“I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
—August 28, 1963, Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Sometimes I judge my life — and the content of my character — from different seats I’ve occupied.
I’m ten years old and sitting on the edge of a flower-patterned couch in the living room of my Uncle Ed’s suburban Jersey house. It’s July 1967 and we’re watching evening news reports of riots in Newark where, until a year ago, my uncle and his family had lived. The television images show white policemen with batons beating a fallen young black man.
“Get that n*****,” Uncle Ed yelled at the screen. “Beat his ass.”
I adored my uncle in so many ways but somehow knew that racism had poisoned his brain. Shift to the early 1970s where I’m seated at the Sunday dinner table in my family’s Cedar Rapids dining room. As was usual, joining us are several transplants from my father’s New York City home office; this Sunday I look around the table and see Mr. Woody (a black man), the Goldsteins (a kosher Jewish family), and Harry and Roberta Lai (a Hong Kong-born Chinese husband and wife).
The dinner conversation, rich and vibrant, feeds my ears with phrases like “Israeli,” “Palestinian,” “Red China,” and “Deep South.” Eventually, I understood that those Sunday dinners were antidotes to the poison of racism.
Fast forward to a Saturday afternoon in the summer of 2013 where I’m seated on a folding chair in the front room of a north Minneapolis community house. Around me are seven or eight transgender women, most of whom are strangers; all but three are black. It’s one of the few times in my life that I’m the racial minority in the room.
We share about our lives and I hear of families that can’t accept and churches that shun. Some talk about love lost or siblings who don’t understand. The black women — every one of them — had suffered some kind of violence, either personally or to family members. Some of that violence was because they were transgender; for others, it was a consequence of living in a society where guns are aplenty and black lives fungible.
Poison, indeed, comes in many different forms.
I arrived in the Twin Cities five years ago to start over as a newly minted woman. I brought with me great hopes and the belief that, of all places, Minneapolis and St. Paul would be highly egalitarian — for those GLBT or of color, or foreign born, or anyone else considered “different.”
Instead, what I found was a profoundly segregated community, particularly relative to skin color. With a metro population that’s 36 percent of color, one would expect that a quarter to a third of the middle class professionals in either city would be non-white.
For proof, look around the next time you sit at a Nicollet Mall or Lowertown restaurant and count up the people of color, either the customers or the serving staff. Better yet, take a moment and stand in a skyway at noon on a weekday. Count to yourself how many professionally dressed black or brown people pass by in five minutes.
There are of course other indicators, like housing or high school graduation rates, both of which reflect that so much hard work remains to be done toward equality.
The legal community, of which I’m a part, is no better: barely three percent of the partners in Minneapolis law firms are of color.
Certainly, many are heroically trying to change the landscape. Yet, the critical component is white people, those who hold power. Most will tell you that they’re not prejudiced; that they believe in equality and a level playing field for everyone.
Unfortunately, many of those same white power holders know no one who is of color. Or if they do, it’s not someone on their lunch or golf partner lists.
The technical phrase is “unconscious bias.” In other words, unless you really put your mind to treating others equally regardless of their race or ethnicity, you’ll likely fail.
As a community, we are collectively failing.
Finally, lest anyone think that I’m immune from unconscious bias — a more insidious poison — consider another seat I occupied.
It’s mid-summer 2015 and I’m sitting with a friend on the patio of a popular restaurant in downtown Minneapolis. When I arrived a few minutes ago, I plopped my purse on a third chair that borders the sidewalk. I don’t give the purse a thought while several people — all white — walk by.
As I’m sharing a story, I look past my friend and spot a solitary black man walking our way on the sidewalk. He’s maybe in his early 20s and dressed in low rider pants and wearing an oversized ball cap. Now I remember that my purse is within easy grabbing distance. Without even a pause or missed syllable in my story telling, I nonchalantly reach over and shift the purse from chair to beside my feet.
The black man passes by without noticing what I’ve just done. Or so I think.
Like I said: poison.
Please send more antidote.
Ellen (Ellie) Krug is the author of Getting to Ellen: A Memoir about Love, Honest and Gender Change (2013) and the architect of The C* Project, a new rural Midwest diversity/inclusion initiative (www.elliekrug.com/the-c-project). She welcomes your comments at [email protected].