Sunday, August 29, 2010

Why Talking About Race is Good for White People

Maybe I'm just given to subversive thinking, but I believe that if a lot of people tend to avoid talking about something, there might be a wound at the heart of the subject.

In this case, the 'wound' is the size of the Grand Canyon: the mutual history of race relations in this country.  And history doesn't end.  It's not as though racial problems became untwisted, all fixed, with the passage of the civil rights act or the election of Barak Obama.  Whether we want to admit it or not, we whites are actually IN the Grand Canyon.  We can pretend that race is a non-issue, but only at a cost to ourselves.

If we were to speak of how we've experienced issues of race, we might reveal pain and confusion.  Beverly Tatum, in her excellent book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? says that for people of all races, recalling their earliest childhood memories of racial awareness conjures the emotions of "confusion, sadness...embarrassment." And, she adds, the majority of these, however young they were, never discussed these formative experiences with anyone. Say a young white child  is unused to seeing anyone but white people.  According to Tatum, it's developmentally appropriate for a small child to ask why the darker skin looks "dirty".  Many parents would shush the question, sending a tacit message: talking about skin color is shameful.  But what if they gently explain that skin naturally comes in different colors?

By not wanting to make a big deal about race, we make a big deal about race.  This makes us mistrustful, and  it fosters stereotypes.  A study done by Princeton University  reveals that in New York City, when young men of equal skills and similar background apply for entry level jobs, white men with criminal records are more likely to be hired than black men with impeccable histories.  Chances are that most of the white people involved in the hiring would not consider themselves racist.

I think of it as "atmospheric racism".  It's everywhere, and it's subtle. I've seen it in my own family, in my neighborhood. And in myself.

Is it possible that white people aren't affected by racism against people of color? Think again. The US economy is directly impacted by incidents that happen even in a racially diverse city like New York.  Extrapolate the findings of the study across the economy, in the areas of housing, law enforcement, education, political life.  I am not saying that people in these professions are more likely to be racist than anyone else.  What I am saying is that each small action motivated by prejudice digs the hole a little deeper.  We have a choice.

Next Post: Aren't Black People Prejudiced, too?

Monday, August 16, 2010

"The Prep School Negro": More On Race at Germantown Friends School

Andre Lee, a graduate of Germantown Friends School, has made a film about his teenage years, which he spent in two very different worlds.  Give him your support and check out the trailer! His title is provocative: The Prep School Negro

Monday, August 9, 2010

The White Fool: Dealing with Race in America

Not talking about it...A pretty wide-spread approach I see among white people is to treat the question of race as a no man's land, a territory of such prickly feelings that we're better off not going there. I've seen white kids go to great lengths to describe the lone black person in a group by everything but skin color, which can turn the process of relating routine events of a school day into a Byzantine exercise.--"The one in the red shirt--the tall one, the short one..."  Red shirt? Tall? Who?

The impulse is good--we don't want to offend.  We breathe the same air that our grandparents exhaled at the height of Jim Crow, that our great-great grandparents breathed during slave times.  Those molecules affect our awareness.  We don't want to come across as "racist", which is laudable, but what we are is confused.  We don't know what to do with our common and agonized racial history, and this being America, where knowledge of our own history is less emphasized than what's over the next rise on Route 95, we can get away with pretending that racial differences don't exist.  Most of the time.  The other times, we're not prepared for.

The result is a passive segregation...because, of course, we know the differences are as real as the facts of our history.  We tend to avoid more than workplace acquaintance with people of color, sensing that more involvement would make us uncomfortable...and we might inadvertently say the wrong thing.  We may avoid offending, but we also fail to challenge our own stereotypes, because avoidance doesn't humanize the person we view as "other."

When I felt the pull to deal with the question of race in my own life, I made a fool of myself a few times. I got over it.  Certainly the people of color I was worried about "offending" didn't need me to stand up for them.  Next post, I'll talk about some of the benefits of looking at race and asking oneself some hard questions.