I hated feeling like a stranger in my own life.
Thankfully, I rarely experience that feeling anymore, but it used to creep into my psyche like an unwanted encounter with a mean girl from high school. I did my best to present as confident and competent, but I actually felt like a pretender and an invader in the lives of people who really belonged.
I have, after all, spent my entire life living in places where I don’t have a family connection. Or so I thought. Because sometimes, one tiny piece of information can change everything.
For me, that small shift was seeing a headstone at a park where I walk my dog on a regular basis. The last name on the marker is Mowen, which is my great-grandmother’s maiden name. Initially, I just thought this was interesting. After all, I live in the Eastern Panhandle of West Virginia, wedged between Northern Virginia and Maryland. My dad grew up in Massachusetts, my mom grew up in Michigan, and my family moved several times when I was a child. I didn’t grow up around any extended family.
This is probably why I embraced genealogy with a passion and became the family historian. When my grandparents passed away, the treasures I inherited might have had little value for many people, but to me the old photos, ledgers, deeds, and birth certificates are priceless. I’ve done a DNA test, convinced my parents to do a DNA test, and spent hours trying to figure out the puzzle of my family tree. What I never expected was to randomly stumble upon a headstone of a distant relative.
And yet, I did. After logging onto my laptop and doing some simple research, I determined that I was indeed related to the Mr. Earl C. Mowen, who is memorialized by a simple marker on a forest trail in Poor House Farm Park. Granted, the relationship is rather distant as Mr. Mowen and my great-grandmother had the same grandparents.
My great grandmother’s family is actually from Washington County, Maryland, which is only minutes from my house. I have ancestors buried in cemeteries in nearby Hagerstown, and a few geographic locations actually bear the last name of some of my ancestors.
While all of this is fascinating, it shone a light on something even more important: having a family connection to the area where I now live hasn’t affected my feelings about being a stranger in my life. I rarely feel that way anymore not because I have historical ties to this area but because I’ve been able to build my own life. Instead of being a stranger, I’m a main character surrounded by people who accept me, and care about me, and support me even though we don’t share the same DNA or childhood memories. I don’t have to pretend or feel like an invader.
I can create the place where I belong.
There is an anecdote in my baby book that explains so much. The brief notation is written in my mother’s perfect handwriting.
Christmas 1969 Trina was in the Sunday School program but kept falling backward.
That is all it says.
As a teenager, I remember asking my mom to elaborate. There really wasn’t much to tell. Apparently, nearly three-year-old me was one of several children singing Away In the Manger, but I could only get through a few lyrics before I’d fall backwards. Then I’d pick myself up, resume singing, and fall over again. And then I’d pick myself up again. And again. And again.
I hadn’t thought about that story in decades until this week when I was clinging to the root of a wild Rhododendron bush on the side of a cliff.
How could I have let myself get into this situation? I am the person who was once too uncoordinated to sing and stand up at the same time.
Being uncoordinated has shaped the person I am. I am the little girl who could never do a cartwheel and failed gymnastics. I am the kid who never once hit the ball during softball. I am the teenager who could run fast during a track meet but tripped at the finish line. I am the college student who sprained her ankle walking down the stairs of her dorm. I am the friend who got left behind on a ski trip because I just couldn’t get my feet to work correctly. I am the woman who shattered her wrist while walking her dog. I am the person who constantly has bruises and who everyone at work worries about every time they hear a crash or a loud bang.
My lack of grace generated a sense of fear in me at an early age. I wasn’t afraid of heights. I was afraid of what I might do to myself if I tried to do anything from a height: jumping downstairs, going off a diving board; springing off a swing in mid flight. I’d watch in awe as other kids did those things, but I avoided doing any of those them myself. And those decisions came with regrets. I once stood at the top of a fire pole willing myself to go down, but my feet refused. They felt as though they each weighed a thousand pounds.
My journalist mother was writing a feature story about a family that had installed the pole in their house as a fun way for their children to get from the second floor to the first floor. All of the kids in the house, their friends, and even my mother had gone down the pole. And yet, I stood in fear at the top unable to grab and go. The shame I felt from having to take the stairs stayed with me and inspired me to push through the fear.
Which is why, earlier this week, I found myself desperately hanging onto the side of the cliff.
My husband and I had taken the week off to spend time hiking and exploring state parks. He was on a mission to find a certain waterfall from a historical illustration, and his search took us to a series of falls that could only be accessed off the beaten path.
Off the beaten path turned out to be what I can only describe as an almost completely vertical cliff.
Getting to the first falls was fairly easy, but I took one look at the steep descent to the next one and said, “I can’t do it.” But then I did it anyway. The descent to the third waterfall, the one that plunges forty feet, was basically a forty foot vertical drop with vegetation and a few foot holes. “I can’t do this,” I said. And then I did it anyway. My forehead and back were dripping in sweat, but I did it anyway.
As my husband and I stood on a rock taking photos of the falls and basking in our success, he turned to me and said, “Now we have to do the hard part and go back up.”
“I’m not worried about that,” I replied. “Getting back up has always been the easy part for me.”
I wasn’t just referring to the fact that, to me, climbing uphill really is much easier than going down a hill, when I often feel unbalanced.
I was referring to the fact that life has demanded that I learn to turn my weaknesses into strengths. When I was almost three years old, I had a problem simultaneously singing and standing. But when I fell, I always got back up. And I eventually learned to sing and stand. And to ride a bike. And to climb trees. And to climb down cliffs. And to trust myself to take risks.
The secret to enjoying life isn’t just about finding those things at which we are innately good and pursuing them. It’s about finding joy in overcoming those things at which we sometimes fail.
It’s about getting back up.
Last October, as the pandemic dragged on, my mother-in-law passed away.
She was 87 years-old and had been in poor health for a while, so I wasn’t surprised. At the same time, I was very surprised. Maggie was larger than life to me. She was unique, quirky, and completely different than my own mother. She was also the best mother-in-law I could have ever asked for.
Because of the circumstances, and because my husband and his siblings are private about such matters, only our family and friends were informed. There wasn’t even an obituary.
But today is our first Mother’s Day without her, and I couldn’t let it pass without paying tribute to the feisty woman who I credit for raising the man I married.
If this were an actual obituary, I’d be expected to provide the basic facts about Maggie that anyone could find on a genealogy site. I might even sprinkle in a few of her significant accomplishments. But a traditional obituary isn’t fitting for a woman like Maggie. Besides, the only interesting nugget from her early life, which I find incredibly entertaining, is the fact that, according to my husband, she once won a beauty pageant. She’ll probably start haunting me now for even making that public knowledge.
My husband tells me that his mom changed quite a bit from when he was a child to the time when I first met her. She wasn’t even called Maggie until all of her children were grown. My brother-in-law, Keith, started calling her that, and the name stuck. Growing up, she was called Marge, and, at some point, was dubbed Muff after Little Miss Muffet, apparently because she was so tiny. I don’t get the connection, but I wasn’t around back in the 1950’s either.
She never told me she was called Muff. I found out when I was attending a large meeting when we still lived in Charleston. I was sitting next to another Grand Dame, Helaine Rotgin. Maggie had worked on Helaine’s campaign for the WV State Legislature in the 1970’s, and Helaine was quite fond of her. As we waited for the meeting to start, Helaine turned to me and loudly yelled (yes, she yelled as she was getting hard of hearing)”How is Muff?” Everyone stopped and stared at me. All I could say was, “fine?” Only later did I get an explanation.
I shouldn’t have been surprised that Maggie had supported Helaine, who was a die-hard democrat, and to my knowledge, the first Jewish woman in the WV Legislature. Maggie herself was a die-hard Democrat. Shortly after Trump was elected and Maggie was still living on her own, I stopped by to visit while on a business trip in Charleston. She proudly showed me the Obama button she still wore every day “just to piss people off.” She was addicted to MSNBC and spent the last few years of her life raging against Trump. Unfortunately, she died when he was still president. I can only imagine how joyful she would have been about the Biden inauguration.
But Maggie, didn’t just watch television. Up until the last couple of years of her life, she was a voracious reader. I actually met her at the bookstore where she worked for years, and I didn’t leave the store empty handed. She picked out several books that, according to her, I “had to read.” That pattern continued for decades, and I spent many hours on the phone talking to Maggie about books. Her recommendations were always stellar.
Other than reading, Maggie’s favorite hobby was going to thrift stores before thrifting was cool. She had a talent for finding the coolest clothes and jewelry then gifting them to just the right person. Generally, her gifts were random as she wasn’t one for dedicating time and energy to celebrating holidays, with the exception of Halloween. I’ll never forget taking my then three- year-old son to her house for Halloween to find her dressed up as Eminem. No that’s not a mistake. She wasn’t dressed as M&M candies. She was dressed as Eminem the rapper.
That wasn’t the only time Maggie left me speechless. My husband and I had just started dating when Maggie struck up a friendship with her neighbor, a flaming gay guy at least thirty years her junior. I adored their friendship, but I became worried when he convinced her to start breaking into empty houses that were for sale just to “have a look around.” Thankfully, they were never caught and arrested.
Don’t get me wrong. Maggie was far from a criminal. In fact, she spent a good part of her life caring for her others. In addition to raising three children, she took care of her sister for years. She also cared for both of my children after they were born. In fact, she and my son had a bond that I never experienced with my own grandparents. Of course, the fact that he could cuss around her and she would cuss right back probably helped cement their relationship,
My children were her only grandchildren, and she adored them. My husband and I must have been arguing one of the only times I witnessed her get angry with him. “Trina will always be right,” she said. “She gave birth to my grandchildren, so I will always side with her.”
Oh how, I loved that woman.
As I as writing this, my husband walked in and asked what I was doing.
“I’m writing about your mom,” I said. “You know she’d hate that,” he replied.
He was right. Maggie would hate it. But she also deserves it.
In the weeks leading up to the 2020 presidential election, I noticed a trend on Facebook. Trump supporters were posting false information and then complaining when the Facebook administrators called them out. Apparently, some of these individuals were even getting private messages telling them about the consequences of posting false information. When discussing this, one person said, “everyone is getting that message.”
I wanted to comment, “I haven’t received that warning because I don’t share false information.” I didn’t though, because I was fairly confident I would have been called a lying libtard or told that Facebook was targeting conservatives and protecting progressives.
The irony of all of this is that the people who kept posting false information were the same individuals ranting about “fake news.” While they were definitely projecting (unconsciously taking unwanted emotions, traits, and behaviors they didn’t like about themselves and attributing them to someone else), they were also acting like spoiled children. In their delusional brains, something is only a fact if it justifies their beliefs or meets their needs.
Before the election, I rolled my eyes at their temper tantrums and self-centered posts. After the election, I realized that this twisted thinking, encouraged by President Donald Trump, was dangerous. When Trump and his allies told his minions that the election had been stolen, they believed them. Even when every avenue was pursued to ensure the election results were accurate, including re-counts in Republican-controlled states and court cases, these Trump supporters were convinced, or pretended to be convinced, of some grand conspiracy to steal the election. In an attempt to get their way, they filled busses and airplanes during a global pandemic and went to Washington D.C. to demand that Trump remain president.
The mayhem committed at the capitol building in Washington D.C. on January 6 is unforgivable as are false assertions that members of “Antifa” disguised themselves as Trump supporters and were the actual perpetrators.
Following the events on Wednesday, Trump followers are now complaining that actions taken by social media and technology companies to address hate speech and violence is fascism. Considering the education level of most of the people I’ve witnessed saying this, I’m fairly certain they would be unable to define fascism without being given a computer to Google it. These are, after all, the same people who call any policy with which they don’t agree socialism. The icing on their hateful cake is that many are proclaiming themselves Christians while calling people with different beliefs evil.
Don’t get me wrong. I believe people have the right to different opinions just as they have the right to organize and participate in peaceful protests. What they don’t have the right to do is demand that our country revolve around their belief system. And for those who say that’s not what they want, I have five questions:
- No one disputed that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 but that Donald Trump won the electoral college. If Hillary Clinton had proclaimed the election was stolen, filed multiple lawsuits trying to get the results overturned, and tried to convince a secretary of state to find 11,000 votes, what would you have done and said?
- In Italy, the birthplace of fascism, people noted that the scenes at the United States Capitol on Wednesday were reminiscent of events in Italy in the 1930s under Mussolini. You call people who have taken a stand against police violence and for basic human rights as “Antifa,” which is short for Anti-fascists. Does that mean that you are pro-fascism?
- In America, where the economy is rooted in capitalism, the wealthier you are the more access you have to political power. Donald Trump used his wealth and celebrity to win the 2016 presidential election but has yet to publicly share his tax returns. Since taxes are used to pay for public education, public safety, roads, and numerous other services that are equally available to all citizens, the amount he pays in taxes is one mechanism of demonstrating how he much he has or hasn’t contributed to the public good. Taxes are a contentious issue for many conservatives who constantly worry that their taxes might increase (even though they are benefiting from those public services). If the amount people pay in taxes is so important to you, why haven’t you held Donald Trump accountable to ensure he contributes his fair share?
- This week I saw a heartbreaking post from a young woman whose father berated her for not supporting Trump. He told her that college was giving her the wrong ideas. This isn’t unusual. I’ve witnessed numerous Trump supporters complain that colleges are turning young people into liberals. A college education is intended to expand a young person’s knowledge, expose them to different ideas, and teach them critical thinking skills. Are you afraid that people who think for themselves or are better educated than you are a threat who will challenge your belief system or demonstrate that your way of thinking may not be for the greater good?
- A vast number of Evangelical Christians have continued to support President Trump even though he has never been actively engaged with the church or behaved in a Christ-like manner. Among his many behaviors, he has bragged about grabbing women by the genitalia, engaged in name-calling, endorsed policies that separate families, and lied on a daily basis. He cheated on his wives. In order to gain the support of Evangelical Christians, he chose Mike Pence as his vice president, but last week put him in danger when he didn’t “follow orders” to disrupt the electoral process. And he has supported a health care system that operates on the principles of making money rather than on ensuring all Americans have access to it. None of these actions are in the least bit Christian. And yet so-called Christians have supported him in part because of his ability to put in place conservative judges. How do your reconcile the Golden Rule, the beatitudes, and the Ten Commandments with supporting a man who has demonstrated he worships wealth and power more than anything else?
If any of Trump’s supporters read this, they will probably be angry. That’s fine with me. I’ve been angry for four years and during that time the most controversial political action I took was to wear a pink, knitted hat. And, for the record, I didn’t even have to purchase it thus contributing to a politician’s coffers. Someone made it and gave it to me for free because that is what genuinely nice, not evil, people do.
The conversation with the two strangers started with a puppy. It was an adorable, soft, fluffy, three-month old Husky with bright blue eyes that drew me to it like… well… like any dog draws me to it.
In all honesty, it could have been a mangy mutt, and I would still have stopped my bike ride to say hi. I do, after all, always carry dog treats when I am out riding my bike.
The puppy was trying to catch a quick nap while the person on the other end of its leash was engaged in conversation with a woman working in her yard. I interrupted the conversation to first ask if I could pet the puppy and then to ask all of the important questions about the puppy.
Neither the puppy’s owner nor the woman with whom he was speaking seemed to mind. In fact, their interest turned from the puppy to me.
“How far do you ride?”
“Where do you ride?”
“Don’t you think some of those roads are dangerous?”
The last question prompted a discussion about how some people can be complete jerks.
“Someone once threw a whole cup of iced tea out of their car window at me,” I told them. “It hurt because it was hurtling from a moving car, and I know it was sweetened because it was so sticky.”
“Yeah,” the guy said, “People can be real jerks. I was out jogging once, and someone yelled then through a raw egg at me. It hit me right in the chest.”
We were all silent for a moment before he said, “I had to just turn the other way. There’s no point in confronting people like that. It just makes the situation worse.”
We continued to talk about how confronting angry and rude people isn’t worth the effort. What none of us mentioned, or even acknowledged, was that the stakes were different for the the man.
That’s because the other woman and I were white. The man was black.
If the conversation had been with friends or even acquaintances, we would have addressed the issue of race. But when the man mentioned having the egg thrown at him, I didn’t ask if he thought the perpetrators were racist. When he said he didn’t engage with hateful people because he might land in jail if he got in a fight, I just nodded. And when he said that his wife doesn’t want him to let the dog out at night because the neighbors had threatened to call the police if it barked, I joked that all my neighbors have dogs that bark.
I didn’t raise the issue of racism, but I could feel it hanging in the air like a storm cloud full of rain. And even though it was obviously there – heavy and dark -we acted as though it didn’t exist.
I felt as though raising the issue would be akin to handing each of them a “Black Lives Matter” bumper sticker only to be handed an “all lives matter” one in return. I just didn’t have the emotional fortitude.
The issue of race shouldn’t be political because there should only be one view of it: it shouldn’t exist and when it does, we need to acknowledge and address it.
And yet, just like during my conversation with strangers yesterday, we often dance around racism as if ignoring it will make it go away.
I honestly don’t know that actually raising the issue during that particular conversation with strangers would have been appropriate. What I do know is even though no words were said, it WAS part of the conversation.
And here’s the other thing I know. That puppy? The one that brought us all together for a short period it time? That puppy loved getting attention from all of us and had no concept of race.
Maybe that’s why I like dogs so much.
I was having dinner on a friend’s deck with a group of like-minded women when we got the news: Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died.
We all reacted differently even though I’m certain we were all feeling the same way. One of us burst into tears. Another just sat silent while a third stood up and started clearing dishes. Me? I cussed. I cussed because Notorious RBG was a role model and a heroine. I cussed because I know what is at stake. And I cussed because some people I know will see her death more as an opportunity than a reason to mourn.
The following words are for those people: I may like you, but I can’t respect you.
I like you because we might laugh together or share common interests or talk about our children.
But I can’t respect you because your vision of what our country’s future holds for those children isn’t one of diversity and inclusion and equality.
I can’t respect you because you believe your narrow definition of Christianity is the only legitimate religion.
I can’t respect you because you can’t discern the difference between journalism, opinion pieces and fake news.
I can’t respect you because you share information on social media that validates your opinion even if when the information is a complete lie.
I can’t respect you because you support political candidates and listen to pundits who claim that liberals aren’t real Christians.
I can’t respect you because you are a one-or two-issue voter who makes decisions at the ballot box based on dogma rather than on the scope and impact of a variety of policies on people’s day-to-day lives.
I can’t respect you because no matter how many times someone has tried to explain the difference between “gun control” and “taking away your guns,” you choose to listen to propaganda from the NRA,
I can’t respect you because you are voting for politicians who care about money more than they care about the well-being of people.
I can’t respect you because you think patriotism is marked by saluting a flag rather than by honoring the first amendment.
I can’t respect you because you throw around the word socialism when what you are really saying is that you don’t want your tax dollars being used to provide services for people you have decided are “undeserving.”
And most of all, I can’t respect you because you are supporting politicians who have shown general disrespect and even criminal behavior toward women.
I know these words will offend some of you, and now you probably won’t respect me. I don’t care.
I’m 53 years old, and I’ve fought hard to become a strong, opinionated woman who cares about minorities and immigrants and the poor and people of different faiths.
I’m writing this because even though there are a lot of people I don’t respect right now, I couldn’t respect myself if I left these words unsaid.
Also, I’m fairly confident that Ruth Bader Ginsburg would approve.
When I was about five years old, my mother pulled a chair up to the kitchen counter so I could watch what she was doing.
She got a soup bowl out of one cupboard and a container of cornstarch out of another.
“We are going to do a science experiment,” she explained.
She poured the cornstarch into the bowl then slowly added water. When the mixture was exactly the texture she wanted, she told me “stick your finger in until it touches the bottom of the bowl.”
I tried, but the mixture was solid, and my finger didn’t even dent it.
“I can’t,” I said.
“Yes you can, ” she replied. “Try again.”
I poked at it again with the same results.
“It doesn’t work,” I complained.
“Yes it does. Look.” she said as she put her finger in the bowl. I watch in amazement as what had felt like a rock to me oozed around her finger.
She removed her finger and told me to try again. I did and was once again met with resistance.
“Don’t poke it. Instead just lightly touch it.”
I followed her instructions and was delighted when my finger began to sink into a gooey substance.
I don’t remember if my mom talked about the science behind our experiment, but apparently it had a lasting impact as I’ve been thinking about it recently.
From an early age, my approach to dealing with problems has never been subtle. I’ve been called blunt, forthright and outspoken. I’ve taken in pride in the fact that I always let people know where I stand and, most of the time, exactly what I’m thinking. I’m not good at quietly expressing my thoughts and then letting them soak in while I patiently wait for a response. As my husband knows, when I don’t get a response, I keeping poking until I get one.
Generally, that works, but sometimes it doesn’t. Recently, I’m not only getting resistance when I make a stab at addressing a situation, I feel as though every effort is bouncing back and bruising me. I guess that’s why I’ve been thinking about that experiment at the kitchen counter with my mother more than 45 years ago.
Maybe my mom was attempting to tell me that sometimes you have to stop trying so hard to make something happen and just need to let the situation unfold. In some circumstances, that may be the right approach.
But here is my other take away from that long ago experiment: when you let things rest and happen at their own pace sometimes all you get is covered in muck.
History tells us that change only happens when people are willing to poke their fingers at the problems and keep poking until they make cracks.
I don’t need muck. I need change.
My soul hurts when I think about the incident at a local church. Apparently, the minister provoked a member of his congregation with a sermon about racism. The individual was so offended, he actually left in the middle of the service. As he walked out, he loudly muttered, “George Floyd was a criminal.”
This happened in a Christian church.
I may not be a Biblical scholar, but the last time I checked, the Christian church is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ. You know, that guy who taught about mercy, forgiveness and taking care of each other? I’m fairly certain that Jesus wanted us to interact kindly with all human beings – not just the people we like or respect or who make us feel comfortable.
I know that’s not always easy, and sometimes I feel as though it’s almost impossible. But labeling someone a criminal and then using that label to rationalize their mistreatment hurts all of us. That’s because we are all connected.
No one lives and shares that message more loudly and bravely than Father Greg Boyle. Father Boyle is a Catholic Priest who founded Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention and rehabilitation program in Los Angeles. I had the privilege of hearing him speak a few years ago, and his words resonated. Like him, I am incredibly fortunate to have a job in which I can learn from people who others might dismiss.
There is the woman experiencing homelessness who once proudly told me she was featured in a documentary about women in prison. She was, and I’ve since watched it. I’ve had her bags of medication for various mental illnesses in my office. I unintentionally taught her to beg in Spanish when she asked me how to say “I’m hungry” and “I need money” in Spanish. She recently stopped by the office to tell my coworkers and me that she had a place to live. When I opened the door, I had to firmly tell her she couldn’t hug me because of COVID 19. I don’t call her a criminal. I call her a fellow human being.
There is the man who showed up in our office lobby loudly declaring “I just got out of prison and I don’t know where to go for help.” He had grown up in foster care and is functionally illiterate. He is demanding and difficult, but he was also sweet and helpful. He’d give staff cards and help clean our offices. After he went back to jail for rape, he still called the office on a regular basis. I don’t call him a criminal. I call him a fellow human being.
There is the young man with no place to live because his family kicked him out. Before COVID-19, he would stop by the office almost every day to make a cup of coffee. Occasionally, he would use the shower and do his laundry. He was always polite and followed the rules. When my co-workers and I hadn’t seen him for several days, one of us would look on the jail site. His mugshot would be there, and his charges ranged from battery to robbery. He stopped by the office last week to ask for a tent. I don’t call him a criminal. I call him a fellow human.
These individuals, like thousands of others, have stories to tell about what they have endured and survived. These individuals, like thousands of others, don’t have the support, resources, and connections that many of us do. And these individuals, like thousand of others, are so much more than a label or a criminal record.
Do I believe they should be held accountable for their actions? Absolutely! But I also believe that I should still care about them.
As Father Greg Boyle says, “There is no us and them, only us.”
I care about us.
When I was growing up, my mom baked a cherry pie every February in honor of George Washington’s birthday. The tradition was tied to the story about how, as a child, the first President of the United States chopped a cherry tree with his new hatchet. When his angry father confronted him, young George admitted what he had done because he couldn’t tell a lie.
The story was the basis of many elementary school lessons, and only as an adult did I learn that the story of the cherry tree was itself a lie. Author Mason Locke Weems added it, along with other heartwarming stories, to the fifth edition of his book The Life of Washington. Historians believe that Weems included the story to make Washington a virtuous role model that could influence the behavior of children.
He wasn’t alone. The history I learned in school almost always portrayed honorable men who built a perfect country on unquestionable values. In truth, the men were imperfect humans who built this country on the backs of others.
But for more than a century, history was written by people like Parson Weems, who wanted to shape it into a tool that could be used to control what people believed, and therefore how they behaved.
My elementary school classmates and I were taught that Christopher Columbus discovered America. We used crayons to color pictures of the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria while reciting “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” No one taught us about the genocide he perpetrated on the people of Haiti.
In Junior High, I had to memorize the presidents of the United States and their accomplishments. I was taught that Andrew Jackson was the seventh president, was nicknamed “Old Hickory” and founded the Democratic Party. I was an adult before I learned how he abused his power to remove Native Americans from their homes and was responsible for what is now known as the Trail of Tears.
In high school, the lessons about World War II covered how America helped defeat Germany and end the Holocaust. There was never any mention about the Japanese internment camps on U.S. soil.
For the most part, what I was taught was factual. It just wasn’t truthful. America may have been established on the principles of equality and freedom, but those principles only applied to white men. When the south tried to leave the United States to preserve slavery and its economy, the Confederate message was clear: equality and freedom weren’t the most important values; power and money were.
As a nation, we are still struggling with those conflicting values.
On Thursday as I was leaving work, a pickup truck stopped in front of my office. A large confederate flag with the handwritten words ‘heritage not hate” was flying from the back. I winced. I wanted to stop and ask what heritage meant to the driver, but I knew that would be pointless.
Some people think they have to hold on to relics of the past to justify their belief system.
Instead, we need to distinguish between erasing the past and learning from it.
We can still eat cherry pie on Washington’s birthday because we like eating cherry pie. We just shouldn’t eat it because we think it makes us more patriotic. Taking care of each other and honoring our true history is the only way to do that.
Nearly fifty years later, I don’t clearly remember my first day of kindergarten, but I know I was miserable and complained that I didn’t fit in.
What I really meant was that I was the only white student in my class.
That didn’t last long.
On the second day of kindergarten, Mike Donahue switched classes and joined mine.
I have a few other memories from that year: sitting on the floor at the feet of an elderly tribe member who taught us her native language; participating in the annual root feast; wearing the wing dress my mom had sewn, and being chased and taunted when I was walking home from school. My tormentors, a group of older children, told me I didn’t belong and I needed to move off of the reservation.
The next year I did. I started first grade in a classroom full of white students like me.
When I was younger, I used to tell people that, because of those experiences, I knew what being a minority felt like and that I had experienced discrimination.
I didn’t and I hadn’t.
When I complained about being the only student with my skin color, my white, well-educated parents stepped in to ensure I had a friend in my class. When I lived in a place with a very different heritage than mine, my professional parents bought a house elsewhere among people with similar backgrounds.
In other words, what I actually experienced as a child was white privilege.
I’m still experiencing it.
I guarantee that no one has ever clutched their purse a bit tighter when they’ve seen me in a parking garage. No one has ever called the police because I look suspicious when I’m walking my dog in their neighborhood. I’ve never been patted down or had my car searched when I’ve been stopped for speeding.
But I have been the person who has clutched her purse a bit tighter when she’s seen a black man in a parking garage.
And I absolutely hate that.
My parents raised me better. They taught me not to judge people by the color of their skin. My education specifically addressed prejudice. I am a licensed social worker whose professional ethics are grounded in fairness and equality. My children and friends, who are all strong advocates for diversity, expect more from me.
And yet, I’ve had those moments when my immediate reaction is to clutch my purse tighter.
Living in a racist society has influenced my reactions, but, I am still responsible for them. I am responsible for acknowledging them and I am responsible for changing them.
America should be too.