by Drew Turley
Despite our differences, we’ve managed to shape a relationship based on acceptance and forgiveness. I know that there is nothing more you hope to give me than a better life, a better world than you had growing up. However, over time, I’ve learned that the ways in which we view the world are radically different. Every time we try to discuss a challenging topic, a vast rift separates us, and though your intentions are genuine, my well of disappointment grows deeper each time we fail to connect. The world you would create for me denies certain harsh realties, and sadly I can no longer accept that fantasy.
This time last year, I was just starting at my new school, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. When I was young, MLK Day meant another long weekend from school, another dead person from civics class with a day named after him. I had not given much thought to the man or his accomplishments. I had never been given a reason to identify with him or any other famous or illustrious person. Rather than take a holiday, my new liberal arts college had classes and held special events. I had just transferred from a racially diverse, urban community college and I wanted to prove myself in this new setting. I attended the Courageous Conversations: Black Lives Matter event, where a panel of speakers discussed the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner, the effects of those deaths on the community and the various responses including the Black Lives Matter movement. Not long after the panel started, the audience of Colorado College students and the Colorado Springs community started to respond to the panel. I remember feeling the room pop and crackle like dry kindling. Tempers rose and there was a contagious emotional volatility—people were telling me that the world I live in was still very much a racist one.
I asked, “How could this be?” I sat, sorting through my life experiences, the times I had sat in class with people of color, the times growing up when some of my best friends were African- or Latin-American and the times I had worked with people from diverse backgrounds. Some of the audience members, myself included, grew frustrated that the panelists refused to be persuaded that America had fully embraced people of color. I remember shouting with the other audience members. As the fire grew, we swore that America wasn’t racist because we as individuals weren’t racist. Without warning, a torrent of emotion washed over the room when one of the panelists broke down and cried. Maybe they were tired of the conversation, worn by hopelessness or simply frustrated by the audience’s staunch denial. They described for us the unfair realities of the truth they would have to share with their sons and daughters. They had to instruct their children of color, should they ever find themselves in danger, to scream aloud their name and social security number while running for their lives.
Unable to deny this personal invocation of racism, the room paused to breathe. As the event wrapped up, my mind was in turmoil. Why had I shouted at this person? Why was I offended and what made me so afraid that my gut reaction was to lash out? What does this say about who I am, and how does this compare to who I thought I was? I remember driving around afterwards when suddenly I began to cry. I felt like my understanding of the world was breaking apart. I was panicked and resentful; but above all, I was afraid. While I struggled to hold together the window through which I saw reality, the most disturbing revelation was that for the first time I saw the window itself.
Dad, you taught me that equality meant not to look at the color of people’s skin and not to judge them any differently for it. Growing up, racism was a dirty word that we didn’t use and didn’t talk about. On the chance it did come up, it was only in reference to the past and I thought that racism had been confined to history. I remember feeling sick realizing that I might actually be a source of discrimination against a marginalized group when I had faced similar subjugation for being gay.
I knew I was different from other kids at a very young age. Over time, I was taught that these feelings made me not only different, but also dangerous. I was something to be separated, controlled, and, if possible, extinguished. After all, this was in the ’80s and ’90s when HIV was the disease that would cleanse humanity of homosexuality. I recall hearing stories of parents abandoning and rejecting children, stories of beatings and killings. I remember imagining what would happen if you ever found out. These scenarios usually involved being kicked out and ending up homeless and alone. I learned that it was necessary for my survival to hide any sign that I was gay. I tried hard to learn how to “pass” for straight. I constantly monitored others for fear of bodily harm. I even prayed that God would somehow fix me and make me not have these feelings. I often wanted so badly to just disappear. Living this way taught me how to survive, but it did not teach me how to live.
I can’t tell you the number of times I had “faggot,” “cock-sucker,” and “butt-pirate” slung at me in school. I eventually dropped out and ran with open arms to the alcohol and drug-infested gay scene. It was liberating to find people like myself who were not only accepting but who also encouraged me and my “otherness.” Little did I know that the violent nature of this scene would be just as destructive as the world I fled. Instead of others hurting me with slurs, locker checks and death threats, I was harming myself by trying to numb the effects of a reality that told me I was sick.
In addition to the gay disease, news of gang violence, rap-culture and drug infested “hoods” was regularly discussed in the ’90s. I learned that these communities were unsafe as they spoke the same language of violence I tried so carefully to avoid. I learned to recognize these communities by the imagery and vocabulary used at home and in pop culture. Little did I understand that I was also learning to associate those dangers with the color of people’s skin. The color blind world you taught me was only applicable to people of color that sounded, dressed and behaved in a “civilized” (as in white) manner. This was the window you unconsciously gave me, and it was this that I’ve worked to dismantle over the last year.
The existence of your window explains why every time you talk about race there is an assuredness in the tone of your voice that makes me uncomfortable. As if you are above racism because you refuse to look at the color of someone’s skin. However, not everyone has this luxury, and it doesn’t make the racial tensions any less real. When we refuse to acknowledge racism, it festers until it’s so ingrained it seems natural. People in the past have interpreted this as the order of the universe, seeing cultures as uncivilized or savage, or needing to teach people their “place” in society. Over the past year, whenever the topics of race and social injustice rears their heads, you make an appeal to authority. You’ve been taught to believe in a system that protects your rights and privileges. But that system has been created, designed and maintained by a group of people who derive their authority from the color of their skin. There are people in America who cannot trust authority because it steals their husbands, wives, and children, locking them away or killing them in cold blood. People of color must still learn to read their surroundings in order to protect their bodies just as I had to learn when I was young. The perspective you and I have inherited, our windows, are made up of privilege reinforced over hundreds of years.
I don’t want you to think I blame you or hold you responsible for teaching me about the world in this way. I know you did your best, and I’m still grateful for the life you’ve given me and our family. One of the best things you ever taught me was that the true measure of someone was how much work they did when no one was looking. Over the past year I’ve taken this to heart by continuing to question both implicit and explicit racism, learning about the inherent systems of control and domination and reading whatever I can about the perspective of people of color in America.
Dad, you helped instill in me a sense of responsibly my community. Unfortunately, our community isn’t safe for everyone. There are still people who either haven’t yet or refuse to see their window. Just recently some of my fellow students at school were suspended and expelled for sending racist messages. While their actions don’t speak for the entire community, it certainly suggests that problems remain.
Last month, after I decided to bleach my hair, I was downtown when someone started calling me a faggot. This explicit form of discrimination reminded me why I had spent so many years perfecting the art of “passing” and why I have always admired people with the courage to live openly and freely despite the countless attempts to regulate them and their bodies. I recognized that if something as insignificant as my hair color can communicate the story of my sexuality, then the potential for the color of my skin to have a narrative was just as strong.
Despite marrying and having children with a woman who is half Chinese, you taught me to pass as “white.” You never did this explicitly, but the rules of the game dictated that if you taught me to live as a “white” person, with all the mental, physical and social regulations that come with it, I would have better chances of success in life. You knew this in the same way you tried to scare me with stories of gay predators when I was young. Society had deemed them dangerous and sick, and you simply wanted to keep me safe. Dad, it’s time to throw open the curtains and see your window. It’s up to you to break it.