Since my best friend's oldest daughter was in grammar school, I’ve been her homework helper. We’ve memorized state capitals, studied the history of Communism, built replicas of California missions, and read more books than I ever remember from my own formal education. Early last week, just days before she started her senior year in high school, we finished her summer reading assignments with a book called The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, by Michelle Alexander. I have thought of little else since we closed the book and reviewed the main points.
One of Alexander’s contentions is that “colorblindness”—that state of being in which we say we don’t see color and instead view everyone as the same—is not a good thing for any of us. “Seeing race is not the problem,” Alexander writes. “Refusing to care for the people we see is the problem … we should hope not for a colorblind society but instead for a world in which we can see each other fully, learn from each other, and do what we can to respond to each other with love.”
Among the many powerful perspectives in Alexander’s book is her look at how the war on drugs and white America’s view of African Americans has perpetuated the mass incarceration of black men and women and has thus locked them into an under caste like no time in history. Those of us who say we are colorblind are no help in this dilemma and Alexander's book convinced me of this point. It’s easy to say that we are “cured” of our poorly formed notions about other people. It’s much harder to truly look at the horrifying situations in which so many people exist and to help to do something substantive to change them.
I can look at this particular situation only as a privileged white woman, though. I grew up in a liberal family of educators and I spent my career teaching at one of the most diverse community colleges in the state. I could say that I have done my part without too much difficulty and I might sort of be right. But as a lesbian who now enjoys a kind of freedom I never imagined—the right to marry, the love and congratulations of co-workers who support me and my partner, and the opportunity to be “out” in most social situations—I know that I don’t want people to be gender-blind. I don’t want the straight people of the world to think that because Jodi and I seem just like any other “normal” couple to them, then we're all fine.
Sometimes I am alarmed at how easy it is at this age to feel that I’ve paid my dues and that my full presence as a human being is no longer necessary.
What I really want is for people to know more about what it’s like growing up gay, no matter how supportive your community is. I want them to understand the deep disdain and revulsion that many folks still feel when confronted with the notion of gay people. And, I need for them to know that, even today, parents are disowning their children because they are attracted to someone of their same sex. When you are gay, you are not like most of the people you know. Unless you are an extremely confident kid or an absurdly self-contained teenager, being so different from everyone you see around you, including most of the members of your own family, is not easy. To really be supportive of me and my community, you would have to do more than say, "gay and straight are all the same to me." You would need to understand what really happened—our social and personal histories. I don't want people to forget the shame I’ve experienced, or what it feels like to frequently be referred to as “sir” because I have short hair.
Clearly these are complex issues, among many more that swirl around us daily. If we dove deeply into each in an attempt to understand, to help change things, to make an authentic difference, we would have no time left for anything else. And so, we check our biases at the door and do our best to treat everyone as equals. In this late phase of my life, I am beginning to understand that thinking about this as a simple dichotomy is inadequate. There is more available to me than either treating people badly based on race, sexual orientation, country of origin, or anything else, and seeing them as just like me. There is paying attention to the details, asking questions until we achieve a new understanding, and speaking up when people around us continue behaving badly.
Sometimes I am alarmed at how easy it is at this age to feel that I’ve paid my dues and that my full presence as a human being is no longer necessary. There is such a huge part of me that wants to lie in a hammock and read a cheesy novel and let everyone fend for him or herself. But then I wonder where I would be in my life if it weren’t for people like that panel of lesbians who came to my sociology class to speak when I was 18. They showed me what was possible and they stood tall as they spoke to the students in the class who surely needed to see powerful people who were different.
We all need to be like that panel in whatever way we can. Like Michelle Alexander, we need to acknowledge what has happened in people’s lives and we need to understand our role in letting that occur. Rather than colorblindness, or blindness to anything that we should look at more closely, Alexander writes, “A commitment to color consciousness … places faith in our capacity as humans to show care and concern for others, even as we are fully cognizant of race and possible racial differences.”
That may seem like a lot to ask if you feel as if you’ve already checked this off your social and political to-do list. But if we don’t make this commitment, we are that much further from each other and that much less aware of what can happen when people are made to face the world alone.
Big thoughts for the 17-year-old to take with her to school this week. Huge thoughts for me as I challenge myself to live as consciously as I can in this last lovely segment of life.