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The Illusion of Progress

Do you ever have dreams so visceral that it takes a while to get grounded in reality once you wake up? When I was about 13 years old, one particular dream seared itself into my memory:

I found myself in a taxicab, heading who knows where. I’d only been in two or three cabs in my entire life, so the fact that I dreamt of one was significant. The driver had a friendly and odd familiarity to me. And when he turned around to ask where he could take me, I instantly recognized him as my maternal grandfather, Papa Charlie, who had died a few years earlier. Except for one significant difference: he was black.

In that intangible, telepathic way we communicate in our dreams, I had a “conversation” with him, trying to understand whether it was really him or some kind of parallel universe doppelganger. Amidst the confusion, I gathered that he was doing a sort of penance for prejudices he perpetuated during his lifetime. He wanted me to know that he was okay, that he was learning.

When I relayed the dream to my mother, I remember her having an odd sense of satisfaction. For my mom, this dream represented a symbolic form of poetic justice for a wrong he committed during her childhood — one she made sure we knew about:

It was around 1953 on Chicago’s South Side. My mom and her classmate from Holy Cross Elementary School were taking part in the regional spelling bee, which was going to be televised live from downtown.

“Daddy, can we give my friend a ride to the spelling bee, please…?!” my 14 year-old mother pleaded, “Her family doesn’t have a car.”

“No, we can’t, honey.” Papa Charlie replied with a firm yet veiled tone of regret.

“But why? You know she’s my friend and we have room in our car.” It confused my mom, no doubt with a rising disgust for what was becoming clear.

My grandfather had to walk that fine line of hypocrisy, careful not to negate the Catholic education he paid the nuns to impart: “I understand why you want us to take her. And I wish we could, but we can’t.”

“But why not?!”

“It wouldn’t look right. People would talk.”

You see, this friend of my mother’s was African American.

The spelling bee incident left a lasting impression upon my mom as the way things should not be. She wanted her own children to rise above the prevailing prejudice in the world. And my takeaway as a child: Things had come a long way since the early 1950s. Yet had they?

We got so many messages from the world that this natural “division” was just the way things were. My family left the South Side of Chicago when I was four years old and we moved to Florida for my dad’s work. Whenever we visited Chicago, people told us it was too dangerous to drive through our old neighborhood. And “what a shame” that the South Side had become so crime-ridden after it “turned.” If enlightened conversations ever happened, no one included me in discussions about the fears or injustices faced by the people who struggled to survive in those “turned” neighborhoods. And not until I was an adult did the term “white flight” enter my lexicon of understanding.

The black/white divide in the world I experienced just was. Even our town in South Florida had its own, visibly impoverished, black neighborhood, ironically called “Pearl City.” Yet despite being in the South — or perhaps because of it — my Catholic school had no African-American children. So the opportunity never presented itself for me to learn whether my childhood had surpassed my mother’s experience of blatant racism.

This passive acceptance of a silently understood “self-segregation” kept a tentative status quo in my world. Except when it didn’t. Occasional bursts of societal recognition that something was amiss, such as the LA Riots, were met with advancements reflected in the media or politics (including a President I miss so much!). So the slow trajectory, it seemed to me, always progressed toward “better.” The incremental “improvements,” the stories of success, the occasional bridges being built were enough to placate, to excuse, and accept the “three steps forward two steps back” momentum. That the two reverse steps always trampled on the backs of African Americans somehow dissolved into the chaos of “every group has its struggles…”

I didn’t quite realize the illusion of this “progress” until I became woke to the similar illusion of how women were making their own incremental “progress.” In reality, the talons of a deep systemic power structure hold us back as much as they can — whether by reflex or overt intention. What became painfully clear to me is that the American Dream largely exists for white men and those who yield to them.

I am fully aware that sexism and racism are not the same thing. But once I understood this deep overlay, certain historical truisms about women’s struggles shattered my false belief that “things are slowly getting better.” By substituting “women” with “black people” and “men” with “white people” I shifted the dial and pulled certain key parallels into focus:

  1. Women have regularly been passed over for promotions because men in power whisper, “She just doesn’t have the right qualities. We can’t see her in a leadership role.” When she *is* promoted, the question of “quota” or “affirmative action” lingers, unspoken.

  2. Sure, if women work hard enough they can achieve “anything.” But they must learn to keep any bitterness at bay toward all the men who don’t work as hard yet still have disproportionate successes.

  3. Women are continually reminded that it’s about their external appearance, rather than the substance of who they are. The primary lens the world views them through focuses on their clothing choices, their weight, their chest size, their “look.” (Or turning the dial, the color of their skin.)

These past few years I felt the winds of hopeful change when joining in the Women’s Marches. The Me Too movement offered a powerful taste of solidarity. But I also felt the sting of silence and dismissal from too many — both men and women. (And when looking at the deep parallels of racism and sexism, do I ever honor the strength it must take to be both a woman *and* black — and perhaps queer on top of all that). But even with newly discovered inner-resolve and solidarity, the painful realization sunk in that things would never change until more women are at the helm. Prejudice is baked into the system. The illusion of progress seems like the greyhound dog chasing the ever-elusive mechanical rabbit.

Yet when it comes to racial injustice, it’s not enough to draw the commonalities and rest in solidarity. I believe that for white people one of the first steps is to acknowledge the easier ride we’ve had simply because we are white. So while I recognized historical parallels in my life between being a woman and what I imagine it is to be a black American, if I turn that dial in another direction, I also realize how those parallels diverge. The struggles my immigrant ancestors had don’t compare, no matter how much we all want to believe the US is an equal opportunity country.

Whatever “climb out of poverty” my Italian ancestors endured, they never faced the same horrors that African Americans endured throughout the centuries. They did not have generations of families being ripped apart, of children being sold. They did not have the perpetual looming threat of being beaten, raped or lynched. Italian Americans were free to struggle and free to achieve, even while navigating unfamiliar social complexities. And while they suffered discrimination, it didn’t come close to the redlining that black Americans deal/t with. Once their language barrier dissolved, they could lop off a vowel from their names and blend into a milkier white America. Ethnic injustice that favors “white” is also baked into the system.

The past couple of weeks have been dark, heavy, and reflective, and yet filled with hope. As a younger adult, I naively thought that because my ancestors never owned slaves, I wasn’t ensnared in the legacy of racism. But nothing is further from the truth. I benefited from it like every other white person. My people came in ships, of their own volition, and slid with relative ease into a system that helped them rise above those who were brought against their will and held down figuratively and literally, like George Floyd and countless others.

In quiet and subtle ways, like the classmate of my mother’s whose name I may never know, white Americans took an active part in the ongoing game of painful “othering.” All so they could experience that illusory American Dream.

To those who read this: What about you? What stories in your family history do you wish you could undo? How can we ensure that this moment moves beyond the illusion of progress and instead ushers in a new reality for this country?

And to the girl who had to find another ride to the spelling bee:

I am sorry Papa Charlie couldn’t get past his racism.

I hope you grew up to have a good life. I hope you got to know yourself and love yourself, free from the cloud of “what people might say.”

I hope you and your children developed the strength of character that my grandfather didn’t have.

Because creating change for the better is important, I highlight and support nonprofits to complement each post. For the first time, I chose two organizations, which you can learn about in Becoming People Who Stand for Equality and Racial Justice. You’ll also see short list of well-curated resources to fuel your own journey into anti-racism and allyship.

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