Circumstantial Racist

There is a statute of limitations on circumstantial racism. It ends the day we collide with the realization that in our ignorance, our privilege has plowed someone over. If in that moment we retreat, what once was circumstantial becomes premeditated.

 I fled the scene of my first teaching job in Baltimore City, accused of being a racist by the principal.

Those of you who know me now may find this surprising.

YOU??!!

Global Citizenship teacher?
Muslim student association sponsor?
Diversity conference planner?
Multi-cultural education trainer?
Restorative Justice facilitator?

You?!

For you who know this intercultural work that I’m always deep in the thick of, you may see this accusation of racism as proof that no matter what a white person does in contexts of color, they will almost inevitably be accused of racism.

But for others…particularly people of color, you will likely be asking a different question:

Well….were you? Racist?

My answer may surprise you.

How could I not be?

Born in the Ozark foothills, raised in a transition zone between rural and suburban, liberal arts educated in Garrison Keillor country in the upper-Midwest, the first time I lived in an area that was not disproportionately white was when I moved to Baltimore after college.

In my first teaching position I worked across the street from central booking, caddy corner to a cemetery, surrounded by infamous drug corners captured by The Wire, and cast in the very real flashing blue lights of police cameras.

Now how in is any 23 year old white girl supposed to make sense of all that? How likely is it that most 23 year olds regardless of color can have the historical, political, social, economic, spiritual perspective to understand the causes and consequences of such a stark human reality?

So…was it true? Was I racist?

Of course I was.

But not on purpose.

I was not raised in a context of deliberate and cultivated bigotry. I was raised in a compassionate Christian household where, above all, my mom insisted our faith was rooted in caring for the most vulnerable in our community. She was a champion for children. She hated bullies and would confront them in schools, church suppers, and super-market aisles. Despite the socially conservative constraints of the Bible Belt, she was bold enough in 1988 to reject the callousness of trickle down solutions and vote for Dukakis.

Her 8 year old staunchly republican daughter was appalled.

Her 36 year old progressive daughter couldn’t be more grateful.

No, my racism was not by personal design. It was by systemic proximity (or more precisely a lack there of) from neighbors who’s narratives could disrupt the mass media education I was getting from Law and Order and the nightly news.

Structural racism does not just keep people of color out. It keeps people of the pale in.

We move through an insulated existence where there IS such a thing as normal. Where there ARE absolute answers. Where you CAN trust authority.

And then at some point we come to the edge of our enclave. With our gaze off in the distance on our endless horizons, we step off the curb we didn’t expect into a pothole we didn’t see, twist our ankle, and collapse in the middle of oncoming traffic.

You want to know why white girls are always crying?

We weren’t raised not to.

And now we (overly) protected lily-white children have wandered into a world full of struggle our communities gated us from seeing.

3 years ago I took a group of public high school students on a study abroad trip to rural England. It was a group that reflected the diversity of their school and country from skin tone to head-covering.

During the day, they visited schools in pastoral settings. At night we would cook together in the kitchen where we would process the discoveries of the day. Many of their conversations with their British peers circled around race and culture.

When Miles told yet another story about yet another English kid comparing him to yet another black celebrity he looked nothing like, he laughed and said…

“You have NO idea how racist you sound.”

As we washed dishes together I asked. “Why do you think it feels so different to you to talk about race here? Why doesn’t their ignorance offend in the same way it would back home?”

After a few jokes about all the things that sound better with a British accent, Chloe was quick to put her finger on the difference.

“If you don’t know about race in America, you just haven’t been paying attention.”

These kids in North Yorkshire growing up amidst sheep farms, they were nestled snug in their culture. Where would they have ever had a chance to make friends with a black kid who could call them a racist?

I could identify. I grew up around sheep with Midwestern drawls. None of them black.

But unlike my planned community of the past or the physical spaces of the present, the virtual spaces most of us occupy today are NOT gated in the same way. There’s no way to not pay attention…unless you’re averting your eyes.

There is a statute of limitations on circumstantial racism. It ends the day we collide with the realization that in our ignorance, our privilege has plowed someone over. If in that moment we retreat, what once was circumstantial becomes premeditated.

Don’t flee the scene. We must bear witness. And then we must decide whether to aid and abet or become first responders.

Despite the risks.

The wounds are deep. So is the fear.

Apply pressure.

Hold.

 

Odd friends of Ramadan

Transformed by curious couplings during #Christians4Ramadan

Tonight, on Ramadan Eve, I finished two books, both of which were given to me. One by my daughter. One by a first year teacher.

A month ago, my daughter came home from Pre-K4 with I am Malala in her Ninja Turtle backpack.

Holding it up to me in two hands, like a stone tablet.  She said earnestly, (Ivy says most things earnestly) “Mommy I want to read this!”

She’d found it in the fourth grade classroom and I can only assume connected immediately with the tranquil gaze of Malala on the front cover.

“Umm…I want to read that too, five year old,” I said bemused. “Guess this is our first mother daughter book club.” We let Kip join too because…top bunk privilege. At bedtime, for the last month, we have been reading about Malala, Pakistan, Swat Valley, the rise of the Taliban, her Father’s activism, her own fight for human and children’s rights…and her love for Ugly Betty. Kip and Ivy have both been surprisingly riveted, only occasionally petitioning for a respite with Star Wars Rebels or Rosie Revere. After they become drowsy to the wisdom of Malala, I choose my late night profundity from a different direction.

Early in the school year, my colleague Andy (who had actually been a student at the school where I began teaching) asked me “Do you identify strongly with Leslie Knope?”

I gasped and grabbed his arm…

“Do YOU identify me with Leslie Knope?” I asked with rhetorical Leslie Knope-like eagerness.

“Umm…well that all depends…I guess some might see her as a little naïve.”

If by naïve you mean hopefully exuberant as she fearlessly charges into the world with blinders on to the peril towards herself or others but equipped with a bastion of binders to protect her…I guess I can see that.

I should mention here that my spirit animal is Leslie Knope riding a unicorn.

Andy took it all in stride and very thoughtfully presented me with Amy Poehler’s memoir, Yes Please, as a Christmas gift…which I finally finished today. I wish this pace could be explained by 1,500 pages, small print and no pictures…but the book is only 329 pages long and is laced with Polaroids, hand scribbled notes from 8 year old Amy, and large margins with riotous side-notes from  friends and colleagues. I have added to these with annotations of my own (should you wish to borrow my copy).

As I drink wine and write this, these two books sit next to me, the authors both gazing at me with challenge and expectation. I don’t think I seek out these kinds of peculiar pairings to be deliberately provocative. I’m just a reluctant sorter. They would seem an odd couple to anyone else…but to those who know me, this will likely not come as too astounding. The spiritual humanitarian alongside the hilarious hedonist. Sounds about right.

Ram-odd-an

I will write more specifics about my strange affinity for these powerful women and the lessons they have taught me in the days to come, but for tonight, I accept their odd juxtaposition in my life and their company into Ramadan just as I hope you will accept the oddity of an educational mystic once again inspired and cleansed by her pilgrimage through this holy month.

I don’t have a logical or convenient filing system for the world or the people in it. I don’t reject these curious couplings when they happen. When my daughter hands me book, I accept. When the first year teacher hands me a book, I accept. When a kid asks me to sponsor the Muslim Student Association…I accept. And then I also accept the possibility that, perhaps, we were supposed to co-exist all along. Become friends. Transform each other. Make the other giggle.

I think Malala and Amy might do some giggling together. I think I might join them. And you? You’re invited, too.

Giggle.

Accept.

Patchwork History (Lest we forget)

Become enfolded in Black History with “Emancipation Revisited” at the Chesapeake Arts Center

This Saturday, Feburary 20th at the Chesapeake Arts Center in Glen Burnie, Maryland, a coalition of Black Churches called the North Arundel Cultural Preservation Society (NACPS) will put on an original play entitled “Emancipation Revisited: Lest We Forget.”

Months ago I met some of the members of the NACPS at the Bates Legacy Center. Surrounded by quilted History, pieced together by hands around the county and state, the story of these women, these churches, this play began to unfold and enfold me.

quilt

Since moving to Baltimore over a decade ago, my life has become increasingly interwoven with Black Lives and Black Matters. Over the last two years especially…I feel this tapestry interlocking with fragments of my own. I am invited deeper into spaces of trust and love…and pain and struggle. Students’ stories. Colleagues’ stories. Friends’ stories. Maryland’s stories. America’s stories.

Stitched Together.

Painstakingly.

I am humbled. I fall silent.

So much work to be done. So many stitches left. But with these hands?

Soft. White.Trembling.

Because this fabric is hallowed, the pattern unfolding, the lighting dim, my stitches are halting. Despite my ineptitude, I believe in this circle, am consoled by the hands that grasp mine.

I am not yet the person I need to be to tell the stories of these encounters. My voice is not strong enough to honor these odysseys.

And anyway… the stories are not mine to tell. Perhaps, when “my” story and “your” story become “our”story, perhaps then it will be time.

Until my words can catch up, I will let my stitches speak louder.

I have come to believe that the only meaningful change that happens in our world occurs through deepening relationships. So even as I labor over this short post, this tiny patch, know that the place I have decided to weave my deepest efforts is not here.

It’s out there.

With you.

Until the day we are truly “we”.

(Lest we forget.)

Unvarnished Writing

When our paint is peeling, we must decide whether we layer on a glossy new coat or strip ourselves down to the unvarnished beauty that lies beneath.

I struggle when I’m writing to trust my intentions.

What is my agenda? Truly?

Do I seek attention?

Gratification?

Admiration?

When I look back and re-read the things my earlier selves have written, journal entries and college essays, blog posts and Patch articles, whether I grin or grimace is determined by whether I wrote to perform and charm or confess and console.

As in writing so in life.

Throughout the day we decide moment by moment which parts of ourselves to hold up to the light or hide in the shadows. Which parts of ourselves will play well to the audience. What was once conscious choice becomes habit. We spend our days obscuring and augmenting ourselves. With eyeliner and intellect. With high heels and bicep curls. With job titles and Instagram posts. We pluck and polish. Dye and comb over. We posture. We avoid eye contact.

Writing, too, can be like this. I can edit. Refine. Find my best angle. Control the lighting. Amend a position. Strike a new pose. I can re-write this line so it better captures my precise thought. Or I can leave it alone as it emerged the first time. Only I will be able to distinguish one line from the other.

In writing as in life, we can vacillate between a frantic need to be seen and a desperate fear of the same. The words become flesh. The flesh shapes the words.

But oh the power of eyes that see and accept. The heady sensation when we do reveal ourselves and find a gaze that doesn’t turn away or gawk. We long for someone to look at us, see us, celebrate us.

This morning I sat in my car at Anne Arundel Community College before a meeting and wrote:

“Are we a culture that encourages authenticity? Are we people conscious of how we condition our fellow humans to reveal or revile themselves?”

This afternoon, I ran into a former student on campus who (after lifting me off the ground in a bear hug) showed me a screen shot of a text message I sent him over two years ago:

IMG_1459

You better have chills.

We long for spaces characterized by this culture of authenticity and trust. When we graduate or outgrow these spaces, we seek them again and again. Even better…we create them anew.

Hanging on the wall of my classroom was this poem called “Our Deepest Fear”.

It begins…

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.”

It ends…

“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.”

The Lenten season is my space to practice what I already believe deeply to be true.

When our paint is peeling, we must decide whether we layer on a glossy new coat or strip ourselves down to the unvarnished beauty that lies beneath.

I want to see you. Shine who you are. We’ll be blinding together.

Jeremy

“I can’t tell that we are gonna be friends…”

We are comforted and consoled by the humans we choose. We are challenged and evolved by the humans we don’t.

You want to make friends. We all do. Every new environment you enter…a classroom, the quad, your dorm…you will be asking yourself…

“Who will I sit with? Walk with? Eat with?”

I don’t want to be alone.

We are gonna be friends Sherri

It is a funny phenomenon of fate that you are most likely to be friends with your firsts.

First roommate.

First person you sit next to.

First day of class.

Most likely to (not?) be friends?
Most likely to (not?) be friends?

But after the relief of finding someone (anyone) to walk with begins to wear off…you will begin to look around and wonder…would I be happier in that group? With that friend?

So begins the self-selection process.

The Sorority.

The Ultimate Frisbee team.

The college radio station.

Over the next four years, you will begin to identify your niche friendship brand.

Nama-friends
Nama-friends “The Divine in me finds a friend in you.”

In contrast, your potluck of friends after your freshmen year, will be a hodgepodge of utter accidents and actual affinities. The faraway freshmen dorm cohort who marches in solidarity the 15 minute hike to the main campus. Versus the specificity of “I saw you lugging your telescope toward the arboretum at dusk and look! I brought mine too! What model is yours? The view is great from The Hill of Three Oaks.”

We are gonna be friends - net

My advice? Seek this balance between the odd and the intended friend for the remainder of your time. We are comforted and consoled by the humans we choose. We are challenged and evolved by the humans we don’t.

We are gonna be friends - hair

My previous post was a tribute to my first friend at Carleton College. Ours was begun by proximity and sustained by affinity. Had we not been randomly settled on 4th Burton, we never would have found each other. I may have never learned the wisdom of trails, knitting, and New England liberalism. She may have never had another opportunity to love a Midwestern Bible belt holy roller. Our gravity changed each other. Swung us on other trajectories we wouldn’t have chosen as our old selves but would never regret as our new selves.

We are gonna be friends hijab

Friendships in a major key can be a great consolation. These friendships are of our choosing. They affirm our impulses. Mirror ourselves back to us with complimentary variations.

We are gonna be friends - bike

But B7 Flat is beautiful. Dissonance and the comradery in minor chords haunts us long after the luxury of major tones has faded.

Some friendships are obvious and inevitable. Some affections are immediate. Some folks resonate with us from the first note.

And then…there are the others.

We are gonna be friends - deck

May you befriend the other. May you forever change each other.

Rebuilding the road to Baltimore Love

We have confused our love of a landscape with a love of the community. But can we claim to love Baltimore without loving the people within it? Can we claim to understand the city without seeking to understand its citizens?

The strange story of my deep love of Baltimore begins with an unlikely matchmaker.

“Good Morning Sisters and Brothers!”

Whenever Ralph Moore speaks to a group of people (large or small) he begins with this heartfelt greeting.I always waited in anticipation for Mr. Moore’s “address” during the morning faculty meeting at St. Frances Academy because I knew he would tell me something I didn’t know or help me love someone I didn’t…yet.

A fixture in Baltimore’s civil society, Mr. Moore has long been a champion for various marginalized residents of the city. When I knew him he ran the community center next to St. Frances Academy. He hosted career fairs, neighborhood Halloween nights, peace camps in the summer, clothes drives in the winter. He was also tasked with giving the newly arrived Jesuit Volunteers a tour of this city where we would work for the span of a year.

A love affair between a 23 year-old Midwestern white girl and “Charm City” was no sure thing.

Fresh out of college in Minnesota, I had no context to understand the vast cultural and regional divides between growing up in southern Missouri and growing up in the inner city. It would have been so easy for my fledgling relationship with this complicated landscape to go awry, mired in mistrust and misunderstanding.

Instead, I first saw the city reflected in the eyes of Ralph, one of its devoted children. When somebody gazes at a space with such committed love in their eyes…well, the courage of that devotion can be contagious. Mural 2 Ralph didn’t begin our guided tour of Baltimore with the Inner Harbor. Didn’t take us to Camden Yards. He didn’t wax poetic about Natty Boh or Domino Sugar. Never once mentioned Edgar Allen Poe.

Instead, he began with the busses. Ralph, has never gotten a driver’s license. This was one way, he said, to always remain in solidarity with the working class and low-income communities he wished to serve. He said there was no better way to get to know a city than to hop on the nearest public transportation line. The physical infrastructure of a place reflects the human infrastructure of the society.

Ralph noted that most of the contiguous transit lines in Baltimore (including the light rail) run north to south, not east to west. This makes it easier for the higher income Baltimore County residents to patronize the inner harbor, Camden yards, Ravens’ stadium and for Southern residents to shop at the malls and eat at the restaurants in northern Towson. It makes it harder, however, for the low-income population located east and west (and those most likely to use public transportation) to get to work, to the super market, to school.

“Why would that be? That doesn’t make any sense!”

The same reason, he said, there are no metro stops in the richer areas of DC such as around Georgetown. Yes, those stops would benefit young people, but they would also make it easier for “them” to get “here.” He noted that MLK Boulevard, just like in so many other cities, serves as the dividing line between those in Baltimore who have and those who have not.

Before this moment, I had always seen roads as something that got you places…not something that kept you FROM places.

Ralph didn’t stop there. He pointed out that while northern cities have “good sides” and “bad sides” of town, southern cities like Baltimore have pockets of poverty bumping up against enclaves of wealth. This, he said was due to the necessity of having slave quarters in close proximity to the masters homes in which the slaves served. Though slavery was abolished, the structures that supported it remained, the juxtaposition of poverty made more visible, more present, more discomforting to those, in more well-off areas.

He went on not to praise but to critique the Inner Harbor. He spoke of promises made and broken by politicians, about over investment in the commercial waterfront to the neglect of the nearby West Side communities.

Perhaps it seems strange that romance with an urban landscape would begin with such stark realities, but what Ralph helped me realize is that to understand people, you must understand the places that have shaped them. As Winston Churchill once observed, “We shape our buildings; thereafter our buildings shape us.” Mural 1 Many of us have been selective in our love of the city. We have allowed ourselves to be shaped by parts of it, but few of us have given ourselves over to the whole.

There are those of us in the city who have never ventured west of MLK. Never renewed our license at the MVA at Mondawmin Mall. Never realized that the gothic castle we pass on 83 as we enter downtown is not a fairyland but a federal prison. We have confused our love of a landscape with a love of the community.

But can we claim to love Baltimore without loving the people within it? Can we claim to understand the city without seeking to understand its citizens? All its citizens? We become uncomfortable when the city view we love is obstructed by the people we don’t know how to love… …yet.

As we clean-up and start re-building in our city, our eyes are rightly turning towards each other, but they must also turn to spaces. We must ask if our spaces are equally inviting and accessible not just to various races, but various age groups. Is there a place for the “whiteheads” to enlighten the “young bucks.” Is there a place for the children to enliven their elders?

How do we grow spaces we can fall in love with as we fall (back) in love with each other? This is not a Utopian dream. Ralph Moore, his wife Dana, and people like them have been forging accessible spaces at boundaries and border crossings for decades. His community center with its peace camps in the summer and career fairs in the winter is a multi-generational space where the needs of all community members might be revealed and addressed.

One thing I Believe (Hon) about #OneBaltimore is that it is about to undergo a dramatic reshaping. The lines that have divided us are eroding and we must choose whether we will invest in walls or build bridges instead…because on the other side of the valley, the love of our life may be waiting.

#BeMoreCircles – Baltimore’s Summer of Peace

I often wake in the morning with ideas and insights my subconscious labored over in the night. This morning I came to consciousness with my son’s little body curled against me…and the  image of dialogue groups scattered throughout the city throughout the summer in public spaces around public events.

Intentional, accessible conversations and reflections on the fringes of First Thursdays, or during Concerts in the Park, or after the public pools let out. All summer we will be gathering together. As we do, we will be wondering how to reconcile the beauty of humans together (which we see daily in our city) with the chaos of humans together (which we saw on Monday).

Why not wander towards each other so we can wonder out loud together?

#BeMoreCircles

Building bridges between communities, between generations, between races. Just. Between. …seems to be at least ONE solution towards the #OneBaltimore we are beginning to see emblazoned on poster board and message boards around our city and throughout social Media. To some, this may seem idealistic or unattainable, but there is a long standing method that facilitates this process…

…Speaking with each other.

Not speaking to or at or even for but WITH.

Too often when we gather with crowds, we go with our friends, and we stay with our friends. There’s nothing wrong with that, except that there is not a mechanism or space to make or invite new meaningful connections with others, even if we wanted to. Open spaces for dialogue surrounding public events could change that.

Summer of Peace
At my high school, we created community in the public space of our courtyards through sidewalk chalk and the question: “What does a blended school mean to you?”

So how might this look?

I can imagine myself trekking up to the Pagoda on a Sunday afternoon, finding some shade a decent distance from the concert stage, laying down a few more blankets than I need, and propping up a poster that simply says “#BeMoreCircles :Speak and Listen here”. People wander over. Share some snacks. And get to wondering.

Perhaps we have weekly “Points to Ponder” suggested on a #BeMoreCircles Facebook page. Perhaps we’ve established weekly themes, so there is some continuity between these organic conversations that might pop up around the city. And perhaps afterwards people can take their insights from that physical meeting and share them in that virtual space. Continue the connections there. Build upon these new relationships.

For some this may feel like TOO much. For some, not enough.

Think of all that might go wrong!

What if someone just takes my snacks?

What if someone sits down and never leaves?

What if folks start arguing?

What if..

These are fair concerns. Something else to consider is the simple fact that even if we are gathering in public spaces, we are gathering in “our” public spaces. We are venturing to the events in “our” park, but we are likely unaware or uncomfortable venturing into “other people’s” parks. Are they safe? Am I welcome?

Something like this takes courage…and perhaps at least a little training.

I might mention, here, that I have a degree in conflict resolution, training as a multi-cultural educator, and have spent hours in and beyond the classroom locally and internationally sitting with groups of people and asking questions around culture, creativity, and conflict.

I only say this to acknowledge that the commitment to peacemaking is indeed a long journey and we are all at different places as we seek to understand the roots of conflict in ourselves and our fellow human beings.

But on a picnic blanket adjacent to a concert seems like a safe place to start.

If you are intrigued by this possibility, reach out. I’ve tagged a number of my peacemaking sisters and brother in this post hoping to get a conversation started. Asking what we need. Who we might partner with. How we might train folks quickly for a Baltimore Summer of Peace.