Despite the fact that I am Black, I was born Black and I probably will be Black until the day that I die (can I do the Rachel Dolezal and identify as someone else?) and while I understood since childhood that there were people who didn’t like Black people, it took a lot of years of being earthside to understand that racism is a system; an institution. To quote Charles Blow, who quoted the Aspen Institute “Institutional racism refers to the policies and practices within and across institutions that, intentionally or not, produce outcomes that chronically favor, or put a racial group at a disadvantage.”
A recent conversation with my first husband reminded me of the first time that I truly recall glimpsing into the face of systemic racism, yet at the time I didn’t know that what I perceived as personal racism was indeed part of the larger system of racism that impacts Black lives regularly. We were a young, dumb and in-love couple who had married early, like straight-out-of-high-school type early.
As newlyweds, we needed to secure a permanent place to live and this was before the Internet and Craigslist, so we went through the classified ads placing calls as we used to do back in the old days. I called about an apartment in Chicago’s Lakeview area. I remember clear as day, all these years later (24 to be exact) speaking with what appeared to be an older white woman on the phone. I explained that we were young newlyweds, looking for a place, she seemed excited to meet us and told us we could come view the apartment right away.
Less than an hour later we arrive, ring the buzzer, get buzzed in, my then husband, a white man walked ahead of me going up the stairs. He warmly greeted the woman, she responded with warmth. I was a bit laggy as I was with child and it was several flights up. A minute or two later I arrive, and her warm smile vanished at the sight of my then very slight, brown body. She looks at me and says coldly “The apartment is no longer available.” Obviously we go back and forth but it is clear that she has no intention of renting to us, a mixed-race couple. Hell, she didn’t even want to show us the place! (And I got to experience the same apartment-rental treatment, sans pregnancy, after I had hubby number two, except that time the landlord-not-to-be was a middle-aged white man.)
At the time, I had no idea that what felt like personal shame was part of business as usual in how Blacks and other non-whites have been kept out of good neighborhoods. That what felt so personal and ugly was just part of the system, the institution.
It would take a few decades for me to start seeing racism as a system whose impact still resonates with Black people today yet is often invisible to many white folks thus creating what I call the silo of whiteness.
I have shared before that my father was born and raised under Jim Crow in Arkansas. He spent most of my early years avoiding talking about his childhood other than how he had to pick cotton as a kid and how he was 11 years old before he lived in a place with indoor plumbing. Growing up, I knew that I had uncles who hated white people and for many years it didn’t make sense to me.
However, it started to make sense several years ago, when my father, in recognizing his own mortality after my mom’s death, made a series of tapes for our family. In these tapes, my father spoke more in depth about his life in Arkansas. How his childhood dream of being a scientist was shot down when midway through high school, a white teacher told him that was being a scientist was not something for colored boys but that he could be a good janitor. He spoke about the man who allowed his family to sharecrop on the land that my grandparents stayed on; he also shared how they left that land and ended up in the first public housing project built in his town, in large part because my grandparents wouldn’t give over one of their daughters to that landowner. Much of what my father shared made me proud of the resilience of my family but it also made me mad at what was denied. It made me mad at how much of this recent history is brushed aside by white folks who seem to think that slavery ended in the 1800’s and all became well for Black folks.
Recently I have started thinking of the economic impact of slavery, Jim Crow and racism of the past on today’s Black folks as I grapple with the reality that my father (who is now retirement age) has no retirement other than Social Security. That whatever he had, he and my mother put into my brother and I. That as the eldest kid in a family with only two kids, I find myself wondering how can I secure my own old age, finish raising my daughter and ensure that my father who already lives hand-to-mouth doesn’t end up in a cardboard box with a can of Alpo.
A few years ago, a white friend asked me why I helped my dad out and why hadn’t he planned better? It was the type of question that knocked me over at the time. I was still steeped in the shame and personal responsibility game and asking myself the same questions. Yet now I can answer that question and answer it without shame: In a country that systematically denied access to opportunities for its darker inhabitants, my father like many found himself unable to plan for any future, much less save for it. He gave all he could to ensure that my brother and I might just do a little better than he did and I stand on his shoulders and in recognizing that honor, I give back because it is the right thing to do. I know that for every Neil degrasse Tyson (and who are we kidding, the sciences are not exactly overrun with Black folks), there were many who simply could not break those barriers and that doesn’t make them any less human, just that their excellence exists in other ways.
If it happened now, I would ask that friend: Did you ever question why your parents were able to help you? Have you ever thought about how wealth is created in the United States? Have you ever thought about the wealth gap and why it exists? Generational wealth is harder to obtain when you enter the race dead last and have to support parents and grandparents who were systematically denied any chance to build even a modest amount of family wealth.
In light of the Charleston tragedy, it seems we are attempting to talk about race as a nation, yet I would caution that no discussion about race is complete unless we delve into not only the institution of racism (and how it continues to be maintained) but also the real legacy of racism on Black people and how its effects can still be felt today despite this notion that all is fair and equal. Any less of a discussion and we are fooling ourselves about creating racial equity.
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