Growing Up Blue in Red America

Mar 25, 2011 No Comments

By Anais LaVoie

My hometown breeds the Mitt Romneys and Ann Coulters of the world. I am personally familiar with the tactics of Fox News, since I grew up arguing against the same sort of senseless banter.   I hoped that someone would finally agree that Schwarzenegger wasn’t the best thing that had happened to California since Ronald Reagan, that Oprah wasn’t going to Hell for not marrying her long-time live-in boyfriend, and that if I chose Berkeley, I wouldn’t return a drug-addicted heathen who hated her family (as one Mormon father actually dared to predict for me).  At home, I feel inherently different, like I have to defend everything about myself, and unfortunately that means a lot more than disagreeing with my Biology teacher about evolution, or lying about what church I attended so that my friends would be allowed to hang out with me.

Generally, I like to be different, but only in ways I can control.  I refused to wear shoes in school, but would never admit I only owned one pair.  I made awkward sexual advances towards my friends of every gender, but waited until college to tell anyone that I wasn’t straight.  Actually, I still haven’t come out to most people back home; Mom, I’m sorry you read it in a magazine first.  My point is, being poor, queer, and liberal in a town that hates all three of those things made me think that hate was all I could expect from the world.

More importantly, it diminished my ability to have sympathy for others who also live in a world of hate, even though I realized that they have a harder time controlling their differences.  Almost every person of color with whom I came of age, granted they be few, grew up more financially privileged than myself, and everything I learned in school about racism taught me that it was exclusively a thing of the past, or of former slave states that had yet to be enlightened.  I got MLK, but never Malcolm X; the freedom riders, but never the Black Panthers; the Rosa Parks, but never the Angela Davises.  I knew we were about to elect Barack Obama, and saw it as proof that we had solved our race problem.

I came to college resenting people of color who continued to whine about race, and not about other inequalities that I believed were much more substantial.  I was unprepared to understand that race and wealth could still be linked, because I didn’t know that the wealthy students of color in my school were of much as a minority as I was.  I didn’t understand white privilege, let alone understand how it benefitted me.  This is where our education, though it got most of my classmates and me into college, failed us.  It didn’t teach us about institutionalized racism, probably because it practiced it.  It didn’t teach us about inequalities in education, probably because it didn’t want to attack an unfair system that placed it on top.  It didn’t really teach us about hate, because the truth is, in small town white America, hate is as prevalent as churches and minivans.

But the silver lining to my story is that Berkeley is not small town America.  It doesn’t buy into the happy raceless after-school special that ironically colored my youth white.  Here, I’ve had conversations about race that people at home are too “post-racial” to entertain.

Nobody wants to admit that real examples of racial intolerance are ingrained in all of us.  I heard a story recently about a Louisiana justice who refused to marry an interracial couple, and who began his response to public rage with the words, “I am not a racist.”  His argument was that mixed race children are subjected to a level of hate that they do not deserve, and therefore should not be conceived at all.  But here’s the thing: we are all racist.  We all come from backgrounds that predisposition us to hate, or to judge, or to ignore, but my hope is that we learn how to channel that racism into positive discussions that aren’t overshadowed by political correctness and avoidance.  I grew up with mostly good people, who, like the old me, don’t yet understand that they are racist, privileged, dismissing and ignorant, and that all this isn’t their fault, but the fault of a system that needs to be changed.

President Obama won’t solve our race problem, and if Sarah Palin runs in 2012, most of my old neighbors will probably vote for her before they vote for a Democrat.  But even if turning Redlands blue is hopeless (yes, even the name of our little town condemns it), there is indeed a happy ending: My hometown bred a new kind of political activist, someone with a newly opened mind and an old sense of social responsibility.  In the end, it doesn’t matter that few people back home think that changing my major to Ethnic Studies was a practical idea; when have I ever cared what they thought anyway?

Spring 2010

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