HumanSpirit Radio Network

Owning My Racism / Homage to Polly

Posted on: May 3, 2015

I remember the day I became racist. I was 5 years old.

This is a story of complexities and innocence, of social and class structure and using brutality to “protect” your own from an even harsher world reality. By piercing my shame, claiming my part and sharing my story I hope to engender a similar soul-searching within each and every one of us – no matter our color, sex, orientation or whatever other distinction we may use to express our intentional or unintended biases.

It was a warm summer day. As my mother was out running errands I was left in the care of our trusted “cleaning lady”, Polly. Polly was a tall, handsome, smooth-skinned, soft-spoken, dark black woman. She, as with most of the “cleaning ladies” who cleaned the homes of white families in our suburban Michigan neighborhood, lived across town in the “negro” neighborhood and took a bus to our side of town to do domestic work.

Polly, my friend, was a trusted adult, was always kind, gentle and loving with me – and happened to make the best tuna fish sandwich/tomato soup combo at lunchtime. Everyone in our family adored and respected Polly. My parents paid her “better than the going rate” within a social/racial caste system that was endemic to early 1960s.

My father was a worker’s compensation lawyer (called workman’s compensation in that era, revealing yet another endemic bias of the day). He also was a civil rights attorney. Both my parents were dedicated to social justice. They moved to a newly developing peninsula in Western Michigan long before it was apparent that between the realtors and the banks, this was going to be a solely white community. It was ironic that despite their convictions, they came to play out the socially structured reality of segregation.

The day I became racist what occurred and lived on in me (consistent with most trauma) – was unexpected and imprinting. Having worked with trauma for nearly 20 years, I now know precisely how the mind creates wild correlations based on a mere whiff of similarity. I also know that emotions that get stuffed recur and are re-triggered as the only way our bodies know to remind us of what must be reclaimed, experienced, healed and released.

That day Polly brought her niece with her to work – Cassy, a young girl about my age. She and I were both delighted. We fell into playing – dolls and running in the yard – laughing, chasing and such. At some point in the day we came upon the moment, almost inevitable in childhood play, where we had a disagreement about who should have what – a toy, the next turn – so typical and so innocent. Polly, keeping an eye on us as the good caregiver she was, instantly took notice of our momentary dispute and with an unexpected fierceness, descended on her niece and snatched her up by the arm. Scolding her with a harshness I had never witnessed, Polly told her niece she must NEVER fight with or disagree with a white person but must let them have WHATEVER they want. Then Polly ordered her niece to go to a bush in our yard and “pick a switch”. As I sat, not knowing what had even happened, I saw my new friend dissolve into terror-filled tears and watched the drama unfold as my beloved babysitter transformed into monster, brutally lashing her young niece to instill in her lesson of our deeply racist culture. I had no idea at the time that this was, for Polly, a lesson in survival, in service to her kin, to protect her from a world that was fully expected to do FAR greater damage than Polly did that day.

Cassy and I learned the same searing lesson that day. We were separate and unequal. At the time I simply could not get that this was about the color of our skin. I didn’t understand it at all. All I knew was that someone I knew and trusted had become an angry, violent monster and I didn’t know why. I gleaned no insight from the incident about how it could have been prevented or avoided.

In my 5 year old brain the imprint was “be afraid and on guard for the unexpected wrath of dark-skinned people – especially women”. Like it or not, this has governed my nervous system ever since. Yep, I’m one of those white people who has a flinch response to dark black people.

If only shame, denial and self-castigation worked to eradicate this knee-jerk response, I’d be free and clear of this ugly racial categorizing – profiling – by now.

But healing doesn’t happen that way. My mores and values, my politics and commitments could not undo this buried memory nor my reptilian brain’s coping mechanism and reactions.

Only love can do that.

My love for Polly and the urgent/early warning she felt compelled to instill in her niece based on her social conditioning, lineage and direct experience in our world. My love for Polly’s niece, now a woman my age, who may be chasing her own ghosts from that experience and likely so many others that stem from internalized messages and others’  reactions to her gender and the color of her skin. And my love for myself, an improbable racist – not by training, but through the complicated machinations of trauma and western social conditioning that teaches us to look away from both trauma and racism, two prominent demons in our personal/collective dream.

I am so sorry, and now, through ownership of my experience and my behavior, I am beginning to heal – both.

May we each find the nexuses of our conditioning and our trauma. May we love ourselves well enough to recover our love for one another. As fragments of a Whole, we are energetically compelled to achieve the harmony of our sameness and our strangeness within the vast and vibrant field of Oneness with all of Life.

I love you,end-racism-thru-unity for I am you. And we are Divine.

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1 Response to "Owning My Racism / Homage to Polly"

Wow: ” May we love ourselves well enough to recover our love for one another.” Thank you for this beatiful testament to the power of fear and the power of love, Sarah. ❤

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