The Racist Nextdoor

I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid I wouldn’t look into my bedroom or bathroom mirror at night if the lights were off.

There always seemed to be some murky ghost lurking in those dark reflections. Waaay too scary for me to examine closely. So I always looked at the floor or the opposite wall as I was walking by. Anywhere but into the heart of those dark mirrors. It was safer not to look.

A few weeks after the last presidential election, a good friend confronted me over coffee with the fact that the majority of white women had voted for Donald Trump. She said, “I now know that the majority of Whites wish I wasn’t living in this country.” My friend is a naturalized citizen. Her skin is several shades darker than my own.

I sputtered, because although I’d read a lot about the election, I hadn’t focused on the racial divide. Instead, I’d examined the cultural and educational chasm revealed by the vote. After I got home I did look up the statistics and salved my conscious with the fact that the majority of college educated white women, my safe little niche subgroup, did vote against Trump.

I didn’t consider myself that naive about white privilege. I’d written on this blog how my own ancestors stayed silent as food was stolen from the mouths of African American children.

During the election season I had already witnessed a white woman yelling at the sandwich ladies at my local Subway, accusing them of taking away jobs from Americans. (The sandwich ladies were American.) The woman did not use nice words, and only left when the workers picked up their phones to dial 911.

These events were all on my mind when I got a notice from Nextdoor, a neighborhood social media network. Notices about  car prowls, garage sales, and lost cats all show up in my inbox, along with the advertisements for services, which I find slightly annoying. I was about to delete an add by a woman looking for work cleaning houses when I caught that she advertised herself as ‘White’.

Why put your skin color in an ad, unless you want to be hired based on your skin color?

I thought about my friend, who was basically asking me why I hadn’t done more to confront racism. So…

I told the “White” cleaning lady, in a post, that I was upset that she was trying to get more business by saying she was White. I said that I hire based on work experience and references. Almost as an afterthought I reminded her that God is not going to judge us on skin color. We will be judged on our actions.

I was pretty upset to see racism seeping into my neighborhood social media.

I had no idea.

In the posts that followed I was called too politically correct. I was called mean and unchristian. I was asked to move to Canada.

My offer to meet any poster for coffee and discuss our differences was ignored. Those few who supported my opinion were viciously attacked.

Some of those posting hurtful comments I knew personally. Our children had gone to school together. One neighbor told me that African Americans are racist because they all voted for Obama. Another wrote:

“In fact, a significant number (and quite possibly the majority) of white people not only “get it” but appreciate and enjoy [white privilege] and are willing to defend it silently but ferociously.”

This comment, above all the others, was like a kick in the gut.

All of my life I just assumed that all Americans were fighting the same battle. That we were all trying to move towards a place where people would be judged by the content of their character and not by the color of their skin.

I was naive. Ignorant. My friend was correct in her assumption that white women had not done enough to fight racism. I discovered that am the poster child for that argument. 

I also discovered that it was frightening to stand up against racists. One small post from me, and the shadows from dark mirrors slithered into my world, took on faces I knew, and said terrible things.

Truth be told, I’d like to avoid the entire situation. Walk by the mirror, and look at the floor or wall instead.

But then I think of my friend, and all those with a skin color different from my own. They walk by these mirrors daily, and aren’t allowed to look away. They hear the comments, don’t get the job or the apartment, and watch their children treated as outcasts in their own country. People of color meet the racists that many Americans are afraid to confront. And when they tell us stories of monsters oozing out of the mirrors, we don’t believe them.

Shithole

In front of my house in Njinikom (I’m on the far left).

When I hear the terms “Africa” and “shithole” together, as I have for the past few days, I picture my bathroom in Njinikom, Cameroon. It was one of the best outhouses in Njinikom, and it scared me to death.

I lived in a three bedroom cinderblock house (pictured above) with a tin roof. Behind the house was a smaller building, a cinderblock kitchen with a cookfire. And about ten feet behind the kitchen, up a dirt path, was the bathroom.  Tin had been hammered onto a somewhat sketchy wooden frame that sat on a concrete slab. There were two wobbly doors. The door on the right led to an eight inch hole cut into the concrete. That was, um, the potty. The door on the left led to a stall with a floor that sloped toward the other room. I’d carry a blue bucket full of hot water into this room and wash, using a tin cup to pour water over my head and body. The excess water would drain towards the hole in the floor on the other side.

I had an opportunity during my two year stay as a Peace Corps volunteer to try other people’s outhouses. There was an off-license (bar) that had a pretty nice one too, but generally speaking, most were a mere hole in the ground with a couple of ancient boards of questionable strength to stand on, and very little privacy.

Even though I had one of the best ‘shitholes,’ still, as someone who had always grown up with a flush toilet, I had issues. Cameroon is the home of the dreaded Black Mamba, one of the most dangerous snakes in the world. And, for some reason, for the entire two years that I lived in Njinikom, I needed to get up in the middle of the night to pee. This was not a problem before I lived in Njinikom, it was not in a problem after. But somehow the knowledge that the Black Mamba was out there somewhere, as was my latrine, made me desperate. I’d light my kerosene lamp, hold it low to the ground in front of me, and make my way up the dirt path to the latrine at about 2 a.m. every morning.

Needless to say, I never did encounter a Black Mamba. I’m here to write this blog post.

So yes, there were a lot of adjustments to living in an African country in the 1980’s. And some of those adjustments had to do with shitholes.  But once I began to settle, I noticed something odd.

I had grown up in an agricultural town of 1500 souls (if you included a random cow or two). I realized that Njinikom, once I got over a bit of culture shock, was the same town. There was the town drunk. There was the postmaster who knew everyone’s business but was somewhat discrete. There was the town mechanic who could work miracles for very little money. There were a number of self-sacrificing, intelligent women scattered about town who made everything work smoothly. (They had supportive husbands who thought they ran things.) There was the town gossip. There were rich families and poor families, all mixed together, all knowing each other’s business. There were the concerned teachers, who worked long hours and sacrificed for their students. The children at the school all played together, regardless of background. It was my hometown all over again.

I had traveled 8000 miles to end up where I started.

It was a great life lesson. People are pretty much the same all over the world. What separates us is our system of government. Does the government provide access to education, health care, roads, trustworthy police, etc.? And, most importantly, does our government protect our basic human freedoms?

I was not a big fan of the president of the United States at the time (Ronald Reagan). Another Peace Corps volunteer in my village was. When I spoke out about one of Reagan’s policies at a party, my friends drew me aside and warned me that I needed to be careful. The other Peace Corps volunteer might report me to the government and then where would I be? I was putting myself and my family in danger.

Wow. Can you imagine living in a country without the right of freedom of speech? That night my home town comparison completely fell apart.

Don’t worry, I assured my friends. I can say what I want here, I can say what I want in the United States. We have freedom of speech. My friends shook their heads and walked away, convinced that I was dooming not only myself, but my parents and my siblings.

At that time I was young and, to be honest, a little smug. Maybe a lot smug. I had grown up in the greatest democracy the world had ever seen. When we erred, and we have erred, God sent us incredible people, like Dr. Martin Luther King, to show us the way.

Cameroon, like many African countries, had an old, corrupt, out-of-touch leader who had no respect for basic civil rights.

In my naiveté I believed that what happened in Cameroon could never happen in the United States.

The year is now 2018. And, once again, I realize how much I have in common with the people of Njinikom. Democracy, as it turns out, is not some huge fortress that withstands the swirling changes of time. And civil rights, apparently, have few protections in a democracy. One leader can be elected to a country and begin to dismantle the safeguards that it took over 200 years to build.

Let’s review those civil rights. The right of free speech (football players kneeling), freedom of press (articles critical of the president), freedom of religion (Islam given the same protections as Christianity), freedom of assembly (our president and I agree on this one, even racists do have a right to assemble), and the right to vote (without undue requirements for documentation).

So I want to get back to that word, ‘shithole,’ as used to describe African countries. (I know that a children’s writer really shouldn’t be using the word. But our president is lowering standards everywhere.)

The amazing thing about Njinikom. The amazing thing about Cameroon, was that despite a repressive government the people were wonderful. They had this ideal, this model to try for: the United States. Looking at our country, they knew what a democracy should be. They were striving, just like we all do, for a better life for their children.

My friend Richard and his daughter

What pains me the most about the Trump presidency is that this light, the world’s beacon of freedom, is being extinguished.

Every freedom fought for and earned by our forefathers is now under attack. The truth is under attack. And our country’s president stokes his followers by making casual racist remarks. And then denies them.