My son had his first day at Kindergarten this week. His school starts them slowly – only having them in one day one week, another day the next, and then every day after that. On the first day parents were to bring their children in for an assessment of their literacy skills. I stood with Xander and looked around at all of the other children and their parents, holding his hand and quietly observing. It seemed to me to be a diverse group, Knoxville is pretty diverse for a town in the South of its size. One of the fathers was this beautiful lean limbed man in his early thirties, with two beautiful lean limbed little boys clinging to him. They had European-style clothing on, so they stood out because of that. They also stood out to me because they looked (to me) like they were probably from West Africa – they had that regal, smooth dark skin there was also something in their posture, in their facial features, in their quiet that was distinctly not American. Most of the parents (in our various external differences) were smiling a lot, looking around to see if other parents were looking at our children, looking at other children, craning our necks, being the usual ridiculous fools that we are (I can call us fools because I am an American, and fully admit that we’re terribly flawed). This family just seemed above all that as they waited patiently for their names to be called.
Or so I projected onto them. I grew obsessed. I thought, “Oh, maybe they’re new to the country. Maybe they’re refugees. Maybe they’re scared and confused because they’re in a new place in a new school process. Maybe they have tons of stories to tell…” This is my own horrible, horrible racism that I am so ashamed to admit exists in my heart. I try so hard to love all people that sometimes I allow their external appearance govern and judge my initial thoughts about them. These highly novelized and fantastical daydreams are harmful in their own right.
I led my son into the classroom, said my goodbyes, and walked back to the car we’re currently driving. It’s not ours, it’s my father’s. Things are not where we’d like them to be financially right now, and I’m still trying to remember how to live without much expendable income. My father has graciously given us use of his car for the time being but we feel just awful about it – our credit is terrible due to a foreclosure and two cross-country moves in less than a year and a half, so a car less than ten or fifteen years old and with less than 150,000 miles is probably out of our nonexistent price range. I found myself looking around for the beautiful father and his beautiful younger child, wondering what kind of car they drove.
They were a bit ahead of me, and they climbed into a shiny silver Audi. I was hit with the shame of my own prejudice. I had figured something modest (something more like the kind of car we would be buying soon). Feeling disgusted with myself and not really understanding why, I started to examine why in the hell I would create some sort of dramatic sob story background simply based on someone’s outward appearance. My deep-rooted guilty conscience for people of my skin color, particularly in my family, have made me in some instances just as bad as what I hate: a bigot. Yes, I felt warmly toward them. But I also went out of my way to feel something different about them. Isn’t that just as bad? Or is it? I don’t know. Maybe their vehicle was borrowed like mine or maybe they were from a really well to do family or maybe they’d made a success at home or here in America and why was I thinking so much about this family? Would I think of a white or Asian family as much? Probably not.
A lot of my extended family is bigoted. Some blithely ignorant, some spitting mean. Maybe I’ve been trying in my actions and in my heart to prove that I am SO not like them. That I don’t harbor prejudice. I want to show everyone that I am kind and loving and understanding. I probably make myself out to be a fool because of it, I should just see people as individual, and be kind to everyone, not overly kind to a selected few.
Tonight, while walking through the grocery at an odd hour, I thought about whose shoes I need to walk a mile in (some of my great epiphanies have been in the yogurt aisle in the Natural and Organic food section at Kroger – usually it’s less crowded). I am usually too quick to judge the judgmental. If you are intolerant of someone, I can be intolerant of you. And that is an intended ridiculous comment. I am starting to be fully aware of my thickest veined flaws. If you are openly biased, instead of trying to be loving and understanding as I feel we’re all born to be, my fight-or-flight kicks in and I just hate you (because of some of my family background I fear that that is me). Usually I can step outside myself and heal my thoughts but at first it’s all spit and hate pushed inward. To overcompensate for my own judgmental nature I project these flowery lives onto others – based solely on their external appearance. It’s awful, and I don’t particularly like myself when I’m able to look deeply at myself from an outside perspective. I thought of the family at the first day of Kindergarten. I thought about how these folks are probably (maybe) pretty privileged and I was happy for them (I felt glad that I was poorer than them). And then I remembered that I usually grimaced at the privileged inwardly so that fucked up TWO of my long-standing biases.
Maybe one day we’ll be at a point in our society’s evolutionary cycle that all of our thoughts and feelings based on external appearance can disappear. But that’s probably not the perfect solution either, is it? Would we all have to be stricken blind for that to happen? Or should we just try and look at ourselves honestly. To tell ourselves the truth. To admit that we aren’t perfect.
Hopefully by my writing about this dark part of my psyche I’ll be able to expel it. It’s not needed and it’s an extra burden that does nothing to benefit me, society, or the upbringing of my son. I’d rather look sternly at myself and learn to accept my faults, fix them, and rid them into the abyss than continue to be some sort of starry-eyed fool in the world who doesn’t look at individuals in a fair, completely open-minded manner.
*But then part of me knows that I am a writer, primarily a fiction writer and I see differences and I see them descriptively. I store up appearances, personalities, voices, walks, backgrounds, experiences as fodder for my writing. So what happens if I stop seeing everyone’s differences? Isn’t this such a bourgeois problem? Isn’t it just so gross?*