Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Taxi Driver

(Taxi, oil on canvas by Jaime Ellsworth)

Taxi Driver

One of the most significant events for me of the entire Netroots Nation array occurred during a cab ride to meet up with Jesse and Lower Manhattanite. In a way, it began the night before, when a cab picked me up from my apartment here in Austin to go meet Jesse at his hotel. That cab driver, whom I'll call Rogelio, was around my age (50-ish), quiet and reserved at first. I thought I recognized it as the kind of cultural modesty I know about from my Hispanic friends here in Central and South Texas. It wasn't a "Don't talk to me" vibe, just -- modesty.

At some point, I asked him if it would be all right for me to inquire as the particular kind of accent he had. I didn't elaborate that I could identify it as Hispanic (which is what folks here seem to prefer as a descriptor, although every time I use it I hear Marga Gomez's thick sarcasm when she'd yell, "Yeah, I come from the island of HeesPANica!"). I wanted a more accurate location of origin, because I know people from all over and such things interest me.

However, he froze, and his grin remained but got wary. He said "It's my accent." I immediately apologized for prying, and I guess that got through, because he relented enough to say he was from Mexico. "Whereabouts?" I asked. He checked me out again, then said "Mexico City."

"Oh, the DF? I've been there. I once spent two entire days in the Museo Antropológico."

Now his smile shifted again, widening and relaxing. "Why would you do that?" he asked.

I explained about the two-week trip a friend and I made through Mexico in 1977 to force ourselves into conversational fluency after taking years of classroom Spanish. I told a couple of funny stories about linguistic errors we perpetrated during the first couple of days. He began laughing hard and told me that in his culture, correcting someone else's mispronunciation is a courtesy, with no judgment or hostility behind it, but here people won't tell you when you've said something wrong, although they judge you for it, because correction is seen as rude. I was struck by this.

When Jesse eventually joined us, Rogelio and I were in a torrent of conversation. He had worlds to tell me, and all of it was interesting. He helped us a great deal in our errand that evening, and when we parted, he gave me his personal card and told me to call him directly if I ever needed another cab.

I think of the extraordinary Si Kahn song at times like this: "We are crossing the border / Come go, come go, come go." I am a race traitor, and it's been the making of me.

The next morning, I did indeed need another cab but Rogelio was asleep -- he works nights, sleeps days. So the company sent a different cabbie, a white man again around my age. He had snowy stubble on his pale cheeks, and he walked with a gait which hinted that old age was coming early for him. He was very chatty, starting with the weather, then to Austin's development, and within 90 seconds of leaving my house, we had established that he and I both went to high school in rural North Texas counties which had played one other in basketball. His town was Azle. When I even remembered that their team colors were green and white (same as my high school), our bond was complete.

He rattled on "Yeah, we moved to Azle when I was nine. Before that we lived in White Settlement, you know where that is?" I did, indeed. "Funny thing is, White Settlement is just like it sounds, only white people live there. You know about places like that?"

He had my complete attention now. This happens to me all the time when I am alone with white people. They assume I am one of them, but I have some signal I give off which also alerts them that perhaps I am Not Quite In Line.

I answered "You mean Sundown Towns."

"We called 'em sunset towns, but yeah, that's it. Well, Azle wasn't like that. When my Mama took me and my sister in to the school the first day of classes, me in second grade, that was the first time in my life I ever saw a black girl. They was one in my grade. I didn't know what to make of it."

Racism is a Jacob Marley burden of clanking chains, whether you are its object or the trained maintainer of it. Children resist the indoctrination of becoming white supremacist until their survival is at stake -- every child does this, you can count on it -- and they knuckle under because otherwise they will lose everyone they love and, often, they will be beaten unto death for their resistance. Such children grow up longing for release. I know this because there is something about how I carry myself in the world, years of work and unlearning, which signals to white people that perhaps I can hear their confession and offer absolution. I cannot offer absolution, of course, and I am rather tired of hearing confessions, in all honesty. But my theology is that of Tikkun Olam, mixed with Quaker and a strong residual of Southern Baptist, and I do bear witness whenever I can.

So here we were, two minutes into our association, and this man wants to tell me his confusion about discovering his parents had lied to him about the nature of reality.

I said "The county where I went to high school was also a whites-only county. It's a big part of the reason why I left. My father was a racist. My mother was not, she was well-read and open-minded and longed to be a citizen of the world, so I decided to follow her path." I said this without rancor or heat, just matter of fact.

We were at a stop sign. He was looking at me in the rear-view mirror, studying my face, I could tell. I met his gaze. He said "You say your father was a racist?"

I said "He was."

He said "I'm a racist too." Not apologetically or defiantly, but another statement of bare fact.

Now, in all the decades I've been part of these kinds of conversations, I have never once heard a white person baldly admit they are a racist like that. It was a little as if the earth fissured at that spot in Austin. I reminded myself to stay present. He added "Funny thing is, my wife is Mexican, and I got no problem with that."

I replied flatly "It happens." I had no judgment of him. I was busy decoding what "I got no problem with that" meant -- was it just that his wife was okay, or that Mexicans were okay? Probably the latter. Which meant other skin colors were the real problem.

I went on "My daughter married an African-American man, so my grandchildren are mixed race. I'm doing everything I can to make sure they grow up in a world where being black means they are safe and happy."

He looked at me again in the mirror. "I can understand that" he said.

We reached the hotel a minute later. Jesse was not out front, so this guy got out of the cab and shuffled, painfully it looked like, into the lobby to look for him. He came back to me to report, and to lean against my door for a chat as we wait for Jesse and my power chair. Our bond was intact, somehow. When we parted, he shook my hand fervently and wished me well.

When I told Lower Manhattanite about it later, he literally jumped into the air when I repeated the comment "I'm a racist, too."

"Whoa!" he said. "He actually told you that?"

He got it, too. He pointed out the cinematic nature of this encounter. We eventually decided I should be played by Kathy Bates, and the cabbie would be best represented by Robert Duvall.

Here's the thing: When people who are non-target for the Big Three of oppression in our world, when they are trying to live with the burden of racism, or woman-hating, or classism seeping slow, constant poison into their brains and hearts, some of them (most of them, I believe) will take another way out if it is presented in a way that doesn't say they are shit, their family and home town and culture is shit, and it wasn't their fault they got so messed up in the first place. You cannot save anybody else -- Twelve-Step programs finally disabused me of that fantasy -- but you can be of key assistance when they decide to save themselves. If they ask you, and you resist the temptation to take over.

Listening is mostly all you have to do, followed by telling your own truth and not getting scared. Once you've acquired those skills, episodes like this not only can happen, they will happen. Often.

There are those so badly damaged they can't do this much, I know. But as activists, we have to triage and stay human in the midst of our slow, bloody retreat from the grindstones of patriarchy. What went on between me and that cab driver may be simply a blip in that man's life, I can't predict. Or, it could be the impetus to go find help.

Thus I commenced my first full day at Netroots Nation, a woman living in profound disability and poverty liberated for a weekend into a progressive groundswell because of the kindness and generosity of others. Pass it on.