Peach Legos, Pink Roses, Black Skin

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I live in a racially polarized city. The same city where Michael Brown’s death led to violent protests and unrest.   I am a white woman. No one watches me as I linger in the candy aisle at Quick Trip. I do not get a lump of fear in my throat when I see a police car in my rear view mirror. I am not questioned when I am running through the streets of University City at night wearing a hoodie to keep my head warm. I see people that look like me almost everywhere I go. I don’t have to search for children’s books that contain kids that look mine. I see “my face” on billboards, and in boardrooms. I had teachers that looked like me, bandaids that matched my skin color, and my success has never been attributed to affirmative action. I’m pretty sure this only a fraction of what the phrase “white privilege” means.   I feel free from the fear of racial discrimination. In fact, it is a freedom I rarely even take the time to recognize or notice.

 

My white husband and I have two sons. Two white sons. I do not fear that they will judged to be lazy when they don’t turn in their homework. I don’t worry that will be labeled as a problem student when they talk too much in class. Their shampoo is easy to find in Target, and all their Lego guys match their skin. I don’t worry that anyone will assume the gun they made from sticks at the park is real when they play “bad guys” on the playground.

 

The other day my seven-year-old said, “Mom, did you know that while Martin Luther King was alive that some of the peach people treated the black people badly for no reason at all?!?” I told him that I did know that, and added quietly that it sometimes still happens today. “In what country?” he asked, astonished. In this one, I said.

 

Race is such a hard thing to talk about. We are afraid to say the wrong thing. We don’t want to seem racist, or ignorant. Sometimes this leaves us silent, saying nothing at all.

 

I want to tell you about Kenneth. Kenneth was one of my high school students in my class when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. He hated that I was sick. He got me a “get well soon” card before my first chemo. He opened the door for me in the morning, and sometimes helped me carry my bag. The day after I had my head shaved Kenneth presented me with a bouquet of pink roses.

 

Kenneth is sweet, and kind, and good. And Kenneth is black. Which means Kenneth has stories about how he has been stopped and questioned by police for just walking home. This is a reality for him, and for so many of my past and present students of color. This weighs on them. This perception of guilt, of wrong doing.

 

I don’t know what to do about it. I don’t have answers. But I see it. I know it exists. It is not made up. As a society we have come so far. But I know we cannot get comfortable. This is not good enough.

 

Recently one of my blog posts was run on a well-known parenting website. I was writing about my personal experience dealing with breast cancer. Someone commented that it should have been written about ALL cancers, not just breast cancer, didn’t I realize that “all cancers aren’t pink!” But this was MY experience with BREAST cancer, I wanted to scream!

 

And then I thought about the #blacklivesmatter movement. I thought about how so many of us were quick to respond with “all lives matter.” Yes. All lives matter, just like all cancers are terrible. But this movement is asking us to look out at our society again with new eyes. This movement is reminding us that the oppression of racial discrimination is still here. I talk, and write, and think about breast cancer because I had breast cancer. Our black sisters and brothers are talking, writing, and thinking about black lives because they are grieving the inequality that still exists. And I grieve with them because: “No one is free until we are all free.” – Martin Luther King.

 

It was easier to write about cancer. It was so much easier to push “publish” after I detailed my heartbreak about not being able to run to the park with my kids following chemo. Writing about race is scary. Talking about race is scary.   It is easier to look away, to pretend that we don’t have work to do. But we do. We ALL do. And when I get scared and tired of talking about it, I can lace up my shoes, pull a hoodie over my head, and head out on a run in the moonlight. I can take a break, a breath. But some of our brothers and sisters never get a break. Let’s reach out to each other. Let’s think and talk, and write, and when we are given the opportunity– let’s DO something. Because together it is possible.

 

 

 

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What to do, and not to do, for your friend with breast cancer.

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  1. Be there.  Just show up.  You don’t need food, or flowers, wisdom, or wine.  Just show up.  Knock on the door and swoop in.  You will be able to tell quickly if it is a good time to sit on the couch and talk, or if would be better just to stay in the kitchen and clean out the fridge.  You will know if it would be most helpful to read a book to the kids, or unload the dishwasher.  Don’t worry about interrupting, or disturbing the peace.  There are people in there that need you.  Maybe we just need a distraction, an extra hand at bed time, or someone to make us feel okay about tossing out the three lasagnas. Don’t stay too long, but please show up.
  2. Make a meal calendar.  Take the lead if no one else has.  Find out what we like, what we don’t like, and what our kids will eat.  Ask us about our favorite carryout places and what gift cards would be helpful.  Share that information.  Let people use the calendar to sign up to bring meals that they know will be eaten.
  3. Mail love. Books, letters, cards, hats, scarves, chemo beanies, healing stones, hand written poetry, crocheted blankets.  They will all by carefully studied, held, cried over, and appreciated.  If we have kids in the family, send gifts for them, too.
  4. Text, email, Facebook, tweet your support.  Prayers, inspirational quotes, funny inside jokes, they will come at all the right times: in the waiting rooms, in parking lots when we are banging our heads against the steering wheel, in our breakdown moments slumped against the wall.  They will come through at all the right times.
  5. Don’t stop complaining about the stupid shit.  Maybe we can no longer work, or run with our children to the park, or make dinner for our family.  But we can still listen.  Please don’t stop talking.  It’s okay to complain about the coworker who pees on the floor and doesn’t wipe it up.  Keep telling us the stories about the in-laws, the traffic jams, and the sweater that you wished was on sale, but isn’t.  Cancer sucks, but so does pee on the bathroom floor.  We want to hear it, please don’t stop complaining.
  6. Don’t forget that our husbands need extra love too.
  7. Please don’t say, “at least you get a brand new set of perky boobs!” (I would trade these cold, foreign, numb circles for my saggy triangle-shaped boobs that slipped into my armpits while lying on my back . . . in a heartbeat.  Those boobs fed my babies.)
  8. Please don’t tell us about your friend’s sister’s friend’s neighbor that had breast cancer ten years ago, and was cancer free, until it spread everywhere and now she is dead.
  9. Tell us that we are strong.  Tell us that we will beat this.  Tell us that it is okay if we fall apart.
  10. If you can afford it, and we don’t have one, buy us a blender.  Fill our freezers with frozen organic fruit, and make us smoothies with coconut milk, and spinach.  And then bring us cheese fries if we ask for them.
  11. Take us on walks.  Force us outside.  Make us breathe, and walk, and talk.  Stop by and help us tie our shoes.  Hold up our coats, stretch a hat over our bald heads, and take us on a walk.  Make us breathe fresh air.
  12. Rub our feet, and make us tea.  Use peppermint lotion, and fresh ginger.  Don’t worry about it being awkward.  Cancer forces walls to come down.  Tell us about the time you ripped your pants on a date, and rub our feet and make us tea.
  13. Listen.  Some days our words will be strong, graceful, and full of hope.  Other days they will be broken, sluggish, and sad. Just listen.
  14. Leave food on our porch, rake our leaves, shovel our snow, send us old pictures, buy us cozy socks and blankets, recommend movies, paint us pictures, hold our hands, and when you don’t know what else to do: pray.