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Improvement vs. Modernization

18 December 2022

Another thought I needed to release; I tell ya, therapy will have you thinking! One of the questions that continues to resurface in my mind is whether the fight against racism is improving or is racism just modernizing?

As a kid, I understood racism to mean slavery, beatings, Jim crow, segregation, a lot of bad things happening to Black people by White people in power. A tactic of oppression. I then was able to place faces to it: My great uncle on my mom's side who was murdered by the KKK. My grandpa on my dad's side who was a Montford Point Marine and experienced segregation in WWII. My Aunt who was told to grab her food in the back of a restaurant in MS as she was not allowed to enter through the front. The burning of crosses at my dad's church by the KKK. My dad in the Navy as a young Petty Officer being told by his Chief (one of his supervisors) that he was changing out of his uniform and into a nice civilian suit to attend a Nazi council meeting that evening. Family members being directly called the N-word by White people. This was my understanding of racism. That’s not what I was encountering. None of that was my lived experience. Racism in Northern CA in the suburbs where I lived wasn’t a thing-at least not for Black people who "behaved" the way that I did-- not fitting themselves into negative stereotypes. Beliefs of the naive child me.

In college I learned about "micro-aggressions". A term used to describe racially fused criticism but in a more "covert" manner. Example, "you are pretty for a Black girl" or "I thought all Asians were smart". Basically, micro-aggressions are a gentler, softer way of describing something that is racism. Micro-aggressions are an aggression, and they ARE straight up racism. No soft or gentler ways about it. But going back to my point, I learned this term while taking a multi-cultural biracial ethnic studies class in undergrad. Within the course we read books about the biracial experiences of three people: 1 half Black half White man, one half White half Korean woman, and one half Indigenous American and half White woman.

The lessons I learned through reading the books as well as the class discussions were FASCINATING. Growing up, I use to be envious of people who were mixed as it seemed as it was more socially acceptable to have different types of interests or strengths based off of the different ethnicities they were. Example, because I was visibly only an African American girl, I was expected by my peers (and some adults) to be athletic, be a good dancer, be hypersexual, and lack ambition or intelligence. Because I was interested in ROTC, performing well academically, and serving God as a Christian, many of the other kids repeatedly told me that I was not Black. This triggered me to feel disconnected from other people (particularly other Black people) which led me to spend much of my time alone. Whereas I observed my classmates who were White and Black (mixed-race) say they liked reading, and attribute that to their "White side" making the behavior acceptable for them and whichever community they wanted to reside in. In my eyes, they were given social "passes" for acceptance where as I, being authentically myself, was not.

The course showed me that many biracial and multi-cultural kids felt EXTREMELY similar to how I felt except where my lack of community acceptance came from the moment people heard me talk, for many of them it was immediately on sight. The class revealed how so many mixed kids felt that they didn’t belong anywhere because of their biology, that they often didn’t know what demographic box to check, and often felt isolated and alone as many did not see themselves fit into any community anywhere. Learning this I felt immediate compassion and that pain, although from different lived experiences, was not that different from my own. I felt for them and the dismissive attitude I once possessed, transformed into humility and awareness that their lived experience is real too. I found myself relating.

This multi-cultural/biracial course was extremely therapeutic and revealed to me that so many things I once thought were weak sensitivities in me, or just "jokes" from peers or adults were indeed micro-aggressions. It was racism. I thought about my experience in field training where the instructor called me disgusting for not washing my braids my first night of training and relating the "condition" of my hair to that of "eczema" in front of our entire flight. I thought of the joke my training instructor shared about how Muslim mothers don't celebrate their children's 18th birthdays because they "blow up too fast". I thought about how when this among other comments were reported up to Headquarters by my cadre the verdict was determined that they were "unprofessional but not racist." I thought about the Nutrition teacher who shared with our class that "Black people are better at sports because they were bred to be physically strong during slavery." That their talent is not from hard work but genetic "breeding". I thought of the drivers-ed teacher who asked me if I had a learning problem because I was "really REALLY slow" at completing my practice test in comparison to the other students. Not that the test was timed or that the teacher communicated any time limit, but that I was the last to complete my test in what he deemed as "slow". I thought about all of the comments about my hair, my body, how I spoke, how I dressed; the shame I felt the days I had to wear my "natural hair" in between styles and the comments I got from students who would touch my hair (without asking) and say, "this feels like rope". So much of my very existence felt like a spectacle for others to comment on, touch, and pick at. I wonder did Sarah Baartman feel like this when she was taken from her home in South Africa, sold, enslaved, and placed in a cage for display in Europe for the amusement of Europeans? Before her body was dissected and used for science, did she feel like some sort of spectacle?

10 years ago, if you asked me if the fight against racism is improving, I would have told you yes. I would have looked at the diversity in my Sacramento State University classrooms and hallways, and the evidence of the gold Lieutenant bars on my shoulders and strongly said yes, things are improving. Today I'm not so sure. So much has been exposed over the past few years which I believe is step one of solving any kind of problem. But my concern is not enough people are acknowledging that the problem exists or are willing to do the work to gain self-awareness to see how they contribute to it. And due to this absence of awareness the fueling of this perpetual cycle of modernizing behaviors from the past whether consciously or unconsciously, fully persists. It is very disheartening to hear that the same conversations my parents were having in the 80's and 90's I am having today. Or to returning to work after peacefully protesting the unjust murder of George Floyd and for my coworker to give me kudos and that these times remind him of the 60's. Protesting the same thing 60 years later? Has anything changed or has the injustice just "modernized"? How does one break the cycle? This year taught me that no one person can (thank you therapy and hospitalizations!) can break the cycle. At least not alone. Motivated "tokens" won't do it either. But a daily commitment to truth, building trust, and teamwork could be a start. I want true improvement and not a stealthier or modernized way to do the same things under the guise of "better." Too many people are suffering in silence, in broad day light, and dying as a result.


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