Sunday, September 16, 2012

Beyond FRIENDS: You talking to me?

Just before the start of summer and toward summer’s end this year I experienced two incredibly memorable events: the fifth annual Mixed Roots Film & Literary Festival in Los Angeles in June and the September Writing Away Retreat in Breckenridge CO. Both took me away from home and out of my typical routine and introduced me to remarkably creative people from all walks of life. And while I’d suspected my understanding of racial issues would be expanded at the Mixed Roots Festival, I was surprised when the most challenging lesson I learned there came in the form of a question from on high—a question that would trouble me until I was finally able to answer it three months later.

I’d applied to read from my first novel, One Sister’s Song, at the Mixed Roots Festival and was thrilled when I was selected to be one of four literary presenters on the second day of the weekend. After our readings, the four of us were asked questions by Heidi Durrow, a founder of the festival and author of The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, and by members of the audience.

We were seated in the front of a high-tech theater within the Japanese American National Museum in LA’s Little Tokyo neighborhood. The lights were bright, the seats went practically straight up in front of us, and it was impossible to see audience members past the first ten rows.

From a seat high up and well beyond my vision, a woman’s voice asked me how I respond to racist comments when my husband, who is of mixed-race descent, is not present. I tried to recall if anyone had recently made a racist comment around me, perhaps without knowing that my husband was a person of color, and could not think of a single instance. I could, however, think of comments made to me years ago when my husband and I were dating, comments that had been voiced in ways that were supposed to imply concern for my well-being.

In both those instances, I’d deferred to the (older) ages and (somewhat questionable) intentions of the people speaking to me, said nothing, and moved on. So I answered the woman at the festival by saying I’m the last one to put someone on the spot for saying anything that could be considered offensive, that I choose to assume people mean no harm and opt to get to more comfortable ground as quickly as possible. My answer was lame, but honest. But since that voice from on high posed that question to me, I’ve wondered what I should say the next time someone makes a prejudiced comment of any kind (racist, homophobic, anti-immigration, anti-pick-a-religion, anti-pick-a-region, anti-special needs, the list goes on and on) to me. Perhaps even more importantly, what should I teach my kids to say when they hear such comments?

And then my friend Phyllis came back to town. Phyllis Glazer of Dallas is no push-over, having led a community of small-town Texans in a long complex fight against a nearby toxic-waste treatment facility that caused cancers, birth defects, and other tragic afflictions. When Phyllis got directly involved and took her town’s fight to the national media and to Washington, she received death threats directed not only at her but at her youngest son. Her story is fascinating and she’s attended two Writing Away Retreats this year to get feedback on her memoir manuscript. Meanwhile, she keeps teaching those of us lucky enough to spend any time with her a lesson or two on how to get things done.

While driving Phyllis and others from the Denver airport to Breckenridge on the first day of the retreat, I found myself in the middle of a discussion about racist remarks and how to cope with them. Phyllis was sitting next to me, her red hair in its everyday up-do adorned with purple flowers and feathers, her eyes bright, her make-up perfect. Phyllis, a brain cancer survivor, is a ballroom dancer and carries herself like a queen. She speaks loudly and laughs loudly and when she tells a story commands the attention of everyone in a room…especially when her story involves the first time she was shot at by someone who wanted her dead.

As for those who make racist remarks to her, Phyllis said she tells them “You’re talking to the wrong person.”

Simply put but effective enough to make an important point, and make it clear a conversation has ended. I have a feeling Phyllis has put more than one person in his (or her) place with that remark, and I plan to use it as needed in the future. Hopefully it won’t be needed often but it’s good to be prepared...and to prepare one’s children in case they need some ammunition in the fights they’re forced to face.

Thanks, Phyllis.