Sunday, November 30, 2014

What If She Had Emmett Till in Mind? (#BlackLivesMatter)

(Image Source: Police Sgt. Bret Barnum hugs 12-year-old Devonte Hart during a demonstration in Portland, Ore. calling for police reform after the Ferguson grand jury decision on Nov. 25, 2014.)

I want to share an interaction I had with my mom the other day -- one of my few non-racist, non-bigoted family members. This is such a perfect example of what I wish more people, of all ethnicities, would try to be more aware of. My mom is white, 70 and lives in the Deep South.

Perspective is everything.

She made friends with a middle-aged black gentlemen a couple of years ago, and no matter where they run into one another, they hug. She ran into him a few days ago and they hugged as usual. She never thinks twice about it.

She said the other day there was a black woman there who saw them hug and "if looks could kill, I would have been dead."

I asked how old the woman was. "Older, probably close to my age."

I said, "What if she had Emmett Till in mind when she saw you two hugging? She is of an age to remember that horrific violence."

Mom had never heard of Emmett Till, which surprised me. But then I asked a few people -- white people -- my age and older, people I thought for sure would know the name Emmett Till, and they had never heard the name either.

This is a perfect example of history affecting current behavior -- widespread, collective behavior -- yet far too many people are unaware of it.

(Please keep in mind that the last recorded lynching of a black man by the KKK was in 1981 -- the year I graduated from high school. Not 1881 -- 1981. That is how recent the blatant, dehumanizing violence was done publicly. It is still systemic...racism continues to be present in our institutions, which is why white people -- even poor white people -- have an advantage over people of color still. Look at the details of legal and justice statistics to see it in action. If anyone doubts this, I can spend time gathering the facts for you.)

Back to Emmett Till. In 1955, he was 14, a young black boy living in Mississippi. Someone said he flirted with a white woman. A group of local white men took Till away to a barn, where they beat him and gouged out one of his eyes, before shooting him through the head and disposing of his body in the Tallahatchie River, weighting it with a 70-pound (32 kg) cotton gin fan tied around his neck with barbed wire.

That story was repeated probably hundreds of times in the last century.

What if the black woman looking at my mom, a white woman hugging a black man, had an instinctive, conditioned reaction to the act: She feared for his safety, ESPECIALLY in the Deep South?

African-Americans as a community often parent differently than many white parents. We experience daily life differently based on many factors -- skin color is one key factor. In spite of White America's cries of horrible parenting in black communities, it is cultural for AA parents to be much more strict -- because the lives of their children literally depend upon it. Of course, it doesn't mean the kids always listen -- which is the case with ALL children, especially teens.

There are things passed down through generations, just as is the case for all cultures. For the African-American community, it is fairly common behavior for AA moms to downplay the success of their kids, especially their sons. "Oh, he is a mess. Don't pay any attention to him," even when he's done something very worthy of praise.

Do you know why this may be the case? Many of these moms don't even know where it comes from, other than seeing the older generation doing it. (I highly recommend Joy DeGruy's theory and book based on the same: Post-Traumatic Slave Syndrome)

During slave times, parents were terrified of their children being noticed -- even for something positive -- because it increased the likelihood they'd be sold and taken away from them.

If their kids acted up, even as young children, the potential for beating was tremendous -- by any white person, because they felt entitled to do so to any child who wasn't white.

Parents of children brown skin have to have "the talk" with their kids, especially boys: Don't walk too fast, don't walk too slow, keep your hands out of your pockets so they don't think you have a gun...if you're pulled over keep your hands in sight at all times, no sudden movements, yes sir/yes ma'am (yes, white parents often do the same concerning law enforcement but there is no such thing as driving or walking while white).

They are afraid for the lives of their loved ones, in ways that go beyond the typical worries we all experience. There is a historical precedent for these fears and subsequent behaviors that no one stops to consider when talking about the behavior of "those people."

There has been no space for this multigenerational trauma to heal. And we need MUCH more education in this country of Kardashian and Duck Dynasty watchers. The historical context of what is happening matters.
We see the trauma manifesting in different forms right now with the various incidents, the kind of incidents many of you are tired of seeing in the news -- Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, the latest being Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old AA boy with a toy gun shot in Cleveland within 1.5 to 2 seconds of the police car pulling up to him.

Racism may or may not be part of the scenarios on the part of police officers in the near daily deaths occurring; racism in the sense of law enforcement having a higher level of fear when confronted with a black man. However, how the deaths are treated (systemic, in the justice system) and the reaction of a significant portion of White America is racist. Young black men feel their lives do not matter which, by the way, often feeds a lot of the black-on-black violence some of you are itching to bring up as you read this. Forget about poverty and housing and other injustices; the fact that many AA citizens feel they are not valued as a human being because of the color of their skin often manifests in how they even treat one another.

Racism is alive and well in the United States -- IN ALL AGE GROUPS. You're fooling yourself and may be adding to the danger by denying it or wishing everyone was colorblind. Diversity is good...appreciating our cultural differences is healthy, using them to destroy, dehumanize and hate isn't.

Lives are literally at stake every minute, in ways that are preventable, so I feel a fierce urgency of now to speak up and do my best to educate. I feel qualified to do so, to a limited degree, because I've been around racist behavior (not only views, but behavior) my whole life. I know it when I see it. It doesn't mean the individuals are evil. Archie Bunker wasn't evil -- he was afraid. I want to try to do my part towards healing this, even with one person in this world.

If you're tired of listening to or watching all the talk about racism, imagine LIVING IT. I can't. As a white person living in the United States, I can't imagine living it.


~ Dena

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