A World Less Certain | Rats on Parade

We are all in this together (“rat speak” for opportunists who seek to rule the day)

My brain is viewed by many as tainted because of my upbringing. I am white, male, and elderly – I lean liberal but vote conservative. My party preference does not exist. Some people think I am privileged. I understand their reasoning: I’ve only been subject to discrimination a few times in my life – all related to my appearance and age. I was stereotyped in those few instances, and over a lifetime, I was fortunate (“privileged’) to overcome them.

Who am I to write about such things as race relations? Who am I to add my voice to the Black Lives Matter movement that is sweeping our nation? 

Where was I before the recent L.A. riots? My answer is simple: I was doing my best to provide for my family. I was absent.

I have experienced discrimination only a few times in my life. In my twenties, while trying to find work and a place to rent (with no prior work experience), and again, while trying to find a job in my late fifties (with a distinguished work history). And of course, there is the time a Starbuck’s employee refused to give me a key to the restroom. The last example came most recently when I entered the coffeehouse in San Francisco on 3rd Street. Carrying my writer’s laptop in my backpack with shoulder-length hair, braided beard, and rolled sleeves that revealed my fresh tattoos, I approached the barista. Perhaps, I fit an “undesirable profile.” It probably didn’t help my case much when I threatened to pee on the floor, adding, “I need the key so I can relieve myself properly.” The Starbucks shift manager was not amused and promptly called the police. 

My mother gave birth to me when she was 15 years old. My parents began their journey in a small one-bedroom apartment. My father had plans to attend a local community college full-time. Instead, he went to work full-time to support a family. His first job was digging ditches. His work life ended as the corporate head of a Fortune 500 company. 

I grew up in a middle-class white neighborhood in Diamond Bar, California, in the 1960s and 1970s. I was not familiar with how others lived until I attended public high school in Pomona. And when I did, I realized the core differences between the haves and have nots in this country is primarily based on economic opportunity. The key features of the economic divide are due to race, gender, and age – which can be overcome in combination with like-minded communities, educational opportunities, industry equality, business opportunities, and government support. The “breakthrough” possibilities are surprisingly difficult in America unless you are male, white, educated or skilled, and sufficiently motivated. 

Rats On Parade

Rats are everywhere. They are intelligent, crafty, and cute (if not for their ugly tails). Rats are tiny survivalists. What they do best is sniff out an opportunity, even in tragic circumstances. They are the face of the plague for centuries; in the rat world, that means crawling on a narrow mooring rope tethered to a shipload of food and supplies. 

Today, “rat people” feed during times of opportunity (especially during our pandemic): politicians seeking higher office, corporate leaders crafting caring messages, long-ignored economists and futurists taking center stage, health officials calmly dispensing daily infection rates and death statistics, looters hijacking the protestors’ call for justice, and media exploiting misery and death in exchange for increased viewership. 

Immediately following an earthquake, a similar behavior accompanies the first event and aftershocks. Neighbors seek the solace of neighbors, friends, and family – even reaching out to strangers to share the jitters we all have in common. It draws us closer. 

But then the rats begin to march together, carrying the banner stretching over their brand. Their concertmaster squeaks as they fill the streets. The corporate and city autocrat rats employ the same message (their survival depends on it): We are all in this together.  

At some point during the live news conference, they shower us with newsworthy soundbites laced with our favorite government cheese. Our minds and thumbs become numb – hovering over the off button. We finally press down, accompanied by a long sigh. 

Not only are we living in a world less certain, but our new reality now is undeniably unclear. 

Discrimination in America exists at every level. And for many, it’s a matter of life or death.

* * *

I gazed out my loft window this morning and saw nothing but blue. Surprisingly, perhaps, I could tell the sky isn’t falling. But that is my experience. I see the world with eyes planted in the face of a wrinkled white man. Some call it “white privilege.” I understand their reasoning. 

Perhaps, I am the rat in the middle of a pandemic. 

However, the burden of inequity in America is also mine to carry now. I hope to shed my tail, stand tall with my two legs, and be counted. 

 

Author Rick Thomas is the former museum curator and vice-chair of education for the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation. He served on the South Pasadena Natural Resources Commission, helping to maintain a strict policy protecting the city’s great old-growth trees. Using touchstone photographs from his own collection—one of the San Gabriel Valley’s largest accumulations of historical images and artifacts—as well as national, state, and local historical archives, Thomas provides a window to his city’s past and an understanding of why its preservation is so important.

1 COMMENT

  1. Thank you for this personal perspective, Mr Thomas.

    As a woman of color, a single mother and one often marginalized in our own community because of her economic status and her viewpoints, I would like to offer one thought.

    Most people with white privilege don’t understand that discrimination and racism are two different things.

    You have poignantly described how privilege can make the experience and inconvenience of discrimination bearable.

    Thank you for you for sharing.