The other day, I was chatting with a friend from Wisconsin. We shared stories about Halloween. I asked him what treats he would be doling out to the children in his neighborhood. He said, “bags of popcorn, I pop”. I told him, when I was a child, on the Jersey Shore, we couldn’t wait to ‘trick or treat’. But, we were instructed to not eat anything that was not wrapped or packaged. I said, “If we received apples, we would accept them, wait until we got around the corner and then we would throw the apples. Sometimes, mischievously, on the person’s lawn that gave them to us.” He immediately chimed in, “That’s why food deserts are allowed to exist. People grow up not knowing what to eat. People don’t know how to eat right and make healthy choices.” I said, “Well, we were taught that people hid razors in apples. That was the fear. True or not, I don’t know. But, we weren’t going to risk biting into an apple to find out.”
Over the next few days, I thought about his comment. Why would he connect me with food deserts and people not knowing how to eat right? He is aware that I grew up on the Jersey Shore. My only unhealthy interaction with food came when I went to the supermarket. Sometimes, I would sit in the car as my Mom went in to shop. I would watch my Mom as she walked into the store. Inevitably, I would look at the car next to me and I would see a White person sitting in it. They would lock their door. Like clockwork. Never failed.
I grew up with my southern Grandmother up the street. A woman, who had 10 children, worked as a Nurse and cooked everything from scratch. Again, no food issues. However, my Mom, a single woman with three daughters, worked all day and was too tired to cook at night. Mostly, we ate out at restaurants. No, not McDonald’s. Restaurants. To this day, eating at a restaurant feels like family time for me. So, “food desert” was not an issue for me- AT ALL.
I have always thought highly of my friend from Wisconsin. A former Jesuit, he left the order to pursue a “traditional life”. He wanted a wife and children. But, he continues the Jesuit commitment to social service. This White man, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, goes around the country volunteering and offering his services to those in need. Recently, he drove from Wisconsin to the Mississippi Delta. He located a school where there were older Black women teachers. With the assistance of local residents, he would find out where these women lived. He would then go to their homes and fix something that required a carpenter or electrician. So, when they arrived home, they would be greeted by new porch stairs, a new porch light, a fixed garage door, or some such. He wanted to help those who took care of others all day and couldn’t focus on their own needs. Noble, right?
This summer, he visited the East Coast. On some level, I guess he thought I was similar to the Black women on the Delta. He visited my home and it was sweltering. One of those hot NYC days. Next thing I knew, he went off for a bit and came back with a ceiling fan. He installed it. Mind you, I own two, delightful, air conditioners. But, apparently, a ceiling fan (which kept the heat in motion) conserved energy. I wondered about this act of kindness.
He was on his way to Greenwich, Connecticut to teach young people how to build trails in parks and keep outdoor spaces clean. I was ecstatic that he would be teaching the “well off” how to engage in community service. After a week, we talked. He wanted me to locate a man of color who could speak to one of the young males he was working with. The child, he said, was extremely smart but not motivated. Greenwich, I thought. A Black male? “Yes”, he said, “His Mom works as a domestic and comes home and has very little time for him.” I thought, hmmm, how on earth did this dude find the marginalized children of Greenwich, Connecticut? He was working with the children of servants in Greenwich. Okay, I thought, this is deep.
He spoke of the one month training period he had to prepare for the assignment in Greenwich. He spoke of a type of camp where there were others being trained to volunteer around the country. He asked me, “How do you get a person to change old habits?” I said, “What old habits and who is the person?”. He said, “This kid from Chicago. He was there to train, like everybody else but, his eating habits were less than desirable.” “Kid”, I said, “Weren’t you all adults?”. He said, “Yes.” I said, “Was this person there to be trained like the rest of you? Trained in how to care for the community, cleaning parks, outdoor spaces, etc.?” My friend said, “Yes.” I said, “Is he Black?” He said, “Yes, his eating habits. He’s going to be a community worker and he’ll just be passing on the same old bad habits.” “Whoa”, I said. “Why don’t you see him as a peer? Why did you see him as someone who needed to be educated?”
He continued, “He was eating garbage and he wouldn’t listen to me. I tried to give him this book.” At this point, I was insulted, “He was your equal. He didn’t need you to educate him about anything. You were both there for the same reason. He is on his path. He is there to learn how to better his community. He is on course to learn about “food deserts” and all of that stuff in due time. Why did you feel the need to talk down to him?” Oy. Here I go again, encountering a White person’s insidious, racist blind spot.
A few weeks ago, I read an article about “What’s Killing Poor White Women” in ‘The American Prospect’ by Monica Potts. She wrote, “For most Americans, life expectancy continues to rise but- not for undereducated white women. They have lost five years, and no one knows why.” Why isn’t their a battle cry to help these women? Because the narrative of despair and poverty is reserved for Black America.
America is schizophrenic. Racist White America believes “Black people complain too much”, “Black folks are violent, lazy and living off of us hard working folks”. I believe our first Black President was speaking to them when he gave a speech about race, after the death of Trayvon Martin and the failed verdict. The goal of the speech was not to comfort the aggrieved Citizens. It was to explain to White people why Black people might be angry.
On the other hand, we have White liberals. Their narrative differs. It is more, “Black people need help”, “Black people need to be rescued/civilized”. Mind you, White boys are shooting up America. White folks are attempting to hurl us back to the time of “poll taxes” and archaic Voter ID laws. White males voted to decrease the “SNAP/food stamp” allowance and deprived poor American children of their right to be free of hunger. White people are dressing up in Black face and laughing as they mimic a murdered Black child. Who, exactly, needs to be civilized?
It appears, inherent in the will to “do good” in America, one must “rescue/civilize” Black people.
White people come from all corners of the country to work in inner city schools and civilize Black children. Here’s a thought: why don’t educated White Americans use their knowledge to educate the ignorant White folks that keep this country in a backward motion toward its racist, hellish past? If I see one more ’60 Minutes’ story about Black children in the ‘ghetto’ being civilized through the benevolence of White folks, or through the Arts, singing, dancing or playing a violin, my head will explode. And, ’60 Minutes’ loves to dish this on a global scale. The stories about Africans being civilized by benevolent white folks in the Arts is their prized story. Either animals are being rescued from poachers or Black bodies are being civilized by “open hearted, white benevolence’. Give me a break.
Clearly, we are all aware (I hope) of the economic inequities in America. The levels of cyclical poverty, violence and under-education that plagues inner city communities is astounding. Continuing to do “missionary” work in Black communities is only addressing part of the problem. The main problem is the under-educated, archaic White segment of the population that keeps breeding racist and privileged children who become racist and privileged adults who occupy positions that continue the march toward the 1950’s and before.
Let’s start new “Freedom Rides”. Find the region of the country that is mesmerized by the Tea Party. Target them. Educate them. How about the lower regions of Mississippi, where poor White children are in need of a “rescue”, “new ideas”, “new ways of seeing themselves”. Americans who need to understand that they are global citizens. And, not apart of some white-skinned American dynasty that places them on a broken pedestal. Who is educating these children?
Certainly, with this novel idea of diversity, people of color are educating some folks in Ivory towers. But, I’m talking before the Ivory tower. This needs to be tackled at the root, in elementary schools and high schools. Offer White Americans a different way of seeing themselves. Seeing a different type of White person that isn’t navel gazing and honoring all things vapidly White.
Until we begin this difficult work, the culture will not change. We need ‘culture warriors’ willing to do the work to change the racist and myopic thinking that creates narrow minded White people. So we don’t have to create films about Slavery that help White people enter the narrative. So we don’t have to suffer the consequences of injustice metered out by all-White juries. So we can stop producing generations of people who vote against their economic interests. Who is addressing these people? These people need to be “civilized”. White Americans are in need of rescue from the belief that their White skin is some sort of badge or meaningful characteristic that exalts them above the rest of the world. This narrow minded thinking is dragging us down as a country.
I attended Fordham University as an Undergrad. There was an organization, the ‘Jesuit Peace Corps’, that many of my White friends joined after graduating. These students were assigned to “inner city” communities, there to educate the natives. One friend was from Buffalo, New York. Couldn’t he have been assigned to Buffalo, NY? Perhaps, to educate the neanderthals that schlepped around Buffalo? Couldn’t these ‘bright-eyed and eager” graduates be assigned to the exotic farmlands of Iowa? We could even revamp ‘The Peace Corps’. Instead of going to Africa, go to Italy and civilize the citizens who threw bananas at the first Black Minister of Italy. Send in folks to help the French treat North Africans with respect . And, while we’re at it, assign a group to the staff at Barney’s. And, send a team to educate the NYPD.
Men who batter women only take direction from other men. Put simply, they believe men are valid. So, the ones who have to do the heavy lifting to enlighten them are other men. The same may hold true for racist White folks. They have to hear it from other White folks who have done anti-racism work. Can you think of a greater service to humanity?
Imagine the contributions that an enlightened White America could deliver to the world – A CD “The Miseducation of Britney Spears”. Anti-Privilege “sit-ins”. It is clear that Tim Wise does not want to share his “anti-racism” pedestal but, isn’t it time to dethrone him? Imagine an America where Kanye could rap about how happy Black America is, now that White folks “own their sh**”.
The era of the Black Presidency has taught us many things. One of the valuable lessons we have learned is- there are still a lot of racist White people in America. The country changes, slightly, yet that remains a constant. Isn’t it time we do something about it? Can we at least organize a ‘Freedom Ride” to Washington, D.C. to avert the next government shutdown?
Thanksgiving is coming up, as a precursor, do some anti-racism work at the family dinner table.