Saturday, July 11, 2009

Red, White, and Blue: the Colours of Racism

So many people in Botswana think America is wonderful. I recently had a discussion with a friend of mine about why I would never live in the United States again. She just could not understand. For her it seems the land of endless possibilities, where your mind is free, and your path unhindered. I struggled to make her see that my life growing up in the United States was the opposite- I felt trapped and strangled, defined by the status quo that I was not part of. In Botswana is where I found my true freedom. Only here was I able to throw off the heavy blanket of my past and define a new life outlined in the hot sand, its borders and shape created in the present with only me as its designer. Freedom, freedom, freedom -I drink it in everyday with thanks.

We grew up very poor for much of my childhood. We were the family that churches brought food to on Thanksgiving and Christmas. They smiled happy at their charitable ways and I hid wishing they'd be anywhere else but at my doorstep advertising to the world what I was. Poor and American are two things you do not want put together. In America being poor is a crime. Who didn't work hard enough? Someone is to blame. The American Dream is a terrible weapon to be beaten with.

Then when I got married, people asked why not go and live in America where all of the opportunities are? I looked at my black husband and thought of our future brown children and I knew I wouldn't be able to live with what America would have on offer for them. I'd lived through the wrath of not being right; it would break my heart to watch those I loved most in the world have to walk a similar path.

The recent incident in Philadelphia proved to me once again that even though a mixed race man stands as the leader of the United States, racism is alive and well in that country. Being right in America means being white and being wealthy, anything else is an annoyance, a tax eater, a crime maker- something they'd rather not discuss and best keep it in the cupboard away from the party makers. No one likes a buzz-kill.

In her article in The Nation, Melissa Harris-Lacewell relates an incident of racism that her child had to withstand and as I read it I could hear the sound of the bullet I dodged whizzing by my ear, the bullet my children dodged.

For my daughter the moment came in kindergarten. Even though she was the only African American girl in her classroom, she made friends easily, adored her teacher, and was growing in confidence as a student. Then in May, just a few weeks from the year's end it happened. She and a little white boy were playing together at recess as they had done all year when he looked at her and said, "You know, I would like you better if you would take off your brown skin and put on some white skin."

I know Botswana is not perfect, but perhaps that's the very thing that offers me the freedom I've longed for. Botswana is not perfect and it makes no claims to be, it doesn't expect perfection. It's terrible living in a dream world where everyone keeps blaming you for not taking part, for not getting a piece of it, but every time you make an effort they pull it away. That's the America I know and it holds only a passing resemblance to the red, white, and blue fairy tale the PR machine keeps pumping out.


Anonymous said...

Lauri, this post, like so many others of yours, resonates with me.

No matter how tired I am, I always read your posts, even when others I simply delete off my feeds until a later time.

Thankfully, you always have something new and refreshing to say. I am so sorry I rarely check the writer's board I met you on, yet glad I have your blog address!


Val said...

Botswana is a great country in many ways. So glad you found your place here :-)

Lauri said...

April- thanks for your lovely comment. I write my blog posts quickly and often sparked by something I've read or heard. I never really know if they make much sense to others until I get comments- so thanks.

Val- we are lucky, perhaps I must keep our secret a bit better.

Anonymous said...

When I visited my sister in North Carolina a few years back I was shocked by the racism. Australia has its moments of intolerance but nothing like America. I saw people there who hated others because they were black. They didn't even know them as individuals. It was the blind hatred I used to see in Northern Ireland between Catholic and Protestant, only worse. The worst perpetrators were the Christian Right. It opened my eyes a lot. That realisation has made Obama's victory even more significant but also deeply worrying. Sometimes I fear for him.

Lauri said...

Selma- I know exactly waht you mean. I was very afraid for Obama during the election.
(You will not beleive this- the word verification word is- hater- is my computer trying to tell me something??)

Unknown said...

Whoaw, Lauri! What a powerful and emotional piece.
I see the making of a great novel in there... Have you read Morrison's 'The bluest eyes'?

Strong words you have here... I like!

Karen said...

Lauri, this post is amazing and very true. While not everything is bad, being poor, Pagan, and gay in this country means you have to prove yourself worthy of existing, over and over.

Tania Hershman said...

Very powerful piece, Lauri. I have been becoming far far more aware of underlying racism here and it disturbs me greatly, I am looking forward to moving to another country, where I am sure there will be problems, but at least a different set of problems.

Lauri said...

JD- Yes, I've read The Bluest Eye. I actually have a short story published in Riptide called The Do Gooders which is based on 'the church' people bringing food to us the poor people, perhaps there might be a novel somewhere there, thanks for pointing it out.

Karen- There are wonderful things about America, I will never deny that, but as I'm trying to point out with this post its not for everyone. As you say many are excluded.