Sunday, November 09, 2008

Post-Election Reflection

I remember well that day when I was 11 years old.
My best friend's house was up for sale.
People were always coming and going whenever I was there.
I'd already gotten used to it, but then that one family came.
I remember they were cheerful. 
They were friendly, warm, polite.
I would've liked to meet them.
But, with narrowed eyes and sour voice, my friend quickly ordered us to his backyard.
His manner said it all long before he asked that question:
"What are they doing here?"

Then, as we played, I heard a happy, "Hello!"
I turned to see a girl, maybe a year or two younger than me, standing in the door.
I remember she had bright eyes and a sunny smile.
They looked so pretty on her colored face.
"Hello!" I said in cheerful reply.
"Um, come on," said my friend impatiently.  Grabbing my arm, he dragged me away.
I asked him what his problem was, and I got an annoyed sigh.
"Don't look at her," he said in my ear.  "Just ignore her."
I asked him why, and he used THAT WORD.

Yes, I'd heard plenty of jokes using that word.  I admit I repeated many.
But I'd always thought it meant a type of person, like "redneck" or "greaser".
That family and that girl certainly didn't fit the image I'd always carried in my mind!
Apparently I'd been mistaken.
In my friend's eyes, the color alone brought the damning title.
And the world suddenly seemed like a smaller place.

I remember, though not so well, that day when I was 14 years old.
A school dance had just ended, and we were going home.
Behind me on the bus, a boy was loudly guffawing as he told his friend what had happened.
A girl had asked him to dance.
I didn't really know the girl, but I'd met her before, and I knew about her.
A year below me, she was mostly quiet, but was smart and friendly.
She seemed to get along with her classmates well enough.
She had a nice smile, but her eyes always looked so sad.
I often saw her walking alone and wondered if she was lonely, but always from afar.
I'd never heard anyone speak ill of her till then.
Had it been one of the other 99.2% of the girls at our school, the ones who were white, yellow, or red, the boy would probably have said yes.
But she and one other were of the 00.8% that were black.
And the boy used THAT WORD.

Self-righteously, I said to myself that I wished she had asked me.
I would have danced with her quite happily.
But then I felt the pangs of self-doubt and cowardice wrenching my gut.
I knew that dancing with her would probably make me a target.
I'd be laughed at, possibly even attacked, for "loving" someone who was THAT WORD.
My spirit failed me, and I looked the other way.

A year later, the other colored girl from my junior high days was in one of my high school classes.
The teacher happened to be my own father.
The girl and I had gotten along well when we'd shared a class at the junior high.
But now she looked at me with fire in her eyes and a jutting lip.
Then she demanded, "Is your father prejudiced?"
I told her that, in all honesty, I didn't know, but insisted that I was not.
She then demanded to know if my father used THAT WORD.
I said I'd never heard him say it, but she wouldn't be soothed.
She hated me clear till she moved away and left the school.

Fast forward several years, and I was wandering the benighted streets of Portland.
Certain friends thought themselves wise in their ways.
We wound up chatting with a most interesting group.
They said some of the wittiest and cleverest things.
I thought I would like to get better acquainted.  
At least until they robbed me.

That was far less serious than what happened the next time.
A similar-looking group suddenly converged on us on a darkened street.
They were clearly much less friendly.
The threats and oaths poured from their mouths as we bolted away through a construction site.
Escaping to the light, we were told to be careful.  
A group of THAT WORD were looking for "whiteys" to "roll".
We stopped going to Portland at night.
We started using THAT WORD much more often.

In my university days I worked for a while at a pizza restaurant.
One of my coworkers made me nervous and edgy.
There was no real reason for me to feel that way.
Indeed, he was probably the most dependable person there.
He was always the coolest to me.
I did my best to be just as cool to him in return.
But I always tensed up when he came in and said hi.
The memory of those Portland nights always came screaming into the back of my mind.
I never referred to him as THAT WORD.  I would never dream of it.
But I'm shamed to admit my heart probably did.

At the same time I noticed something very odd.
I knew a singer called "Roo", had a housemate named "Veggie".
Though their color was that of my coworker, neither of them made me nervous at all.
I counted them both among my friends.
It was clear that my fear was selective, and I wasn't sure why.
Perhaps it was because they were in my cozy worlds of "music" and "home".
There was no reason to think they were different.
It was natural to forget the Portland memories.
THAT WORD simply didn't enter the picture.

Now I've spent almost twenty years in Japan.
I've met folks from Kenya, Egypt, and Iran,
Plus India, Bangladesh, Tanzania,
Pakistan, Singapore, and Latvia,
Chile, Peru, Lebanon, and Malaysia,
Austria, Germany, Italy, Russia,
The Philippines, Sri Lanka, France, and Thailand,
Australia, Holland, China, and New Zealand,
And many others I've naught room to name,
But one thing I have noticed is that they're the same.

If a man twice my size from Niger isn't scary,
Then why should someone from back home make me wary?
MLK said it best:  character, not the skin,
Is what we should judge, if the dream can begin.
THAT WORD is a mask, an excuse to divide,
But it really has little of substance inside.
But can we all change?  I say, "YES WE CAN!"
We proved it when my land elected this man.
Character, not skin, decided the game.
Let history judge him on merit, not name.

We have taken a bold step, and yet I still know
That, as a culture, we've still far to go:
Blue-leaning states voting Rep, not Dem,
Because they can't stand voting for "one of THEM",
Business refused to those bearing his name,
Stereotypes oozing out of blogs and op-ed pages,
Evil words spoken in mikes or on stages.
Some people, it seems, can't let go of THAT WORD.
They don't want to see their reality blurred.

But if we all simply learn to ignore 
These divisions, they won't trouble us anymore.
Then a little girl's "Hi" won't set off an alarm.
A request for a dance won't be a cause of harm.
A violent gang will be judged only by
What it does, not by color of face, hair, or eye.
Don't call me a "whitey", and I won't use THAT WORD.
Neither is needed; let's not let them be heard.

No matter who you voted for, let's look at the age.
Indeed, change has come, and we've helped set the stage.
But where it will go, none can say as of yet.
I hope we learn what we should and should not forget.


The Moody Minstrel said...

(Hopefully Snabulus won't kill me for this...)

Arkonbey said...

Word. Beautifully written. Travel broadens the horizons, yes?

I grew up in Very White Central Massachusetts Suburb, yet was raised to not really care about color; my parents didn't make a bit deal out of 'tolerance', they just treated everyone the same. In High School, I had the biggest crush on a mixed-race girl I knew and her skin color never entered into it (I never asked her out because I abysmal teenage self-esteem. She turned out to be a lesbian, so I guess it all worked out).

When I hit the USCG, it was no big deal to suddenly be working and living with people of other colors. I don't know how the other services are, but in my time, the USCG cared about color about as much as I did. I never heard That Word once.

I guess I was pretty lucky not to have been exposed to hatred. When Obama rolled into the big scene, I'd already liked him from hearing him on the radio. His race mattered so little to me that even now when people say 'first African-American president' I have to pause and think: oh, right.

BTW. How come we never hear how other countries label their minorities? We have African-Americans. Are there British-Pakistanis or French-Japanese, or are we the only ones that do that? Is it inclusive or exclusive to hyphenate?

The Moody Minstrel said...

I envy you for many reasons, Arkonbey, not least of which is that you served in the Coast Guard (something I strongly considered).

BTW. How come we never hear how other countries label their minorities?

That issue just came up at my school here a week ago. We had a guest speaker (C.W. Nichol) who is Welsh but holds Japanese citizenship. The Japanese are actually at a total loss as to how to refer to such people. Most would probably just call him a gaijin (foreigner) with a Japanese passport.

Don Snabulus said...

We still have 2 more months of possible shenanigans before President Obama is sworn in. He has a big mess to clean up, but he was the best of the bunch and I wish him well. Good job, America.

The past always haunts us, but perseverance can take us beyond its limitations. Barack Obama is an example of that perseverance.

Dave said...

The implication of the election as the press sees it is that those who didn't vote for Obama are racists. The second thing is that we seem to have accomplished a great thing by electing a black president.

I didn't vote for John McCain because I thought he would be a great president. I voted against Obama because he is a liberal socialist.

But I am not going to fret about the results. It seems that America elected Obama based on the color of his skin, and this post reflects that very well. I made my choice based on experience and issues.

In any case, time will show how little the electorate considered their choice, as the Change comes.

The Moody Minstrel said...

I'm still worried there might be a (convenient) major terrorist attack or other national emergency leading to the declaration of martial law. Bush, inc., quietly gave themselves that power a year or two ago while no one was looking.

It seems that America elected Obama based on the color of his skin, and this post reflects that very well. I made my choice based on experience and issues.

Actually, most people I know that supported Obama did so precisely because he is not what Bush is, whereas McCain had the disadvantage of coming more or less from Bush's camp. There's also the fact that McCain based almost his entire campaign on a character assassination effort rather than on relevant issues (not to mention the fact that comments he made on various matters showed him to be a bit too eager to send in the troops at the least provocation).

But when it comes right down to it, I didn't vote for either one of them, and you know precisely where you can shove it.

Arkonbey said...


Funny how liberalism is a matter of context. I know people, who considered Obama too moderate. I found him refreshingly moderate. I'm from Vermont and we know liberal. We also know Socialist, having voted for the only actual socialist in the Senate (and House before that)

Socialism is also an easy label. What does it mean, really. Worker's comp is arguably socialism, but it is a lifesaver for those hundreds of people who've been laid off recently. And Governor Palin presided over a large socialist program in Alaska: The Alaska Dividend. I was eligible for it when I was stationed in Alaska, but I didn't take it. Liberal though I am, I felt I didn't deserve it because I was there on the government's time.

MM: Dang. Sorry to sully your nice piece by going all political. It won't happen again, I swear.

The Moody Minstrel said...

That's okay. It's not like it hadn't already wound up that way anyway. ;-)

Don Snabulus said...

It is interesting to see this crusty old blog get a little life to it.

Pandabonium said...

I won't delve into the politics of the election here (points of which we may disagree), I just want to say it's a wonderful poem. Thanks.

Dean Wormer said...

That is really beautiful, Moody.

What's cool is that Obama didn't run as a That Word. Or any other word. He ran as Obama.

I have no doubt that racism will continue but what a cool thing Obama's election says about this country.

Um Naief said...

very meaningful and honest post. i will say, as a young girl, i experienced much of what you talk about. i experienced my friends saying that word, my family... all the while, my older sister had married one of those ... you know, that word.

i was called every name you can think of at school. if i talked to anyone of color, i was a labeled a that word lover. my cousin even told my mother that i had a boyfriend that was a that word. even though i wasn't. he was in my math class and i talked to him, and that was it. but sooner after, i stopped talking to him and anyone else of color. for my ride home on the bus became more than i could bare...

i wonder if this president will change some of this. i can at least hope.

i'm proud of you for being honest. it takes a lot of guts to admit that one has used that word.