On Racism and Fires

Wesley’s mysterious asymptomatic fever that popped up on Thanksgiving returned last night, I made a bad food choice and had some stomach cramps (I eat plant-based but am also super-sensitive to vegetables so that makes life interesting), and my childhood playground in the Smokies started burning…all three of which gave me a very restless night and this morning I feel all sorts of terrible.

Not only did my family like hiking and camping in the Smokies as I grew up in nearby Knoxville, but I spent many years attending a summer daycare that gave us season passes to Dollywood (except I went when it was still called Silver Dollar City) and Ogle’s Water Park. The daycare took us to each place once a week all summer. We didn’t take many beach trips going up but I have a lifetime of memories associated with the Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge area. Watching the footage from the fires last night sent me into a low mental state missing my Dad who tortured us with hikes through the Smokies our whole childhood.

(I didn’t look back fondly on those hikes until I was well into my 20s. As I child I found them terrible. I’d rather be at home reading Baby Sitters Club and thinking about boys.)

So today will be a sleepless day. Hopefully Wesley wakes up feeling okay, and hopefully I can function on minimal sleep.

I did want to pop in and share reading material with you guys. I share out tons of stuff on Twitter and Facebook but I want to be better about sharing stuff out here. Jodi Picoult (who I’ve never read but will now) wrote this great piece for Time and this quote really jumped out at me as it reflects the most concrete change in my life since I woke up to systemic racism.

A woman of color my age asked me how often I talked about racism with my kids at the dinner table. “Occasionally,” I replied, which—to be honest—was an overestimation. I asked her how often she talked about racism at the dinner table. “Every night,” she said. It is no surprise that the voice of the protagonist in my novel was woven directly from the words and stories these women generously offered to me; or that I turned to them to vet that voice for its authenticity before publication. Source

We talk about race ALL OF THE TIME in our house now. We talk about challenges and awkwardness and pain and microaggressions. We talk about how and why people of color use the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and I tell them how our poorly managed criminal justice system has taught them their lives don’t matter. This is probably the thing I can put my finger on the easiest in our house: We See Color. I used to do what Picoult did, try to teach “colorblindness” – but that’s easy for me because I’m white. My skin color does not play into my every day life. People of color can’t make teach colorblindness to their kids, so why should I?

No wonder we actively avoid discussing racism—it requires us to completely restructure the fictional narrative we’ve created of our lives. But then again, unlike people of color, we don’t have to talk about race. For us, it’s not omnipresent and it’s not a matter of life or death. We avoid the topic because we can. Ignorance is a privilege, too.

I’m the queen of social awkwardness and yet I’m trying to talk about race and racism the best I can because it’s a privilege to choose NOT to. This has conditioned me to now look at bigger pictures in my life. Not just with race but with poverty and religion. The fires in Gatlinburg are a great example. What about the poor people? Remember the terrible scene in Post-Katrina New Orleans? That was back when I was NOT woke to systemic racism and I naively thought, “Their own fault for not heeding the evacuation orders.”

I know. I know. That’s terrible.

But I didn’t see the big picture. I only looked at the world through my personal experiences. If someone told me to evacuate I would have savings to allow me to miss the day at work, I would have a working car to load up with my family and valuables, I would have money for a hotel or family in other areas capable of taking me in. OF COURSE I would evacuate. That’s an easy call for me. But not for everyone. And that’s something that is now a habit – but I had to learn – to think outside my scope of experience. What if you can’t really evacuate so you do the best you can do and go to a shelter of sorts but then you lose your possessions. My insurance would replace my house, but if you can’t even pay the bills every month you probably don’t have insurance.

I have a wider lens in my heart now…I see more around me. I had my heart permanently mounted with a 50mm prime lens before. That lens was great for close-up portraits of my life and my family, but everything outside of that scope was blurry. Now I’m trying to rock the fish-eye lens. It makes my family distorted and sometimes ugly, but it allows me to see the world around us in better detail and that trade-off is what waking up to racism is all about.

3 thoughts on “On Racism and Fires”

  1. I had never read anything by Jodi Picoult. The morning I was leaving on a trip,she was on CBS morning news promoting Small Great Things. I picked it up at the airport and read it that vacation.The theme of the book is racism and more specifically white supremacist. Excellent book. For me it wraps itself up in a cute little bow at the end, but the transformation of t he antagonist may be worth the bow.

  2. My mom (who is 70) grew up in Knoxville and my grandparents lived there until they passed three years ago. They were very involved in the Smokies and I spent so much of my childhood there and in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. The fires there are so hard to watch, and I’ve seen a lot of fires living out west the last 15 years.

    Eight years ago I got a horrible case of the flu and told my husband to pick up some books to read: “anything by Jodi Picoult” He brought everything by her. Ever since I am a fan. Her books aren’t easy or fluffy at all. They make me really think. And some I am not ready to re-read with young kids. But I never stop thinking about them.

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