Not Just a Ball Player

{For all my followers that got the first part of this in an email last night, my apologies! While attempting to execute a ctrl-i on my laptop to turn off the italics, my finger slipped and WordPress interpreted whatever I did as a desire to publish immediately. Oops.}

I had a favorite professor in college. I loved the way he taught, the way he managed his classroom. I loved his sense of humor, his outlook. I loved how I never felt odd or unwanted or unequal or lacking as a woman in a heavily male-dominated field of study.

He was special to me. I worked as his teaching assistant for the basic class that all engineering majors had to take. I sat in his office and talked about my future, about the world, about his past. His was the office I ran to, closing the door and bursting into tears, when an insensitive professor made a harsh comment about a personal decision I had to make as I neared graduation. He was important enough that I stayed in contact for several years after I graduated.

I don’t know for sure but I’m fairly certain he has since passed away. I lost contact at some point and don’t think about him much anymore. He’s mostly relegated to those moments in time when folks tell funny college stories to each other – he provided plenty of great fodder for such interaction.

But I’ve been thinking of him a lot today. And not really in a good way, which is something I’ve been wrestling with and is why I’m writing for the first time in weeks. Months? Too long.

Earlier this week, I was scrolling through Facebook’s friend suggestions. I don’t add new friends often. This scrolling is something I do when I’m bored and rarely results in me clicking “add.” There were few people I recognized, mostly because I had recently added 4 people who all attend the same large church. Facebook was now convinced that I might know everyone at said church. So this scrolling activity was a guessing game as to which of the new candidate friends likely went to that church.

Then I came across a guy I graduated from High School with. That’s rare too. Despite it being a very large class, I’m either already friends with people, already rejected them for whatever reason, or they aren’t on Facebook. But this guy hadn’t been suggested before – that I recall. I barely knew him; I’d say really that I just knew of him. But I remembered him being a fun guy and, especially in today’s climate, I was interested in adding a fun person to my feed. He accepted the request and the next day, I saw this:

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And that’s what got me thinking back to my old professor. You see, I know a few tall people who never had an interest in playing basketball. They are annoyed by people either assuming they do or asking if they do and expressing regret when they answer no. As white folk, though, it never appears as though the asker expects basketball to be their entire identity – just something that surely they did while working through their education.

What’s this got to do with my professor? It’s a hazy memory. It’s actually taken me a little while to decide whether I was present for the interaction or he just related it to me (I’ve settled on the latter). You see, there was a young black man in the class I was working with. He came to my study sessions and it became very evident to me that his math skills were not up to snuff for the class or, indeed, most of the engineering program.

I went to talk to the professor about it. It seemed to me that he needed some remedial math before trying to press through the program. My professor seemed to have a different perspective – one that made me uncomfortable, although I didn’t have the words or awareness to call it what it was.

He had had a conversation with the student. He had taken the man’s large hands in his and turned them over and said, “You see these hands? These are large hands. They are made for holding a basketball.” That’s the only part I remember verbatim. The rest is just an impression – he gave a comparison of the professor’s strengths (intellect that made him good at engineering) vs. the student’s (physical strengths that made him good at “ball” as the meme above put it).

While I was uncomfortable at the time and felt he shouldn’t have shared those thoughts with the guy, I hadn’t really let it reflect poorly on my image of the professor. He was just misguided and maybe had a blind spot. Now I see it for what it was. Racist.

You can quibble and say that he might have said the same thing to a tall white man who wasn’t good at math, but I have my doubts. Strong doubts. See my comments about my tall white friends above. Instead of considering that the student might have come from a school district that had not adequately prepared him, he deemed him “not smart enough.” His size and – I firmly believe – skin color painted him an athlete. Period. At no point did the professor show any interest in learning about his hopes and dreams. Why was he in the engineering program? What did he want out of life? What did he need to get there?

So now I wonder – what happened to that guy? Without some help, he wasn’t going to get through the engineering program. Not when he didn’t know how to solve two basic equations with two unknowns. I’m convinced that anyone can learn math though. What many can’t overcome is discouragement. Was he the kind of person that would take comments like that and feed it into his determination? Or was he the kind that would feel crushed and defeated and think, “Who am I to think I could become anything more than I am right now?”

White people seem to have a hard time reconciling racism in people we love and respect. We tend to only label it when it’s big and obvious: angry white men yelling “Jews will not replace us” through the glow of their tiki torches. And shockingly, not even then sometimes.

We want to explain away the day-to-day examples. We want to believe it doesn’t exist – that we are “post racial” in this country. (Anyone who still believes that now is seriously sticking their head in the sand.) I’d like to think that if you could grade a white person on their attitudes about race, I’d be above average, but what does that matter? Why should that be “good enough”? How can I even measure that?

With regard to my professor, I sometimes think, “Well, he was a really old guy. He came from a different time.” And while that might explain it, it should not excuse it. But I also don’t think one flaw in a person should spoil the whole. As a country, we are trying to come to terms with the fact that so many of our “great” Founding Fathers owned slaves.  We somehow have to hold in balance that their ideas and dedication formed this country and they deserve to be revered for that while at the same time they “owned” other human beings and they shouldn’t get a pass on that failing. (Yes, they were a product of their time but other people in that time fought to end slavery, so even then, many people knew it was wrong.) Some of us want to cling to the greatness while ignoring the slavery while others want to dismiss the greatness because of it. Is there room to do both?

We can change. Both our country and the individuals in it. I remember back in 1999. My great-grandmother was 99 years old and living in a nursing home. My mom (or one of my aunts?) was visiting her when one of the nursing assistants came in. As she left, my great-grandmother said, “That {N word} nurse is pretty good.” There was a brief pause. “They don’t like to be called that anymore, do they?” My mom responded, “They never liked being called that, grandma.” Great-grandma nodded thoughtfully. Even at that age, beset with dementia, wondering why God hadn’t called her home yet, she was learning and changing. Surely we all can too?

My thoughts on this topic are all muddled and in some cases contradictory. I know we have to do better and that includes me. There aren’t any easy answers, but the first pivotal step for white folks is to quit thinking we know it all. We don’t know the black (or brown) experience in this country. We are arrogant fools to tell them they are wrong about what they observe with their own eyes, what they experience in their own skin. We need to listen and watch and learn and grow and THINK. It’s not just the tiki-torch wielding bigots. It’s even more so all the little assumptions and slights made by each and every one of us every day.

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Inside Out

So here’s my dilemma.

I’ve got this post I wrote a bazillion weeks ago. Ok, not really. I wrote it back in May but with all that’s happened since then, it feels like a bazillion weeks ago. It’s about my adopted state of Texas and one of its quirks. I should really read over it and publish it already. It won’t be relevant if I wait too much longer.

But then there’s how Sunday morning went and I really want to tell that tale – about how I really wanted to stay in bed and cuddle and listen to the rain but dragged myself to church instead. Because I had to, more than wanted to.

Oh, and then there’s my thoughts about my step-dad that brought me to tears during the Father’s Day worship service. But my dad-dad reads my blog and I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Could I write it in a way that would convey the emotion I was feeling but not hurt dad’s feelings?

And then there’s all the reading I’ve been doing about Charleston and all the different perspectives and my overriding feeling that we just aren’t ever going to progress to some place valuable as a nation. I want to write about that too but… Nah. I know for sure that I don’t have the energy to plumb those depths.

So what’s a woman to do?

I think I’ll talk about movies. I’ve seen some doozies lately. And by that, I mean really, really good ones. Seriously.

Several weeks ago… well, sometime after I wrote that post about Texas that I’ve yet to publish… I saw Mad Max: Fury Road with my husband. I was quite simply blown away. Blown. Away. That movie was perfect. There’s lots of good blogs and articles out there about just how perfect that movie was so I’m not going to try to bumble through it myself. Here’s one of them. I don’t have anything to add – that article pretty much sums up my reaction to the movie.

Sunday night, we had a movie marathon – Jane, Daddy, and me. First we watched The Butler. I was amazed again. And chilled. And thought about Charleston. And sat there still. And happy and sad at the same time. We decided to top it off with Forrest Gump. Because why not? And because Jane hadn’t seen it yet and that seemed like a shame.

So then we get to Monday afternoon. I was barely able to get off work in time to join my family at the last matinee-price showing of Inside Out. We had been looking forward to it for several weeks now. Or maybe a bazillion. I don’t know. I’m pretty sure we started looking forward to it long before I wrote that Texas post that maybe I’ll get around to sharing later this week. Maybe.

Anyway, totally different tale than Mad Max. That probably doesn’t shock you. But… again… I was blown away. Blown. Away. This movie is magical. It nails emotion. It found a way to explain the inner workings of the brain in a fantastical and magnificent way. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed out loud as much during a movie as I did in this one.

You have to go see it. You simply have. To. Go. See. It. Right now. Or when the theater opens. Whichever comes first. I loved this movie. My family loved this movie. I loved watching my family love watching this movie. Hal was on the edge of his seat near the end. I think Jane and I might have missed some of the on-screen magic just then because we were too busy staring at the in-theater magic sitting next to me: back straight as a rod, face intent, a slight smile, body leaning forward with anticipation.

It’d be hard to escape the theater without catching the at-credits extras but make sure you don’t. You can leave after the cat. But don’t you dare leave before the cat! I’m telling you – the entire movie was precious and sincere and lovely and funny and charming and insightful. But the cat – the cat was real. The cat got it right. So make sure you stay for the cat.

That’s all I’m saying.

So, yeah, I could have talked about what’s wrong with Texas’s obsession with football. I could have talked about my deceased step-father. I could have walked the minefield that is divorce and tried to discuss Father’s Day. I could have talked about faith and commitment and fatigue. I could have talked about racism and America. But life is heavy enough and you need a smile.

So go watch Inside Out. And stay for the cat. It won’t let you down. I promise.

Living White

I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of race lately. That might seem like an odd thing for a middle class white woman to think about but it’s been on my mind nonetheless.

One of my cousins recently posted on Facebook that she had just finished watching The Help and the ending had made her cry. A friend of hers posted “The ending made me laugh. Stupid white guilt.”

The comment made me sad. True, I’ve never treated anyone like that and I never will, so from one angle, any guilt I feel is stupid. But sadness is not the same thing as guilt. Furthermore, the people depicted in that movie were living what they thought was normal. What am I doing right now that feels normal but is actually deeply wrong? How will that “normal” be portrayed in movies 50 or 60 years from now? What impacts are we still experiencing from the damage done so long ago? And do those of us benefiting from white privilege have no obligation to address those impacts?

White privilege is a difficult thing to define and a difficult thing to see if you don’t know where to look and it’s a term that surely makes a lot of people roll their eyes. People like that Facebook commenter, without a doubt.

But acknowledging white privilege is not about feeling guilt. It’s about noticing the advantages you have that others don’t, big or small, simply because of the color of your skin.

A black woman sits in the cubicle next to me. In addition to talks about work, our weekends, movies, family, and everything else, we have frequent talks about race. She, along with a couple of other black friends, has opened my eyes to the disadvantages of being black. Being stopped by a police officer because you don’t look like you belong in the affluent neighborhood you are driving in. Being followed by a store employee as if you are about to steal something. People making assumptions about your socioeconomic status and family history.

One of my best friends growing up was black. It wasn’t until recently that I learned why her mother never let her go to the mall with the rest of us. She was afraid that if there was ever a problem – claims of shoplifting or something – her daughter was the one that would be assumed guilty.

This makes me sad. I don’t feel guilty, just sad. I wish it wasn’t this way. I wish my black friends didn’t have to warn their children about dangers that I don’t have to warn mine about. I wish they didn’t have to put up with things that I don’t have to put up with.

I noticed a subtle form of racism and white privilege in the cafeteria at work recently. A fairly sweet and friendly woman runs the short-order grill. She jokes around with most of the customers and is pretty accommodating.

Last week, a black man waited for his omelet to be prepared. She was preparing it as she usually does, spreading the egg out thin, then adding the contents to one half and folding the egg over. He asked her if she could scramble it all up together, demonstrating with his hands what he wanted.

She did as he requested but rolled her eyes and told him dismissively that it’d taste the same either way. He didn’t respond. She started harassing him. She sometimes sounded like she was trying to joke around but there was an edge to her voice and animosity in her manner. At the end, she adopted a falsely sweet voice and loudly announced, “Here you go… SIR.”

I found her behavior rude and when I had the opportunity, I slipped away to tell the man that I prefer my omelets scrambled too. She accommodates other odd requests without the kind of belligerent behavior I witnessed that day, but I didn’t make the connection to the possibility of it being motivated by race until today.

Today, I waited in line behind quite a few people. I had a lot on my mind and wasn’t paying much attention. Someone had apparently asked to have his sandwich put in foil instead of the styrofoam box. A woman, black, said that she’d like hers wrapped in foil as well.

I didn’t see the first person get his food but I watched as the grill lady wrapped the woman’s sandwich in foil and then place it in the box. I mentally shook my head, thinking I bet the woman wanted the foil instead of the box.

Sure enough, when she handed the box to the customer, the woman said, “I didn’t want the box.” She then removed her wrapped sandwich and returned the box. She wasn’t overly friendly or demonstrative or apologetic about it but she also wasn’t rude or upset. She was just matter-of-fact. I don’t want the box. Here it is.

When she walked away, the grill lady rolled her eyes at the next customer and said, “As if she expects me to be able to read her mind.”

I was taken by surprise. The customer had not expected her to read her mind. She had misunderstood and the customer had clarified. So why the animosity?

I thought back over the many times I’ve stood in that grill line. The only two times I can think of her being disrespectful to a customer’s wishes was with these two people, who shared one distinct trait.

Was I experiencing a small form of white privilege? Were all of us white people going through that line being afforded more respect than the black people? Did we have more right to express our wishes? To be served by friendly and helpful staff? To ask for something special?

I believe we were. Now, there’s always the possibility that when you start looking for something, you’ll see it even where it isn’t. I recognize that. And maybe I’m doing it now. Or maybe I’m finally waking up and truly seeing what’s going on around me. What I’ll do with the enlightenment is still an open question.