Friday, July 8, 2016

Opening the Conversation: Race in America

I have three boys. My neighbor is currently pregnant with her third boy. We live in the same town, in the safe affluent neighborhood, on the same street, two houses from each other. Her boys and my boys come from parents with advanced degrees. They come from loving homes full of opportunity. Her boys are kind, outgoing, and polite. Mine are too…most of the time. Her boys and my boys will go to the same schools. And yet, I know that her experience as a mother, particularly as her boys get older, will be vastly different from mine. Why? Because my boys happen to be white and hers are black.

I will fear for my sons’ safety as they learn to drive and get behind the wheel of a car because of reckless drivers and the poor decisions teens sometimes make. She will have these same fears, but she will also have to fear that her sons’ lives could be in danger for buying a bag of skittles or driving with a broken taillight. I’ll worry that my sweet boys don’t get caught up with a “bad crowd” or that they aren’t picked on or bullied at school. She will worry the same. But she’ll also worry that her sons will be seen as a threat to someone else’s safety if they happen to choose to wear a hooded sweatshirt. She will live in fear of how people will falsely view her children and how they might react when they sense a false threat.

Parenting is a fear-filled endeavor for anyone. But having that fear magnified by 1000 simply because of the color of one’s skin is an unfathomable injustice. I can’t begin to imagine what it is like to live with that fear. I would be angry…I would…Actually, I don’t know how I would feel. And the truth is, I will never know. I was born white and so were my boys. And because of that pure luck, and because I will never know what it’s like to be anything other than white, I have a responsibility to try my absolute best to understand the experience of people of color, like my neighbor, her husband, and their three boys.

The recent killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile have put in pristine focus for me the extreme ways in which other human beings react in a moment of perceived threat.  People can believe what they want about Mr. Sterling and whether he did something to attract the attention of the police. But that is a moot point. He was tackled on the ground and clearly overtaken by the police officers. There is no reason he should be dead. As for Mr. Castile, there are no reports anywhere that he did anything other than drive with a broken taillight to attract the attention of the police. He reportedly told the officer involved that he had a permit to carry a concealed weapon, which he disclosed was on his person, and that he was getting his wallet and identification as was asked of him. And now he is dead. Perhaps worst of all, as these men lay dying the officers involved did NOTHING to provide aid or prevent their death. They did not provide first aid. In the case of Mr. Castile, who it seems was shot only in the arm, imagine if instead of pointing the gun at his girlfriend and handcuffing her if the officers had instead placed a tourniquet on his arm. A simple show of humanity could have saved his life.

We have all walked or driven through areas that we perceive, sometimes quite accurately, to be unsafe. But what we have to remind ourselves is that those areas are not unsafe because black people live there. They are unsafe because there is little opportunity in those areas. There are few programs for children and adolescents. The schools and other educational opportunities are limited. In the areas most in need of services and support, even basic needs are more difficult to attain. There are fewer grocery stores and department stores. People have to drive/walk/use public transportation to go further to get less. And when people are desperate, and they lack education, and resources, and support, they react out of fear and desperation, and do things and behave in ways they otherwise would not. Yes, these situations are desperate, and no, there are no easy solutions. Knowing where to begin, and what we can do to help is challenging and sometimes seems so impossible that we freeze. Donating money seems superficial. Volunteering time can be a struggle when we are doing our best to care for our own families. But one place we can all begin is by opening the conversation and committing to better understanding all of our fellow human beings.

I read today an article on race that compared racism to a gigantic societal-sized boot. The author asked, if racism is a boot, then who is “fighting the hardest to avoid being squashed by the boot?” Yes, people of color. And who is it that is wearing the boot? Yes, white people. And who then should be responsible for stopping the boot from squashing anyone? The people who are already fighting against the pressure of the boot or the people wearing it?

I hope you came to the correct answer yourself. But if you didn’t, let me spell it out for you. White people. White people have a responsibility to stop the boot. This author was not saying all white people are racist, and neither am I. I certainly don’t like to consider myself racist, and I hope I have never acted in a way that is. But, I also know that I have not openly acted in a way to challenge the racist beliefs of those I encounter. And as a white person, I am in a unique position to open the dialogue and potentially change the viewpoints of other white people who may be racist; a position that people of color are not in at all. And so, with this post, that is what I am attempting to do.

I also commit to better understanding issues of race in our country. I have already reserved the book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness” by Michelle Alexander at my local library. It was on hold and I am 3rd in the queue. This fact in and of itself gave me hope. Maybe other people in my community have had the same idea I did.  If you too would like to better understand issues of race, so you can open a dialogue that is not at all open enough, then check out the article I linked to above and check out this article which includes links to a reading list on issues of race.

Now, I started writing this article on Thursday before the horrific shootings in Dallas occurred. And so, I would be remiss to not address that tragedy. Those officers were assassinated. The actions of the people who carried out those killings are not justified…not even a little bit. Those individuals were no doubt angry. But they only made the situation worse. Instead of drawing greater attention to issues of race, injustice, and excessive force by some police officers they have provided fuel to the fire for people who will say, “See? It’s them. They are the problem.” And that will only serve to shut down an already difficult conversation even further.

And I fear that because of the actions of these snipers in Dallas that the overwhelming message will now be “black lives will only matter when police lives matter.” And that is not true. In fact, Dallas was an exemplary example of how the black community and the police community can work together. The police were out in full force making it safe for a Black Lives Matter protest to proceed peacefully and successfully. And yet, so many people seem to believe that you either have to support law enforcement or support people of color; that police lives and black lives can’t matter simultaneously. But they can, and they do. As John Stewart (seriously, when will that man run for office?) so eloquently said today “You can truly grieve for every officer who’s been lost in the line of duty in this country, and still be troubled by cases of police overreach. Those two ideas are not mutually exclusive. You can have great regard for law enforcement and still want them to be held to high standards.”

And so, we will all struggle with what to do and how best to react to the tragic events that have occurred this week. But please join me in my commitment to more conversations, more understanding, and more willingness to see both sides of this issue; an issue that is of utmost importance to the survival and success of our great Nation. It is my hope that I will raise boys who will grow up completely confounded by the idea that someone would ever judge someone differently because of the color of their skin. It is my hope that my three boys and my neighbor’s three boys have life experiences far more similar than I expect they will given the state of things at this time. But I have to believe there is hope that can change.  

Together, let’s ask questions. Let’s try to understand. Let’s accept that some people may not use the exact, most politically correct words when trying to better understand and instead of judging, let’s educate. The future truly rests in the hands of our children and it is our responsibility to raise children who will make this world a kinder place than it is now. We can only do that by opening and changing the conversation, by working together to lift the oppressive boot of racism. Start now. Start tonight. Open the conversation at your own dinner table. I know I will be.

Monday, June 13, 2016

Let It Begin with Me...and You

When I was 16 years old my parents planned a surprise birthday party for me. They invited a group of my friends to Planet Hollywood in Washington, DC. The day of my party also happened to be the day of the annual Capital PRIDE celebration. In order to get me to Planet Hollywood my Dad and brother framed it as “let’s just go check out DC for the day.” We headed into DC and started walking towards Planet Hollywood with the plan that my brother would just casually suggest eating there for lunch. In order to get there we walked smack dab through the middle of the PRIDE parade. At one point we were practically in the parade. I remember watching my Dad’s face to see his reaction. I remember the smirk on my older brother’s face as he smiled about the surprise that awaited me and probably imagined my mom walking through the same parade a few minutes prior with a group of my good friends, some of whom she didn’t know that well. I remember smiling in awe as I took in the bright colors, open expressions of love, and colorful personalities that surrounded me. It was a joyous event and one I have not and never will forget. We eventually arrived at Planet Hollywood and I was indeed surprised. But whenever I retell the story of my 16th birthday party Planet Hollywood doesn’t even get mentioned.  I like to tell it as “Mom and Dad planned a surprise party for me at the Capital PRIDE Parade. It was AWESOME!”

And awesome it was. This was my first true experience of LGBT culture and I don’t remember much except the immense feeling of joy and warmth that came from being a part of that parade. My Dad, brother, and I must have stuck out like a sore thumb walking through; But not for a second did I feel out of place or uncomfortable, because everyone there stuck out for their own unique style, beauty, outfits, hair, costumes, love, energy, and excitement. It was a wonderful feeling.

A number of years prior, when I was about 10 I remember standing in the kitchen of my grandmother’s house when I overheard a conversation in which I learned that my beloved cousin Paul, was gay. At the time I had recently heard in the news about there being a greater number of people who were gay who were contracting the AIDS virus. So, my first thought was one of worry. I just wanted my cousin, whom I loved dearly to be ok. Once I talked to my mom and learned that he was completely fine, then so was I. I loved him, and who he loved didn’t matter at all to me, or to my parents.

A number of years after that I remember meeting my cousin’s boyfriend (also named Paul!) for the first time at their apartment in Greenwich Village. I was there with my boyfriend, and the four of us went to lunch at a local restaurant. Paul and Paul had been dating for some years at that point but this was the first time I had the chance to see them together as a couple. I remember being struck by the tender and sincere love and affection that they shared and still do.

Since that time, through college and work I have been fortunate to call many men and women who are gay or lesbian, my friends. And from each and every one of them I have never felt anything in return except love, acceptance, and friendship.

Why do I write all this? It is to tell the Orlando shooter (who I will not even name) that he messed with the wrong group. Mr. Shooter, your heart may have been filled with hatred. And your goal was to spread that evil far and wide. You likely sought to silence and scare a group of people you rejected as “other.” But we will not be silenced. We will not be brought to our knees in fear. We will rise up. We will spread love. We will reject hate. And we will make this world a stronger and better place in light of the evil act you committed.

Yes, I say we. For the attack may have been directly against the LGBT community, but all of us who are their allies and friends will stand with them to spread the love further. We will recall the kindness, joy, acceptance and openness that we feel when surrounded by the LGBT community and we will seek to take the lessons they teach and preach so well, and we will raise better children; we will be better people; we will love more and hate less.

The same cousin I mentioned above currently lives in Florida. He posted a video this morning from a memorial service he attended last night in St. Petersburg. In the video everyone was singing “Let There Be Peace on Earth.” I cannot think of a better way to honor the 49 men and women who died in the wake of such evil. Their deaths will not be in vain. For each of those brave brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, husbands and wives, I say:

“Let peace begin with me
Let this be the moment now.
With every step I take
Let this be my solemn vow.
To take each moment
And live each moment
With peace eternally.
Let there be peace on earth,
And let it begin with me.”

Will you join me? 

Saturday, April 16, 2016

What Scary Mommy Taught Me

Earlier this week I was published on Scary Mommy for the first time. And yes, given that my piece was about the Obamas I was more than a little scared (see what I did there?) to see what the response would be. But who knew that such a simple experience could be a reminder about humanity in all its forms. These are the things that I learned as a result:

1.        Haters gonna hate
I chose to write about one of the most polarizing families in my lifetime. So, yes, I knew there would be some negativity. And of course there was. There were people who made obnoxious comments who clearly hadn’t even read the article. There was one particularly noxious woman that said I must be “Obama’s lover” to have written such “garbage.” There were people who made accusatory and false statements about the President of the USA that border on treason. But, I was also pleasantly surprised.

 2.       The vast majority of people are reasonable and kind
      There were many people who commented on my post and readily acknowledged that while they don’t agree with the Obamas from a political standpoint, they could still respect them as people. This was the intent of my post, and it was heartening to see that people “got that” and were willing to openly state their belief in someone’s value as a person despite their disagreement with their political views. Also, I was so surprised and flattered that so many people didn’t just comment on the post, but also took the time to compliment my writing. They had nothing to gain from that and I was touched beyond measure. Lastly, I realized…

3.       Some people are exceptional human beings 
 This morning, when I checked the e-mail account associated with my blog, I found an e-mail from a woman who, in her words, “I read your letter to the Obamas on FB, which led me to your blog, which led me to some of your writing and photos. (You know how the crazy labyrinth of FB works!)” She went on to tell me how she, too, is the mother of three boys. But the difference between her and me is that her sons are grown. She shared how she felt when she learned her third child was a boy (a bit disappointed), how angry she would get every time someone would ask “will you try for a girl” (I hear ya, sister!) and offered advice on raising kind, caring men who value their relationship with their mother (I’ll take all the advice I can!). She even included pictures of her three boys. As I read this heartfelt message from a stranger, as the tears rolled down my cheeks I was overwhelmed by her kindness. She went out of her way for someone she’d never met.

When friends and family started to realize that my article had been published on Scary Mommy I was warned “Don’t read the comments!” And as I read the comments I saw people who posted their expectation that the comments would all be negative and full of vitriol. But, they were not. They were far from it. So, thank you Scary Mommy readers. You have renewed my faith in humanity. I am grateful and I am honored to be among the ranks of readers and writers alike who are—for the most part—kind, caring, and compassionate people. Truly, thank you.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Dear President & Mrs. Obama

Dear President & Mrs. Obama,

Today I saw the pictures of the two of you reading "Where the Wild Things Are" at the White House Easter Egg Roll. Besides being completely jealous of those who got to be there (that's right, I've entered the ticket lottery every year for the past 6 years since I had children of my own and not once did we get tickets...alas) I also found myself in awe, as I often do, of the two of you.

Photo credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images                                                                                                                                                   
Ah! Too scary!
Photo credit: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters                                                                                                                                                           
You see, in looking at these pictures, I didn't just see two confident people reading in a goofy way to a bunch of kids. Nope. I also saw two examples of humanity, kindness, and confidence.

Its no secret that I am a huge supporter of your politics, Mr. Obama. Any visitor to my Facebook page or blog would see very quickly and easily that I have been and continue to be a huge fan of yours. But one of the things that makes me so proud to have both of you as the representatives of our Nation is that there is more to you than politics. You clearly have a sense, everywhere you go that you are not only representing your own political views. You know you're more than just representatives of the United States of America. It is clear that you both realize you are humanitarians. You are examples of good will. You are an example to the world of what it means to be human. You are an example to children and adults alike, of how to be confident in who you are. Today, when my 6 y/o son, Ryan, gets home from school I will show him this video of the two of you reading. 

 You see, just yesterday Ryan delivered his first ever "presentation" in front of his class. His homework for a few days leading up to this presentation was to practice in front of his family. Having grown up competing in speech and debate I was eager to help Ryan with this project. As he practiced his "When I grow up" speech (OK, so it was just 6 sentences, but I think for a Kindergartner we can call that speech, right?) I coached him on how to look at his audience, how to effectively use hand motions to get his point across, and how to speak loudly, and not into the paper he was holding. A few times he said to me, "This is embarrassing." He's getting to the age where he understands the concept of embarrassment. Recently, when we went to see Zootopia in the theaters, just me and him, I started rocking out to Shakira's "Try Everything." I mean, how can you not dance to that song? And so, dance I did. And what did he do? He crouched in his seat and asked me to stop. Just a year ago he would have happily joined in the dance. But now, he knew people could see me (don't worry, we were in the back row, and this was the closing credits, we weren't bothering anyone). He was embarrassed. And to be honest, if he was your kid, watching you read at the Easter Egg roll, he may have been embarrassed too. Maybe Sasha and Malia were? 

But he's not your kid. He looks up to you. He knows you're our "Big Leader Guy" and even if he didn't state that he'd like to follow in your footsteps as President of the United States in his first big speech (sorry, the allure of a train engineer is just too great at his young age. Plus, he's wise. He knows being President comes with a lot of stress, especially with the likes of Mitch McConnell as leader of the Senate...but I digress) he does respect you and think you're pretty cool. So, yes, I will show him the video of the two of you reading Where the Wild Things Are and we will talk about how it can be fun to be silly and goofy in front of a crowd. We will talk about how the two of you weren't concerned about what other people would think when you made those awesome faces. You were just having fun and being yourselves. We will talk about confidence and I will hope that just a little bit of the message sticks. If we're being honest, I will hope that a lot of your messages stick. 

Just this morning, I was talking with my husband, and I said, "I think this is as good as it gets. I don't think our children will ever see another President and First Lady who are better examples of how to be a good person" than they have seen in the two of you. And sadly, two of my three children will likely never remember your presidency. Zachary and Connor are only 3 years and 18 months. I'm not sure either of them knows who the two of you are. 

Michelle Obama has her arm around me. Squee! 
But, I promise, they will know. I will share stories of your honesty, your integrity, and your leadership skills with them. I will explain that when I had the great privilege of meeting you, Michelle, in 2009, when I worked at Children's National Medical Center I saw first hand that your kindness and compassion is not just a show; It is genuine and natural. At the time I was 8 1/2 months pregnant with Ryan. You asked me about my pregnancy. You put your hand on my belly, you wished me the best of luck. You didn't just go around and talk with patients and families. No, you sat with them, you engaged, you cared. 

Star struck! 
I know plenty of people disagree with the two of you on many issues. I know many people do not think as highly of you as I do. And honestly, I have a hard time understanding that. Politics aside, you are true role models for children and adults alike.

As you end your time in the White House, and begin to think about your legacy and the work you will do in the remainder of your careers, I challenge you to think of ways you can continue to have an impact on the youth of our world. I don't want any of my children to forget you. Please, remain in the public eye. Please continue to show the world what it means to be happy, confident, smart, fun, and kind. Show the world what it means to have integrity; to have strong beliefs and to stand up for what you believe. Don't hesitate to continue to be an example of a successful marriage raising successful children. Our Country and our world needs more of the two of you! 

Photo Credit: Craig Lassig/EPA                                                               
President and Mrs. Obama, our world may not fully recognize it yet, but we have much to thank the two of you for. I think in the years to come it will be more and more obvious. I, for one, am most grateful to the two of you for putting a face on what it means to be compassionate and human, and for never making yourselves seem "above" the people you have served and represented during your time in office. I believe you think of yourselves just like the rest of us do: people doing the best we can, to do the best we can, in all we do. You have succeeded. Thank you. 

With greatest admiration and appreciation, 

Kristen Caminiti

The Cam Fam has been Published on:

Scary Mommy