Moments of clarity

written by Anti-Racist Parent columnist Margie Perscheid

It’s easy to become jaded by the political process when you live in Washington, DC. Although I’ve lived here for over 40 years, apart from cultural events like the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the last time I found myself on the Mall to voice my political opinion was in the 60s, for a Vietnam War demonstration.

This week, however, nothing could have kept me away. Like literally millions of others, I had to be a part of this moment in history. And so, on Tuesday morning, a friend who had come down from Chicago and I bundled ourselves up, jumped on the Metro in Virginia, and made the trek in.

The effort exceeded every expectation. Because of the enormous crowds, we never actually made it onto the Mall until the ceremony was over, but we got close enough to the Capitol to hear bits of the speeches, and all of Aretha’s performance. With the help of the radios many had brought along, we managed to hear it all.

I had been glued to the TV for every available moment before and after the event, and I think the coverage did a good job of bringing the excitement and sense of history to those watching from home. But there around the Capitol, I felt something else that TV couldn’t capture: a sense that, if only for this one day, we were all just people – no labels or stereotypes, just people celebrating the possibility of a brighter future.

What a contrast to the first memory I have of conscious dialog about race. It’s an uncomfortable memory, one that resurfaced right after the election and has been in my mind a lot since then.

It took place when I was in sixth grade. My music teacher was encouraging our exclusively white class to discuss the subject of race, which was in the news a lot then. It 1960 or ’61, years of sit-ins, Freedom Rides, and voter registration drives. My teacher’s interest in the Civil Rights movement surfaced in the music we learned and in her efforts to get us to think and talk about it.

During this particular class, she asked us to take a turn at the front of the class stating our opinions. I don’t remember the name of the boy who stars in this memory, or what he looked like. I only remember that he walked to the front of the classroom with the assuredness of someone who knew what he said would find acceptance, turned calmly to face us, and delivered his pronouncement:

I think we should send them all back.

This wasn’t an uncommon point of view in the overwhelmingly white environment in which I grew up. Through high school, my schools had no non-white students, save for the one biracial young man in the high school class behind mine. We measured our differences in terms of ethnicity and religion; when all you see around you are white faces, you find other ways to differentiate yourselves from each other. In families like mine, where racist slurs were unacceptable, separation was still accepted as the norm. As appalling as that little boy’s statement seems, the only difference between it and my reality was distance.

I don’t remember if I got up and said something myself that day; if I did, I can’t recall the words. But I do remember with great clarity how uncomfortable I was with that comment, and how quickly my eleven-year-old brain concluded That’s wrong. That class was the conscious starting point for my current beliefs about race. They’re driven today by the same intuition that formed my thoughts that day.

Which brings me back to the Mall. The elusive emotion I felt during the inauguration was certainly a result of the intensity of the moment. I know that we face the same challenges today that we did on Monday, and the same inequities. It has also occurred to me, sadly, that the existence of a Black president may even re-kindle fires of overt racial hatred that we may have thought were dying out.

I hope not. I hope instead that the sense of humanity I felt on the Mall on Tuesday was shared and will be remembered by everyone, no matter their race. I hope I was seeing and feeling this incredible moment with the same clarity with which I processed that negative comment back in 1961. As we go back to the work of challenging racial inequities, I want this new memory to stay with us and guide us. It will certainly be guiding me.

Margie Perscheid is the adoptive mother of two Korean teens. She is a co-founder of Korean Focus, an organization for families with children from Korea with chapters across the country. Margie is on the Board of Directors of the Korean American Coalition DC Chapter, a former board member of KAAN, the Korean YMCA of Greater Washington (now KAYA), and ASIA (Adoption Service Information Agency). Margie writes about her intercountry adoption experiences at Third Mom. She, her husband Ralf, and their two children live in Alexandria, Virginia.

Image courtesy of © 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc., on Flickr

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