“It all started when he hit me back.”
These are the words my friend heard on a school play yard. And if you’ve ever worked at a school, you can believe it.
Last week, I was walking through the beautiful grounds at the school where I work. As I passed a visitor there, the man scowled, turned his head and spat on the ground. I thought, “Ew! Spitting is such a nasty habit!” and “I hope none of the students saw that. That’s not what we want to teach.”
Then it hit me: “Hello! I’m having one of those old-fashioned experiences my elders dealt with!” (Those encounters have recently spiked, in case you haven’t heard.)
Spitting on the ground when someone walks past is supposed to show one’s superiority (or the other’s inferiority, as it were). However, my respect for this man plummeted through the landscaped ground straight toward the core of the Earth. I have zero respect for extreme racism.
This fellow was disrespecting “me” based only on the level of melanin in my skin. And I no longer respected him. It was kind of sad… but only for a moment.
An interesting thing happened next: I felt almost euphoric! It was weird.
I grew up in the ‘70s and ‘80s: Post Civil Rights Movement; integrated schools from first grade on. Very little “us” against “them,” no mystery about “them” or “those.” Perhaps our elders still waged their ongoing wars at home, but at my school, my ethnically diverse friends and I had a ball, through all 12 grades. (My Facebook account bears witness to this!)
I wasn’t raised to feel better than anyone else, but neither do I have even the most remote idea that I am somehow “less than” anyone. I have no insecurity about who I am.
I am a product of the ‘70s “Black Power/Black is Beautiful” movement(s). I grew up singing songs like Nina Simone’s “To Be Young, Gifted and Black,” a reaction to what we had previously been told… hitting back after several centuries of being punched.
It never dawned on me that if I felt beautiful and powerful, people who don’t look like me couldn’t feel that way… like some ridiculous seesaw. My diverse set of friends didn’t seem to think so either.
It’s nearly impossible to walk in someone else’s shoes and my own haven’t been very heavy. I mean, sure, I’ve experienced plenty of prejudice. When I was a teenager at a carnival, I wanted to play a bean toss game. Although I was the only one waiting at the booth, the teen running the game looked this way and that, pretending not to see me, making it obvious I couldn’t play.
At a farmer’s market in Winters, a farmer did the same when I wanted to buy his veggies. I was incredibly grateful though, because he exhibited this bigoted behavior before I made the purchase. I wouldn’t have wanted to eat produce from a field sown with hatred. And I for sure wouldn’t have wanted to feed it to my children. (I mean this literally.) I almost told my kids but decided to protect them a little while longer; they were only 6 and 8.
The next booth was friendly and welcoming. I bought my produce there and happily gave that farmer my money. But this recent backwards act (spitting when I walk by) gave me a chance to walk, even just a few steps, in my parents’ and grandparents’ shoes. It felt like a badge of honor. I knew I was in good company — not just People of Color but of those who walked alongside during the Civil Rights Movement and beyond.
This man had given me a gift. (Even though I still think spitting’s a nasty habit.)
I also felt empathy: What pain he must be in; what hardships? How frustrating that the world has changed so much? Wanting everything to stay the same, when the only constant is change. Hitting “back” after “suffering” through a Black president (who is more culturally Hawaiian and biracial than anything else).
Others are hitting back after feeling discounted. Self-identifying peoples, previously seen (or unseen!) and not heard, like proverbial children. Unwilling to simply sit by… or unwilling to stand. Hitting back non-violently, and sadly, sometimes violently. Each trying to make America great, but for many “not again!”
“It all started when he hit me back.”
But where does it end?