My city is burning.
Yes, I live in Minnesota, in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where a police officer knelt on an unarmed black man’s neck while three other officers—and many members of our community—stood watching. You probably know the story. The black man died.
As I write this the ashes of those fires are still hot. And there is no guarantee there won’t be more fires tonight or the night after. Or the night after that.
Will we ever learn to see by the light of those fires?
This terrible moment in time makes me stop, once again, to examine my own history.
I grew up in the mill housing at the edge of a small Midwestern town. It was a working-class community, exclusively white, mostly eastern Europeans and Irish. My dad was the chemist at the cement mill and our family was English. We were part of the community and never quite belonged.
Our town was one of three that had grown up across from one another along a river in northern Illinois, and I learned at a young age that there had once been a sign. It was one of those don’t-let-the-sun-set-on-you-in-this-town kind of signs. I never found proof that the sign had actually existed, but the reality of the warning certainly did. Those who weren’t supposed to let the sun set on them knew who they were and stayed away.
Which means I grew up in a profoundly segregated world. I always knew it was segregated and my parents taught me that segregation was wrong. But still, I didn’t have a clue what it meant to be non-white and excluded or what my own whiteness might mean.
I remember loving Al Jolson films. I was well into adulthood before I had even a glimmer of understanding of the insult in a black-face performance.
Even more important, I didn’t know that I didn’t know. And I didn’t know that my whole society, the dominant society that I took to represent the whole of it, was at least as ignorant as I. Only recently I stumbled onto the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and realizing it was a classic I’d never seen, settled in to enjoy.
Who doesn’t love Audrey Hepburn in her big sunglasses and tiny black dresses? But then there was Mickey Rooney as a clumsy, screaming Asian man with a whole set of extra dentures to make him suitably buck-toothed. I was beyond appalled! Did such a characterization ever seemed funny?
All of which puts me in mind of something I encountered in last year’s fine documentary on Toni Morrison. The film quoted a line from a reviewer—white, of course—of one of her early novels. He said something like, “Maybe someday she’ll grow up and write for and about real people.”
That one doesn’t even require a comment.
We all come into the world trapped inside our own skulls, inside our own skins. We gather into groups and name ourselves “the people,” and we find a word for everyone else that means “the other.” The whole world does it.
And when any one group gains power over others, that power will not be—has never been—used well.
I was born into that dominant group. Born into an inauspicious milling community but with a white skin. I have spent my life trying to see past the limitations of my whiteness, but true understanding hasn’t been easy to come by.
I do know something about being other. I am an old lesbian, so I have had no choice but to learn about otherness. But not only am I still protected by my white skin, I lived so long in the heterosexual world before I ever acknowledged my sexuality that without even wanting to do so, I pass. (Once another lesbian said to me, “You’re a good spokesperson for our community because you look so safe.”)
We in this “white country” are finally being forced to recognize the multicultural world we actually live in. Our journey of recognition is often a clumsy one. And sometimes we are more than inept, we are vicious.
We in the children’s book world are being forced to make the journey into a multicultural world, too. And I could say the same thing about clumsiness, ineptness, even viciousness for us.
It’s a steep learning curve for those who started out believing that we were the standard by which all others should be judged, that everyone else when they finally got there would, of course, want to be just like us.
I am encouraged, though, to know that the identity I was born into and have always lived in, the trap of my white skin, is finally cracking open. Just a bit.
Open enough, I hope, to let some of the light of otherness shine in.
I regret deeply that sometimes that light has to come from fires.