Friday, June 30, 2017

Where am I - really?

I love to travel. Give me a destination, give me a backpack, put me on a plane, and I would go just about anywhere. To walk. To try new foods. To learn. To journal. To meet new people. To listen to their stories.

One of my regular pre-trip practices is rereading sections of a book called The Way of the Traveler: Making Every Trip a Journey of Self-Discovery. I purchased my first copy of the book back in 2001, before my first trip to Italy. It is filled with quotes, reflections, questions, journaling suggestions, and other activities that are meant to do what the subtitle suggests - make every trip a journey of self-discovery. Although it is not a workbook and no space is intentionally provided for writing in the book, I wrote so much in the margins, I underlined so many passages, I jotted down so many trip memories, and I included so many lists of people and places I visited that I needed to buy a second copy a few years later. Like I said, I love to travel. And I love the way this book has helped me travel as far into the depths of my mind and soul as I travel out into the world around me.

One of the suggested activities in the book is explained this way:

"Now as a conscious traveler, I want to be aware of all the phases of my journey, from the moment I leave my house until the moment I return to it. All the steps between those two points are present with me as I go to where I am going and as I come back. Here is what I call the "Really" activity. It has helped me to be present in the going and in the coming back. Try it once or twice a day while approaching your destination. You will find that your adventure is vastly enhanced. Take a moment and close your eyes. Ask yourself two questions: Where am I right now, really? Where am I going, really? You may be on a plane flying over the Mississippi River. If so, answer yourself with that information. You may be going to a wedding. That is your answer to the second question. That would be enough to anchor you to the process of the journey. But there is more to this deceptively elementary exercise. As you rest with these questions and answers, something deeper seems to set in. The word "really" begins to work... This exercise works for all kinds of travel to any destination. You can make your journey a hero's quest if you just ask yourself where you really are right now and where it is that you are really going. The "Really" activity has never failed to open my eyes to my true destination and to the magical steps that are taking me to it."  (pp. 86-87)

Where am I right now, really?
Where am I going, really?

These two questions rattled around in my mind several times last night, during the second session of the six-part discussion series being put on by Educate to Engage here in Charlotte. Last night we discussed the second chapter of The New Jim Crow, The Lockdown. Early in our time together, the attendees of the workshop were asked to participate in a sociometric mapping exercise. In layman's terms, we were asked to distribute ourselves around the room based on questions we were asked. If you were ever in prison, go to that corner. If someone in your family has ever been in prison, go to that corner. That sort of thing. If you think your neighborhood is over-policed, go to this corner. If you think your neighborhood is under-policed, go to that corner.

As I migrated from one corner of the room to the other, I asked myself repeatedly,
"Where am I right now, really? Where am I going, really?"

Where do I live and what does that mean in terms of race, policing, and mass incarceration?
Where I live in Charlotte means that there won't be police cars roaming up and down the streets watching every pedestrian or stopping cars for warrantless drug searches. Where I live in Charlotte means that when the police are called, whether it be for domestic violence or an episode of mental illness or a burglary or a break in, the police will arrive quickly, quietly, without sirens blaring, and will ring the front doorbell, and await an answer politely. No SWAT team will arrive. No guns will be drawn. No doors will be broken down by battering rams. No public or noisy arrests will be made.

Where I live also means that when I, a tall, slender, flat-chested African-American woman, go out for my morning walks, I have to make sure that I'm wearing earrings, that I'm wearing some bright color that identifies me as a woman. I make sure that I'm not wearing a hoodie. I make sure that I'm not wearing headphones that would keep me from hearing someone tell me to stop, someone asking me who I am, and why I'm in the neighborhood. I don't want to be mistaken for a black male - because Trayvon Martin was a prime example of what can happen to an African American walking in a racially diverse, but predominantly white neighborhood, his own neighborhood, minding his own business. Murdered while eating Skittles and drinking soda and walking home.

As I migrated from one corner of the room to the other, I also watched others migrate from one corner to another. I wondered who they were thinking about as they decided where to stand in response to the questions about incarceration. I wondered where they were when they were arrested. I wondered what kinds of interactions they had had with police in their neighborhoods. And I wondered about the stories, the incidents, the dream-lives of privilege they were waking up into, and the nightmarish times of arrest and incarceration they had endured.

Where are they right now, really?
Where are they going, really?

As we all migrated from one corner of the room to the other, I couldn't help but ponder the trip we are on. The trip that is turning into a journey of self-discovery. The trip that is causing each of us and all of us to do "the REALLY activity" on a weekly basis, on a daily basis.

Where did I grow up, really?
What did childhood and young adult experiences teach me about race, gender, class, really?
What have I learned about race and racism in my adult life, really?
Where do I live now, really?
How and why did I choose my neighborhood, really?
How do race and racism factor into my daily life and interactions, really?
What do I think when I see black people in my neighborhood, in my children's schools,
at my church, and at my place of employment, really?
Do they belong here, really?
Am I safe with them here, really?
What do I think when I see white people in my neighborhood, in my children's schools,
at my church, and at my place of employment, really?
Do they belong here, really?
Am I safe with them here, really?
What do I think when I see people whose racial or religious identity have been associated with being "an illegal immigrant" or being from one of countries that is on the list of six countries from which our nation is no longer welcoming visitors, really?
Do they belong here, really?
Am I safe with them here, really?
What do I think about people who were formerly incarcerated, really?
Do I think they deserve the right to vote, to get a student loan, to live in public housing, to be gainfully employed, really?
How often do I even think about race and racism, really?

As I migrate from one chapter of this book into the other,  I am reminded that my life journey has been a fortunate one. I have never been arrested. I have never been stopped by the police in my car or on the street.

Both of the interactions I have had with police officers here at my house were pleasant.

The first encounter was because of our house alarm. Something triggered the alarm, which triggered a call from ADT to my cell phone - a call that I wasn't able to answer - and that triggered a call to the police. I arrived back at home just seconds before two police cars pulled up in front of the house. I drove into my garage, got out of my car, walked out of the garage door onto the driveway, and approached the two officers as they walked toward our front door. They asked for permission to walk through the house in order to make sure that everything was okay. I gave them permission. They checked every room of the house, then came into the kitchen where I was waiting, and inquired as to when the homeowner would return. I informed them that I was the homeowner. They said that because I had come from the side of the house and not the front door, they thought I was a neighbor who had come over when I saw them arrive. They informed me that because I was the homeowner, I wasn't obligated to give them permission to walk through the house. I was not aware of that.  I apologized for the false alarm. I thanked them for making sure everything was okay. They left.

The second house call by men in blue happened last year, during a family health crisis. Someone called 911 and made a false report. Once again, two police cars arrived. Sirens not blaring. Two very calm and soft-spoken police officers rang our doorbell and asked if everything was okay. One officer came into the house and had a conversation with the person who had called the police. The other officer stood outside with me and my husband, and asked us a few questions. He began the conversation with unexpected words of encouragement and support for us. He said he understood the challenge of mental illness and applauded us for loving and caring for our family member in crisis here at home. The officer who had gone inside emerged a few minutes later, said that he was satisfied that it was a false report, complimented us on our home, and then they left. No one arrested. No one shot. No one tased. No one tear-gassed.

Where we live matters.
Our zip code matters.
Our level of education matters.
Our mastery of the English language matters.
Our socio-economic status matters.
Our socio-metric map matters.
Except when it doesn't.
Like when my skin color is enough to cause a white or Asian or Latinx woman to take their purse out of their shopping cart at Harris Teeter when they see me coming down the aisle. What else do they know about me other that what I look like?
Or when the African American cardiovascular surgeon who lives in our neighborhood and drives a Porsche gets stopped frequently for "driving while black." Except when his wife, the anesthesiologist, has to worry about whether her husband and their two sons will get home safe every day from school. Why isn't being a doctor enough to protect them from fear and harassment?
Why should anyone need a license to practice medicine to prove they are smart enough or live in the right zip code to prove they are rich enough or allow oneself to be stopped and frisked without resistance to prove they are unthreatening enough to be allowed to live?

Where are we, really?
Where are we going, really?

We are on the road to learning our checkered racialized american history. Really.
We are trying to figure out all the ways that we have internalized the racism and prejudice,
the fear and suspicion that we have been exposed to since the founding of this nation. Really.
We are asking each other and ourselves very difficult questions about where we live, where we work, where we worship, who we have as friends, and what all of that has to do with our nation's system of mass incarceration. Really.
We are looking at our nation's contemporary political landscape, the political landscape of our state and our city, and we are desperately trying to determine where we are, really, and where we are going, really.
And we are committed to getting involved in the transformative, healing work that is already being done, work that is waking us up to our various levels of privilege, work that makes us put ourselves on the socio-metric map alongside other residents of our city, work that makes us uncomfortable, work that makes us wish we could "unsee" all that we have been led to examine in the first two chapters of this uncomfortable, unsettling, unnerving book, The New Jim Crow. Really, we are.

This journey towards justice, wholeness, unity, and peace
is a journey of self-discovery -
self-discovery of each of us, one by one,
self-discovery of our city and its history,
self-discovery of our state,
self-discovery of our nation.
It's rough terrain, this journey we're on.
It's a rocky road.
Many of us have moments when we want to turn around and head back to where we started.
To what we were used to. To the way of life we've known for most of our lives.
Except that there is no turning back.
We cannot go back.

So let me ask you: where are you right now, really?
Where are you going, really?

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