I am thrilled to include the illustrations of my very talented friend Leanne Franson in this post.
The first time I went snorkeling I was kind of “eh” about the idea. I mean I’d been to the beach hundreds of times throughout my life. Like, “ok… now I am going in the water with a mask on. Big deal…”
Mind you, most of my beach experience was in the Santa Monica and Venice area of CA. That’s where, for a good many years of my childhood, I grew up . For this snorkeling adventure, I was in New Caledonia which is a small French-colonized island in the South Pacific, surrounded by the world’s largest lagoon. I was there performing for the annual Festival Femmes Funk, an incredible music festival celebrating local and international women musicians.
The majestic blue New Caledonia lagoon is such that one could walk out quite a ways and not be in all that deep. Beautiful as it is there, I recall that the day was somewhat grey. It was also low-tide and I was approaching this experience with a bit of cynicism, while my friend Adam was guiding me from the water and assuring me, it would be worth the effort.
There I was trudging best I could with the mask half on and the flippers making it hard to step. But I got to a certain point and Adam instructed me, “OK. Now you’re going to turn around and just fall back ’cause it gets deeper right there.”
And yeah… it was completely different all of a sudden. Big splash. But OK, all is fine. I’m treading water. And he is like…. “OK so just put on the mask, then look down and float.” And so I have in mind that when I do this I will be seeing mostly sand and a few sea plants and then occasionally… “Ooh! I think I saw a fish!” – kind of like shooting stars… like ok, it happens… but it’s an elusive experience.
So I looked down into the water I had already been treading in and it was like the NYC of fish. I freaked out and had to turn up for air all flabbergasted thinking, “What the HELL?!?! How could I be here treading water and ALL THIS was happening without me knowing?” Like, I wasn’t bumping into fish or anything and seriously… there were enough, in a million different shapes, sizes and colors RIGHT THERE. And I didn’t know it.
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A friend of mine has a phobia about fish. And she wanted to push past it. So she committed to herself that she would try snorkeling. But it was huge and scary and she had to talk about it with LOTS of people to work herself up to finally doing it. And then when she came back to tell us about it, she said,
“Oh I get it. On the other side of uncontrollable fear lies unspeakable beauty.”
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I am reminded of all that, because I was having a conversation with someone who I imagined myself trying to explain racism to using a light switch for imagery. Imagine you are in a room that is dark. And you think you understand everything that is in the room, because you are accustomed to it as you have always known it. But when a light is turned on, things you may never have imagined are also there. Then I remembered my own experience with the fish.
The thing is… once I got in the water the fish knew about me. They swam about avoiding me. I’m sure it was easy enough for them to navigate. But I’m sayin’… It wasn’t until I put my face down into the water and looked that I even realized any of that was RIGHT THERE the whole time. Before I saw that, in my mind, all that was there was Adam, myself and the very little I could imagine.
Racism is not just the obvious use of slurs and violence. It’s also the assumptions that project and forget that people of color exist and may have different cultural outlooks, needs and experiences. And it’s more than prejudice. It’s prejudice that is reinforced with systemic power. It’s the unconscious living that affects others around you and requires them to move about in order to accommodate how you trudge through their world without any consideration that they even exist.
I navigate racists, people who are very likely well-meaning, but still racist by way of their assumptions, projections and obliviousness, all the time. I avoid overt displays best I can, and I buffer myself against the barrage of microaggressions. It would be nice though if, well-meaning, yet racist, people started being willing to put their face down into the water and look at both the beauty they are missing and effect that them not even realizing we exist is having on us.
I am exhausted by the racism that would exist if none of us ever talked about it. And that is only amplified by the racism we are trying to talk about and having denied.
This piece was originally written as a post on my Facebook page in response to George Zimmerman being acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin. Many people lost friends over their opinions about that case. The insistence that there was “no racism involved,” the idea of some that “justice was served” and the contrasting outrage at the implications for young black males in particular, clashed so in my news feed. I felt as if I were in mourning. I still do.