Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Throwing off America's Mask on Halloween

I feel sick at heart. Last night I experienced Halloween like never before. Having grown up in the countryside and then having lived in NYC, I never witnessed what happens in cities like Hartford/West Hartford where two worlds collide on Halloween.

This year I decided to hang with a friend (another white gay man) in West Hartford to help him hand out the candy. He warned me that from his previous years some adults, people of color, out of costume, come for Halloween handouts. I recently heard something similar about neighborhoods in Detroit. I felt uneasy about these class/race dynamics but figured once the festivities started it will be a good time.

It was a nightmare--a suburban white nightmare for some and a sickening nightmare for me. I felt sick as people, many in costume but also a good number out of costume, came to the door with plastic grocery bags and open purses.

I felt sick at the feeling of privilege as we handed out our candies. To my surprise, my normally warm and generous friend handed out small amounts of candy and often with a critical comment under his breath when we came back into the living room. Finally, feeling aggrieved by one too many young black and latina mothers with strollers and no costumes, he shut down the shop and lead me to his neighbor's (another white gay man) where we drank champagne and had enough food set out for 25 people. (There were four of us)

At the end of the night I turned to my friend when we returned to his home. I told him how disturbed I felt by the evening and how this Halloween pulled back the curtain for me in such a powerful way to reveal some of the inequity in the US, inequity based on race, power and privilege. (White privileged America saw this revelation on a massive scale with Hurricane Katrina)

And like in a strange suspense/thriller where a character's reality is supplanted with another's, my friend proceeded to expound how there is no inequity in America, we all have the same opportunities.

I disagreed, and explained that as a white man, even though I am talented and passionate about what I do, I have to acknowledge that some of my successes are due in part to the fact that I am white and male—this immediately opens doors for me. He said that it wasn't true; we all have the same opportunities. People just have to try harder. (This is "the truth" that he and I and most white people have learned since infancy)

It was in his response that I heard it--the whispered message I usually never consciously hear, the one woven into the linguistics of teachers and family and movies, the message sewn into the fabric of white mainstream society. The message spoken through a nation that publicly honors a hero like Rosa Parks as it manages to cleanup the social-economic-racial debacle of Katrina. I heard the message that hisses, "Shush, go back to sleep, it is only a nightmare."

As I walked home, I felt like a traitor to my cousins in Hartford who are half Black and my cousins in NY who are half Puerto Rican. I felt sickened by what I saw behind the curtain and even sicker THAT WE HAVE A CURTAIN.

I felt like Peter who denied Jesus to his face. I thought of Teacher Jesus’ words, “Whatever you do to the least of these my brothers and sisters, you do to me.”

I feel sick today and it is not from too much candy. I feel like I want to feel sick for a very long time. I don't want to feel better because that is what the dominant culture always tries to make me do--feel better so that I end up feeling nothing, knowing nothing, doing nothing


At 10:39 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is our living nightmare.

Keep speaking truth.

Keep fighting the good fight.


At 1:44 PM , Blogger Peterson Toscano said...

bob p., it is a good question for all of us to ask. What are we going to do to change this situation in the future?

For me the first step is to learn, to understand and feel. In the words of Audre Lorde,

"…And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives…"

At 11:20 AM , Blogger Liz Opp said...

Have you and your friend read the popular essay on white privilege, Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack? I came across this essay years ago and I still refer to it from time to time. Perhaps the most "practical" part of the essay, with its separate link, is the list of examples of daily effects of white privilege.

I recognize that this article and this list does not teach us how to be allies for one another, but naming where privilege exists is part of the process of waking up.

The fact that you ask the questions, seek the resources, and acknowledge your privilege--as a white American male, at the very least--is huge in my book.

Liz, The Good Raised Up


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