My Life Lessons in Rust Belt Racism

I was 17 years old and a junior at West Scranton High School when my boyfriend, Chris, took me to a summer music festival in Nay Aug Park.

My large Irish-Catholic family lived in Scranton, an old industrial Pennsylvania town once known for coal mining, railroads and electric streetcars. Nay Aug Park was a bustling amusement complex in the mid 1900s, complete with a carousel and a small wooden roller coaster. But during our date in 1997 the park was very different. Owners shut most of it down by then, and the city used it for events instead.

I remember walking around the festival with Chris, ordering deep-fried food like pizza fritta from the local Italian vendors, or the haluski soaked with butter from the Polish families who operated restaurants just a few miles away. Chris and I sat on the picnic bench, tapping our feet to the sounds of the live music we’d rarely get to see, not being old enough to enter any bars.

I’d scribble his name in my school notebooks for two years — this was bonafide puppy love. That night, we even held hands. It was a magical date and a happy burst of teenage hormones until he dropped me off at home for my 11 o’clock curfew.

I was lucky enough to have the type of amazing mom who waited up for her teenager to get home. Her eyes closed, dozed off on the couch with the TV blaring, only to wake up to the sound of a slammed car door or me wrestling with house keys.

But this night’s return home was different.

My mom was wide awake, left startled by an anonymous late night phone call she received from some member of our community who attended the same festival in the park.

This person, alarmed, called my mother to report a biracial relationship. The unknown caller said they recognized me at the park “holding hands with a black guy” and wanted to make sure she was aware.

In 1997 (and of course very long before that), this type of racist behavior was pretty common in cities across America. Sadly, twenty years later, it still is.

Born and raised in a town known for being the home of NBC’s comedy “The Office”, the scrappy city where former Vice President Joe Biden gets his BFD grit, or the popular final stop for presidential candidates in the swing state of Pa., the city of Scranton has made its way into popular and political culture across America.

Anyone who knows me would say I wear my blue-collar roots as a badge of honor. This very white, working-class town and my big Irish family taught me a whole lot. My now 90-year-old, World War Two veteran grandfather worked three jobs at a time, a high school janitor by morning, a railroad worker by night and a father of nine 24 hours a day.

Anyone sitting on a branch of this family tree learned the importance of family, faith and friendships, what it means to be loyal, what it means to have work ethic, and how to fight for the little guy.

But it’s also in this town, like many white working-class cities across the U.S., where racists are born. As former President Barack Obama reminded us in the most liked tweet in history, Nelson Mandela was right in noting that no child is actually born hating another person, but not much time is wasted in these cities before many young people are taught to hate.

My siblings and I are among the lucky ones, each of us instilled with open hearts and minds and a curiosity and appreciation for all this diverse world has to offer, but we have met and interacted with a lot of racists in our lifetimes.

These racists are school educators, like the guy standing outside of the bar in 2016 who yelled “No niggers welcome!” at my black friend visiting Scranton with me from Washington D.C.

These racists are local business owners, like the ones who didn’t want to serve an interracial couple in one of the city’s local establishments or the guy in charge of the local bar for war veterans who still, in 2017, won’t let anyone become a member unless they’re white, insisting applicants apply in person and telling minorities who show up that “membership is full.”

These racists are our Facebook “friends,” like the popular middle school classmate who I haven’t talked to since 7th grade, but he and his friends engaged in a recent social media thread that biracial dating is “disgusting,” that I should be “ashamed,” that “our race is screwed” and they have guns at the ready to “beat them [black people] to the dirt.” Unfriend.

And sadly, in some cases, these racists share our DNA, like a handful of members of my mostly open-minded and accepting family who tell jokes with the N-word and tell their daughters never to bring a black man home.

I’ve never written about or talked about any of these experiences in a public way given how much pain and embarrassment they bring, but this past weekend’s events in Charlottesville, Va. are forcing me to think differently about my role as a white woman in our racially divided country.

The ignorant white supremacists, neo-Nazi marchers from this weekend are people we know. They are around us daily, they are related to us, and they are embedded in the cultural, institutional, and political infrastructure of this country in more ways than we care to admit. But we don’t talk about it. Some of us hope it will just magically go away. Some of us don’t think it’s our problem to fix. Some of us are perfectly fine with it continuing.

After this weekend’s events, former Washington Post colleague and founder of Define American, Jose Antonio Vargas tweeted:

“Dear Well-Meaning White People Who Want Nothing To Do With Alt-Right: We, people of color, cannot carry this burden. You must engage.”

He’s absolutely right.

Like most of the white people whose hearts and minds are on the right side of history, I’m sickened by what happened in Charlottesville. It’s the same feeling I had when nine black church-goers were shot dead by a white supremacist in South Carolina, and the same feeling I had when the not guilty verdicts came down after the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and Freddie Gray.

I spent the hours following these events “engaging,” tweeting quotes from the most prominent civil rights activists like Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin or my favorite poet Maya Angelou. My body filled up with so much rage that I felt like my retweets on a social media platform of like-minded followers would make a difference. But the right people were not listening. The right people were not reading my Twitter feed. What I hope we can do now is step away from our comfortable bubbles and get uncomfortable.

Let’s really engage.

Let’s speak up. Let’s turn to our closed-minded family members who make us furious and ask them why. Let’s turn to our open-minded friends and family who text you privately “can I post this?” and ask them why not.

Let’s talk about race at the dinner table, in the office, on our social media feeds, at our evenings out with friends, or anywhere we might normally stay silent on this tough topic. We might feel like we are saying the wrong words, don’t have words, or think that we will end up doing more harm than good. Let’s try.

Let’s stop patronizing businesses that we know are led by people with racists beliefs. That will surely put the issue at their front doorstep.

Let’s not just stop laughing at racist jokes, but asking the person why it was told in the first place.

Let’s look around, study the diversity of our workplaces and recognize our role in making it better. It’s not on the handful of minority employees to create and execute a diversity plan. It’s on the white people at every level across the company to take responsibility for creating a workplace of diverse people and views and for recognizing what a better company you will be for it.

Let’s get proximate. I spent this week polling a number of family members, asking some how they ended up so open-minded growing up in our environment and asking others if they think it’s possible to change. Those exchanges gave me more hope this past week than anything I’ve read online.

Some attributed their appreciation for diversity to their proximity to non-white members of the family or friends, others pointed to “honest” history books, church teachings, travel to other cities, joining diverse athletic teams and school clubs, and one even said it was the women of the family who truly helped reshape their views more than others.

And when I posed the question to other members of the family who I suspected weren’t following this week’s events and maybe didn’t care, they proved me wrong. One challenged my assumption and even pointed out how different things are since I left Scranton twenty years ago. He said while we may have been exposed to a lot of racism growing up, our generation is maturing and forming new opinions and beliefs of our own. He also smartly noted that every family and individual is going to have to address racism differently. It just starts by recognizing it’s there and saying something out loud.

Let’s begin turning the page in our country’s history of racism and oppression, knowing that page will only turn if we, white people, acknowledge our role in turning it.

“In the end we will remember not the words of our enemy, but the silence of our friends.” — Martin Luther King, Jr.

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