I had some trepidation about taking an Anti-Black Racism course (which was offered free to employees at our hospital, and all students, faculty and staff affiliated with the University of Connecticut) but I was enthused to engage and learn so I could better understand what is going in America and how I could better help move this country closer to my vision of the country that I love. Trump had a slogan Make America Great Again, but after hearing a Bruce Springsteen sound tracked campaign ad encouraging people to vote in Pennsylvania, I reimagined that slogan into Make America Recognizable again. This comes from the song “Streets of Philadelphia” about a person with AIDs who because of the way he is treated/shunned, loses nearly everything, and is now “bruised and battered, unrecognizable to myself.” I have felt that America has been unrecognizable to my vision of it – a land that is a world leader and is an example for others of democracy, rule of law, truth, human rights and compassion for its less fortunate. We don’t separate kids from their parents, refuse to disavow white supremists or call those who served and died in our military “suckers.” And above all, we are truthful about the difficulties we face (COVID as prime example) and are willing to sacrifice for the greater good. That vision of America has too often been a dream rather than a reality.
What I came to understand in the class is there are two Americas — the real-life America and the the vision of America. I studied history from kindergarten where I learned about George Washington never telling a lie to the University of Virginia where I took a course about slavery, that featured a book “Roll, Jordan Roll,” that talked about how slaves and slaveowners learned to get along and survive by humanizing each other. I did not understand at the time how people could criticize Thomas Jefferson for owning slaves because to me, he was just a prisoner of his time, and that he deserved credit for treating them humanely. I do not believe now that he is above reproach.
I have always been an advocate for civil rights and affirmative action, and have spent much of my life as a paramedic working in a predominately black inner city, and care deeply about the city and its people. I have also taken affront to the term “white privilege” and for criticisms of white people who advocate for black rights, but somehow “don’t get it.” I preferred, and still prefer the term, “black disadvantage” because I think the “privileges” whites have are not privileges at all, but basic human rights that should belong to everyone. It may be semantics, but I think the term white privilege is alienating, and counterproductive to the cause of a better society in the same way I believe “Defund the Police” is an awful term that sets back the cause of improving our police force and addressing the conditions that allow and sometimes condone police brutality. Rest in Peace George Floyd and so many others.
So what did I learn in this class? One, the history I was taught in school was stilted and missing key chapters and viewpoints. I know black people have always had a hard go, but I had no idea how bad it really was and how bad for many it continues to be, how rigged the system is against black people and many minorities. Even in health care, I always thought black people were more prone to cardiovascular disease due to their genetics (their genetics are virtually the same as white people). I had not considered how deeply economic and societal disadvantage can affect health and other key aspects of everyday existence. It is not so easy to take an aerobics class, eat organic food or go for a run in the neighborhood when most of your time is spent just trying to survive from week to week with food on the table, a roof over your head, electricity on, and the kids getting to school.
I was surprised that the course was “so black.” By that I mean all the teachers were black and the point of view all came from the black perspective. In the end, I didn’t mind. I feel like I had the “privilege” (there we go with that word again) of being sat down in someone else’s home and being told the story of their lives, and in the end coming as close as I could to seeing through their eyes what they had been through and continue to go through. Like any decision someone makes, it always helps to hear from the people who will be affected, and to hear both sides. This class presented a side (compelling) that I needed to hear.
What are my takeaways? The real life America is not as great what it typically made been made out to be. The real life America has never been perfect (though it has had great moments). I remember in high school (I went to a prep school in New Hampshire), I was sitting with a group of friends, many of whom were “John Wayne” Americans, and they were very upset when a professor was making this same argument to them. There was a song on the radio at the time that was a tribute to America and how we always helped the world in need. It was very patriotic. The professor pointed out instances where America acted not humanely but in its own political self-interest, chapters that we tended to either gloss over or not be aware of, where we had supported oppressive dictators who willfully violated human rights, and we supported them because they were anti-communist so we ignored their atrocities. This was back in the 1970’s.
Now before anyone accuses me of not liking our country or being unAmerican, I need to say this. America is not and never has been perfect. Nor have Republicans or Democrats been shinning examples of what America should be about. In many cases, not even close. But I believe not in the real life America (and certainly not the America of the last four years), but I believe in the dream of America and in its promise. I believe it can be a country where we all have equal opportunity, where we find common ground, and where we always strive to do better. I really liked Spike Lee’s documentary “Two Fists Up” about University of Missouri students protesting the racial indifference of the school leaders, protests that led to the administrators resignations after the football team joined in the protest, refusing to play until there was change in the school’s treatment and support of its black students. I am moved by the Black Lives Matter protests, and hope that the momentum continues. I agree with what the course posited in the end that the goal is not to make black lives better because they have been getting screwed, the goal is to live in a world where all lives matter, and the hard fact is right now black lives have not mattered so we need to fight to change that so that we can say we all live in a just world, and a just world is a better world for all of us, black and white and all the colors of the rainbow.
I have always told me daughters that when they go to the cafeteria at lunch time and one person is sitting alone because they have no friends or are different, that they are to go and ask them if it is okay they sit down with them, not because they feel sorry for them, but because they should never be a part of a world that shuns those who are different. And I taught them to stand tall against the bully even when the bully has the crowd. I taught them to play for the long run, to set an example for others. A bloody nose is better than slinking away a coward. Speak up.
Anyway, sorry for the pontificating. It was a great course, I learned a lot. I hope it will make me a better person and a better paramedic as I work the streets of Hartford.
Power to the people. Be kind. Be just.