Sunday, March 23, 2008

talking to ourselves about race

I sit down in my usual spot, a beige recliner in a cluttered and too-small living room. It lies too flat these days, due to the pressure put on it by my youngest daughter, who enjoys sitting behind me and leaning over my shoulders to read what I am composing; her added weight has done something to the chair's mechanics. She is not behind me right now.

On the couch across from me, my husband snores; we've returned from overindulging on an Easter brunch, and he's probably the smart one: I suspect we all could benefit from a nap. Three cats are asleep as well, two upstairs and one behind me on the dining room table (where she is not supposed to be). This is my life. It is predictable. It is simple, middle class, suburban. I have been a part of this kind of existence throughout my fifty years; I know nothing else.

It is, for the most part, a fairly benign existence; compared to the struggle that many others have to go through, I have been very fortunate. I know this. But we are only capable of being the product of our lives' journeys: whether that product is an unquestioning acceptance of the status quo or a radical re-envisioning of our parents' morality, our worlds are shaped by who we are and who we have been. Mine has been stable, middle class, comfortable, educated, liberal, caring, and fulfilling. It has also been white.

I grew up in New Hampshire, a state that–we are reminded every election cycle–is well over 95% white. When I was growing up, I think the percentage must have been closer to 99%. In any event, I do not even recall seeing a black person until I was about eight or nine years old and visiting relatives near Pittsburgh. My reaction was more curiosity than anything: "Oh, that's a black person."

I am so white that I read a book by Barbary Delinski that turned on whether a family's ancestry had any African-American blood in it, and my reaction was "so what if it does?"

I am so white that I once got into a lengthy discussion/argument with a friend of color about whether it was possible for someone who was not white to be racist. I of course argued that it is. I still believe that.

I am so white that, though I do not care one whit about the color of a person's skin, I have in my list of friends and acquaintances only three African-Americans that I can think of off-hand. I am so white that I find that pathetic.

I am so white that I teach in a nearly lily-white town and attend a nearly lily-white church. I'd prefer both to be more integrated, but they are not. And I am there.

I am so white that, yes, I admit that I get nervous when I am walking late at night and the people behind me are young men of color. I get nervous if they are young white men too, but this is a nervousness of a different nature. And I know it is stupid, and I know that it means nothing and I could as easily be mugged by a white kid, but I am so white that I am frightened nonetheless.

I am so white that I tell myself and anyone else who will listen that I am not a racist, that I bear no prejudice against people of color, and I believe it because I would never discriminate nor tolerate discrimination in any form or manner, but at the same time I find myself irritated at the very phrase "people of color" because it is so grammatically awkward and because it represents at least the fifth time in my life that black people have redefined what they prefer to be called, and it makes me crazy. White people don't, even though white is a really stupid way to refer to us, since none of us, not even an albino, is really and truly white. I am so white that I really don't think that little diatribe makes me a racist at all.

This is the problem with having an open and honest dialogue about race: most of us do not know ourselves on this matter. We know who we want to be. We know who we wish we could be. But we do not know who we are because we have not yet had the conversation with ourselves that has to precede any meaningful conversation with others. I am a white liberal Unitarian-Universalist who believes in equality for absolutely every social group there is. How could I harbor any racist thoughts or opinions or beliefs? I who would be the first to shout down the hate-mongers if they spouted words or ideas that seeded racial discord? I who am known to walk out of my classroom to chastise random students who fling the word "gay" around in the hallway as an insult? I who insist that the girls in my classes stand up for themselves? How could I be prejudiced? The only thing I can't tolerate is intolerance!

And yet, that is exactly the honest question I need to ask myself, and the honest answer I must insist upon from myself if I am to make a start in furthering the dialogue that Barack Obama has asked us all to begin. Put bluntly: Am I a racist? Or maybe, less harshly: Do I harbor any racist thoughts or feelings against my better judgment? And the answer comes back: I am so white that the only realistic answer to this question must be yes.

It is possible for a white person to be free of racism, but I suspect it is not easy in a single generation. I am the first generation of my family to focus on that issue. My children, growing up in what pundits are referring to as a "post-racial" world, might have a chance, but they attend my church too and their school has as few black people as mine does. Still I do not hear anything from them that even recognizes that racial distinctions matter, and that is encouraging because of course they shouldn't.

It is the generation that came before mine–Reverend Wright's generation–who started this conversation. Many, like him, have been mired so deeply in the discordant undertones of it that they cannot find their way back out. Some, though, have managed to pass on their better natures to their children, and in my generation we see the rise of men and women like Obama, who know we need to move past the divisiveness at last. At long last, though, it will be the next generation, our children's generation, that may be able finally to achieve that laudable goal. Unlike us, they did not come from a world torn by the overt racism of apartheid and pre-Civil Rights America. They did not come from a time when the racial violence threatened to tear apart the fabric of this great nation. They have no memory of Watts or Detroit or LA or Washington. They have no memory of Chicago and the Black Panthers. This was not their fight. It is, if anything, a part of a very ugly moment in American history, one that–perhaps–they will learn from.

I sit in my beige recliner typing these words, residual racist that I am, praying that my children will not have to look at their own souls at fifty and find similar truths that so horrifically violate their idealistic self-perceptions. In my thirties, I argued so vehemently with a friend who is both black and Latino that I was not in any way a racist. It was such a violation of everything I stood for, everything I believed, that she could even suggest such a thing by saying that my statement that I "understood" something she was trying to illuminate was an example of white arrogance and that I could not, as a white person, ever "understand." The irony is not that there were things about me about which she was unaware that would have helped her to see why I thought I did understand, but that, for all of my great empathy, she was right: I didn't and I couldn't.

But I am so white that I thought I could.

We need to begin the conversation openly with each other by beginning it openly with ourselves. Only then can it ever become meaningful. Only then can it hope to make a difference.


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it's your hair that i notice first
streaked with morning
it frames your face
you lying there eyes closed
soft breath not quite there
i follow its path as it bends the sheet
and i can touch you there
touch what i feel is you
in the spark of daylight
you'll rise
pull on the wrinkled shirt from last night
say something you think is beautiful
drink some coffee
from behind my paper
and drive away,
leaving a kiss on my lips
and a hole in my heart
where a fire ought to be

Favorite Films

  • The Wizard Of Oz
  • Amelie
  • The Princess Bride
  • Casablanca
  • Annie Hall
  • The Lord of the Rings
  • All That Jazz
  • Citizen Kane
  • Love Actually
  • Moulin Rouge
  • Big Fish
  • When Harry Met Sally
  • Almost Famous
  • Bull Durham
  • Notting Hill
  • Apocalypse Now (Redux)
  • Magnolia

All-Time Favorite TV Shows

  • Buffy the Vampire Slayer
  • Gilmore Girls
  • M*A*S*H
  • The West Wing
  • The X-Files
  • The Daily Show
  • Ally McBeal
  • Picket Fences
  • All In The Family
  • Seinfeld
  • The Mary Tyler Moore Show
  • Star Trek
  • Firefly
  • Wonderfalls
  • Northern Exposure
  • Get Smart
  • The Dick Van Dyke Show
  • Twin Peaks
  • The Larry Sanders Show
  • Monk
  • Felicity
  • St. Elsewhere

Current TV Shows I Enjoy (in no particular order)

  • Perception
  • Major Crimes
  • American Horror Story
  • Louie
  • Suits
  • The Newsroom
  • Falling Skies
  • Franklin and Bash
  • Veep
  • Scandal
  • Fairly Legal
  • Girls
  • Don't Trust the B---
  • Justified
  • Portlandia
  • Psych
  • The Middle
  • Person of Interest
  • Happy Endings
  • Hart of Dixie
  • Real Time with Bill Maher
  • Nikita
  • Raising Hope
  • Castle
  • Drop Dead Diva
  • Covert Affairs
  • Elementary
  • Rizzoli and Isles
  • Revolution
  • The Last Resort
  • Alphas
  • SNL
  • Revenge
  • Community
  • Suburgatory
  • New Girl
  • Once Upon a Time
  • Grimm
  • Nashville
  • Downton Abbey
  • Smash
  • Homeland
  • Fringe
  • Glee
  • Haven
  • Community
  • Warehouse 13
  • Modern Family
  • Vampire Diaries
  • The Daily Show
  • How I Met Your Mother
  • The Colbert Report
  • Parks and Recreation
  • Leverage
  • Rachel Maddow Show

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