Category Archives: Uncategorized

IS THIS WHAT IT’S LIKE … TO BE WHITE?

Everybody in the USA, and even other countries, knows what it’s like for white people in America. They have privileges, simply because they are white. Through a random act of nature, if they were born in America, and have “white” skin, there are things for which they automatically get privileges. The reason has nothing to do with their character, it usually has nothing to do with their education level, and at times it has nothing to do with their economic level. Of course, the richer they are, the more privileges they are afforded, but there are still some privileges they get just for being white.

If arrested for a crime, they are presumed innocent. At times, this presumption is put in place even if there is validated, documented and clear evidence that they have committed the crime. Sometimes, even with the most heinous of crimes, they may get just a slap on the wrist, admonished and released from jail.

If a white person walks into Saks Fifth Avenue, or Neiman Marcus or any of the higher end stores, the store clerks assume that they have the money to purchase something from that store. They assume that the white person is there to buy, not to steal.

White people are always treated deferentially by customer service people. It doesn’t matter if it’s at a restaurant, hotel, salon or airport ticket counter. This is even more true if the customer service person happens to be a person of color. Many of these representatives have bought into the fallacy that white people deserve more respect. Or, maybe they just believe they’ll get a bigger tip from the white man (or woman).

And, the scenario of “who gets the job” or “who gets the housing” has been played out so many times that the record has been broken and taped back together over and over again. We all know that particular story. If a white male applies for a job, and a black man of equal age, education and experience applies for that same job, who will get it? The same goes for housing. If a white family applies for an apartment and a black family of the same economic status applies for it, we all know that it will very likely go to the white family.

These and other scenarios have been repeated over and over countless times in America. They have been repeated so much that some of us think that’s the way of the world. Some believe that life is uniformly based on race all over the world.

Well, it isn’t. I just happen to know what it’s like to be white.

I know because I’m American. At home, in the good old USA, I’m African American. But, for most of the world, I’m American.

I did not choose to be born in America. It was simply fate. If it wasn’t fate, I could just have easily chosen to be born in Lebanon, or France, or Senegal. But I didn’t choose. My mother gave birth to me in Texas, USA and I had nothing to do with it.

However, in other parts of the world, I am treated “differently” and deferentially because I’m American. When I’m in France, or England or the Netherlands or Egypt, I am American. There is no subdivision, no categorizing or analysis of what kind of American I am. I am just American. Although I do occasionally get asked who I voted for – Hillary or Trump?

In Saudi Arabia, where I’ve worked for the past 3 or 4 years, the Saudis assume I am one of them. That is, until I speak. I was in a phone store looking to buy a local phone and SIM card. The clerks did not seem to notice that I was there. I could have easily not been in the store, as they barely looked at me. But, when I said “I’m looking for a new phone,” they almost tripped over each other trying to help me. It was a little like watching keystone cops, and I had to smile – inwardly, of course.

That must be what it’s like to be white in America.

In the Middle East, Americans are paid well. Why? Simply because they’re American. They could be incompetent, lazy, unproductive and even not fully qualified for a job. But, because they hold an American passport, they are paid a good salary. Because of this imbalance, I have had to deal with resentful teachers from other countries who hate me because I make more.

I did not choose to be born in America. I did not create the payroll hierarchy in the Middle East, but I benefit from it.

Is that what it’s like to be white in America?

I was recently in Amsterdam where I was bumped from my flight. The airline clerk gushed as he told me “I can reroute your flight anywhere. You have an American passport.” I reminded him that I was well aware of my passport, and irritated to be bumped from a flight. I got a hotel room, at a very nice 4 or 5 star hotel, free meals, transportation to and from the airport, and more cash than I had paid for my initial ticket.

That must be what it’s like to be white in America.

I didn’t earn these perks and privileges. I didn’t work for them. There was no extra effort on my part to get them. It is simply because I am an American. Something I had no control over, something I did not consciously choose to be.

Now, I wonder just how I’m supposed to react to being a privileged American. Am I supposed to speak up for those less privileged? Am I supposed to deny my privileges and insist that I be treated like everyone else? Or should I just accept that I am a privileged American and to hell with everyone else?

I’m not sure … but I do believe that this must be just a bit of what it’s like to be white in America.

 

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My Hometown

Much like all large cities, Oakland is a city of contrasts. And, the city continues to attract people who want to settle down and live in it. I can understand why. The city offers mountainous hiking trails and parks, a myriad of restaurants and eateries, Lake Merritt, a bourgeoning art and music scene, beaches nearby, and diversity unlike anywhere else in the world. Not to mention an average temperature that hovers between 65-75 degrees through much of the year.

Walk a few blocks in downtown Oakland, and you’re liable to hear at least 4 or 5 different languages. People have come here from all over the world, settled here, and had families here. Oakland is the most ethnically diverse major city in the country. Small businesses have started here that became big businesses, like Clorox and Mother’s Cookies. Right next door, in Emeryville, is Pixar Studios. Across a couple of bridges is Skywalker Ranch, and let’s not forget the tech industry in nearby Silicon Valley, or Oakland’s most famous neighbor, San Francisco.

Having partially grown up in Oakland, I remember many, many good things. I can remember the Black Panthers, the Symbionese Liberation Party, the Free Speech Movement, Hippies, and Environmentalism, to name just a few. The city is an exciting place to live, and was an exciting place for me during my coming of age years. So, while I’m not a California native, one daughter is, and one of them grew up in Oakland from the age of 3. So they are Oaklanders, and Californians, and they embrace everything there is to embrace about living in and being a part of the sunshine state.

When I returned to Oakland from Saudi Arabia, I first felt the difference. The people in Oakland are all about the business of living well. The city almost tangibly vibrates with enthusiastic life. I could feel the energy, the love, the intensity of living life when I reentered Oakland. The city itself is a complex, vibrant character living its life to the fullest.

I drank in the energy, the green surrounding me, and the smells of the surrounding restaurants. The houses amazed me, probably for the first time. The Victorians are breathtaking and are spread out almost all over the city. The newer houses are interesting, and there are apartments/condos in places that I’d never imagined. I am constantly amazed by the variety of architecture that I found and rediscovered in Oakland.

But I would never bring anyone here to visit or live.

When I came back, I saw something that did not exist before and did not exist even 5 years ago, when I first left the country: the tent cities. They are under freeway overpasses, next to freeways, on lined, crowded streets, and they “house” the homeless who have been displaced by skyrocketing rents in Oakland and the surrounding areas. The people who live in these tent cities are almost always wandering from tent to tent, surrounded by swaths of garbage, bicycles and traffic. Why, in a city where the median household income is more than $50,000, is there homelessness in such an obvious and unbalanced quantity? Why does this exist in an obviously growing, vital and supportive city?

No one has an easy answer. They blame the tech industry, the movie industry, the rising cost of living in the San Francisco Bay Area. But no one can pinpoint the actual cause of this shameful problem. And no one can answer this question: Why don’t we (the government, which exists because of our tax subsidies) build affordable housing, and get people off the streets and out of tents?

And, trash is everywhere. On the sides of the street, the sides of the freeways, dotting the landscape with a kaleidoscope of colors, diverting my eyes away from the lush green trees and shrubbery. Where did all of this garbage come from?

I seem to recall jailed city and state prisoners, and environmental volunteers picking up trash alongside the streets and freeways regularly. Where are they now? Why is a city so vibrant, and so beautiful, accepting and tolerating the disarray and despair of homelessness, and the disturbing lack of cleanliness?

These questions should be answered. These problems should be resolved. Hopefully sooner rather than later, maybe someone, in some part of northern California, can answer my question.

Heil Hitler!

heil-hitler

For evil to thrive, all it takes is for good men to do nothing …

This used to be an abstract notion for me.  I thought about people like Hitler, Mussolini and Stalin, and how those dictators were allowed to control and flourish, primarily because no one stood against them.  They were able to incarcerate or murder millions of people, while good men and women just stood and watched.

When I thought about these men, and the climate that created them, I didn’t feel the scope or intensity of what they did, at least not on a visceral, organic level.  I felt some sorrow and sadness for the people that they victimized, feelings of regret that it had happened at all, and some vague, largely undefined commitment that it should never happen again.  But, it never felt personal.  It never seemed really real.

Now, I understand how it happened.

I realize that my experience was on a very, very small scale.  But the micro can and has become the macro.  And, although it is a scary thought, that experience taught me a valuable lesson.

I am working in Saudi Arabia on a business visa.  This visa requires that I go to Bahrain, which is only about an hour away, every 30 days.  There are several teachers doing this.  One beautiful Friday morning about a month ago, four of us were waiting for the van to take us to the Bahrani border.  I was really looking forward to the trip, because the company had agreed that we could go into Bahrain and spend the day there (The Magnificent Seven, here I come!).

All four of us were American.  Two women, and two men.  Predictably, we began to reminisce about home.  The beautiful beaches of southern California, the great food in San Francisco, the endless green landscapes in North Carolina.

Also predictably, the conversation turned to the US Presidential race.  I talked about how the San Francisco Bay Area is a bastion of progressives and liberals, albeit getting more and more expensive to live in.  The other woman in our group was from southern California, and she also expressed that her area, San Diego, was largely liberal.  The guy from North Carolina expressed some middle of the road views; although from a southern state, he was a white male who had attended a HBCU (historically black college/university).

I then realized that I was the only black person in the group.  I then remembered that I was in a group of white Americans, and 99.9% of white Americans are racist; 99.9% of white American men are sexist.  I got a little uncomfortable, and tried to steer the conversation away from politics.  It didn’t work.

One of the men, who happened to be married to a Russian and lived in Thailand, turned to me and said, “You’re a liberal.  I know you are.  You said you are.  I’m not.  I’m in favor of Trump.  He’ll straighten out everything.”  I tried to protest, tried to explain my political positions.  I couldn’t.  His voice rose as he went on: “No, no, you’re a liberal.  I know you are.  I don’t want to hear it.  And, I won’t even begin to talk about black racism against white people.”

I then tried to shut out the yelling and ranting, and began to email our director about what was happening in the lobby of the apartment building.  I caught occasional words about “immigrants, black people, women, Muslims, America …”

Finally, I turned to him and said “You can kiss my black, female, rusty racist ass.’  I moved away from the group.

The other man and woman had said nothing.  They had done nothing.  They had allowed this man to visit his vitriolic hate upon me unchecked.  There had been no protest from them, not even to say that it was, at the very least, inappropriate, impolite behavior.  They did nothing.  They said nothing.

During that horrible experience, I learned how hate proliferates.  I learned how Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini had become powerful.  Not because all of the people necessarily wanted them, but because the vast majority had done nothing to stop it.

When you allow hate to flourish, when you do nothing, you are complicit in the process.  Saying and doing nothing says and does everything.

Now, it has happened on the world stage.  Now, Donald Trump is our President-elect.  Probably because so many people said and did nothing.

This particular teacher was fired the next day.  After all, this is Saudi Arabia.  They, at least, did something.

In Defense of Little Old Ladies

There is no such thing as a little old lady. Now, someone might look like a little old lady, dress like a little old lady, or even walk slowly and use a cane.  But, there is no such thing.  Little old ladies do not exist, except in movies and books, short stories and fables.  However, that elderly woman who lives down the street from you is not a little old lady.

When I was a very young lady, and working as an “executive secretary,” some of the supposed little old ladies tried to get me fired. These little old ladies looked like someone straight out of a Norman Mailer painting.  But, they were not sweet, they didn’t necessarily love children, and they were ruthless.  Think Joan Rivers and Joan Crawford (“Mommie Dearest”) or even Barbara Walters, Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey. Not to mention Hillary Clinton, Maya Angelou and Gloria Steinem. These were or are all unofficial sweet little old ladies.  There was nothing, and is nothing, sweet or little about any of them.

How do I know this? Because I am supposed to be a little old lady (being 62 years old) and I’m not.  A few of my co-workers, who are in their 60s and 70s are supposed to be little old ladies, but they’re not. They love their makeup, they dye their hair, and some of them love new and trendy clothes.  If you even vaguely imply that they are little old ladies, you’ll hear a response worthy of a millennial’s respect.

Even when they can barely move, have lost teeth, and have sparse, white hair, they do not think of themselves are little or old. They still look at young ladies (and men) through the filter of youth.  Their bodies might be racked with arthritic pain, and they may be taking 3 or 4 (or more) different medications, but they see themselves as perpetually 35 years old.  I’ve seen little old ladies eyeing the bodies of young men and women, and they sincerely believe that their own body looks relatively the equal.

Are they in denial? For sure.  But, there are circumstances where they briefly break through that denial.  At yet another job, there was a little old lady who had the hots for a very young man.  Almost daily, she’d describe what she would do with that young man given the opportunity.  But, she realized that it was “just a fantasy.”  That didn’t stop her from flirting with him, or slowing passing by his cubicle while swinging her generous hips his way.  She still had hope.  I’m not sure if anything ever came of her subtle advances, but she had hope that something just might happen.  Nowadays, she’d be called a cougar.  Not a very nice word, but one that is used to describe little old ladies who lust after and pursue young men (or women).

Now, there are circumstances where being a little old lady can come in handy. If I’m stopped by a traffic cop, I’m less likely to get a ticket, and more likely to get a good scolding.  More young men hold doors open for me.  I’m more invisible now – a bit of ageism comes into play – but that’s usually okay.  However, I’m less patient but more tolerant, less judgmental but more observant, less accepting but more loving, but I am not a little old lady.

They just simply do not exist.

Gotta Make It Real … Compared To What?

With the recent murder of black men, and the murder of white police officers, the inevitable happened.

A white female colleague wanted to “discuss” it.

Initially, I was happy that someone had brought it up, happy that someone wanted to talk about it. After all, I am part of a staff that is truly diverse. This staff is probably the most diverse I’ve ever worked with. The people here are of almost every age, race, religion and ethnic background in the world. We have black Americans, white Americans, Pakistani Americans, Mexican Americans, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and Buddhists. Here, most of the world is represented.

The first question I got from this colleague was: Is there really that much discrimination against African Americans? How?

Well this particular colleague has worked in remote areas of the Middle East, so I drew a parallel between her experiences there, and my experiences here. In the Middle East, she was an outsider. She was pointed at, stared at, treated differently, treated worse, and sometimes treated better. She was touched indiscriminately by men, taunted by children, and isolated by the majority. She was living, in many ways, the same way a black person lives in America.

She recounted how uncomfortable that felt. How it felt horrible to stand out all of the time, to be noticed all of the time, to never feel invisible and never feel included. I told her that’s just how it feels to be black in America.

She still didn’t get it, or didn’t want to get it.

She insisted that everyone is uncomfortable now; how she is afraid that a black person might just pull out a gun and shoot her because she’s white. She insisted that no one is safe and that everyone is on edge.

I told her that I fear for myself, my children, my brothers and nephews. I fear for their lives. I have feared for their lives for a long time now. I told her how I’ve been called a nigger, how an Arkansas cop once threatened my life, and informed me that in Arkansas “no one will ever find your body.”

She couldn’t process that.

She insisted that I didn’t get what she was saying. That I didn’t understand how she now feels that her life is at stake.

Now, on reflection, I think she wanted me to understand how important it is that everyone now feels threatened.

Somehow, I don’t feel that the lives of others are more, or less, important than those of my family. Somehow, and for some remote reason, I don’t feel any more panic today than I felt two weeks ago. Somehow, today, I still believe that given a set of similar circumstances, she is more likely to live through a stop by the police than I am.

If “people in general” are feeling threatened, feeling panic, and feeling unsafe in America. Welcome to my world. I have never been safe in my home. I can only hope that someday, somehow, I will.

On the subject of … isms

On the subject of isms, phobias, and … others(ism)?

Xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, sexism, racism, class-ism, elitism … are they really different?

Some of my acquaintances, co-workers and associates seem to think so.

I, like much of the human race, have been subjected to a number of “isms.” Racism is a theme that pops up frequently in my life, as does sexism. I believe I have experienced elitism, and class-ism, as well as xenophobia.

I know that I encounter racism here in America on a regular basis. I encountered it also in Italy – where, by the way – it is much more blatant, but far less frequent. It appears to be more effortless in America, and more of a thought-out, deliberate process in Italy. I suspect it is our long and gloried history of slavery, but that is another discussion.

I recall once when a lawyer friend of mine, who is brilliant, black, female and well-endowed, complained about opposing (white male) counsel treating her disrespectfully. She labeled it racism, while I labeled it sexism. We pondered it, but couldn’t really see the difference in how the two are conveyed.

On yet another occasion, I was discussing homophobia with a white, gay male co-worker. Of course, the issue of racism came up. However, he made it a point to tell me that homophobia was different from racism. I wasn’t sure I agreed, but conceded to his singular experience of homophobia, and his reference to black, gay males who made it a point to tell him that they were “black first, and gay second.”

Some time ago, I attended a workshop with a white, female friend of mine. The workshop was designed to create awareness around racist practices, and to begin discarding those practices and healing from them. At the end of the workshop, my friend spoke about racism, and sexism, stating that “sexism is different.”

Very recently, I wrote about the elitism of some in the San Francisco Bay Area. An acquaintance who is white and female, sent me a private message on Facebook in response to my blog. In it, she admitted to experiencing the elitism and snobbery of those in Marin County, but pointed out that I have a “double whammy” of dealing with elitism and racism.

I’ve heard the “double whammy” label before. It’s usually referencing the racism and sexism minority women have to deal with, rather than elitism and racism. I suppose that I could argue that I now have a “triple whammy” to deal with, or on some occasions, a “quadruple whammy” depending on whether or not I’m in the U.S. or abroad.

How are the “isms” different?

Well … they are about different categories of people, i.e., African Americans vs. Latinos vs. Asians vs. women vs. homosexuals vs. people from other countries vs. religion vs. economic status vs….?. Of course, a Latin American female, who is poor, under-educated, gay and a recent immigrant could face a number of isms and phobias. A recent white, male European may face only one. A white, Muslim American female could face three.

It seems that the only one who doesn’t face any “ism” in this country, is a white, financially comfortable male. Of course, some of the white males accuse others of “reverse discrimination.” But, that’s not really an “ism” and that it exists at all is open to question. Again, that’s another discussion.

So the categories are labels that some well-to-do white males have created and used, and are used by everyone else to categorize, label, and create divisions and differences.

And, most of us have bought into these labels and categories, and are convinced that they somehow make us different.

Does it feel different?

If someone is abused and called a “nigger,” does it feel different from being abused and called a “conniving slut?”

If someone is abused and called a “dirty faggot,” does it feel different from being abused and called a “towel-head terrorist?”

Does being called a “bean eater” feel different from being called “poor, white trash?”

Does “I hate you because you’re a woman” feel different from “I hate you because you’re black?”

If someone can explain how the impact is different, I’d love to hear from you.

Right now, at this very moment, I believe that the impact is the same. I believe that all of the “isms” are designed to make you feel smaller, convince you that you are somehow less, provide an excuse to discriminate against you and treat you badly. I believe that they are designed to disenfranchise you, to separate you and make you believe that it’s “us vs. them.” And sadly, I believe that those who cling to the belief that they are different, need to take a long, hard look at their own “isms” and insistence on clinging to what they believe is some thin sliver of privilege.

I believe that abuse, discrimination, bias and prejudice all feel the same to the recipient, no matter its label.

There is no difference.

phobias2

California or Texas?

I recently went back to California for my daughter’s graduate school ceremony. And, I experienced yet another culture shock; one that may be obvious to most who live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and is almost certainly obvious to those who are visiting or just moved there.

Bay Area folks are snobs. Maybe even elitist. And just a bit smug with a disturbing superiority complex.

Believe me, I didn’t want to see or feel this. I didn’t want to believe it when I saw and felt it. I wanted to deny it, to say that I was imagining things, that I was wrong. But, I wasn’t wrong, and it wasn’t my imagination.

Right now, I live in Texas, in a small city of 100,000 with an Air Force Base nearby. There is diversity here, albeit not on the level of the SF Bay Area, but it exists. The people here are warm, friendly and genuine. The shopkeepers remember you, and greet you. The store clerks chat with you and ask you how your day is going. The university students are open and gracious. Almost everyone says “ma’am” and “sir,” as in ‘Good morning ma’am, how are you today?”

If you walk into a specialty market, there is no air of ‘I know more than you’ or ‘you should be grateful I’m taking your money.’

And shockingly, Texas is supposed to be one of the bastions of racism. Believe it or not, I got more racist attitudes walking down College Avenue in Oakland, than in walking downtown here in Texas.

The ‘white’ people here speak to me. They address me respectfully. I can’t say the same for those in northern California.

Here, there is no air of privilege (white or otherwise). There is no snobbery or attitude of ‘I’m better than you.’ If I walk into a store, market or gas station, there is no look of ‘why are you here?’ or ‘aren’t you in the wrong neighborhood?’ The kicker is that I was in a 99 cents store in Berkeley (of ALL places). A young, white woman was with me. The clerk addressed his questions to her, and ignored me, even though she’d said nothing to him, and never indicated she was paying for anything. “She is WITH ME,” I pointed out to him; he mumbled a half apology. What the what???

In northern California, there is an insidious, underlying and murky river of racism that is played out everyday, in almost every encounter with the ‘white’ people who live there. Everyday, after venturing out into the Rockridge neighborhood where I was living, I wanted to take a shower. I wanted to wash the layer of snobbery, racism and elitism off my body, and out of my psyche. It was disgusting and repelled me. Amazingly, none of those I encountered have probably ever felt that they exhibited and exuded a distasteful and disgusting air; one that was almost tangible and seemed more animal like than human.

Thanks go to the spirit in gratitude that I don’t live there anymore. I don’t know if I ever will again.

College Avenue
College Avenue

The chicken
The spirit of Texas!

Missing Home

I never thought I’d say it: I miss the Middle East. I never thought I’d even think it. But a wave of missing the Middle East has been slowly, almost imperceptibly, rising and barely ebbing inside me everyday. I am going through a culture shock that sends tiny little jolts through me, and wraps around me like an abaya covering me from head to toe.

Racism shocks me. Not shock like surprise, but shock like “are these people still that stupid?” Shock like the realization that people actually still think that such a thing is legitimate, that there are people who still believe that the color of someone’s skin matters. That somehow it says something about who that person is. This is a shock, but rather than feeling angry, I feel sympathy for those people, and I try to stay away from them.

I miss the anonymity I had in the Middle East. I was an Arab, an Egyptian, a Sudanese, or just an American.

I miss the slower pace of life. Hardly anyone in the culture was ever in a hurry. Things could wait. They could get done today, or tomorrow “inshallah” (God willing).

There was an atmosphere of trust. You could put your purse down in a restaurant and go to the restroom. A shopkeeper would leave you in his shop to go and get change. There was no fear of being robbed or ripped off by someone.

Greed is not human nature. Greed is not universal. It is a particularly American nature. Almost everyone in the USA who provides a service or goods or any kind, is trying to get every cent they can out of you. Americans worship the dollar, and worship it at the expense of our health, well being, and safety. And somehow, amazingly, along the way, Americans have accepted this. I don’t accept it, and being in a culture that does makes me feel just a bit out of tune with my surroundings.

I miss the chivalry I received from the men and the courtesies I received from the women. Just basic human courtesies that we have forgotten to use in my home.

I miss the generosity. Anything someone had, whether it was a pack of Ramen noodles, a soft drink, or a sumptuous dinner, they would share, and would insist on sharing. If you gave someone a compliment or admired their earrings, watch, or bracelet, it was immediately offered to you. Of course, upon learning this, I was careful with my flattery. I had to insist on not taking expensive jewelry or clothing from women to whom I had given a compliment.

I miss the taxi drivers we used regularly. They were careful not to overcharge us. And, if we had accidentally left our purse or wallet at home, they would pay for our groceries, or clothing, or whatever our shopping charges were until we could repay them, not to mention a ride back home.

I miss the clear skies and the evening call to prayer. I miss the warmth and genuine delight I got from strangers when they discovered I was American.

I miss the Middle East.