Last Sunday after my yoga class, I stopped at the grocery store to pick up a few essentials like cat food and shampoo. The store wasn't crowded and I had my choice of lines. As usual, I exchanged a bit of banal small talk with the checker and the bagger.
"Good evening, ma'am," the checker, a young African American woman, asked. "How are you? Did you find everything you needed?"
"Yes, thanks. I'm fineyourself?" I asked automatically. "And how are you?" I asked the bagger, an African American man who, to my less than discerning eye, appeared to be in his early 20s.
"Great! Terrific! Amazing!" he responded with a big smile.
I paused for a moment, taking in the young man's buoyant energy.
"Yeah. It's been a great week, hasn't it?" I then said.
At that moment, his grin could have lit up the store without the help of electricity.
"Yes, it has," he said emphatically. "It certainly has, hasn't it?
What could have been just another forgettable exchange at the grocery store suddenly turned into a conversation about politics and racism as he wheeled my admittedly lightly laden cart to my car. We stood in the parking lot for about 15 minutes, talking about the election and how it affected him.
I was the first white person he'd seen all week who didn't look like my best friend had died, he told me, his relief washing over me like a flood. Some angry people had refused to allow him to do his job, snatching their carts from his hands and loading their own groceries. Most just looked upset and frightened, he said, as if their lives had taken some weird turn into a "Twilight Zone" episode. Others seemed on the verge of tears.
I can relate to the otherworldly feeling. I, too, was off balance on Wednesday morning. "We've just elected a black man to be America's president," I remember thinking as I stood in the shower. "What an awesome, historic, amazing time to be alive."
I came into the newsroom that morning doing a hokey little dance of joy.
On Saturday, I attended Maggie Burks' wedding. Maggie, the JFP's managing editor, is a 20-something, college-educated black woman. She married a 20-something, college-educated white man.
In our little progressive JFP bubble, it struck me as both stunningly wonderful and ironic that my first bi-racial wedding took place in Mississippi. As Donna Ladd wrote last week, Maggie and J.P. are one of four mixed-race couples in our office, including one that's also a single-sex relationship.
But my conversation that evening with designer Christi Vivar, who is black, brought me up short. She just expects everyone to hate her and her (Latino) husband, she told me.
I was stunned as I realized that I couldn't even imagine living that way. What does hatred like that do to your soul and spirit?
Once again, I saw how far I have to go in my understanding of people who don't look like me. And that's the thing about blind spots: You can't see them until the exact moment you can.
Many folks out there have a huge blind spot when it comes to racism. It's ingrained after generations of hearing the same "facts" over and over again that they simply accept as true. It never even occurs to them to think differently because they can't see that there's any other way to think.
I saw it in my parents, who were both teenagers in 1930s Austria when Adolf Hitler and the Nazis annexed the country. Their racism extended to Jews, and even though it wasn't rabid, it showed up in unexpected ways, like when I brought my Jewish boyfriend to Christmas dinner. You could have cut the tension with a Ginsu knife.
Today, I see some Mississippians' racism in the comments made by The Clarion-Ledger readers responding to Tuesday's Democratic victory. Having bought into the fear-mongering of the Republican campaign, many sound convinced that the country's headed straight to hell in the hands of a Marxist, Muslim terrorist who will take their money and give it directly to "the poor," (i.e., blacks). Obama isliterally or figurativelySatan to these folks, and they are shaken to their ancestral roots.
It's the kind of blind fear that has the potential to turn into blind fury, as witnessed by my bagger buddy at the grocery store, when store patrons turned their fear and rage in his direction. It's that kind of fear that turns crowds into mobs and people who wouldn't normally say an unkind word into screeching harpies. Blind spots so easily turn into blind fear, and blindness has a way of making everyone crazy.
Racism, like any form of bigotry, is a fear-based reaction to the unknown, and to a racist, Obama is one big unknown boogie man. Despite months of opportunities to know and understand him, American's racial blind spot made such knowing and understanding impossible for many. And that, I think, could be the greatest contribution Obama can make to the future of this country.
Nothing anyone can say or write will convince a racist that blacks are the sameor as "goodԗas they are. I look forward to recent historythe Bush years in particularbeing rewritten in light of Obama's presidency; I'm going to have fun reminding people just how bad it had gotten under Bush when they start complaining that Obama isn't performing miracles. I don't look forward to possible spates of racially based violence as America struggles to come to terms with our decision.
Barack Obama comes to the hardest job in the world facing global economic crises, unwinnable wars, global warming and a host of other problems that would make most people run as fast as humanly possible in the other direction. What most of us aren't talking about is the challenge of America's racial blind spot, the illumination of which has the potential of turning hatred into compassion and peace.
In one of my favorite quotes, Mahatma Gandhi said: "Be the change you want to see in the world." Obama, simply by being an intelligent, compassionate, sane human being, has the potential to turn a very bright light on our racial blind spots, and that, for me, is a change we need to have happen in our country and our world.
That's a blind spot we can all look forward to losing.
Wonderful commetary, Ronni. How sad? How repugnant they are?
Thanks. Great reflections! Be the change....