July 10, 2015

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Flat out. Yeah. I’m going to talk about privilege and race.

I grew up mostly poor in a family of six. My Dad worked at Coors, driving a forklift, all the days I can remember of my childhood and well into my adulthood, too, graveyard then swing shift, weekends, holidays, sometimes even Christmas, double time and a half! My Mom stayed home to take care of us kids, running a tight ship of laundry, cooking, cleaning, and assigning chores. Everything was based on economy and thrift: the house kept cold, sharing baths and bath water, owning one car, and not dining out – save a precious few occasions I can count on one hand.

We bought only what we could afford and when we could afford it, never before. A trip to the grocery store was a serious endeavor, made every two weeks, shopping on my Dad’s pay day, with us watching like hawks for the mail truck to come trundling down our street before dashing off to the bank and hoping for candy from the teller, then heading to the store with our massive list. We had coupons for everything possible, shopped the King Soopers ad, bought off-brands and generics, compared prices (per ounce, per piece!), scrimped and saved, the cart unwieldy and piled high when we arrived at the checkout.

People tried to make us feel less than, making sure to whisper loud enough that they bet we used food stamps, my Mom eyeing them proudly when she wrote a check (which never bounced) for what is still an astonishing amount of money, usually around $200. I calculate now. Two hundred dollars, divided by fourteen days, divided by our household of six: $2.39 a day for each person, plus one cat. Hear those dollars s t r e t c h.

Yet there was always enough and sometimes more, for simple pleasures, mostly, homemade cookies and dessert, picnics and drives to the mountains, swimming in streams and the local pool; for discounted movie matinees, and three family vacations, all of us crammed in the car – to Missouri, to New Mexico, and grander than grand, Arizona and California just before I entered high school. Another source of more, and to whom I owe a sincere debt of gratitude, is my dearly departed and marvelously generous Great Aunt Mary, without whom there would hardly have been gifts at Christmas.

The moment I was old enough to work, I did. First babysitting, at age twelve, then fast food, bussing tables and waitressing, answering telephones. With the money I made, I bought my own car, paid my own insurance, and bought the majority of my clothes and essentials. Somehow I managed to be an honor student, too. My goodness, the fortitude of youth.

And yet, when I think about all I personally endured, all we managed to be and have and overcome as a family, we were very privileged: my dad had a steady job with insurance (though not enough to pay for braces, forcing me to wait until I was grown), enabling us to make choices, to have a house, to disguise our poverty with new school clothes. We could have been black or Latino or fresh from Laos and motherless, like my dear friend Sengfong, and there is no hiding that, unless you are a Wayans brother in a ridiculous fil-um.

What would have happened the time I was pulled over by the police, in my own neighborhood, for driving suspiciously (bored and slow was how I described it), were I a girl of a different skin color? Or my sister, caught drunk in seventh grade? How often would I have had police question me merely for walking down the street?

It saddens and frustrates me, especially when I think about people I know. The boy at my school, bright and funny and with the most dazzling smile, a darker brown than his sister, harassed for that mere fact. Another boy, tiny and ever so kind, born in Laos, picked on in the locker room, probably by people I called friends. I never found out. My gay friend, who had to pretend to like girls. My friend and perfectly upstanding citizen, who made more money than me, shadowed every time she shopped in department stores. Another friend whose father said she could never date a black boy. It simply was not done, ever. Tragic. Frustrating. Nonsensical.

I am grateful that I was not taught by my parents to hate or judge based strictly upon race, class, or appearance. But since I am human, I cannot claim to be without bias, or as Louis CK calls it, mildly racist (before going down a weird rabbit hole). Just like him, I wish I didn’t see the black man in a hoodie and notice a mutual nervousness before our fears dissolve in a smile.

I wish the bias didn’t go the other way, too. Like when people of color say they are surprised because I actually seem to care, or find it hard to believe that my parents weren’t wealthy and didn’t buy me my first car. Or black women who HATE white women who date black men but give a “You go girl!” to black women who date white men. What?! Also cringe worthy, when my friend, upon meeting the mother of a boy she knew, got the receiving end of a tirade that included, “I hate you white people!” Barack Obama talked about being offended by white people who locked their car doors because they saw him walking down the street and the commenter on NPR who assumes white women clutch their purse and move to the other side of the elevator when he enters solely because he is black. Gentlemen (and sometimes ladies), it’s not always that simple! My dad grew up poor in a bad neighborhood, and I have watched enough television and read enough fact and fiction to fill my head with every possible scenario, including being car jacked, robbed, raped, and mutilated while alone with a stranger in a soundproof box. I don’t care about skin color, what you look like, how friendly you are, or how you are dressed. I’m looking out for my own bad self because Ted Bundy!! Just sayin’.

Oh, and one last bit, on on the word thug. You are a thug if you wilfully harm an innocent person, especially while wearing a uniform. You are a thug if you rob or loot. You are a thug if you wilfully harm peaceful protesters. You are a thug if you wilfully destroy someone else’s property in anger or protest. You are a thug if you wilfully destroy property in celebration of your favorite sports team. Please don’t be a thug.

Instead, be the change you wish to see in the world, my friends. Be the change.