By Ron Kokish
It was 1970. We had professional degrees, a house, beginning careers and a three-year-old son, The Great Society, weed and Beatles music. A bright future seemed certain for us and our country. The only thing missing was a daughter. As weekend hippies, we easily fixed that by adopting a child who needed a home. The agency told us that black children were the most difficult to place. Cool! A rainbow family in a rainbow world. We adopted 11-month-old Karla in July. In September, we sold our house and moved to California, settling into a semi-communal life among coastal redwoods and mostly white people for the next 38 years.
Karla was a smart and easy toddler with a mind of her own. At three, she climbed out her window to follow her brother’s school bus a mile into town. At four, she taught herself to read. Her artwork was always remarkable. She rarely liked to cuddle.
In kindergarten, Karla often chose to wear peculiar clothing. We considered her creative. She was strong and athletic. Boys didn’t dare pick on her. She physically defended scapegoats and occasionally stole from neighbors and her parents. As a soccer fullback, she was known for physicality and fouls.
We accepted and loved her as she was. During the ninth grade, she was a good student and a volleyball star. In tenth grade, she decided not to play again. When we said her team was counting on her, she replied, “That’s not MY problem.” Her grades began dropping.
In her junior year, she stopped attending most classes, took an equivalency test, passed easily and started college at barely 17. She got good grades, quit at 19 and joined the Navy. She had two (wonderful) children at 20 and 21, while married to a man she hasn’t heard from since she was 22. She was kind of lost by then and moved back to the California north woods. We helped raise her children.
By the mid-1980’s, our rainbow world was clearly filled with puddles from storms we hadn’t noticed, though we had obviously been stepping in them all along. Karla started noticing in kindergarten. She wore those strange clothes, trying to exercise control over felt differences she was helpless to change. When children asked about her color, she said she was an African princess. If so, she was an unhappy princess, exiled to our naive white world. She loved us and didn’t want to confront us. And really, how could she? She hadn’t quite figured it out herself. She was nearing middle age before she told us much about her exile.
Aside from just feeling like an outsider, she was genuinely persecuted. When she shopped with us, our white privilege covered her. When she shopped by herself, employees and security guards followed her. During her disastrous sophomore year, she left her college library with a book she forgot to check out. She returned when the alarm sounded, apologized and gave the desk her student ID. Librarians called the police, and she was cited for petty theft. Karla is over 50 now and still living with the same disadvantages. She says she’s disrespected by doctors and often shunted aside. She almost died from a misdiagnosed ruptured appendix when her early complaints were ignored. She’s angry and somewhat confused about her life. We didn’t know how to prepare her for it, so we didn’t.
Michael Francisco said he was unprepared too, having grown up in Haiti, where people who looked like him were in charge. When he came to the USA, he said he suddenly faced all the things Karla started sensing in kindergarten. Like Karla, it took him a while to figure out how people with his skin color are treated in this country. Though we’ve never met Michael, we’re certain he didn’t like what he learned about that.
We don’t know exactly what happened to and around Michael Francisco at City Market last Christmas eve. But as Karla’s parents, we know how easy it is to screw things up, and we’re reasonably certain things would have turned out differently at City Market if Michael’s skin looked more like ours and less like hers.
Carbondale’s liberals are outraged. We wonder if they know their outrage is an expression of their white privilege. We white folks rarely experience racism in personal ways, so when we see others victimized, we can afford outrage. But for people of color, racism is in the fabric of their daily lives. Being outraged over it would entail being outraged 24/7; not a good way to live.
White people can afford outrage over racism because for us, it’s occasional. Through Karla, we eventually internalized some darker skin, and for us too, being constantly outraged is too taxing. We are aging now, hippies in memory only. We know our rainbow world is still waiting to be made, and we know that the dream, locally damaged last Christmas eve, should never be abandoned. We still strive for justice as best we can, but more from sadness over our own failures than from outrage over what others do.