Saturday, February 12, 2011

Straight Life with Rainbow Flag

Although two days ago my mate had completely cleared our driveway of the fourteen inches of fresh powder, yesterday at dawn the snowplow came and barricaded us in. By that point, my husband had come down with a bad cold, so it was up to me to spend an hour with one of our heavy metal gardening shovels, breaking the icy barricade into movable chunks and chucking those chunks into what will be, in six months time, a wild profusion of black-eyed susans blooming under our rainbow flag.

As I toiled away, I could not help but notice that none of my neighbors had been plowed in. And so I could not help but wonder, as I often do at such moments, was it because of our rainbow flag? Did the driver of that truck see our rainbow flag, assume we are gay, and punish us accordingly?

Probably not. The barricade is more likely attributable to the fact that we live at the apex of a T-intersection. Most plow drivers figure out a way to manage this spot so that we don't end up with the brunt of the mess, but maybe this driver just didn't notice, or didn't know how to manage it just so, the way a more experienced driver might have.

And yet I found myself looking over my shoulder while shoveling, looking to our rainbow flag, and wondering. And so I found myself, as I often do, grateful for the way that flag puts me--a straight woman--momentarily in the position of all of my gay, lesbian, bi, and trans friends, wondering if what just happened amounted to another brick in the wall of discrimination. Or mere randomness?

I grew up on Long Island in the 1970s as a white girl with two white siblings and one black. My "black" brother is actually multi-racial, but in a society that then strictly observed the "one drop of blood" rule of blackness, he counted as black. I was three when my parents took my younger brother as a foster child. He was four months old. They ended up adopting him.

My earliest memories are of my little brother, and he was the sibling to whom I felt closest. As a consequence, I grew up as a white girl with racism always slowly leaking into my life. Often it took the form of the most insidious form of racism: the kind you aren't quite sure is real.

Sure, sometimes my brother was subject to out-and-out racism, as when someone called him the "n" word, as when the cops made clear they had stopped him for driving while black. But more often, I watched him (and sometimes us) be treated in a way that could not quite be pinned on his blackness, but that seemed very likely to be borne of racism.

These were the kind of moments that wore on me, and I assume also him, the most. If someone used the "n" word, you could fight back openly. But if a teacher quietly expected less of him, if a neighborhood mother consistently became jumpy when my brother was with her white daughter, if a waiter treated the couple of us (white girl, black boy) hanging out together with contempt--how could we be sure racism was the cause?

The constant wondering, the constant anticipation of more, the constant sense of an invisible fortress-a fortress that might materialize to lock my brother up at any moment but that most white people could not sense as we did--it was these things, not the "n" word, that caused the wrinkle in my brow, the pain in my back, the constant sense of defensiveness around my little brother.

I try hopelessly today to explain to my medical students that this is what we're talking about when we talk about the environmental stress racism puts on black bodies, stress that may increase physical susceptibility to disease.

And so, as my back hurt yesterday not from trying to protect my brother, but from shoveling the packed, plowed snow, I found myself again wishing I could convince more of my straight friends to hang rainbow flags, so that they could experience the prickling questions I regularly do from mine, the prickling questions that remind me of what my rainbow friends live each day.

Ironically, when I've asked my straight friends to join me in hanging a rainbow flag, they answer, "But someone might think we're gay," not realizing that is exactly the point. To be mistaken for the oppressed is to momentarily become the oppressed. Or rather, it is to understand the invisible fortress that can't really be dismantled until we are forced to see it, or its ghost, perhaps in the shape of the snowplow at dawn.