We recently hosted a half dozen black and red caterpillars on our front porch; we initially noticed them one by one in the front yard, fat furry dark caterpillars who stood out amongst the greenery. We watched as over a few days they climbed madly up onto our front porch and up to the eaves below the roof, then hung themselves into a “J” shape and formed tight brown cocoons, from which they would later burst forth and emerge as full blown, gorgeous flying butterflies, with large velvety black and yellow wings. Miraculous when you think about it, their ability to transform so many times and so completely. And given my handmade BLM sign still propped against the chair on the porch, and over which the caterpillars had had to make part of their journey en route to the roof eaves, I couldn’t help but recall some of our recent marches and the worldwide movement aiming to accelerate our human struggle to once again, finally, make even some minor transformations of our psyches towards greater love and less judgement. Given how long this particular struggle has been ongoing, many hundreds of years of this country’s history, I couldn’t help but envy the speedy worm/caterpillar/cocoon/butterfly process.
For as long as I can remember, I have been aware of race and of the importance of treating everyone equally; I am a white woman, so have never necessarily been considered a threat merely by the fact of walking out my front door or strolling down the street. But I did grow up in a racially mixed family and I know what it’s like to have people stare as you walk by and try to figure out exactly what the relationship might be between my then young white self and my tall African American stepfather (he preferred to be called Black).
And even today, in 2020, the fact of our white social cocoon is evident everywhere if you just open your eyes, as the killing of George Floyd and too many other people of color has made us do; just the other day a middle aged white male neighbor of mine was telling me casually about having gone to the nearby neighborhood of Inglewood last year to watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. Inglewood has historically been a primarily African American area, though now statistically it is more Hispanic and is quickly getting gentrified, all of which raises a whole other set of issues about socio economic justice and the division of opportunity and wealth in our uber-capitalist and historically racist society.
My neighbor continued – So we drove over there to see the fireworks. My friend has a studio in an industrial area but it was okay because we had a driver who knew how to get us safely there and we had a specific destination (i.e., a white oriented destination).
Even by then his story held so many implicit biases; he assumed that by telling me, a fellow white person, that 1) I would automatically agree that Inglewood, being primarily non- white, is dangerous 2) that he had done a brave and bold thing by daring to visit this out of control neighborhood when he could easily have stayed in our own, primarily white (i.e., safer) area.
It was crazy, there were fireworks whizzing by and flashes and explosions going off everywhere, people running up and down the middle of the street (i.e., it was out of control). But we made it home safely. Like I said, we had a driver who knew where he was going, how to get us in and out of there safely.
I was so appalled at his lack of awareness that what he was saying was rife with racism, with his POV of lifelong white male privilege, that it took me a minute to respond. I knew he was prickly and didn’t necessarily want to start a fight so I said something about loving the Inglewood area and going over there pretty regularly and always safely. I had cracked open the door to further conversation rather than kicking it open, and I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision.
But then I had another experience the next day that, that along with the multi-racial, social, ethnic, all age worldwide marches that have been going on, gave me a shot of hope for more awareness and thus less racism; I was at Big Lots, the discount chain store, and I ended up talking to a man who was in charge of the furniture area. We both wore masks so our faces were partly covered, but it was clear that I was a white woman and he was a black man. After a few minutes of chatting, I mentioned I had more hope today given the ongoing marches, and I mentioned my late step dad and having been thrown out of our rented house when the landlady saw he was black and we were white; the furniture man’s eyes opened wider.
“See, now I never would’ve thought that when you walked in here” he smiled. Then he told me that his daughter, who is living in Seattle, called him that morning to tell him the great news that she is pregnant with twins. She then surprised him by telling him that the baby’s father-to-be is white, not happy news to the grandfather-to-be. “I told him he better have a plan, he better start studying now, ‘cause pretty soon he is going to be the father of two black kids and he has NO IDEA what he is in for.”
We laughed about how each of us had surprised the other and both agreed that we all need to talk to each other more, to listen, to share our stories, and to admit that we all walk around with pre-conceived ideas about other people, many of which morph into our various prejudices.
When I got home a few minutes later, I checked the cocoons that had formed on the front porch. Still there, except for one late comer who had just found a spot and hung himself into the “J” shape we have learned is the pre-cocoon stage. Soon they would all morph into butterflies and we would have witnessed an amazing transformation, from worms to caterpillars to cocoons to butterflies. An obvious analogy, I know, but I can’t help but hope that we humans, conversation by surprising and often uncomfortable conversation, can be as open to transformation as these tiny creatures have proven to be.