Sunday, August 14, 2011

This Is Not Really About the Book

I read the book The Help a few weeks ago.  I resisted reading it, to be honest.  I tend to shy away from books that "everyone" is reading for the sheer fact that I see not reading these popular books as some sort of silent rebellion against being told what to read, see, think etc.  But, I needed another book.  And several bookish friends that I trust had good things to say about it, so in a couple seconds I had it downloaded to my kindle.

I enjoyed the book.  I wasn't going to see the movie.  I spent most of the book waiting for the bad part to happen and the movie commercials seem to turn it into a happy clappy comedy.  But, to be completely honest, I thought I was reading a fairly accurate portrayal of life in the South in the 1960s.  And I thought it was great that these lovely, hardworking black women were getting a voice through the telling of their stories.  And we all have our stories.  The author of the The Help has her story.  I have my story.  But, so many times our stories never intersect with other people's stories in a way that creates meaningful dialog.

And this, is where my own ignorance comes in.  And this is when I read a post by one of my favorite bloggers who opened my eyes to a different perspective.  And I am not going to debate the merits and critiques of the book.  Because really, it is not about The Book, at all.  It is about me being honest  that as much as I think of myself as a person who is accepting of people no matter the color, the religion, the culture, I think this about myself  from the safety of my day to day life, really never having to deal with the issue of race.

My question to Kelly was this: 
"what is it we need to be doing to create change? How can we be a real help and not just condescending? Because, like those who are afraid to ask the questions and look dumb (myself included), I really believe that if given the tools, there are many of us who are willing to do what it takes to break through the divide that still exists."

And maybe I believe this because it is easy for me to say.  But, I really did want to know what I could do to be a part of the solution.  Kelly's answer to me on twitter this morning was this: 
 Figured if I just kept SAYING it, folks would eventually hear me and then we could have a really good discussion about this topic. Not just the book. And? AND? Having mainstream bloggers start the discussion, too. It's not just my job or other black writers.

And so, I promised that I would.  And I am.  And I admitted that I was scared to start this conversation here because I was worried that I might say the wrong thing and show my ignorance. But, I have to admit that I probably don't know much more about racism and civil rights than what was taught to me in school.

Because my story is that I grew up in a pocket of Southern California where the biggest minority groups were Asian and Armenian.  I had friends who were first generation Americans from Greece and from Serbia.  I had a friend who was white, and when her mother remarried, her black step-father legally adopted her.  At a father-daughter banquet we voted them the father-daughter pair that looked the most alike due to her frizzy hair.  Was that racist? Or, was it, as we took it, a fun gesture that really only meant to us that it didn't matter whether you looked like your father or not; that family is what you make it.

Part of my story is a black college roommate that used to call me "whitey."  Once when she called me that I almost called her "blacky" in return, because we were friends and we were joking around.  But, I stopped myself and never asked why it probably would not have been ok for me to call her that, but it was ok for her to call me "whitey."  

My story is that I live in Northwest Indiana, not too far, but far enough away from Gary that I can pretend it doesn't exist, if I chose to.  In my fairly small neighborhood, there are several black families.  We don't hang out, but we do talk.  You know, we say "good morning" or "have a nice day" on our way to the rest of our lives.  Then again, we tend to hide from most of our neighbors, no matter what the color and sometimes we talk about being hermits.  My husband works in a school with a growing population of black families.  The school that I work in has five in a student body of nine hundred.  We don't have a race relations problem at my school, because I am sure that those five students are working as hard as they can just to be like everyone else.  We have more of a problem with students harassing a student who may or may not be gay.

My story is also the fact that I consider myself fairly knowledgeable about the persecution of the human beings by other human beings during World War II.  Ever since I read the Diary of Anne Frank in for a 7th grade book report, I have learned everything I could about that period in history.  I have read as many books as I could get my hands on.  I have watched the historically important movies.  I have read how the United States interred the Japanese.  I have read about the horrors that prisoners of war endured overseas.  I learned about how in Hungary, they disguised their view of Jews as second class citizens, through the use of forced labor camps.  I have been to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.  I have been to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles.  And yet, I can not say that I know much about the history of race relations in the United States.  I saw the movie Roots.  I read my history books.  But, until I started taking a look at the book list on Mocha Momma's post, I didn't know anything more about Rosa Parks than her refusal to move to the back of the bus.

Part of my story is that these little tid-bits are just a small part of my life.  And race is not something I have to think about every day if I chose not to.  And I wonder, should I feel guilty for something that I have had no part in creating or perpetuating? But, then again, what have I done to be a positive agent for change either?  

My start, my very small start, is writing this post.  I am not an activist.  But, I am someone that cares about treating people with dignity and respect.  I am not writing this so that I can feel better about myself.  I am writing this because it needs to be talked about.  It needs to be written about.  And as Kelly said, the conversation can't only be from black writers.

My next goal is to read all the books on that book list plus a couple.  This is not to look well-read or obnoxious, but with the goal of truly understanding.  I will probably never get to the truly understanding part, but, I would like to get to the part in which I can have an educated conversation, even if it is only based on facts and not experiences. The guilt of the past might not be mine.  The guilt of the present might not be mine either.  But, I own my ignorance, and I would like to find the best way possible to fill that space.  

Kelly ended her post with "We can talk about race in a real way or we can talk about cake. I’m choosing the former."   I would like to challenge my own friends, whether they have read The Help or not, whether they have watched the movie or not, to find a way to talk about race in a real way, and not just about the book.

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