Monday, June 13, 2011

The Day I Realized I Was a Racist

I was raised a happy, chipper, blue-eyed blonde haired porcelain skinned all American girl. Not remarkable in appearance but blissfully unaware of that fact; in my mind, I was amazing. I grew up in a wonderful neighborhood, surrounded by some pretty messed up friends thus rendering my whole home situation unexceptional. Everyone there was a new family, we were all around the same age, struggling to make the jump from lower to middle, then middle to upper middle class, 2.5 children, dog, picket fence, etc, etc. Except for the latchkey years and the dysfunction, violence and alcohol abuse, we were as Rockwell as you could get while living on crabs, microwave popcorn, grilled chicken, and mac and cheese. And I was especially proud of the fact that I lived in a “covenanted community.” That’s what the sign said. I think I didn’t really know the difference between covenanted and coveted but either way, I loved looking at the sign each time I passed by, just outside the volunteer fire station which held the yearly Christmas celebration and marked the starting point of the fourth of July Parade. We had only one church in the neighborhood which housed three different sects of Christianity on Sundays and held Saturday Sabbath. And being raised by two reformed hippies slash recovering lapsed Catholics I was a fairly open-minded child, though it wasn’t until middle school that I finally made note of the serious wash of white in my elementary school and finally understood that our one black (pre-African American) family was not actually surnamed “Token”. By high school, I had gone from pride to shame having finally discovered that “covenanted” translated to “no blacks, no Jews, no gays”, though it appears the Jewish population had made it completely under the radar and as I discovered in high school, I was the out queen for the gays. No, I never outed anyone; they just seemed to realize after dating me that they were gay, but I like to think it was just my comfort level and not actually my…um…abilities.. which made them ready to come out. I was more the star-crossed, “if only I was straight, you would be the one” gal. A rose by any other name may smell as sweet but it still lacks the right physiology. Ironically, I found out at my own 10 year reunion that I too was on the gay-dar in high school. My best friend and I did the whole Romey and Michele thing because she was still single and my husband had a prior commitment. As we entered, arm in arm as we often were in high school, a girl we had known only peripherally timidly approached, assessed us for a brief moment and with a smile that grew like a flower blooming at the first rays of morning, said, “It’s so great to see you two are still together.” My friend was oblivious to the whole thing but I sensed the subtle overtones of comradery and with no real desire to shut her down said something innocuous like, “Well, sometimes things just work out.” Who cares, I wouldn’t see these people again until the 20 year and let’s face it, Hollywood has paved the way for the on again off again married, gay, straight, bi-lifestyle anyway.

Truth to tell, one of my first real fights with my mother was over a lesbian. When I was fifteen and a naïve, ok more so than now, freshman, not yet even in high school because ours was a three year, I worked at a Renaissance Festival. Now something to know about the renfests of old is that they were a huge hormone fest, rather a plethora of untapped sexual tension that my young, nubile self could neither comprehend nor handle. I didn’t know it at the time but there was an entire network of people enlisted to ensure my virginity stayed intact and had I ever looked back while traipsing the grounds I would likely have seen ninjas fall from the trees behind me. They did actually fail in their quest, but I’ve no regrets because that was the start of Mr. Darcy and we had some wicked times on that fairground! But I digress. One of the people most avidly involved in the shoring up of my innocence was a wonderful woman, and an extremely talented actress in her mid to late thirties; a teacher and as it turned out, a lesbian. She acted as my mentor that first year and a better instructor and friend I could not have asked for. But one day as I was regaling my mother with tales of her greatness, she caught wind of the fact that this woman, this muse to my unrefined talent liked women and my mother freaked out. It was the first time I had ever seen my mother discriminate against anyone and it cut me to the quick. I couldn’t wrap my head around it because she had always been an advocate for everyone, she worked in public housing, she worked in theater, she loved anyone who wasn’t an *sshole. But faced with the prospect that I was being mentored by a woman who loved women, she freaked. I realized she didn’t make a distinction between lesbian and child molester and I took issue. It was a very difficult time and for the first time, I saw my mother for the human that she was, fiercely defending her child, tilting at windmills. I was a child, not a woman and this woman was merely my friend; she had no interest in me. My mother said we couldn’t hang out together anymore and I said no. It was to be the first of only two times I really ever said no to her.

So my racist moment came a couple years later. I was performing regularly by now and was quite popular as a leader of the disenfranchised when it came into my head to take a trip to Romania. My then fiancé and I had attended a convention where they were promoting a Dracula tour through the Carpathians. Well, I was fully engulfed in my nerdom, having embraced my dorky side thus transforming it to cool and was carrying a full course load as a theater and English double major with a focus in performance and Victorian Literature. Yes, a clearer career path was never carved so deep. Anyway, without a doubt the epic adventure appealed to my Victorian aesthetic and the gothic geekout appealed to my husband’s. So after some creative budgeting and preplanning we booked the trip and flew to New York to meet the rest of the tour group which was comprised of twenty one adventurers and two tour guides, one US and one local. We arrived in New York, paperbacks and vampire teeth in hand and fairly floated to the counter, so excited we were to be going. And there we encountered the shock of a lifetime. Awaiting the arrival of our guide was the most mismatched band of miscreants; tattoos, piecings and enough manic panic to demand sponsorship. I clung to my companion and we began the discussion of whether we should use our spending money to book the flight home when a young man, blond, about our age approached, wide-eyed and fearful. “Are you here for the tour?” “Yes.” “Thank g*d, I think I’ll stay with you guys.” “Ok, who are you?” “I’m the tour guide.” Great, that bodes well!

Our tour ended up comprised of two distinct groups, the Goths & Punks and the Historians with the two of us strangely bridging the gap between. I was for a time freer than I had been in years, breaking into cemeteries, playing hide and seek with local kids in Dracula’s castle, eating some amazing and some amazingly bad food, and really letting out my dark side. It was the first time he ever saw who I really am and what he saw he didn’t like. By the end of the trip he regarded me as some kind of nymphomaniacal kleptomaniac. It was the last time I would ever let him see that side of me, the side that bridged the gap between Punks, Goths, Historians and a sweet, blond Jew from Connecticut. It was also the side that realized she had judged a group of people solely on appearance and was ashamed. Because in the end, they were just people; some lovely, some jerks. And me, the siren muse of the ostracized, I had prejudged and nearly fled. I was no better than my mother. I was..human. It was a life lesson that discrimination wears many faces, some more accepted than others but none truly acceptable.

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