The yo-yo effect: Should I stay here or should I go?

by Larretta Rivera-Williams


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It is rare for me to go through an entire week without discussing issues surrounding multiculturalism, diversity and racism. Racism does become an exhaustive topic, and for me personally, it is exhausting to swim in the waves of racism.

Racism is a boiling concern because our country is being fueled by the outspoken claiming freedom of speech; the attitude of "my way or the highway"; fuming, rancorous bullying; and controversial behaviors that empower and encourage demonstrations and protests. These actions were once hidden behind closed doors and the guise of white sheets.

Political bashing and recent riots over senseless killings create flashbacks. Daily preposterous statements and ambiguities in government responses and policies are manifesting ingredients that make for an uncertain future.

NASA has sent astronauts to the moon and given thought to the possibility of living on Mars. We have advanced beyond fax machines to email, scanners, Skype and FaceTime. The automobile industry has developed cars that not only run on electricity, but cars that can start with the push of a button.

The human brain is delicate, yet it has the power to create and achieve the unimaginable in astronomy, aerodynamics, civil and chemical engineering, the arts, science, and medicine. However, it seems the human mind cannot free itself from the gangrenous grips of racism.

Several episodes of racism have become part of my story, but there are two I have never forgotten.

After a series of nonviolent sit-in protests in 1960 led to the desegregation of the F. W. Woolworth lunch counters, the K&W Cafeterias also desegregated. People of color were given another option for dining out.

Once, while moving through the dinner line at K&W, a lady behind the counter dressed in white with a brown hairnet over her blond hair noticed my hazel eyes. Without taking a breath between words, she shouted, "Hey, you are a half-breed." Perhaps she meant it as a compliment?

It is with a distinct pain that I recall a family vacation to Yonkers, New York, to visit my grandfather's brother, Thomas Rivera. This family road trip was before people of color were allowed to eat at restaurants.

Halfway to Yonkers, we stopped on a dusty gravel parking lot at a gas station. We had planned to eat the sandwiches my grandmother had prepared. One of our boxes of food was innocently placed on the trunk of the car next to ours. Before we were able to remove everything from our car to a rugged wooden table, a young man approached us. Prefacing his action with the derogatory N-word, he threw the box of food to the dusty ground. One could only assume the other car was his.

We did not eat lunch that day. Aside from being hungry, I don't recall my thoughts as a child, but now, when I remember that experience, a twist of fear and sadness spiral within.

During a recent discussion about racism with sisters in my community, one sister shared how she recently has seen signs of racism in her city. She shared the following examples.

James is a black student in a predominantly white school. He is bright, charming and athletic; his classmates like him and enjoy hanging out with him on campus. However, when his white classmate Anthony had a party at his home, James was the only boy not invited.

When Shane is at work, she is often complimented on her shoes, clothes and different hairstyles. Shane is seldom invited to certain business affairs for fear of how she might dress or style her hair.

For five years, Hernandez has done an excellent job caring for the landscape around Joe's house in an upscale neighborhood. Hernandez has been invited inside of Joe's home many times for dinner with Joe and his wife, Susan. When Joe and his colleagues play golf at the country club where Hernandez works, Joe ignores Hernandez.

Unfortunately, people of color frequently encounter these unpredictable temperaments.

The jolt of inconsistencies — "I'm your friend today" or the "I don't know you" attitude — is a yo-yo effect that keeps me and other people of color constantly asking: What did I do wrong? When will I learn? Who can I trust? Why were you friendly yesterday and act like I'm a stranger today? Why didn't they include me? Should I stay here or should I go?

This up-and-down, back-and-forth manipulation offers no consistency in a relationship. It only establishes a level of mistrust and possibly low self-esteem rather than confidence and trust.

The yo-yo effect is what I surmise the "master/house slave relationship" to have been. The monologue would have been, master to slave, "As long as you do what I need you to do when I need and want you to do it, life will be good. Just don't get in my way, don't speak out of turn, know your place, and stay in your place!"

In Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech "Our God is Marching On," the catchphrase he used was, "How long? Not long." This mantra gave people who knew all too well the crippling weight of inequality hope and a craving incentive to keep moving forward. I doubt, however, anyone thought we would still be awaiting in 2016 the end of racism and the full revelation of civil rights.

I ask: How long before minds are opened to accept the full meaning of "You are my brother. You are my sister"? When will we assume the responsibility that comes with such a statement?

It is easy to become infatuated with rock stars, but how long before hearts are passionately opened to love and care for all people without seeing the color of one's skin?

I have been an educator on elementary, secondary and graduate levels. I have taught with some of the best and have sat in faculty meetings with professors whose books shadow shelves in my home. Even so, I am amazed that even the most esteemed will judge students by the color of their skin, giving little or no acknowledgement of their character and integrity.

I get tired of talking about racism, but even more so, I get tired of living it. How long will people of color struggle to leave the chaotic slums of nonacceptance and have to persevere to rise above the rusty rungs of inequality? How long will we slowly drown in dirty creeks of false assumptions and negative stereotypes?

Who are the Dr. Kings, Jameses, Shanes, and Hernandezes in the places where we live?

Who are the Anthonys, the Joes, the professors and the professionals with whom we work?

Who are the ones among us willing to dissuade the pangs of prejudice that keep human beings immobilized in the spoils of a soured past?

What is the American dream? What is your dream?

Who will keep us mindful of Langston Hughes' words?

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

My dream is that someday, the experience of racism will be a thing of the past.

I dream because my faith grants hope to God's promise of never leaving me alone.

Hope is what inculcates the courage needed to animate more sustainable acts of charity and love.

Hope inspires people of color to keep moving forward when we are relentlessly recovering from the yo-yo effect of, "Should I stay here or should I go?"

[Mercy Sr. Larretta Rivera-Williams is originally from Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she is coordinator of pastoral care at St. Leo the Great Catholic Church. Since entering the Sisters of Mercy in 1982, she has ministered as an elementary, secondary and divinity school educator. She has written and produced plays as well as directed and choreographed.]