By Amara Killen
This Is My Reality. This Is My Idealism. This Is My Truth.
During “get to know you” exercises with my GirlFly peers we were asked to discuss, broadly, who we are and where we come from. As is common in our racially centered society we substituted, “who are you,” with “what is your race,” and began sharing what we believed defined us:
“I am African American,” one girl pronounced.
“I am half Mexican, Irish and Japanese,” another proudly chimed in.
I was quiet and attentive, not feeling all too eager to hastily proclaim my very mixed Polish-Scottish descendance, until I heard my name:
“What are you, Amara?” they asked, curiously.
“Well,” I scrambled for the words. “My ancestors were from Western Europe.”
We all laughed at the obvious, and even I was oblivious at the time to the subtle socially-instilled separation we had just bought into.
This Is What I Know:
As a white, middle class person raised in Marin County, I belong to just about the most privileged demographic there is. I try to be as cognizant as I can about my inherited advantage in today’s society. I know it is important to educate myself about the historical and contemporary factors that exist in our 21st century reality: I understand I do not know what it feels like to live in an area where I am being poisoned by toxic waste every day and have little to no opportunity for advancement/progress; I understand I do not know what it feels like to walk in my neighborhood at night and fear for my life; I understand I will neverknow what it feels like to tell my children that even if they have done nothing wrong they must be deferential to police officers so they are not thrown in jail, or killed. This is what I know.
This Is What I Know:
This is a time of great shifting. This is a time of redefining the eurocentric labels we have complied with through past generations. The language of the colored woman is emerging; one of gentleness and anger, compassion and strength, individuality and togetherness. I see everyday a new language being written by my young adult peers. This is the “LGBTQIAP+” American. This is the “filipinoafricankoreanchinesethaiscottish” American. This is the mixed race and the fluid gender American. This is political correctness and terms of acceptance, and openness. I believe this is a wonderful time to be growing up.
This Is What I Don’t Know:
I struggle as I try to discover my place in this new world of acknowledgement and empowerment surrounding identities; this remembering,yet redefining the past. All of the new words get stuck in my throat as I stumble to be both understanding andtrue to myself. To be real and to not offend. I dissect the dictionary but still am ignorant, uneducated, wrong. Is it “Native American,” or “American Indian?” Is it “he,” or “her,” or “they?” I have the best intentions, so why do I still get those cringe-worthy looks? I feel like crying out: I AM TRYING! I WANT TO UNDERSTAND! Please, call me out. Educate me. Help me understand what I am doing wrong.
This Is What I Want:
I want to look you in the eye when I am speaking to you.
I want you to smile when I pass you in the street.
I want to hug and embrace you when you cry.
I want you to forgive me when I call you the wrong name.
I want to forgive you when you don’t understand me.
I want you to teach me when I am ignorant and confused.
I want to be compassionate when I am filled with hate.
I want you to breathe when you are frustrated with me.
I want to listen when I hear something new.
I want you to speak when you feel silenced.
I want to see you.
I want you to see me.
I want you to be compassionate,
I want you to cry out.
I will listen.
Photo: Brechin Flournoy
The People of Bayview
Although I struggle with these issues, as I meet people everyday who are open and willing to talk I am reminded that the most important way to come to a personal understanding is on the individual level. These interactions are what give me purpose and touch my heart. I wanted to share about a few of the people I met while working in Quesada Gardens:
Chubby fingers touch my arm and take hold, and I look up, trying to catch the culprit. Huge eyes smile back at me, and I laugh, realizing it is an adorable baby girl who reached towards me on the MUNI. Connecting. Rejoicing. I tickle her arm and say hello to her and her mother, who rocks the girl on her big, warm lap. For the remainder of the ride I poke, squeeze and tickle as Marila’s bubbly laughter rolls onto the MUNI floor and infects all around her. What a beautiful thing it is to hear the giggles of a baby, and to laugh along.
Another day, but the same light-rail; the T-Train rattles along 3rd street, and I read, keeping to myself. At the next stop a man walks on and addresses me.
“Excuse me, but could I sit in one of these seats?”
I realize I have taken up three seats with my belongings, and I move them onto my lap to let the man sit. I peek over at him and notice his huge and watchful eyes. He is sipping from a bottle of champagne and singing to himself, rhyming something about the weather too quietly for me to hear. He sees me observing and I smile politely.
“How are you doing today?” he asks.
“I’m doing well, how about you?”
“I’m good, I’m good.
Her soft smile and gentle eyes welcomed me to Quesada Gardens. We sat on the steps and basked under the sun. A Quesada Ave resident since 1970 she has strolled down every crack and cranny on the street. She finished high school on this block, lived in two houses on this block, raised her son on this block, and cared for her mother on this block. She saw flourishing gardens and domino-playing husbands on this block. She ran and panted and sang and hugged on this block.
Linda Pettus has grown alongside this block, and this neighborhood. She has seen the loss of businesses after the Race Riot of 1966. She has tasted the food desert that followed. She has felt the affects of cancer, a disease rampant in her community because of the Superfund toxic waste sites next door in Hunter’s Point. She has known the drug dealers — the neighbors — who hung out for decades on her street and played with her kids.
As she has lived through this, however, she has come to deeply respect, and appreciate, the people surrounding her. Even as we discussed the drug dealers who sold continuously in front of her house, she spoke about them with compassion and understanding: “When I would come out with [my son] they would stop…They did their dirt but they also respected him as a child…They still watched out for us.” Linda has seen the value of community and believes that with that comes progress: “It’s changing. There’s been some change, and for the better. I remember years ago my boyfriend was telling me Bayview was gonna change…It’s gonna be a long time coming but it’s gonna come…it’s slow…but it’s coming…once one thing changes something follows behind.”
Linda’s positivity was infectious, and I felt radiant after finishing our discussion and hugging her goodbye. She reminded me that despite any stigma, hardships and setbacks that will inevitably arise, connecting through community is the secret to thrive. “I love it here. I have relatives…they tell me ‘you need to come home.’ I am home. I’m always glad to come home. I love San Francisco and I love this community. This is it for me.”
Author Bio: Amara Killen is a 19 year old young woman from the SF Bay Area. She will be starting college in Washington State in the Fall 2017.