In the midst of post-election depression, I wasn’t going to address this, but I read something in the New Yorker that set me right. It was Gary Shteyngart’s essay “Dystopia.” As part of a sixteen-commentary set by respected writers like Toni Morrison on what I think of as “the Debacle,” immigrant Shteyngart related an experience he’d had in his native Russia decades ago, an experience that connects to an experience I’d first had with my dad just a few months ago.
When my parents moved into their mid-Eighties, I quit my twenty-year job in Texas and moved back home. I live in their neighborhood, where they can see my backyard from theirs. More than once, driving them to Golden Corral, my dad’s favorite restaurant, he’d notice a derelict white man on the street and, apropos of nothing, Dad would say “He thinks he’s better than you.” The first time, my brow furled bemusedly as I stammered, “Wha-at?” My father repeated and expanded, “He thinks he’s better than you. You’ve got all this education. You teach at the university and he’s on the street, but he thinks he’s better than you.”
Quite frankly, I did what I hate when my twentysomething niece does it to me. I blamed it on his age. I thought he might be losing it a bit, because he never really discussed race as we were growing up.
He’d discuss some strange incident in his life, like being super competent at his military job in the quartermaster’s office, and being passed over. His immediate superior would put him in for promotion, but apologized that the powers-that-be just weren’t ready yet. Later, as I read more about American military segregation practices, I could put the pieces together and Dad finally admitted that he knew race was the issue.
Or there was the time in the first year of desegregation in my Tennessee hometown, when my white seventh-grade English teacher wouldn’t ever call on me, even when my hand (the spoon of chocolate sauce on the vanilla ice cream sundae that was our class) was the only one up, even when all the other kids would point out “Yvonne knows. You could call on her.” We were just kids; we didn’t really get it.
When I told my dad that I didn’t think Miss Riggins liked me, he stared and barked out: “You’re not there to be liked. You’re there to learn,” adding, “Just keep raising your hand.” Again, much much later, I put the pieces together along with many other pieces in those early days of desegregation and shocked myself at the realization of my first encounters with racism.
“But, but,” I mentally stuttered years after the fact, “I was a good girl. I made good grades. I didn’t get into trouble. I was the first female and first black band president, and even made the National Honor Society as a junior!”
I didn’t understand racism then. I didn’t understand the “color over accomplishments” mentality. I didn’t understand the desperate need among some whites to retain their myth of superiority. (I believed in the Dream and even now, like the Cowardly Lion, I keep chanting to myself “I do believe in the Dream. I do, I do, I do.). I’d just thought some of them were crazy or confused or even, maybe, stupid. Indeed they were, but they were also racist.
Dad was getting more forgetful and his much-younger brother had even convinced this inveterate lover of driving to limit himself to short trips about town, so I put it on age. But then I read Shteyngart’s piece and rethought my thoughtlessness. Here’s what he said about an experience he had at a train station in St. Petersburg:
The song was coming out of an ancient tape player next to a bedraggled old woman selling sunflower seeds out of a cup. She examined my physiognomy with a sneer. At the time, this seemed like just a typical Russian scene, the nation’s poorest citizens bristling at their humiliation after losing the Cold War, their ire concentrated on a familiar target, the country’s dwindling population of Jews.
He then goes on to say:
“Putin’s team has discovered that racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism bind people closer than any other experiences. These carefully calibrated messages travel from Cyrillic and English keyboards to Breitbart ears and Trump’s mouth, sometimes in the space of hours. The message is clear. People want to rise from their knees. Even those who weren’t kneeling in the first place.”
So, belatedly, I’ve begun to think, really think, about what my father is saying. And what I now think is modified through understanding.
I believe those derelicts need to think they’re better than me, not because it’s true, not because they think it’s true, but because it’s all they have left. It’s the last card in the deck for them. In each heart of hearts, they look at the hundreds of years of head start; the legal, societal, and psychological advantages; all the things they’ve been told for the entire history of this country that they deserve.
They look in the mirror and find themselves as wanting, bristling with humiliation at what they believe they’ve lost, not yet able to see what they have to gain. Then, their shame becomes blame.
Yet, the connection I drew between two Americans, a Jew from Russia and an African from Arkansas convinced me of the American transcendentalists’ belief that the universe contains infinite variety, underlaid by a fundamental unity.
And because of that, even though I’ll still feel the strained mixture of distress and disquietude walking into all-white environments that never-before caused me any concern, even though I’ll still wonder just how many of the people in this room situated in this former Confederate state, birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan, voted for the Klan-endorsed candidate, I can just barely hear the first trembling notes of sympathy—like those in composer Charles Ives’ “Unanswered Question”—beginning to play on the strings of my spirit.