Today is Martin Luther King day. 1. 19. Despite the color of my skin, I rarely take time on this day every year to really think about what we are celebrating. It’s more than a blank square on a white calendar, beckoning fun and vacation day plans. It’s a day – a collection of moments that people of ethnicities can be thankful for this pioneer of civil rights.
Was Dr. King perfect? No. But I think that a person’s moral failures ought not always discount the wonderful things they did in their lives. It’s all about grace, I think. So I’m thinking about it today. Race. Civil Rights. Sacrifice. Liberty.
I’ve never really experienced racism. I mean I am sure that people have thought racist things about me or ignored me because of my skin color (or the fact I’m a woman, or I’m heavy, or for a plethora of other things that make me “different”) but I can count on one finger how many times I’ve actually noticed it and had to live through it.
One time I was in a makeup store and there was a lady that followed me around the entire time. In my mind, at first, I thought she was just being helpful. But she never spoke to me. She never asked if there was something I needed help with. She just followed me. Every time I reached out for a product and my gaze shifted to her watchful eyes – she pretended to be doing something. Fiddling with the price tags or shuffling brushes around. Anything to make herself look busy.
It became kind of a game, if I’m honest. I stayed so much longer than I normally would have, perusing and thinking about how difficult it must be for her to continuously look like she was doing something other than follow me and keep an eye on me. When I finally got up to the register, the other woman working (there were only the two of them that day) was sharp. Short. I think she was the one who instigated it …
“Hey go keep an eye on that girl.”
I can’t really explain it except by saying that it felt wrong. I felt like I had done something wrong, and shouldn’t be in that place at that moment in time.
“Did you find everything ok?” “Good.”
She finished my transaction – $15 and some change since I really had only come in to buy face powder – and bid me farewell. I swear the other lady kept eyes on me until I exited the building, you know, to make sure I didn’t do anything on the way out.
“Have a nice day.”
I walked to my car and just sat there for a while.
You know what would have made my day nice, lady? If you and your co-worker hadn’t treated me like a criminal. If you had paid attention to the other 10 women in the store, all of whom were doing the same exact thing as me and all of whom have the same propensity to steal as I do. That would have been a start. You know, to having a nice day.
I called my mom after a while and explained to her the situation. She was gracious, protective. She told me to call corporate and complain – because she’s awesome and supportive and wanted the girls to pay for what they had done.
Then, I cried. Maybe not on the phone with her, but on the way home.
I cried because I was embarrassed. I was embarrassed for myself and for the two women who let prejudice get the best of them. I cried because I was mad and sad and confused and hurt. I cried I just wanted some stupid face powder and I was treated like a thief. I cried the most though, because I knew that this was a blip, a single solitary act of racism in vast ocean of a myriad of kinds of racism – not only against my race – but against so many others.
Even now, these words feel petty. I have never really told people about this experience because it feels so silly. So what Lauren, you were followed around in a store. That’s like a -1 on the scale of traumatic experiences. When I think back to the days when Martin Luther King and others had to fight to even be allowed in a store, I am humbled. When I think about the fact that nearly every part of my life would be dramatically different (e.g. I wouldn’t be born, since I’m a product of an interracial marriage) had people like Dr. King not stood up for civil rights – anything that I go through seems magnificently trivial.
But I know better. Because civil rights issues are paradoxical in nature: all about comparison and not about comparison at all.
My friend Kristen and I saw a play the other night. It was called “The Whipping Man” and it was a post civil-war drama about a wounded Confederate soldier (Caleb) who returns home to find only two of his Jewish father’s now emancipated slaves (John and Simon). The story was beautiful and the play was mesmerizing (pardon the breaks in dialogue, I didn’t want to give any spoilers, and I also wanted to save you from reading a 2000 word blog post), but one part of dialogue stuck out to me.
CALEB: … Where were you? I’ve seen planation. Have you? I’ve seen slaves breaking their back in the fields. When have you ever broken a sweat? The only cotton you’ve ever touched is resting comfortably on your back right now … I know what war is. I lived it. What did you see? What did you live? I was starving to death at Petersburg and you were safe at home, reading novels. Yes, reading John. And you have my mother to thank for that. ”
JOHN: I taught myself how to read. Your mama taught me ABCDEFG and by the time she got to H your father put a stop to it.
CALEB: Because it was against the law.
JOHN: I wonder if that was the reason. Already before she started to teach me, I was asking questions. Like when was God going to set us free like he did the slaves in Egypt. Or whether Nat Turner was our new Moses. That’s when our lessons ended. But I kept reading. I poured over the books of the Torah. And I kept asking questions, if only to myself. You ever read Leviticus?
CALEB: You know I have.
JOHN: Then you’ll remember this: “Both thy bondman and they bondmaids, which thou shalt have, shall be of the heathen that are round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids. They shall be you possession and ye shall take them for your children to inherit themselves. They shall be your bondmen forever. But over your brethren, the children of Israel: Ye. Shall. Not. Rule.” You remember reading that?
CALEB: Not enough to memorize it.
JOHN: It certainly got me thinking. Were we Jews or were we slaves? Were we the children of Israel or we just the heathen that were round you? Because we couldn’t be both, that was clear … it was never ours. It was given to us and it could be taken away with just some careful reading of Leviticus.
[ … ]
JOHN: This is not my family!
SIMON: Only family you know.
JOHN: Not by choice.
SIMON: You know all the other slaves from round here. You know we had it a world better than they did.
[ … ]
SIMON: …But you and Caleb got to be like two peas in a pod. Didn’t see one where you wouldn’t soon see the other … like two peas in a pod.
JOHN: It wasn’t a friendship, Simon. Not when one friend owns the other. Orders him around. Sends him off for whippings.
SIMON: We ain’t talking about whippings.
JOHN: Why not? … Why is we were a family, did we get whipped like all the other slaves in town?
All slavery was slavery. It didn’t matter where the slave was on the plantation or a house slave. Someone owned them. Their lives were not their own. Fundamentally, all slaves were the same. I haven’t stopped thinking about this idea since I watched the play.
In the same way that all racism is racism. My tiny experience with two women who made a bad choice and the experiences that minorities have around the globe on a daily basis are all fundamentally the same. Fundamentally wrong.
And then I think, what a disservice it would be to Dr. King and all those who fought for my liberties to diminish my own experience with racism. To keep quiet and pretend like nothing happened. Because it did. I believe they wouldn’t want me to think that my feelings were any more trivial than the aches they felt on a daily basis. Because while it’s a comparison game: the rights of the majority versus the rights of the minority – it’s also not a comparison game: their pain versus my pain. Racism is a sick thing that makes a group of people kindred, but the pain of inequality is our pain. The ache for equality is our ache.
So today, as I reflect on all of this – I vulnerably admit the hurt lingering from that day and a few other days I’ve felt like less of a human being because of the color of my skin.
But I also boldly and with a heart full of gratitude embrace the rights that are now mine because of men and women like Dr. King. I can’t control what others think of what my skin color means, and I am a realist at heart – I understand things will never truly be the same for people of color (and really all minorities, if we think about it) but I can choose to celebrate the freedom I do have and never forget what it took to make that my truth.
[excerpt of The Whipping Man courtesy of Matthew Lopez