I’ve been fortunate to have many wonderful things to share and celebrate this past year (the graduation of one sibling from college, the wedding of another, learning I’d become an uncle for the first time), and those will stay as some of my happiest memories. Unlike most years past, however, the end of 2017 joined the year before as the murkiest when thinking of a year in review: for a collective society and what lies ahead, but also for finding my role and how I fit into it.
2017 marks a re-evaluation, a reckoning of many wrong and detrimental decisions by those at the top of power in our politics and workplaces, but we often forget the seeds for these wrongdoings can start within our own circles, our own homes. I’ve talked before on the mistakes I’ve made when I last wrote towards the end of 2016 – my struggles recognizing all the biases, opportunities and privileges I possess as it relates to those different than me. Over a year later, and I continue to fail unlearning or rewiring what’s behind every –ism and –phobia I grew up with, but my lesson on addressing racism in myself isn’t where it stops.
What I said back then, about recognizing my own failure, reflecting and calling myself out over time until I succeed still holds true – a lesson I remind myself of everyday. But what I’ve found even harder to do is to have that same conversation with people who fail just like me, especially the ones who look like me.
Days after the election, I reached out to a friend in Buffalo, whom I’ll call Frank. “Hey, just calling to see how you’re doing with everything happening around town.” The city had recently discovered swastikas within the quote “Make America White Again” spray painted on a construction site, while my own alma mater nearby was dealing with a student who tied a noose around a black baby doll, hung it from their doorway, and shared it on social media. Having completed my undergrad there, as well as having friends and loved ones still living in New York’s Queen City, seeing these instances in the news worried me: Another place I still consider home becoming the playground for hatred and vile ignorance.
“Yeah, we’re fine,” Frank replied. “You still freaked out about the election? I don’t think it’s going to be that big of a deal, I think people are just overreacting.” I didn’t understand what Frank meant at the time, or why he was so quick to dismiss my fears. When he came to Chicago to visit a few weeks later, I asked during one of our talks if he could explain what he meant a bit more. “Yeah I mean I didn’t vote for the asshole, but c’mon, how bad can it really be?”
“I don’t know how bad it will be or what’s to come – I have some scary thoughts about what could happen, but whatever happens, I know I’ll be fine. Not too many straight, white guys will be anything other than just fine.” I found myself getting defensive, and concerned: This is one of my best friends, why is this so difficult to talk about with him?
Not noticing my concern, he continued, “Yeah I get that, but racism, sexism and all that shit – it sucks, but it’s always going to be around, ya know?”
“I know it has been, and it’s easy for you and me to not be concerned when it doesn’t affect us, but there’s a lot of people that don’t look like or speak like us who’ll see the worst of it.” My earlier worry now confusion and anger. “And should we be OK with that as a status quo? To let it just keep keep going ‘the way it is,’ or ‘the way it’s always been’?”
“I mean we shouldn’t, but I don’t know… I think there are too many things in place that this guy won’t be able to do anything that bad.” With that, we ended the conversation.
I sat with a bad taste on our talk well into the holiday season and into the new year. We hadn’t talked about the subject since Thanksgiving, me being too fearful to bring the conversation up again whenever we spoke.
Shortly into the new 2017 year, Frank sent me an email. It was a New Year’s resolution of his own, something that was a total shock as I read “I’m doing a bit of an experiment, and I’m only asking a few close friends and relatives input. If you could respond to me with a ‘thing(s) about me to improve upon’ into this new year, and please be as open and honest as you can, I’d greatly appreciate your input.”
I thought I would never get another chance like this, so below is a condensed version of my “improve” item I sent him:
[Abbreviated for brevity] Frank, when we spoke on the swastika and baby doll incidents in Buffalo, I shared my worry for people who don’t look like me – yes it’s about the new administration too, but also the bigotry and hatred that’s been stirred up with it. You said it likely won’t be “that bad” and asked “why does everyone care about this stuff now?” I shared my fears with you because I was, and still am afraid. If you’re not, if you have no fear about what the future will bring in these times, that’s fine – but I don’t know if you understood, or even wanted to understand where I was coming from.
I have fear for the students I had in AmeriCorps – not only the chance of their already limited resources being further cut, not only in their best chance getting out of poverty and violence already low with no help in sight, but in how they’ll continue to be viewed negatively in nearly every part of our society because of how they look.
I fear for my aunts who have been some of the best role models in my life who could lose the ability to be bedside with each other should one of them (God forbid) fall ill – and all my friends who love like them who could face similar setbacks, events like the massacre in Orlando, or worse.
There’s a lot you haven’t been exposed too, and that alone is not your fault. But as far as improvements go, I just ask you to listen, sit with an idea, a fear that’s different from yours. Sit with it for hours, days, the rest of your life. If someone different from you is hurting, if someone else is worried or has experienced something different from you – just listen. You don’t even have to respond. Just think of what they said, try to learn more about where they are coming from.
Over a week passed before I heard anything back. I knew our friendship was strong, but I feared a tarnish would remain.
When I finally saw his response, I’m not sure I’ve ever been so happy to be wrong:
[Abbreviated for brevity] Danny, your response meant the world to me. It was heartfelt and eye-opening. I’ve been reflecting on your comments this past week, and have realized how right you are. Ignorance isn’t bliss today. Change starts from within, and I have been too much a part of the 99% that sees no issues with the challenges we face.
I know making such a communication change will be difficult, and I challenge you to challenge me. Let’s talk more often about things that are not easy to talk about. Race, culture, politics. I want you to bring out the best in me, and hopefully, that will let us connect on a deeper level. I’m sure it will.
His acknowledgment and commitment to my challenge has been honest and faithful ever since. I know I can trust him to listen to my fears, hear my ideas and possible solutions, and even challenge me with some of his own. I couldn’t have asked for a better turnout, a better place to begin a new, deeper chapter with Frank. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to tell him how proud of or grateful I am for that growing experience.
The night after the 2016 election, I called home to talk with my family. I was in shock, confused, and while I wanted to hear that they were doing OK, I wanted some sort of comfort to latch onto myself.
Speaking with one of my loved ones, whom I’ll call Vince, I was surprised by what I got instead:
Me: This is weird, it’s strange, it’s kind of scary.
Vince: Yeah, it’s certainly different
Me: People at work were terrified. I’m terrified. Everyone was so quiet and solemn today, I didn’t know what to say.
Vince: Yeah, what can you do…
Me: [sensing their passivity]. Well whether it’s some people at work, or some of my friends or just any person who doesn’t look like me, I’m scared because I don’t know what’s going to happen-
Vince: OK, now just you wait right there!
Me: [shocked] Huh?
Vince: Now I didn’t vote for this guy, but I’m going to tell you something: you’re so worried about people who don’t look like you, do you think any of your grandparents ever had someone worry about them when they came here? You know, when they came here legally? Do you think they had a “press 1 for Italian” option when using any service line, or that they got good paying jobs right away? They had to work to get where they ended up, and that’s something you shouldn’t forget!
Growing up, I knew Vince and I didn’t agree on everything. That said, I never thought I’d have to explain to them that I’m grateful for the sacrifices my grandparents made – I, nor even Vince, will ever know what they went through.
I stuttered through the rest of our conversation, scared of what they may say, not knowing how to reply. I should have said, “I know Nana & Papa’s, Ma or Pa’s families didn’t have it easy when they first arrived, but they at least got to be considered ‘white’ in most places they went.
“I know Italians were initially frowned on, but eventually those in power said, ‘well hey, they kinda look like us, and can’t be that bad – at least they’re not (black, brown, asian)’.
“I know Italians had low-paying jobs when we first came decades ago, but at least we didn’t come here because our homes were war-torn and destroyed, or because our old country’s economy was ransacked and forgotten by the world’s superpowers, or because we were brought here against our will only to be enslaved!
“And yes, of course if they were all living through these same issues today, I would want the best for them. Yes, bad things happened to them, but that doesn’t mean those same roadblocks (or worse) should still be hindering people today when we’re smarter and can do better than that!”
That’s what I should have said, but I didn’t. I was too afraid and intimidated to argue with someone I love.
Fast-forward to summer 2017, the weekend of the events in Charlottesville. We were on vacation, and settled into a restaurant for lunch. In a long table for the whole family, I sat next to Vince.
Shortly after ordering food and drinks, Vince and I checked our phones as they both chimed with updates from Virginia: By now, the counter-protesters had been present for a few hours, and an angry, ignorant man had just rammed his car through them.
Me: How could this happen? How did nobody stop the initial white-power chants last night, or even break it up before it got worse?
Vince: It says here the protests weren’t violent until the counter-protesters arrived (Vince read from Fox News). Maybe if they didn’t show up-
Me: [stunned] Didn’t show up? Vince, do you know why those counter-protesters were there? Didn’t you see they were trying to drown out the dangerous, heavily-armed racist mob?
Vince: Dan, I see what you’re saying, but what did they expect to do?
Me: I don’t know, remind that mob, that city, this country the Confederate past was wrong, slavery was wrong, racism is still wrong?
Vince: Dan, I totally understand and agree with you. All I’m saying is – they have free speech. What can you do about that?
Lost in rage and confusion, I noticed half of our family was now watching intently. Again I froze – for a lack of response, I closed my mouth and said nothing.
Later that evening while lounging in the sun, politics came up again. I stayed out of it until the conversation of Charlottesville came up again. “This kind of incident is what I feared during the campaign and after the election. Stuff like this, stuff like what happened in Seattle…”
Vince: What happened in Seattle?
I briefly recounted what happened in Seattle on May 26th, 2017: an angry, ignorant white man walked on to a train, began shouting racial slurs and threats at two young black women (one wearing a hijab). 3 other white guys were nearby, and tried to intervene, urging the shouting man to leave the girls alone. The angry man replied by pulling out a knife and stabbing each of the 3 intervening men in the neck, fatally killing two of them.
Vince said nothing, but I continued:
Me: Not a few days after the Seattle event, I got on the train going to work. The doors barely closed behind me, when I heard a woman screaming at the top of her lungs, “You! You dirty whore, I know what you did and my cousin Craig and Laurie are going to come and whoop your ass!” I turned around and saw an older white woman who got on the train just behind me shouting at a young black girl, who was clearly stunned with no idea who this white lady was or what was going on.
Me: The white lady took a few steps back but kept shouting and berating the girl, who simply put her headphones back on tried pretending not to hear her. In between all the threats and shouting, my heart began pounding trying to figure out what to do. “This is Seattle all over again,” I thought. “Do I call 911, pull the emergency lever?” Before my mind could make a decision, my feet started moving towards the white lady.
Me: As more people got on the train, a young latina woman stepped on. While I was now blocking the white lady’s view to the black girl, she instead turned her head and began shouting the same exact charges and threats to this latina woman, “You! You dirty whore, I know what you did and my cousin Craig and Laurie are going to come and whoop your ass!” Now I was confused: there were plenty of other white women and men on the train, and there were even men of color on the train, but this white lady would only shout at and threaten women of color – also using the same exact threat and charge on each one. After moving a bit closer, I could also see her eyes were not always matching the direction of the person she was shouting at, and some of her other mannerisms confused me too. “Perhaps she’s not just racist,” I thought. “She could be under some influence right now, mentally unstable, and just racist on top of that.” Either way, not a good combo.
Me: No matter the reason, this lady’s actions thus far, and the thoughts of what had happened days earlier in Seattle still fresh in mind horrified me. So, instead of being a few feet away from this woman just to keep an eye on her, the train began to fill up so I decided to stand immediately in front of her to totally block her view and to put a body between her and anyone other than who sat either side of her. It surprisingly worked – once she couldn’t see anyone else, she stopped shouting altogether. This didn’t make me feel any safer – though she was now quite, my heart was racing the whole way to work, while she kept making silent but crude and indiscernible hand gestures to those nearby. Thankfully, she remained seated and seemed to calm down the rest of the ride.
Me: Then, as I pulled up to my stop thinking this white lady was coming off of whatever high, a young south Asian woman walked on as I walked off. As the train pulled away, I could hear the white lady shouting back up, “You! I know what you-”
After no one saying anything throughout my story, Vince let out a small laugh. “Well that’s a crazy one!”
Me: Yes, she was! And I don’t know if what I did was the best solution, but…
I trailed off. I felt my heart racing again as if I was back on the train. Why do others like me not see this? I know I should have said, “I understand why there are people who try to intervene – I get why people step in to stop harassers, or why there are counter-protesters at a white-supremacy rally” but I didn’t. I was too afraid.
More than any year I can remember, I’ve had a lot of difficult conversations over the past 12+ months: some went well, others went poorly, or even nowhere. I don’t see the up-and-down trend stopping anytime soon. I’ve come to notice in myself the fear in entering confrontation, not always continuing dialogue into conversations I myself am still new too, because I don’t know how others like me will respond.
I share two of my conversations for a few reasons, one of which being the first anniversary of the Women’s March on Washington and the lessons I’ve learned because of it. The march – the largest simultaneous march taking place across the country, including those around the globe – had tons of dedicated individuals behind it, and joining the masses: people (especially women) of all shapes, genders, colors showed up to let their voice be known. They showed up to push back against racism, but also sexism, trans-phobia, as well as to support First Peoples and immigrants to this country – the drive to begin pushing against every -ism and -phobia stoked or awakened in the campaign and has been festering since.
These leaders and organizers knew that galvanizing millions to move their feet a few hours one day was not the end, and no matter the stumbles, they would need to March on to keep pushing. They’ve kept marching for many days after to bring attention to a broken justice system.
They march still against gun violence, sit in on town hall meetings, mobilize thousands to get out and vote in local, state, federal and other special elections.
They march again when urging each other to fill up the phone lines and inboxes of elected officials, demanding change.
They march on when raising record donations for social services and non-profits: legal defense, healthcare, LGBT, and immigration services, environmental, homeless, and hunger awareness organizations.
Their marching continues as they host record numbers of workshops to encourage women (and men) of all colors, orientations and backgrounds, to run for office locally, statewide, or nationally.
We must continue to get involved with actions like these: contacting our public officials, running for local boards, donating our money where, and our time whenever we can, getting out to vote and encouraging those around us to vote, too. But if there’s a bare minimum of what we can do in these times – you who look like, fail like and have privileges like me – we must march in our homes, too.
I mention the idea of “home” a few times in this piece. While that certainly means the physical place of a Cleveland suburb with my parents, brothers and sisters, my home is my family, and that’s stretched beyond Ohio: I have a brother, Frank, in another home, called Buffalo. I have more brothers and sisters here in Chicago, also my home.
I still have work to do in my own home, more productive conversations with Vince being a must. I’m sure many of you who look like me have a Vince or two in your life. It’s not easy, I still mess up, but just like we can’t march one day when we’re fired up and think everything will be fixed, we must push to use our minds and voices at home everyday – to keep each other accountable, and to grow deeper with those we love.
While I talk about racism, I don’t want to pretend I have the answers for it, or to any of the other -ism’s and -phobia’s, as I still struggle reconciling my faults with all the above too. They are tough conversations to have, and they won’t always end well. But if we’re serious about supporting others, about thinking we’ll ever see a world without hate and distracting ignorance, or about connecting on a deeper level with those we love, then the next step to finding solutions for any of them are having these talks: With ourselves, with those who look like us, and those that fail like us.