It started as a joke. It has ceased being funny.
When people used to talk to me about moving back to the states, I’d sarcastically claim, “I don’t know if we can go back – if this election cycle gets any crazier we may defect.” And we’d all have a laugh and our Canadian friends would joke about building a wall to keep us Americans from fleeing across their border.
And then the Orlando nightclub shooting happened, with all the accompanying rancor and debate about assault rifles, homophobia and islamophobia. And then the killing of black men by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota. And then the killing of police officers by a sniper in Dallas.
And then I start wondering with despair – to what kind of country am I returning?
A flawed one, no doubt.
But then again, aren’t they all? Being an expat here in Costa Rica, it’s so easy to retreat into a bubble. Corruption, crime, racism – they exist here too. But it’s not my country and these aren’t my people, so I can sit on my porch overlooking the ocean and tell myself these aren’t my problems.
But back home, it will be harder to turn a deaf ear and blind eye. It will be harder to shield my child, too.
When she was a pre-schooler, I LOVED that she had no pre-conceived notions about race. We purposefully didn’t talk about it, because I wanted her to be color blind for as long as possible.
I’ll never forget when she came home from pre-K one day and said she really wanted me to meet her new friend. “Mama, you’ll love his skin. It’s so dark!” she said. At first I was alarmed that she would even bring up his skin color, but that was silly. This certainly wasn’t her first encounter with a person of color, but maybe the first time she’d noticed the difference. And when she did notice it, she thought it was beautiful.
But as her school years progressed, she began coming home talking about things like slavery, and the Underground Railroad, and I knew she wouldn’t be color blind for long. You couldn’t talk about these things without also talking about race. Without squirming and fidgeting as you tried to explain the old ideas of white supremacy.
And that’s the context we always tried to use – that these were old ideas. Ancient history. I just didn’t want her to know that racism was still alive. Subconsciously I hoped if the parents of our generation kept quiet about it, racism would cease to exist in her generation. Maybe it wouldn’t even occur to them as a possibility.
But of course, that was wrong.
And we’ve since talked about it, but not enough. Yesterday, I decided to tell her about the events happening in Louisiana and Minnesota and Dallas. When I used the word racism, she interrupted me. “But Mama, I thought racism would be over by now.”
Oh sweet girl. If only this were true.
While I’m discouraged about the current state of race in my country, I also have hope. I know we have come an awfully long way. I have pride in my home – a fact I was reminded of last week.
We were at a social event with some American expats of my parents’ generation. We participated in the usual chit chat, “Where are you from? What brought you here?”
When one woman found out we were from Georgia, her demeanor changed. “Do you ever see confederate flags there?!” she asked, almost like she was asking if we ever saw zombies or aliens.
“Yes,” we told her. “But not often.” Then she recounted her harrowing tale of being in the south once, and seeing a confederate flag hanging from someone’s house. She took a photo of it, and then immediately fled the state because it “creeped her out.”
As a proud southerner, I took offense. I don’t like confederate flags either, but just because one person hangs a flag doesn’t mean we’re all racist. That doesn’t mean the south is a “creepy” place. She’s from California, which may not have the same slave history of the American south, but surely has its problems too.
Then she managed to offend me even more by lamenting her daughter’s college roommate experience. Not only was that roommate a terribly racist southerner, “but she was Baptist,” she said, as though the word were sour and foul in her mouth.
For all her posturing about how progressive Californians are, she’d managed to demonstrate her prejudice against me and my family, simply for being southern and Baptist. I wanted to argue with her, and I feebly attempted to defend my roots, but I knew I wouldn’t change her mind. So I had to walk outside. Get some fresh air.
Obviously she’s living in her bubble. It’s time for me to crawl out of mine and exist in the real world, flaws and all. It’s time to go home to my beautiful United States. To the south, where we sleep under quilts made by our great-grandmothers. Where the tea is sweet. Where I’ll sit in the pew on Sunday morning and sing hymns with my fellow Baptists in a church where black people and gay people are welcomed. Where the church casseroles have crumbled Ritz crackers on top with toasted butter, and the recipes are scrawled on old index cards. Where the peanuts are boiled and the butterbeans are fresh, and where cold watermelon tastes so good on the beach. I know the truth of the south. I know it isn’t always pretty and it needs a lot of work. But don’t we all?