When I was a little girl, I used to imagine that Martin Luther King was up in heaven and could see me and approved of the person that I was. I grew up a good little Catholic and imagined that God could see me too, and later when my favorite Aunt-my Godmother-passed away, I imagined she could see me too...In fact, sometimes I still do. But I also grew up in small-town Wisconsin and almost everyone I knew was white. The only black people I knew well were the one family who lived in our town, one school friend, and one of my parents' good friends. But I wanted to know. My parents taught us about the march on Washington as they took us to marches and rallies about civil rights, about peace and against violence. Martin Luther King's speech was read to me and played for me both at school and at home.
I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream . . . I have a dream that one day in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, one day right there in Alabama little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.
Martin Luther King's speech and the ideas within, rang in my ears as a child when I learned about racism, witnessed racism, was a part of racism. It rang in my ears when I went to college and learned more about the world and injustice and hatred and fear....and love and peace and the power people really can have. And for a while I was ashamed of my whiteness, I wanted to belong to something other than this group of white-skinned people who had always been the torturers/the takers away/the cruel aggressors in history. But then I opened up about that in a class on social work and diversity led by a wonderful teacher. I learned about white privilege and how important it is to be aware of it. I stopped being terrified to talk about race, for fear of saying the wrong thing or showing my ignorance. I learned that I can't help the color of my skin or the history to which I belong, but I can help my awareness of it, my willingness to be involved in the world around me, do something about my ignorance. And I can laugh and shake my head at myself when I overhear two black female friends talking about a movie and pipe in with "OH! Are you talking about Anne of Green Gables?" and they reply "No. The Color Purple."
I'm completely aware of how white I am, of how my whiteness has shaped me. As a kid I longed to join hands with friends a different color from me. A different culture. And now I have kids of my own. And I am doing my best to talk to them about race--not just saying that there's no difference and we're all the same on the inside... But to answer their questions honestly when they ask them, not to pretend that we're all the same. But to recognize, when they ask questions about a "brown skinned" friend or a "light skinned" friend, that there are differences. Differences among our skin color, our cultures, our families are what makes our communities interesting. When we work together while recognizing those differences, we make the world a better place. I sent them to a school where they are around people who are not all the same as they are--who don't look the same or act the same, come from the same families, races, religions. I think my kids understand that race is important and a part of our world, that it does matter. That though most of the faces they see on TV and magazines are the same color as theirs...the real world isn't and shouldn't be like that. I tell them that even though we've come a long way from the day Martin Luther King made his speech, people are still judged by the color of their skin. That even though segregation is no longer legal, it is still sadly an institutionalized part of our country. I showed them as we biked through Milwaukee the other day, the segregation of our city and we talked about it.
"But Highland's not like that" Coen said, talking about his school, "Everyone's all different races at Highland-Black skin and white skin."
"Yeah!" Lucy chimed in enthusiastically. "And peach skin and brown skin and people with mixed up skin in the same family!"
So, happy I have a dream-iversary. I hope that when my children are adults, much more of MLK's dream is real. I hope I can keep being honest about my place in my community and what I bring to the table of culture and race, peace and justice. I hope I raise my kids to fight peacefully against racism and bigotry...to become friends with people who are different from they are in all kinds of ways...and to love who they are too.
|Some kids, including mine, at their school|