Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Coward Not Shown in the Picture

A couple of years ago I visited dear relatives that I hadn't seen in forever. They welcomed me into their beautiful home and I spent a weekend with them, catching up, smiling over old family picture albums and sharing memories and funny stories.

One night after dinner, we were all sitting around chatting, and an elderly aunt mentioned that she rarely went into the nearby city because there were too many black people living there. The place was being taken over by them. The Blacks, she said, angrily as if it were a curse word.

I sat there looking down at my plate during this tirade, not knowing what to say, so utterly uncomfortable that I think I started sweating. Maybe only a few minutes went by and then someone changed the subject and we all went on to talk about other things.

But I replayed the exchange, such as it was, in the years after. Should I have said anything? What would I say? This was my aunt, someone I had always loved and admired and respected. Was it worth getting into a discussion with her? I only saw the woman occasionally. Why have a confrontation? It's not like I could change her mind. Why hurt her feelings or make her feel uncomfortable?

So I let it go. As I have let other things go over the years, for the sake of family or neighborly harmony. Because I don't like being confrontational. Because I want to be "kind." Because, honestly, it is easier to not get into it with other people who feel differently from you.

There's a picture most of us have seen before. A young black woman wearing sunglasses, holding school books, walking through a crowd of angry white people. It was 1957, three years after Brown v The Board of Education ruled that segregated schools were against the law, but Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, still did not allow black students to attend. It took an order from President Eisenhower and the National Guard to force the governor of the state to agree to let nine black students enroll.

The young woman in the iconic photo is fifteen year old Elizabeth Eckford. She was accidentally separated from her group and found herself alone in the mob.


I've looked at that picture a lot. I always felt it belonged firmly in the past, a heartbreaking bit of long ago history.

But sometimes I ask myself who I would be if I'd lived back then.

Not Elizabeth Eckford, because I have never been in a position where I have been surrounded by a crazy mob. I have never been courageous like her. I have never been a hero.

I know that I would not be the angry yelling white girl behind Elizabeth, or the laughing jeering people, or the scowling scary ladies. I know this because I have never hated or feared or felt I was superior to people who are different from me.

So who would I be?

That night, at the table with my aunt, I wonder what would have happened if I had challenged her. Not argued or tried to change her mind, but simply spoken up.

Said, I don't agree with you. This is not how I feel. 

I have no idea how this response would've been received. Maybe my aunt would've felt uncomfortable.

But is this so terrible? Then we could be equal at the table together, sharing our discomfort.

I regret my silence that night. And I have a great many other regrets this week, after this particular election,

for all the times when I remained silent in the presence of bullying and bigotry, when I laughed uncomfortably at sexist jokes, when I made excuses for or minimized racism.

I understand now who I've been and what I've done. I was the person who walked somewhere in the background of a photograph not so firmly in the past after all,

the person who saw the crowd gathering, and crept away.




9 comments:

  1. In my experience, questioning or challenging bigoted statements led to the people getting very angry, doubling down, and reciting anecdotes of times they had bad encounters with members of the group in question, to "prove" that they were right. Or arguing that even if every member of a marginalized group isn't dangerous, we can't afford to take chances. I was dishearteningly unable to make a dent in the wall. But I don't know, maybe speaking up plants a seed that could sprout later, even if defensiveness is the immediate reaction. I feel like I don't really know anything anymore.

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    1. I hear you, Jenn. What I'm thinking is that I can't worry anymore about the other person's reaction. If I am silent, I am complicit, and for myself, that won't work anymore. I've also thought about the times when I have spoken up, and in several of those instances, other people jumped in to back me up. Someone has to go first. Someone has to stand up. What would have happened in 1957 if one person, two people, ten, moved forward to walk with Elizabeth Eckford into the school building?

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    2. Yes, that is another positive aspect of speaking up--just being the voice that says, "I don't condone what I've just heard or seen." Whatever happens, or doesn't, as a result.

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  2. applause for a brave post. I've been in that situation. I'm not a wave-maker. I'm silent and seething because I can't think of the right things to say when put on the spot. So I say nothing and hate myself later.

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    1. Thank you, Patty. Something I am working on is figuring out what to say, exactly, the next time I am in this situation-- even if it is as simple as "I do not agree with that." The holidays are coming up and I am readying myself...

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  3. Thank you for sharing this experience. I've gone both ways, letting it slide when I was in some situations, being confrontational later in life. I see this attitude more often in older people (more mentally old than physically) In part it stems from lack of familiarity. When I grew up in rural Maine back in the 1950-1960 era, the only time I saw Black people was when they carnival rides were at the Union Fair. Then I went to college in Arizona and my cultural world exploded-positively, I might add.

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  4. I think this blog post is the appropriate reaction to what your aunt said. You weren't going to change her mind and you might have ruined a very pleasant visit. It's better to use an anecdote like yours to get others thinking. Like you, since last Tuesday, I've been contemplating how best to use my voice in what I perceive as a new, scary, and very troubling landscape. Facebook feels like a cross between a minefield and echo chamber. Twitter? Like I'd be shouting into a crowd. I'm not sure what I'm going to do during the next four (hopefully not eight) years, but I get what you're saying about not wanting to stay silent. Thank you for this wonderful post.

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  5. I love this post because it is so full of my feels and uncertainty and desire. I want to be the most perfect person in the world and no matter how I fight to be the best me, I am certain to disappoint if I look to others for confirmation of who I am at heart. Really trying to be my best self in a way that feels organic and true to me. This isn't easy. But know it helps every time someone tells their story. <3

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  6. As others have said, I too have been in this situation, and I've mostly reacted the same way—and like you, I've had regrets. About so many things. And now I'll join you in sharing my discomfort and hopefully making the world a better place.

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