rich ethnic landscape of many groups of immigrant Americans - Little Italy's smells were just a mile from my apartment at one time and the restaurants in general were plentiful and interesting, along with the people). Although most of my neighbors and new-found friends were white, there was a RICHNESS to Cleveland's diverse population that trickled down to me.

The reason I tell this story of our Cleveland time is because it cemented what most everyone in America somehow comes to know at one point or another. Large city school systems struggle more than suburban school systems and often more than rural systems. Furthermore, there is a connection between lower socio-economics and urban households sending their children to public school. And, finally, percentages of people of color in larger densely-populated cities are generally significantly higher than either in the suburbs of those cities or rural areas. Put all that together, and we've got struggling big city school systems educating low-income kiddos, many of whom are minorities. At least, that's what I observe to be true. That's serious. Really serious.


I tell the Breakthrough Schools back-story, because it showed me the crazy-high number of families, mostly black, who were hungering for a better school for their kids, even when what they were signing up for meant a complete override of their sons/daughters lives up to that point. Parents were lining up for the opportunity to have their kids... for lack of a better word... hijacked. Because it meant that they would escape what would otherwise be a common future for at-risk city kids: school drop-out, poverty, crime, and all that goes with it. It showed me the opposite of complacency. These parents were willing, honest-about-their-situations, and desperate for another way.


BACK TO COLUMBUS, OH
Total population: 787,000 Race breakdown: W: 61% B: 27% L: 5%A: 4%

The four years we spent back in Columbus, the place of our Alma Mater and where we first became a couple, were relatively uneventful, racially speaking. We ended up settling in an inner-ring suburb called Clintonville which we loved, and, whose schools fell within the Columbus Public Schools boundaries. As we were beginning our family, Scott and I had lots of conversations about whether we would move to a different burb before our kids were school-aged or stay in the expansive, urban school district that  contained some lovely, high-performing pockets (Clintonville being one of them), but was also full of less-than-awesome overall ratings.

Scott worked at a private K-12 school in Upper Arlington, and I worked as a math teacher in the Olentangy School System. And we attended worship at Worthington Presbyterian Church. Homogenous. Homogenous. And homogenous. I remember the over-simplified metaphor I used, when asked about the comparison of Cleveland to Columbus: Cleveland was like rocky road and Columbus is vanilla. There was a richer and more scrumptious way about Cleveland, for me. Columbus has it's own corner on diversity, but - for me - it didn't touch Cleveland's.

Rochester, MN

Total Population: 106,000 
Race breakdown: W: 81% B: 6% H: 5% A: 6%

Rochester, a small town about 1.25 hours southwest of the Twin Cities, is a funky little place. It is (barely) on the map only because of The Mayo Clinic, an international medical destination. To give you an example of this, what 100,000 person town do you know with an INTERNATIONAL airport. People from Saudi Arabia and San Diego and Brazil all come to Mayo when no one else can fix their bodies. This is important information, because, although I think a small town such as Rochester would normally suffocate me, three was a rhobustness about it due to the power-house of Mayo. More restaurants, more establishments, more shopping, more highly educated people, more stoplights than had it been any other 100,000 person town. Still, it was surrounded by fields of soybeans and corn. And, still, look at the percentage of whites. This was by far the whitest place I had ever lived.

We lived there for 3.5 years. Scott worked at the Mayo Clinic as a development professional and I busied myself with raising our growing family and working part-time at one of the middle schools in the Rochester School system, the only one there was. I remember the culture shock of less African Americans. But, from the school standpoint, what the population lacked in African Americans students, it made up for in African refugees students. The basement classroom I taught in for half the day was where practicing Muslim students (often refugees) could go to in place of the cafeteria during fasting religious holidays. I would have my planning period during this time and often be found at my desk plugging in grades, while Mr. Nur, the Somolian teacher charged with their oversight, would welcome these students by name and exchange banter, often a mix of English and the language they shared. I feel embarrassed that I don't know more about the refugees' connections to Minnesota, much less Rochester. But many of them, I recall, had gone through a lot. Several of my own African students had spent numerous years before their move to the states in Egypt and other not-their-home-country countries seeking a place to live that wasn't worn torn. Although there definitely was a bit of segregation between the white students and the refugee students when left to socialize on their own, I was incredibly happily surprised at how well the classroom setting worked. The headdresses and holiday-observation and accents and everything else different about these Africans was overall well respected.

I tell this story, because it was my first exposure to a population of people in America who were born in Africa. I remember time and time again, when describing a student to another teacher or analyzing subgroup scores in a teacher meeting, having to suck back in the words "African American" when I really meant "African." I grew up learning to refer to all black people in this country as "African American." In Rochester, I was seeing two faces of the black community, those whose families had been living in this country for generation upon generation: African American... and those born in Africa and who were fiercely and desperately learning how to be American.

Back to Columbus, AGAIN

Columbus, OH: Total population: 787,000 
Race breakdown: W: 61% B: 27% L: 5% A: 4%

Upper Arlington: Total population: 33,771 
Race Breakdown: W: 92% B: less than 1% L: 1% A: 4%

Then, we moved again. Back to Columbus. Scott was offered a position at Nationwide Children's Hospital, also in development, and for this transition, pregnant with our third, I decided to put teaching on hold. I became an all-the-way-stay-at-home mom, so getting our neighborhood selection right was super-important in my book. We ended up choosing Upper Arlington, yet again, another inner ring suburb to Columbus's center. Inner ring suburbs, we came to find out, were our thing. They mean less land and houses closer together and less spacious bedrooms (well, ALL rooms) and somehow that all equals out to MORE COST. But it has always been worth it, in Scott and my minds', to say no to size and yes to location. We're burb-y but not THAT burb-y. I remember having a panic-attack, though when we were preparing to sign the contract for our house... UPPER ARLINGTON IS SO WHITE. 92% white, in fact. AND SO AFFLUENT. The median household income was 92K.

I remember a conversation with a dear friend Katie at the time. "My kids won't have ANYthing close to what I had when I was growing up if we send them to this school system!" What I meant was: They'll miss out on the richness of socializing with diverse populations, they'll think that it's normal to have fancy birthday parties with ponies (*we never, during our Upper Arlington residence, went to a birthday party with a pony present, but you get the sentiment*), they'll be entitled little white snots. She comforted me, "Tricia, it's you and Scott who form their outlook on the world. Sure, their surroundings do too, but you'll always supplement with other experiences and not let them be so one-dimensional." Truthfully, I'm not sure exactly what she said, but it was something like that. My own hopeful self-talk may have filled in some holes.

Upper Arlington, just like every other place we lived, was great. Katie was right in a lot of ways. Although Upper Arlington was rather insulated, surrounding it was the largest public university in the country, The Ohio State University. One mile that-way-ward from our house was a movie theater and retail space (the Lennox) which brought college students and Columbus peeps together with Arlingtonians (and Grandvillians) to form a pretty decently diverse little hub. And the church we chose, King Avenue United Methodist Church would find us sharing the pew with gays, blacks, latinos, straights, white-hairs, sorority sisters, transvestites, internationally adopted kiddos, and about everything inbetween.

As for U.A. itself, I had heard rumors that the social fabric of Upper Arlington lifers (those who had grown there and either never left or returned and had a network) was a tough one to break into, yet I found everyone to be kind and welcoming. I do remember wondering, though, whether that would have been the experience if I were not white. The only black people I saw in U.A. were mowing lawns, and that is not an exaggeration. It disheartened me - FAR from what I imagined in my early 20s - but, then again, I was up to my eyeballs in life and spit-up and diapers. And it was a happy life. So, I hung my hat on what we were offering our kids at church and Target, and then went to go change another diaper.

Heading West to Denver, CO

Total population: 600,000 
Race Breakdown: W: 68% B: 10%  L: 31% A: 3%

Take a moment with the above race demographics. Now, another.

I was way too busy with scheduling moving trucks and finalizing temporary housing and picking out tile for a renovation project on our new house to do ANY homework about Denver before we plopped on its westward soil. I HAD NO IDEA THAT MOVING WEST WOULD MEAN SAYING GOODBYE TO BLACK PEOPLE. 10% in this vibrant metropolitan community. 10%!  And look at Latinos with a whopping 31%! It took me a couple months to recognize it on my own... We moved in the early Summer, and it took a lot of running around both in my temp housing location and into the city for me to notice. I still don't know if it is common, in general, for the black population to grow more sparse the further west one travels in the United States. But, Denver's makeup, at the very least, feels WAY different from that of similar-sized midwest cities.

Greenwood Village, CO
Total Population: 11,215 W: 94% B: 1% L: 3% A: 2%

But we didn't settle in Denver. We settled in Greenwood Village. Remember how I told you we weren't super-burb-y people? Eating. Words. Now. Because, Greenwood Village is further out than any other suburb we've lived in (yet still only 20-30 minutes into the city). Our kids attend a Cherry Creek School District school: High Plains Elementary. Greenwood Village is whiter than Upper Arlington, based on the stats. And yet I must comment that High Plains Elementary seems to be an exclusive little gold mine that defies the rest of Greenwood Village's statistics. High Plains, if it were to have a flag it waved in our little community, would wave one of racial and socio-economical diversity.

When we showed up those first few days and weeks of school, though, I didn't get it. Scott LITERALLY had to spell it out for me. He informed me that I was looking for black kids. What a numb nut!!! Since in my formative years, I had associated diversity with African American people, I couldn't SEE the Latinos. Couldn't see them as making our school diverse, anyway. Like black people have the monopoly on diversity. Ugh, how maddening it is to be stupid, white, and me. Our school is represented by a lot of minority populations, but its pretty obvious the biggest one is Latino. And, again, this has been explained to me by the fact that our school's physical boundaries, unlike the other Greenwood Village elementary schools, includes several affordable townhouse and apartment buildings on the perimeter of the border.

So, here I am, in an expensive house in an affluent suburb. And I have a gift right before me that most folks with expensive houses in affluent suburbs (at least based on MY experience - review Powell, OH and Upper, Arlington OH above) don't get: the diamond-in-the-rough High Plains Elementary School. Principal Derek Mueller really, really GETS IT, too. He said to me recently, "We have a reputation for being 'diverse' and that's wonderful, but that fact alone means almost nothing... it's what we DO with it that counts."

My subdivision, although I dearly love it for a variety of reasons, I can tell you, does not have one Latino family from our elementary school that I know living in it. I do not see Latino High Plains Elementary families walking in my neighborhood, shopping at my grocery store, dining at the restaurants I dine in, participating in my kids' sports team, attending my younger one's preschool, or playing at the parks I play in. This troubles me. Am I the only one? Here is my life, 15 years after graduating from college the heterogeneous-community-infatuated dreamer that I was, playing itself out the opposite of how I had hoped...These socio-economical disparities and housing segregations are the very things getting in the way of that idealistic community of harmonious (racial and all other types of) diversity.

I assert that we cannot expect our kids to form real and lasting friendships with kids different from them unless they not only go to school together but are also in community with one another, too (that goes for us adults, too... we parents cannot form lasting relationships with other parents different from us unless we are in community with one another). It's certainly more challenging to construct "in community" without physical proximity. But I never was one to shy away from a challenge.

For, there is such a thing as a spirit of community. And, what I know about the word "spirit" is that it is boundless and borderless and can surprise us all.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The REST of the Dinner Party

MOST OF DINNER PARTY OVER... AREN'T YOU GLAD YOU STAYED? BUT DON'T GO HOME YET...

I've only really begun...The meat of this "party" has been my backstory, that which frames what comes next...my musings on the topic of racism, particularly in light of the shootings which, separately, rendered two innocent black males and five police officers dead.

It goes without saying, or maybe it doesn't, that each of my bold-printed statements are really just opinions (based on the Life That Is Mine), so prelude each one with "In Tricia's opinion" if it helps remind you.

Also, since this blog entry was birthed after aforementioned events related to racism against black individuals, I am going to focus on the topic of racism as it relates to blacks only from this point forward.

1) Racism, like almost everything else (except really, really, really stretchy headbands), is NOT one-size-fits-all.

In my pursuit to better understand the broader understanding of the noun, I thought it'd be easiest to start with the definition of racism. But even that turned out to be frought with complexity; the definition varies from source to source. Just as I was beginning the effort to produce an exhaustive list of definitions, I abandoned the project altogether. I think the important thing to know is that racism appears to be viewed by some sources as a belief system that all members of a race possess certain characteristics of that race, while other sources limit the definition to action... as in, the poor treatment of people of a certain race based on their race. The difference - at least to me - seems to be between a racial stereotype and acting on a racial stereotype.

To me, this is a broad spectrum. Let's take swimming as an example. I know this is getting a tad uncomfortable, but I hope you'll allow it:

Is assuming that black people can't swim racist? By the first definition, YES. By the second definition only if you actively treat a black person poorly as a result of that belief, which precludes that you must think it inferior or a negative thing to not be able to swim.

The swimming example was a deficit example. Let's go at it from a different angle, taking rhythm as an example.

Is assuming that black people have rhythm racist? By the first definition, YES. By the second definition only if you actively treat a black person poorly as a result of that belief, which precludes that you must think it inferior or a negative thing to have rhythm. But what if your racial stereotyping paints the individual in a positive light, as in "Having rhythm is a superior quality!" Still racism or no...?

I was still thinking about this when I went to the playground with my little ones a few days ago and squeezed my body down one of their slides. Inside were sharpie-markered block letters "LOVE" and "PEACE" and colorful rainbows and such. It occurred to me that unsolicited graffiti, even if it's all unicorns and peace signs, is still not right.

If we discuss racism as it relates to the light-er stuff of how good or not good we are at hobbies or special interests, it could be argued that it's not that dangerous and far from crippling...let's call it non-malicious racial stereotyping... which I am defining with two key criteria a) the belief you have about a person's difference must be unrelated to his/her worth or character and b) the person housing the belief must have good intent. Non-malicious racial stereotyping, on the surface, may be not all that dissimilar from any type of stereotyping. Because I am from Kentucky, I don't wear shoes and my aunt is married to my brother. Because I majored in mathematics in college, I am either a man or wear a pocket protector. Because I'm petite and short, I am a rock-star tumbler on the gymnastics mat or jockey.

I'm not black, and even if I were, I wouldn't be able to say for sure just how offensive or insulting or dangerous non-malicious racial stereotyping is to the blanket black community. That would be racist. One black person might feel totally comfortable with those stereotypes and even embrace or exercise them (just as I may love being thought of as a gymnast). Another might be mildly annoyed (just as I roll my eyes when playful jest about back-country incest comes up related to my southern roots). Another could be totally insulted (I AM A WOMAN AND QUITE COOL and am good at math, PUNKS!).

I know I'm not alone when I say, as a white person, that I have trouble tending to my own place in it all. Talk about it? Don't talk about it? Give attention to race differences? Ignore it and by ignoring it be not-me (I'm kinda direct)? Push down curiosity? Try not to be curious in the first place? I talk to pregnant people about being pregnant. I talk to bearded people about their beards. So, is it OK to talk to black people about being black? When my cousin, Andrew, brought along his bi-racial girlfriend to our first family event, I was that dufus who thought it best to name and claim her black-ness rather than dance around the damn elephant (Kayla wasn't the elephant, to clarify, it was her race difference in our all-white family). In a quiet, light moment with just young-er cousins, I said: "Sooooooooo... you're black." And from there, I learned that her dad was black and her mom white... But I got a blocked feeling. She was shy, and maybe that was what I needed to pay more attention to for signals, not whether I was uncomfortable with the silence on the subject. People are not one-size-fits all, by the way, no matter what their race is. And maybe that's the answer for me... taking the conversations and questions and attention about race on a case-by-case basis. Isn't that what all people want, anyway? For their individual desires to be considered and honored? I've always thought the Golden Rule needed to be changed: Instead of "Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You" shouldn't it be "Do Unto Others As They Would Have You Do Unto Them"?

I agree with the fact that there are non-malicious and perhaps even innocent ways in which an individual's beliefs about an individual in a different race based on their race result in that individual being treated differently. I do. And I hope people of color believe this to be true, too. But then there's the other kind... the mean-spirited, sinister, malicious forms of racism exist and, much more than I want to acknowledge, are thriving. And, just like so many other things, there's a spectrum of racism forms inbetween non-malicious and malicious. There are the ones that manifest as a result of lack of exposure to black individuals, showing up more as unwanted attention rooted in curiosity. There are the ones that show up with non-black people asking a single "token" black person questions about All Black People. There are the ones we indirectly hear on secular sitcoms and movies and comedy sketches, understated but powerful. There are the ones learned from the narrow-minded ways of one's family of origin or the rhetoric of a region's ignorance or a historical bad blood that cannot be overcome or the belonging found in a supremacist gang's belief system, or a government group's convenient misplacement of blame. There are clueless forms of racism (NO IDEA) and well-intended forms of racism (A WRONG IDEA) and automatic forms of racism (A PROGRAMMED IDEA), and malicious forms of racism (A HATEFUL IDEA)...

So, while I am the swirling little white ball of confusion often contributing to the matter, I refuse to dismiss or leave unanalyzed any form of racism because it falls lower on the "bad" scale. That is like telling a sick person that, since the diagnosis is not a terminal disease it warrants no care. I, just a couple paragraphs above, explain that many argue racial stereotyping (definition #1) is not far different from stereotyping, without poor treatment, of any kind. But isn't that wrong as hell? Doesn't the racial kind have bigger negative potential, because of how much more deeply imbedded and historically rooted it is, to be more malicious...even when it doesn't start that way? It's tricky. And it's often dangerously subtle. And institutionalized. And culturally normalized. And WE NEED TO SHINE A BIG FAT LANTERN ON IT. BEFORE I say, BEFORE the action piece of definition #2 turns the quiet into loud.

2) One of my particular flavors of racism 

Have you ever smiled extra-big at the trash collector or the custodian at the mall in an effort to send the message that you are not one of those people who under-appreciates their work and believes themselves to be "above" it? I have. I do. I even give strangers who are smoking a slightly more animated grin, because - even though I hate cigarette smoke and think the habit is disgusting - I figure they get it enough from others and I want them to not think that I am just another person shaming them.

Am I sounding crazy yet?

This is my "ism" - the people I treat differently (for the better, but still differently) are those for whom I assume good treatment is not always guranteed. I'm not saying it's right. In fact, it's profiling, really, based on my stereotpying. Who am I to decide which of those subgroups really are not receiving universal guaranteed good treatment, first of all. And second of all, who am I to assume that - even if I nail it with the first assumption - members of that subgroups all want to same thing (extra TLC from random stranger Tricia). Even IF I nailed it on both accounts (I was right both about the person being in a subgroup which is often mistreated and I was right about this particular individual wanting TLC from random stranger Tricia), isn't it maniacal and egocentric to think that I could over-compensate for all the ways those individuals have been collectively wronged? It's ludicrous, truly. And yet I do it. I do it, in fact, all the time.

I don't know if it's because of my collection of experiences with people of color as a younger kid or because in church or at home I absorbed the repeated message of erring on the side of over-kill kindness or because as a firstborn I am a pleaser and want people to like me... But I do the same thing that I do with janitors and smokers with minorities. I find myself smiling bigger and looking for ways to connect more and being maybe even kinder than normal.

Damn. There it is. I just said it. Out Loud. That's my racism. My racism is wanting to assure that I do not come off as racist. Ooooooo, that sounded bad, too. It reminds me of a comedic sketch written about by an author who is a recovered drug and alcohol addict. She writes about the ironic position she has found herself in by attempting to look reputable (i.e. SOBER). She says "Have you ever tried acting sober when you really are sober around people you believe think you to be drunk?" Try it, she says. There is no more sure-fire way to appear high than when you attempt this feat. In the hyper-focus of trying to walk upright and straight, you inevitably trip. In the slowing down and annunciation of syllables while talking, you come off as loopy.

In other words, it's worse. Wanting to assure that I do not come off as racist totally fits definition #1 of racism. I am stereotyping that every black stranger in the world thinks me racist. Because I am white. And daggone if I'm not gonna overwork to defy that (false) reality.

I'm REALLY outing myself in the following story. Just a year ago or so, Scott and I went to a special event benefitting cancer research at an outdoor venue. The event did what events do: drinks and mingling, seated and speaker, dinner and conversation, then PARTY. This particular PARTY involved a dance floor, music by a DJ, and night sky. I love all three. I'll let you in on a little secret that I am a dance-instigator. It's obnoxious, I know. I actively notice at a party, during that interim period of nervous energy after structured formalities end but before bodies find themselves making their way to the dance floor, who is tapping their feet or bopping their knees or looking around. I find them, all those folks for whom the dance floor is calling. I find them and I tell them it is time. I had been doing just that at this event, making my rounds to the feet-tapping pods, telling them that we needed to get this party staaaaaaaarted and that the signal to make our way out there was a certain song I had coordinated with the DJ. But, once out there, it was going to be Our Collective Job to keep feeding the DJ good song choices, for in order to bring the even more reserved dancers out of their chairs, one needs to be strategic. So, it worked. And one of the pods I had convinced was composed of three black young women, three of only a handful of black individuals present altogether at the event. When I approached them on the dance floor, asking what they suggested for the next song, they discussed together and asked, "What would you think about blah-da-blah-da, that popular country song?"

I AM ONE WITH YOU, BLACK PEOPLE... I wanted to communicate. I am not a stiff, white person. I SEE YOU, BLACK PEOPLE. And I see how few of you there are here tonight. I am not racist, SEE?

Except for I was. Because what I said was, "Well, we got a slew of white people here, so that oughta work."

Country music = white, is what I communicated. You are black, so it's nice of you for thinking of us white country-loving people. Thanks, black people. Y'all are good sports for being here and choosing white music, is what I said.

I had no idea that I wasn't being cool. Not cool at all. Until their looks expressed it. Their looks said, "Why you gotta go all 'color of skin' on us? We just like the damn song."

I was and am embarrassed about this story. In fact, my heart is beating hard as I type it. I couldn't have tripped and fallen on my face any harder for 'acting overly sober when I really was sober' a.k.a. "acting overly not-racist when I really am not racist" which, of course, yielded acting racist... because it is racist.


3) People and their equal worth.

I knew that one of my dad's core values was looking at things from as many perspectives as possible. Although they weren't crosstitched on a pillow anywhere in our house, the following clich├ęs may as well have been: "There are two sides to every coin."  and "Have you taken a turn walking in their shoes?" My dad believed in examining things instead of just resting in common assumptions about them. He believed in applying reason and weighing circumstance instead of trusting in any legalistic thinking alone. Basically, he believed in the gray. As early as an adolescent (way before I learned to drive), I remember that he would propose the following, "If you were in a super-middle-of-nowhere place driving at a time of day when there were no cars ANYWHERE and a red light stopped you, would you stay stopped or drive through it?"

OBEY THE LAW, DAD. Geez, who did he think I was? An outlaw? I knew the right answer. Easy test. Next, please.

He didn't like my answer and I didn't understand when he challenged it. What was his point? 11-yr-old me would wonder. He poised that scneerio over and over again over time until I became a less-self-righteous version of myself when I finally said, "Hell, I'd BLOW RIGHT PAST that light." I think he always secretly hoped he would raise a principled rebel, weighing off-the-beaten-path sensibility and sometimes-unpopular notions of what the right thing is higher than the rewards of being a rule-follower. He was always pressing the limits with questions. Damn, all those questions.

Death is a funny thing, because it really presses the family to consolidate a person's EVERYHING into a potent little package. When my dad died, although I thought I already had a clear picture of What He Was About, it wasn't until we sat for three hours with the pastor who would preside over his memorial service that I would clearly be able to pinpoint what He Was About. As I heard my own stories and that of his wife bubbling up, I heard the following echoing each time: my dad was about treating people with the same respect and courteousy regardless of ANYTHING you knew or didn't know about them. And, with that primary belief as a foundation, he then attempted to learn EVERYTHING about them. This is why he chose sales for a career. This is why he would go to the grocery store for a gallon of milk and come home two hours later with M&Ms. He could get LOST talking to people, learning their stories, gaining insight into their circumstances. And for no apparent agenda except to grow in compassion and understanding by doing it.

I know that I cannot attempt to top Dad's purity in his belief in all people's worthiness. Nor his conviction to the habit of looking under rocks and both sides of coins for as many clues as he could about a person's situation before making judgements. But I try. Every day. Add to the Dad-ness that is in me the teachings of Jesus I learned from an early age... those of unconditional love, inclusivity, grace, meeting people where they are, defying rules and legalisms and barriers and sharp edges that separate people or groups of people from one another...and there is the childhood of me.

This is why I am sleighed by the childhoods of others that could lead to believing anything other than, "People are all inherently and equally worthy." I recently watched a woman give a one-minute speech crystalizing, in no uncertain terms, the solution to racism in our world (It's called "Racism Destroyed in One Minute," and the woman is anti-racism educator Jane Elliot). I have heard her speak more than once in the past, and I can tell you that she has very good things to say. But the particular link leading me to her one-minute spiel caught my attention on Facebook, in the aftermath of Louisiana, Minnesota, and Texas last week, and it immediately struck me as over-simplified... missing the bigger, more complicated, mark. Elliot says, "There are no races in this world. If you think there are, you're wrong. There is only one race. That's the human race." I thought, "No shit, Sherlock. Got it and agree, but this does NOT solve racism. It doesn't even TOUCH racism, lady."

It took several days of meditating on her words before it came to me...A lot of people need to hear and internalize that information. It's not the no-brainer that, growing up the way I did, I believed it to be. This one-minute spiel, although basic, is a prerequisite. PREREQUISUITE for anything beyond it. Of course racism is complicated. Of course it takes more than a minute to begin sorting it out. But, I kid you not, it wasn't until I wrestled with my hasty judgment of her speech that I realized the necessity of starting with its simplicity. I didn't even realize we needed to start there as a country, since I had started there with my upbringing. But. We. Do.


4) The majority/minority dynamic

On the topic of the multitude of complexities playing into racism (the ones that, even if we all believe and acted on what Elliot said in her 1 minute, still tie us in knots), I cannot stop thinking about the role of majority/minority thinking and how it enters the fray.

While at Manual, I developed a handful of tight-knit girlfriends. We happened to be all white. But the following story doesn't really have, in contrast to the previous anecdotes, ANYthing to do with color of skin, except in a metaphorical sense. There were six of us. Five of us lived square east of the center of Louisville, in varying degrees. And one of us lived square south. As high school girls do, we would organize often for movies, dinners at restaurants, sleep overs, and supporting each others' personal events - athletic games, church stuff, family stuff. Whenever we had to pick a place for a gathering, say dinner, the five of us who lived east-ward would inevitably toss out restaurant locations that we knew well and liked in our frame of reference... in our part of town. Julie, my south-end friend, was always so patient with us when she kindly inserted, "Hey guys, can we go with something a little more in-between us?"

DUH!! She wasn't asking five of us to drive 20+ minutes right into the heart of her southend neighborhood. She wasn't suggesting restaurant names so local to her neighborhood that we didn't even recognize them. She was just asking for all of our selections to not be solely based on proximity to the majority. We still made her drive all the way to us often. And then we'd do a half-way spot here and there, too. Thankfully, we sure-as-heck knew that farther east restaurants made no sense at all and were off the table. But, I remember having to be reminded EACH TIME to consider Julie. To consider the minority presence, as minority as it was. We weren't a knuckle-headed crowd (ask me where they pursued their undergraduate degrees) and I'd say the four other east-ender pals of mine might rank as some of the kindest, most empathetic, and thoughtful women I know, so we as a whole weren't terrible people either. I still don't know whether we forgot or chose to forget about Julie. Regardless, I'm embarrassed to say, we did, time and time again.

Finding a "fair restaurant" for my friendship group was not done by saying, "We are all inherently equally valuable, so that's the end of it." We each had an address. And five of us had eastern zip codes and one had a southern zip code. So the "fair restaurant" solution had to consider more than the fact that we were all equally valuable members of the group.

It takes a grand amount of intentionality to be fair. I would argue, as a parent in the thick of parenting young ones, it is not a natural skill but a learned one. We don't pop out of the womb considering FAIR. Even as adults, what benefits ourselves can blind us from what is fair for all. When I told this story of my friends to my father-in-law recently, whom I love for being mathematical, he said, "Well, wouldn't it have made the most sense, because there were five of you, to make 20% of the total restaurant location selections be in the favor of Julie, and 80% be in favor of the majority?" I told him YES... BUT WE WERE TEENAGERS. Not robots... Imperfect little attempts at humanity. And, as good as we each were, we still screwed up.

Now, complicate that storyline with a bunch of other layers... Julie doesn't have a car or Julie has a car but no gas money. Public transportation makes her area of town easier to access than the other. How would we weigh these factors into the equation? Would they all change the simplicity of the 20%/ 80%  solution? Would treating the minority fairly mean giving Julie a bigger percentage of the decision-making, since she was not coming to the decision-making table with equal circumstances? But then what if one of the others of us can't stay out past a very-early curfew and therefore a long drive to a restaurant means we can't hang out with her? And what if another is vegan and gluten free and another has only $10 budget and there is only one restaurant that fits all of those requirements and it happens to be lopsided? I'm making these scenarios up IN MY OWN HEAD and even I am confused.

I was talking with Scott, hubby, and a neighbor about race the other day and I wondered aloud what the percentage of black people in our total US population was. Scott said, "Something like 10-12%, right?" I said, "NO WAY, DUDE!!! It's gotta be more like 30-35%!" A quick cell phone search indicated that Scott was way closer to being right than I: 13.2%

That's it.

I do think that there are places in our country more concentrated with black people than others. Yet, still, 13.2% of our entire American make-up is black. How do we fairly consider, in our collective decision making about our governance and our economics and our housing and our justice system and our employment and our leadership, minority populations? After learning this statistic, I started fantasizing about how much easier it would be if each minority group, blacks included, instead made up the exact same percentage of the population as the majority race, white. If we removed the majority/minority layer, how much better would we be at "fair?" I love us imperfect humans, but I don't have much faith in us. I'm guessing we'd still suck at it.

5) Presumed innocence

During a teaching inservice one day, the speaker centered her entire presentation around a metaphor, "Baby in the back seat." She painted the picture of a line of cars stopped at a red stoplight. Whereby the light turns green, one of the cars at the front of the line does not go. In rush hour, backed up unnecessarily, the cars behind the stopped one LOSE THEIR SHIT. She says that the losing of the shit (which she called "flooding" i.e. emotional elevation i.e. RED ZONE) usually looks like this: Outward blame ("She is probably texting on her dam cell phone!" "People don't know how to drive!""Can't they see they are holding up ALL of us!" "Get it together!" "YOU ARE MAKING US ALL LATE!") followed by inward blame ("Why didn't I take the interstate instead?" "If I'd just left a little earlier... ""I should have known this would happen!"). Then, the beeping and honking and yelling profanities out the windows and middle fingering and dangerous swirvy manipulating happen.

It is then that the presenter explained that this was a real story, one that resulted in the stopped-car driver writing a letter to be posted in the newspaper the next day. She was idling in park when that light turned green, because her baby in the back seat had choked on something and she had crawled over the front seat to rescue him.

Oh, how this changes EVERYTHING. One piece of information, or rather a changed lens through which to look, can change EVERYTHING. And that was her point, to treat every presumed "injustice" by another individual as though there was simply a choking baby in the back seat on board. Look what results looking through this lens: You don't take the other person's actions personally; in fact, you can see that it's not about you at all. And, therefore, the event no longer necessitate an adult melt down in you. You can, calmly, see that there is a better response than a judgmental one.

You can see how this translates to public education. She was not saying that we detach consequences from student behaviors in schools. Or that we go soft to the point of anarchy. Or that kids aren't ever in the wrong. It's that if we presume every time, even while disciplinarian action is being taken, that every single child is living with a baby in the back seat, likely several, and that we can look at their bad choices, good choices, mediocre choices as none other than the cumulative product of all those back-seat-babies. It's doing what Walt Whitman said, "Be curious, not judgmental." There is no such thing as "bad" and "good" kids, just kids with a variety of reasons playing into their "bad" and "good" choices. So many times, in my teaching days, I have said a variation of the following to a kiddo caught in deceit or a naughty situation, "I don't believe you right now...But I believe IN you every day." I told myself, and still firmly believe, that even the toughest of exteriors is penetrated by repeated spoken recognition (preferably by an authority figure) of that soul's sometimes deeply imbedded GOODNESS and INNOCENCE. I see you. I don't know how many babies you have in the back seat or how they got there, but I see you doing the best with what you've got. Even if that's not so good.

There is no such thing as "bad" and "good" people, just people with a variety of reasons playing into their "bad" and "good" choices.

Scott, my husband, created and stands by four core values at his place of work. All staff members on his team know them, use them, and make most decision about how they conduct themselves - big and small - by them. One of them is "presumed innocence," the notion that in their work environment, instead of policing one another, awaiting for a colleague's next wrong-doing or slip-up, each member of the team has committed to assuming innocence in the other. Someone comes in later one morning? Assume that it was because of a sick kid at home and that they worked over their laptop. Someone leaves someone out of an email? Assume it was an innocent mistake to be remedied, not a mean-spirited manipulation technique. (P.S. Transparency is another core value, and - since the two work hand-in-hand - team members also have permission to respectfully "call each other out" when mistakes are made. Since integrity and character are not on the line and only an innocent mistake is, claiming mistakes is a heck of a lot less painful, too).

I have heard, time and time again, by Scott's co-workers how the core value of "presumed innocence" has set a markedly improved tone in the culture of that office. I'm certain it's not bullet-proof; there are probably still the sneaky (and they'd be there anyway). But, what I'm hearing more is that this value, mostly, rises the standard of excellence... not lowers it. But only if done right (read: reminded of daily, acted out on by leadership, posted and lived) will there by buy-in and therefore pay-off. People, overall, want to be seen as trustable. People, overall, want to be believed in. People, overall, want to be worthy of presumed innocence. Treating them as such brings out the very thing they seek.

In 2nd grade I had a teacher named Mrs. Muskett. Nobody liked Mrs. Muskett. But I suspect a boy named Isaac liked her the least. Isaac was a kid who everyone knew as "the bad kid." If his behaviors didn't secure him that title, than the placement of his desk surely was an indicator. Mrs. Muskett had his desk nudged right next to hers for the majority of the school year. EVEN AS AN 8-YR-OLD I remember thinking, 'Well, that's about the dumbest idea ever... we are highlighting his acting out. CENTER STAGE. There he is, set apart for all to notice. BAD KID. "BAD KID is who I am," Isaac needn't shout.'  When you single out a student for his/her poor choices and expect only from him/her what he/she has been in the past, he/she will not disappoint you.

The Isaac story popped up in my mind after recently watching Zootopia, a funny Disney film many believe to be more than funny. Parallels, some claim, exist between the film's animal characters and groups of people in our country. In the movie, foxes in general and specifically one named Nick Wilde are viewed by the rest of The City of Zootopia and most definitely the main bunny character, Judy Hopps, as not-trust-worthy, sly shady types. After Judy and Nick get past their ugliness towards one another (which takes awhile as Nick doesn't exactly exemplify integrity and character with his thieving and conning), Judy asks why he's become the way he is. Funny-guy Nick gets honest and describes a moment in his childhood when he attempted to join a group who didn't have any foxes among them and who pranked him into believing he was One of Them until they back-stabbingly black balled him saying, "If you think we are going to trust a FOX, you've got another thing coming." Nick then says, with his head hanging down, something to the effect, "If the way people think of you isn't going to change, there comes a point when you grow weary of trying to prove them wrong."

Nick's baby in the back seat was that prank by "the insiders" (i.e. the majority) gifting him with no presumed innocence, rather presumed guilt, likely time and time again. And he made a series of bad choices, a life of crime in fact, as a result.

This sounds all too familiar. Yes, I'm saying it.

The racial event of last week begs the question: Is the black community treated with presumed innocence? Is the black community dealing with ghost-like back-seat babies that no one can see but -through learned behavior - have altered belief/expectations about the world and their place in it? Are authority figures in our culture saying, "I believe in you" and "You ARE trustworthy"?

The racial event of last week also begs the question: Are people in our culture telling authority figures, "I believe in you" and "You ARE trustworthy"? Are we treating them with presumed innocence? 

7) The Relationship Between hurt, anger, and burnt toast

I have come to use the following imagery for my understanding of certain emotions: there's a Hurt tank inside of each of us that funnels to an Angry tank. Hurt comes out as "sad," "wounded," and "vulnerable." Angry comes out as flames. There are lots of tanks; hurt doesn't have a monopoly on angry. But, there's a pretty well-worn pathway our emotional fuel travels from one to the other, hurt to angry. Just stub your toe, and watch it flow. When I stub my toe (literally and metaphorically), and no one wanted my toe to get stubbed or set me up to get my toe stubbed or laughed when it happened or ignored it when it did, usually I experience pain, then feel primal madness, then observe flames come out in the form of four-letter-words. But, usually, both my Hurt and Angry tanks are emptied in a relatively short amount of time, and remain empty until the next isolated time I experience pain. But when Hurt tank is filled up with emotional fuel over and over, and in the same way, and invisibly with no one taking note or talking about it -- each recurring incident means the fuel spends less and less time marinating in the Hurt tank, where healthy Sad or Wounded or Vulnerable would normally have the chance to emote. The highly flammable, potent stuff funnels faster and faster into the Angry tank where exorbanent amounts of it store up. It becomes a hot-bed reservoir, so large in size and extensive in depth that it starts swallowing up space from the other tanks (compassionate, kindness, love). And what results is more than four-letter flames. The product are flames of rage and hate.

Kinda reminds me of the toaster phenomenon. When I'm making toast for my family in the morning, even the 4-slot doozy of a toaster doesn't prevent me from having to make a second round. Please tell me I'm not the only one who struggles for toast satisfaction with increased failure the second and third and fourth times around? Toasters work on timers and, since I'm too dense to remember, I don't change the setting with subsequent depressions of the lever yet the starting temperature is warmer and warmer at the start of each go around. What results is a more-toasted, at best, and charred, at worst, set of toast. I don't give the toaster time to return to neutral before I pound it with more toast to make.

Remember when I was called a "cracker?" Racism against me was like putting a lit match on a bubble. With no stored up emotional fuel in Angry tank waiting to ignite, it was easy for me not to ignite. And with my other more-positive-emotioned tanks fully in tact, it was well within my reach to choose an option other than FLIGHT or FIGHT. (refresher: Nice Proximity was the option I took). My toaster was cool to the touch when this event happened, so I was nowhere close to the capacity to burn toast.

I do not condone the violence that happened after Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed. Dallas happened. Baton Rouge happened. Although most protesting has been done legally and civilly, some of it has resulted in arrests and monologues of disgust and hatred towards officers... hearts rageful and hostile. I do not believe this does OK things for the heart. I do, however, understand how it happens. I understand how toast gets burnt.

7) 

8) Short-sighted mostly doesn't know short-sighted is short-sighted. Ignorant mostly doesn't know ignorant is ignorant. Self-righteous mostly doesn't know self-righteous is self-righteous. 

When my brother was going through a 28-day alcohol and drug treatment program out of state, the facility strongly encouraged family members to participate in a weekend training designed specifically for loved ones of the addict. We were not to visit or spend time with Justin, my brother. This training was for us... to learn how to be healthy and strive to be the best supporters alongside our loved one's battle with and recovery in the disease of addiction. The presenter was young, maybe early thirties, and shared that he himself was a recovering alcoholic. He shared that in his previous life, his career was in restaurant management, and his specialty was opening up restaurants around the country. He was on the scene when the fryers and the ovens and the ice makers were installed in the kitchen... when the original staff were trained...when the glossy new menus arrived in boxes... when the food was tested and retested. He said that the night before opening day of each restaurant, he would gather everyone - from greeter to server to salad prep chef to bar tender to cook - in the kitchen and ask them to spend a good couple minutes just taking in the scene. After some silence, he said, "This is the cleanest and most perfect this kitchen will ever look. I want you to remember it the way it is now. THIS is the example of what it ought to look like. THIS is what we strive to return it to. The wear and tear and grease and gunk will happen, but I want you to remember THIS, not anything less."

I believe that people are like a kitchen. I think even those whose kitchens have every tool and gadget and pot and pan in place can lose sight over time of the sauce spot on the backsplash or the melon baller's out-of-place-ness. For the rest, those of us who start with missing measuring cups and dinted lids and gaping holes where Stuff.Ought.To.Be on supply shelves... imagine how a steady decline from the starting condition could make that kitchen a disaster of a work place, yet still spinning out food left and right. If your actual, real kitchen is anything like mine, if my family lets it slide one or two days, not returning it to it's already imperfect neutral, then the new neutral becomes where we left it after those couple days, which is really dump-like but becomes normal and therefore acceptable, relatively speaking.

Our Understanding Of Life can get smudged and sullied by misunderstandings and misguidance and misteaching. And then layered upon that "messiness" it can get smudged and sullied more, until Understanding of Life is all screwed up. I don't know what a crystal-clean kitchen/Understanding Of Life ought to look like, mainly because mine is nowhere close to being there. It has taken a lot of work for me to realize that's the case, and it has taken a lot of work to prevent it from worstening.

C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity, "When a man is getting better he understands more and more clearly the evil that is still left in him. When a man is getting worse, he understands his own badness less and less. A moderately bad man knows he is not very good: a thoroughly bad man thinks he is all right." I don't think it takes a thoroughly bad person to not realize she is not alright. I guess I just believe that just means she isn't very awake. Perhaps what C.S. Lewis means by "bad" is "asleep" and what he means by "good" is "awake."

Awake is HARD, dang it! Awake requires some serious kitchen cleaning gizmos, those of Self Examination and Check Yourself. Cooking without them can yield lots of food, but, unknowingly by the cook, it's tainted with some ick. And how would those cleaning tools be in your kitchen if you hadn't been exposed to them or someone hadn't taught you about them? It is not lost on me the fact that my lifelong intentional seeking after racial diversity for myself and my children could, in itself, be a self-serving ambition, one that exercises the using of others to benefit me. But, I look at it as a pursuit to help keep my kitchen clean... that, by attempting to keep my social life diverse - racially and otherwise - my cleaning supplies are ON IT, so that me and my kitchen don't slide into comfort with sneaky scum.

I don't know how a bigot gets to become a bigot. I don't know how a KKK member gets to become a KKK member. I don't know how people of all professions, police officers included, grow racist. But I am guessing it doesn't happen in only a couple sessions of cooking with only a couple missed cleanings. Just, as the presenter at that family training was trying to communicate - it is missed cleaning after missed cleaning after missed cleaning that an addict's reasoning can become distorted into thinking that his slowly deteriorating body and mind and relationships and finances and morality are OK, even normal.

C.S. Lewis goes on in the same passage to say, "You understand sleep when you are awake, not while you are sleeping. You can see mistakes in arithmetic when your mind is working properly: while you are making them you cannot see them. You can understand the nature of drunkenness when you are sober, not when you are drunk. Good people know about both good and evil: bad people do not know about either." (again, in the last sentence, switch out "good" and "bad" for "awake" and "asleep")




In the wake of What Just Happened In Our Country (and what happens, less publicly, every day in our country), let's all strive to be more clear and awake and have compassion for those who are confused and sleeping but don't know that they are, let's all buff up our interior kitchens often and use the cleaning tool of Self Examination often and with great detail, let's all approach individuals with curiosity instead of judgment about what babies are in their back seats, let's all presume innocence and by leaving room for folks to meet that expectation encourage their inner good, let's all acknowledge the privelidge of majority-thinking and the disadvantages of being a minority, let's all wonder more about whether we ought to stop at abandoned stoplights just because they are there, let's all wrestle with the concept of "fair" and check ourselves against it, and let's all write really, really, really long accounts of our own life stories, then lose ourselves in the questions of it all...