When I was a kid, the question was easy: What color am I going to be when I grow up?
I asked it loudly in front of several African-American families at a nearby McDonald’s as I played with children of all races in one of those Mayor McCheese climbing gyms.
My parents had raised me among a wide array of family friends who were given honorary titles of “aunt” or “uncle” instead of “Mr.” or “Mrs.” or “Ms.” I had uncles and aunts who were “people of color.”
In my 6-year-old mind, apparently race was something you grew up to be, much like why my dad could grow a mustache and I couldn’t. Just like some flowers bloomed to be red or blue, I might get to be darker or lighter than my Bohemian-Polish dad and my Polish-German mother.
Come to think of it, I never did get an answer at that point. Or any other point.
Race is something we’re born into, I learned. I also figured out that it is the fault line upon which our entire society trembles with fear. Like the tiny shifts along the San Andreas can yield shockwaves of destruction, so can the tremors of race fracture us repeatedly, never truly healing and never truly allowing us to rebuild.
Each exemplar builds in a direction of separation.
Each name adds to the anger and outrage and bumper-sticker politics on each side.
Ferguson. Michael Brown. Hands up! Don’t shoot. (Guns down, Michael Brown.)
New York. Eric Garner. I can’t breathe! (Breathe easy. Don’t break the law.)
I’m never more astonished than when I read the “Racists Getting Fired” Tumblr site and see the stupid shit people write about people of color. It’s also incredible the way in which commenters ask, “How can you call for people to be fired like this? Aren’t you worried about taking away their livelihoods?” Uh… No.
And then I get more astonished when I read about the UCLA protest, in which a group of graduate students protested against the climate of race on campus. They did so in a classroom in which they noted the professor was “repeatedly questioning the value of our work on social identity and the related dynamics of oppression, power and privilege.” The “barrage of questions by white colleagues and the grammar ‘lessons’ by the professor have contributed to a hostile class climate.”
(I supposed if you wanted to “bumper-sticker” the spectrum of issues here, you could go with: “From pistol-packing police to professors who properly punctuate.”)
Where does all this end? Better yet, where do we start?
If I believe, which I do to an extent, Sy Stokes’ viral video, I am but a snowflake in an avalanche. I can’t see anything properly, surrounded by the other snowflakes. If I believe the RGF website, I can’t help either. I understand and I respect the position the site moderators take, so this isn’t a “let’s all get together” plea. I’m grateful I can see what they have to say and observe what they see each day.
I know my place.
In the back row of the Stokes video, a young man has on a shirt that says, “Stay Hungry and Hustle Hard.” I noticed it because it reminded me of something my dad would always say: “The best things in life comes to he who hustles while he waits.” These thoughts tap desperately at the back of my middle-class mind: Work the problem.
I always believed there was never a problem I couldn’t out-work in my life. You hustle. You scrap. You figure it out. Somebody, somewhere has an answer. Find that person. Get that answer. Make it work, goddammit because that’s what needs to happen.
What I see here isn’t that, and it literally makes it hard to breathe.