The Black Lives Matter movement is making me realize that I have been an unintentional do-gooder white woman soaked in privilege. Not arrogant privilege. Not better-than-you privilege. But a take-for-granted kind of privilege that has blinded my complicity.
I’m thinking back to the thousands of times I have shopped with no one watching or following me. I’m recalling all the times I have driven past a police car, feeling paranoid just enough to think he might pull me over for something, but not because I’m white.
Blindspots have materialized before me during the past few weeks as I recall incidences where I intervened or tried to remedy a situation. My actions have not always been helpful.
When I worked at The Branson School in Marin County in the 1990s, I was giving rides to a young black student. He was a freshman and was attending the school on scholarship. I was happy to give him the ride and was paid $3/day for gas by his mother, which the student handed to me each morning.
Rather than use the money toward gas, I started putting the bills in an envelope. It was my intention to save the money then open a savings account in the student’s name, surprising him and his mother at the end of the school year. I thought I’d start a college fund for him. When my plan was inadvertently revealed to him during a conversation in the car, he told his mother.
The response from her was one of outrage. She wrote me a scathing letter pointing out my presumptuousness and I was immediately dismissed from giving her son a ride to school. I was also reprimanded by the headmaster who received a call from the indignant mother.
Apparently, my gesture came across as a white woman “rescuing” a black kid. The mom wanted to pay me for my services, not have the money used as charity back to her. I had caused her a great indignity. Did I think she couldn’t send her son to college without the help of a white woman? I did not know the situation with the family and I'd made an assumption that my gesture would be received as an act of kindness.
This incident, which happened 25 years ago, reminds me of the presumptuous action taken by a friend of my mother’s in 1967. This friend had taken me aside, and in conspiratorial fashion confided to me that my parents were having money trouble. A fancy work event was coming up in which my mother would need an evening dress.
I was 14 at the time and was into sewing, The friend told me to pick out a pattern and material, make a dress for my mom, and she would pay for it, all without my mother's knowledge. I chose a McCall’s pattern, a scoop-necked, sleeveless design, and apricot-colored crepe fabric that I thought she would like. I assembled the dress over several days after school before my mother came home from work so that I could surprise her when it was completed.
When I gave her the dress and told her how it had come about, I saw the look on my mother’s face. She was horrified. She was embarrassed. She was disrespected. She teetered on a thin thread of love and adoration for me for having made the dress, and shock and violation at the friend who had made such an outrageous request of me. My mother’s teeth were clamped as I conveyed the whole story, making the friend out to be a caring and generous person. I didn’t understand my mother’s reaction.
She put on the dress. I saw the stress in her face. She wanted to squeeze me. Thank me for my efforts. But she was furious. “I would have had the neck lower” is what I remember her saying. Her cheeks were flushed as she twisted and turned in front of the mirror. The hem was a bit short with her heels. My mom, God bless her, wore that dress to the event. Not because she couldn’t afford a new dress, but because I had made it for her.
An act that I had believed to be kindness on the part of the friend was, in fact, an act of control. All these years later, I understand the distinction and I now know what the friend should have done. And it wasn’t that.
When I think back to the black student in 1995, I understand now how my gesture caused that mother so much anger and indignation. It was a big enough deal that her son was going to an elite private school that was 99% white. She didn’t need another reminder that they could receive help from yet another member of white society, especially when it wasn’t requested or discussed.
The student ended up leaving The Branson School at the end of his freshman year. I smarted and shook my head over the misunderstanding. These past three weeks have revealed to me how a propensity for kindness can be misplaced. I realize now that, in my white privilege, it is incumbent upon me to think through the reactions and unintended consequences my behavior might produce. I realize now how my intention, no matter how sincere they were through my white lens 25 years ago, was an insult to that very proud mother and her son. A blindspot has been revealed to me, and I am blinking hard to create clearer insight into an unprivileged non-white world.
What if police didn’t target black men
What if those targeted didn’t die
What if we all took a knee, not out of protest, but out of respect
Respect for each other
For our similarities
And, more importantly, for our differences
What if we stood side by side, hand in hand
And saw the beauty in each other
And celebrated it
Skin color from ebony to cream
Eye color from black to blue
Hair from black to blond to grey to white
A beautiful rainbow of humanity
What if we respected each other’s lifestyles
And were curious
And asked instead of assuming intent
What if we worked to erase systemic racism from all aspects of our world
What if we treated each other as individuals with something to give
Each of us equal
I am white
I am privileged
I can’t know what its like to live in black skin
I can’t know what its like to be male
To be feared or hated because of my looks
To be suspected of crimes because of my skin
But I care
And I stand with you
What if we all stood together
Not to pretend we’re all the same because we aren’t
Not to be colorblind because we can’t
But to celebrate the rainbow we create
And to listen to our hearts beat as one
The cat is trying to decide whether to take a nap on top of the filing cabinet. The sun is shining through the window, pooling light in the perfect spot for a nap.
He’s distracted by a leaf moving in the breeze just outside the window. The dance of light and shadow is too enticing to ignore. Tail twitching, ears straining forward, whiskers quivering, he stares.
A woman walks her dog on the sidewalk. A neighborhood crow sentry calls out his warning. The next sentry in line takes up the cry. Caws echo down the street, marking the dog’s progress.
The cat watches.
The most aggressive of the backyard hens starts her morning performance. What she lacks in vocal finesse, she makes up in volume. I cringe, hoping her song isn’t disturbing the neighbors.
The cat looks at me as if asking me to make the hen stop squawking. I wish I had that power.
I want to take a nap, channeling my inner cat, letting the sun’s soporific warmth lull me to sleep. There’s not enough room on the filing cabinet for the cat and me. And, I have too much caffeine in my system to allow for sleep. But I can wish. I wish I could sleep until the virus has run its course. Until we’re allowed to socialize and shop again. Until this nightmare is over.
The cat has decided to move to the bed. There’s no pool of sunlight on the bed, but it is comfier than the filing cabinet. And there’s room for me. He begs me to join him. “I can’t,” I tell him. “I have to write.”
He winds around my legs and head slams my calf. Finally, he gives up and stalks off to the bedroom with his tail in the air and his heat held high. “Humph” he meows. He hates to wait.
My jeans ripped
I wish they hadn’t
My jeans are old, well-loved, well-washed
They fit me well and I feel good when I wear them
But they ripped
It started as a small hole in the thigh that grew a little with each washing
Then, yesterday, I caught my toe in the hole when I was pulling them on
Now the rip runs from seam to seam
And it’s starting to fray
My jeans look trendy
But they earned that rip through years of wear
And I don’t care about trends
I dance to my own piper and she isn’t sure about ripped jeans
I’m not sure a 65-year-old woman should wear ripped jeans
I can see my daughters rolling their eyes
Mo-om, you’re too old to wear ripped jeans
I don’t care
My jeans ripped
Maybe I’ll patch them
I played Reverse Mouse Jenga yesterday. It’s a game I made up to take my mind off of what I was really doing. The point of Reverse Mouse Jenga is to gently manipulate a pile of frozen mice until you find the keystone mouse. The one, that, once dislodged, causes all the other frozen mice to separate so they can be weighted and sorted into gallon-sized zip lock bags to be fed to the raptors living at the bird rescue center.
These mice didn’t run away. Or, if they did, they didn’t run fast enough. Now they’re bird food.
Frozen, dead mice stink. They stink even more when thawed. I wear gloves when I sort mice, but the gloves don’t help much. I wear Eau de Dead Mouse for the rest of the day after I sort mice. Cats love me.
I avoid handling the resident raptors on mouse-sorting day. I don’t want them to find the scent of dead mice so irresistible that they take a bite out of my ungloved hand.
A glove is only worn on the left hand when handling raptors. Raptors stand on a handler’s left fist and the glove protects the handler’s fist from their talons as well as providing a surface for the bird to grip and balance. The other hand needs to be ungloved so the handler can jess the bird and tie off the leash.
My ungloved hand is vulnerable, and raptors have very sharp beaks. I am not a mouse. And I can’t run away.
My wings are clipped, and I fall
I brace for impact
But I fall through the earth
I land in a dark room lined with soft blankets
I pull one around my shoulders, but it disappears like mist
Shelves are lined with chocolate, dark and rich
Melted cheese sandwiches and potato chips
Bottomless glasses of wine
But they taste like cardboard
They offer no nourishment for my soul
A seductive voice calls
Look at your pain and behold its exquisite beauty
Caress it, love it, embrace it
Stay, sleep, the seductive voice whispers
The world won’t miss you
You’re not good enough
Its tempting to stay in the dungeon of despair
Hiding from life, hiding from light
But there is only false comfort here
I can’t stay
I need light
I need life
I claw my way up towards the light
Pulling myself hand over hand up the dark walls
With agonizing slowness
My fingernails are lined with earth
My muscles burn
But I’m out
I collapse on the ground, exhausted
Still raw and in pain
But craving true comfort
I stand on shaky legs
Not sure I can make it
Not sure I’m good enough
I don’t want to ho back into that dungeon
With its false comfort and false promises
Pain fades, happiness grows, light glows
I lick it off
It dries my lips
It tastes like wax
It makes me feel garish
When I choose a bright color
Like walking lips
Surrounded by a body
My mom liked bright pink
Coral, or cherry red
No eye makeup
I wear lip gloss
With a soft tint
When I remember
It doesn’t last
I used to wear eyeliner and mascara
But not lipstick
Not any longer
Now my face is unadorned, invisible
Some women use lipstick as armor
A uniform to don to face the world
I am in awe of those who face the world
With perfect paint
And perfect hair
And perfect clothes
I would worry if my lipstick was on my teeth
Instead of on my lips
I would smear it around my mouth and look like
I just took a bite of something bloody
That’s just not me
My lips are bare
Fire frightens me
It hasn’t always
I used to marvel at its beauty
Its dance and its sparkle
But now, fire means violence
Its dance, a terrible choreography
Eating everything in its path without discernment
Now, fire means loss of life
Loss of home
Loss of security
Loss of purpose
Now, fire means smoke
Unbreathable air that can cause cancer
Now, fire means despair
That takes forever
Fire also means heroes
Who give their strength, their time, their dedication
To secure lives, homes, families
I am thankful
Fire didn’t eat my home
My loved ones
But it frightens me
Late season heirloom tomatoes
Are ripe and lush
And incredible robust
The ends drip juice through my fingers when I pick them up from the cutting board
And slip them in my mouth
Eliminating the evidence of tomato cuttings
A day with no worries
A carefree 24 hours
A life built on structure
Isn’t meant to flow without consequences
Or is it?
Structure provides a frame
That can allow the freedom of imagination
A day filled with dreaming
Following the current of a fleeting thought.
Where will it lead?
It might be fun to find out.