The Mute World (Politics & Society)

In Black and White: A Discussion About Perceptions of Race Relations

Wikimedia Commons

Photo Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In keeping with my Black History Month theme, and my own reflections about when I first began to understand the significance of race and race relations in America, I decided to compare my thoughts and realizations with those of some of my white friends. No discussion on race and race relations can be complete if it is one-sided, and I think that many people understand that most feelings about race and relations are taught and/or learned, whether directly or indirectly.

Of course, I also understand that there are many more races than just Black and white, but I think that for much of American history that struggle has been a predominant one. Also, for right now, mainly for simplicity purposes, I didn’t interview all of my friends of other races. I was curious about whether and how white families talk to their children about race relations and racism, and thankfully, a few of my friends were brave, gracious, and open enough to share their thoughts and recollections with me.

Interestingly, one of my friends was around the same age that I was–six or seven–when she first realized that she was white. Like me, she also realized it after reading a book. “I was reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and my mom sat me down to have a conversation with me about the book,” my friend told me. “[My mom] was very serious, and she [told me], ‘there is one word in that book that is very, very bad, and I never want you to say it to anyone, ever. You would get in a lot of trouble if you said it at school.'”

My friend’s mom wouldn’t tell her what the word was, only that it “start[ed] with an ‘n'” and my friend eventually figured it out. She had grown up in a predominantly white and middle-class neighborhood and gone to school with mostly white children. Before that time, her primary interactions with kids of other races came through friends of her parents or participation in local sports organizations. She remembers being confused by the sudden warning that “there were ways to talk about race that were wrong and offensive.”  Just as I had in the moment before I looked at the back of my hand after reading the Martin Luther King book, she had previously viewed race as “something that existed in a neutral sense,” but not something that was “capable of having good or bad connotations.”

She said her parents had always taught her and her sister to “treat others as we wanted to be treated, not to judge anyone for being different, and not to make fun of anyone for any reason.” She remembers her parents always having a visible distaste for excessive wealth and injustice, avoiding membership at country clubs that had refused to admit African Americans until forced to do so in the early 1990s and ridiculing “elite social scene” events. While she doesn’t remember “many direct conversations about race” as a child, they did have discussions about privilege, “but usually privilege in an economic sense.”

Also like me, as my friend got older she began to be more cognizant of racial tensions. She recalled that the few African American students in her middle school tended to eat lunch together in a section of the cafeteria that her classmates nicknamed “Little Africa.” She explained that such comments made her “uncomfortable” and “didn’t mesh with the values [her] parents had taught [her].”

Another incident took place in high school when a group of students in the International Baccalaureate (IB) program that she was in (which was only about 10% African American) decided to dress up “in baggy jeans, white t-shirts, gold chains, and other “ghetto outfits” to mimic the students on the “traditional” academic track after the traditional students dressed up like “nerds.” She said that while she “knew  that this episode highlighted some of the tensions at the school between different groups of students,” she “did not give it much critical thought” at the time.

“I thought that it was enough that I was in an environment that was diverse, and even if there were racial tensions within that environment, I was doing my part to broaden my horizons by simply existing in a space different than the one I had grown up in,” she said. “Now I wish I had talked to some of the traditional students about what this high school was like from their perspective, but at the time I didn’t feel like I knew how to do that.”

She says that it was not until she got to college that she “learned that [she] could listen to and participate in conversations about race. She says that that “small step has helped [her] learn more and confront [her] own misconceptions more, because [she] can have honest conversations with people and push [herself] to look critically at [her] own ways of thinking.

Another friend of mine said that if there was a distinct moment when he realized that he was white, he was “too young to remember.” His parents were Italian immigrants who came to the United States in the 1980s and “continue[d] to identify as Italians as opposed to Americans or whites.” He also grew up in an Italian immigrant community and spoke Italian at home.

He admits that both of his parents “didn’t like Black folks” when he was growing up. He remembers his mother telling him not to date Black girls when he was in elementary school and not having a reason when he inquired about why. He said his father had also been robbed at gunpoint by a Black person shortly after he arrived in the United States. As a result, his father tended to avoid Black people.

He says he was fortunate to have good teachers who “tore apart racist ideas.” He describes himself as being “pretty outspoken about race” from a young age, arguing with his parents about it whenever they said racist things, and he has continued to do so with other people because he thinks it’s important. More than the significance of race per se, he believes that “historical modes of economic relations over-determine our individual social relations.”

My friends’ recollections about what they were taught and have learned about race has helped me to realize a few things:

1. The importance of media, education, and communication. If you’ve ever read this blog, you know that I love to rattle on and on about media and the critical messages that we consume and that others send. I think that it is much more than an interesting coincidence that my friend and I both became aware of the significance of race at around the same age by reading books. Fortunately, we were becoming aware of our differences in a somewhat more “intellectual” medium where it was presented in an already edited and filtered way that was designed to be broken down further and discussed, but I cannot help but to think about the children who are formulating ideas about race and race relations through television, music, and other forms of media that are not being monitored or discussed.

I also found it interesting that, at least based on what they told me, neither one of my friends’ parents really delved into reasons or explanations for warnings and/or opinions about race or race relations. For example, while my friend described her mom’s attempt to prepare her for the upcoming appearance of the “n” word in Huckleberry Finn and told her that she could “get in trouble” if she used it, she did not explain why the word was problematic or the history of the word. Granted, she might have done so at a later time, but I am always curious about the way in which white children are taught about history and race relations.

As I mentioned in my previous post, images and stories about Black leaders and history were prominent in my household growing up. Before I even understood the negative connotations of Blackness, I knew the positive ones. It was almost as if my parents were building me up before society could attempt to tear me down in any way. They were compensating for the gaps that they knew would be missing from my schooling, but which they knew would be crucial to my complete life education. When it comes to white children, we know that Martin Luther King gets a lot of attention in schools, but who and what else does? And what role does that play in shaping how white people grow up understanding racial tensions and race relations?

2. The importance of engagement and not just exposure. Just as my friend quickly learned that it was not enough to just be in a diverse school and do her part to be exposed to people of other races, people of other races cannot just exist in one another’s midst without truly engaging with one another. We can’t learn from one another that way. Impoliteness is not acceptable, but fear and political correctness helps no one. As my friend noted, we have to call one another out when we see and hear things that are wrong. As a Black person who has attended schools where I have been both the majority and the minority, I know that it not enough to just be present, we have to interact. That is the only way we come to truly understand one another and to challenge stereotypes.

3. My own generally monolithic views of whiteness. While I am very aware of the vastness of and the differences among the Black Diaspora, I tend to think of white people as one cultural entity. I was surprised to realize that when my friend explained that his parents were Italian immigrants. I never think of “whiteness,” whatever that is, as being composed of different nationalities and cultures. After growing up and also largely associating different races with wealth disparities, I am just now truly wrapping my head around the concept that not all white people are wealthy. Now, I have another realization to confront.

4. The pros and cons of inflating the connection between economics and race relations. Truthfully, I think many people are simply more comfortable addressing issues of injustice along class and economic lines than along racial and/or cultural ones. I think it sounds better to say that we need to help the poor than it does to say that we need to be tolerant of one another’s differences. I absolutely agree that there is a major connection between social relations and economics and class, but I also know that even wealthy Black people still suffer from many of the societal challenges that come with Blackness. In response to a question about what he wishes other less progressive people would realize, one of my friends said that “we’re really not that different at all.” In theory, I understand that. We are all human. We are all more alike than we are different. Yet, I would really like for society to get to a point where it embraces the fact that we are all different and that that’s what makes us beautiful. Culture is important. Culture is necessary. It can be prevalent without being threatening or divisive.

Standard
Self-Mutilation (Creative Expressions)

A Poem On Trayvon Martin’s Would-Be Birthday and the Day After the 15th Anniversary of the Killing of Amadou Diallo

21 shots

He never got to take

Surrounded by friends in a bar on his 21st birthday

That never came

Will never come

41 shots

He never got to take

His wallet out of his pocket

Before he was shot down with no

Courtesy

Professionalism

or Respect

And CPR couldn’t save him

From the neighborhood watch

That saw his hoodie

But missed his childhood

Feared his manhood

That he never got to see

Will never get to see

Did he ever get to eat his Skittles?

Was he munching on them on the way home?

Or did he decide to wait?

Wait!

Wait!

Don’t shoot!

It’s a wallet.

Not a gun

This is somebody’s son

Sabrina

Kiatou

Mother.

Mother of the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world

If there is no justice,

Just iced tea.

What is it worth?

How much is the price of peace

Of mind?

Of knowing that you can walk home

Or stand in your lobby

Safely

Blackly.

Free from the stigma of being a former “Colored” boy

Who considers living life–to the fullest

When Trayvon’s rainbow Skittles

And everything in Amadou’s wallet weren’t enough?

Standard
The Mute World (Politics & Society)

Way Black When: A Remembrance

As you may know, February is Black History Month. I’ve decided to devote my posts this month to telling stories about race and race relations in the U.S. from the perspective of millennials (that’s what people seem to like to call me and other people in my age group.) Last week’s post sparked an idea, and I’d just like to develop it more and see where it goes.

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

I remember the first day I realized that I was Black. I was six years old, and I was reading a children’s book about Dr. Martin Luther King. I don’t remember if I was in school or if it was a book that I was reading at home. I don’t remember the name of the book or the name of the author. I just remember getting to a part in the story where a young Dr. King is heartbroken after his childhood friend tells him that they can no longer play together because the friend is white and Dr. King is Black. (I have no idea whether this actually happened to Dr. King, but I remember this part of the story in that particular book.) The book described the confusion that Dr. King felt after being told this because he didn’t understand why the color of his skin should keep him from playing with his friend.

In that moment, I looked at my hand. It was closer to the color of the young Dr. King than it was to his white friend in the picture.

Initially, I was confused too. I knew my colors and I couldn’t help but notice that the shade of my skin did not match the color of my grandmother’s big leather Bible, the turf at recess, the crayon in my 64-box set, or any of the other things that I had come to identify as “black.”

“Black?” I thought. “Brown, definitely, but not Black.”

My distinction wasn’t coming from a place of self-hatred or disdain, as so many people have come to identify associations of shades of “blackness” and complexion. It was rooted in the innocence of childhood literalism and curiosity. That’s why it always amazes me when people say things like, “kids don’t see color.”

“What do you mean kids don’t see color?” I always think. “We teach kids colors! Most kids even have a favorite color.” The identification of colors is one of the fundamental building blocks of learning. We teach kids to group, categorize, and label things all the time.

Kids may not instantaneously know the socio-political significance of race, but experiments like the 1947 doll study (replicated  in 2010 on CNN with the same results) show that many kids figure that out at an early age–even when they don’t realize what they’ve internalized or why. So, with that in mind, many people should actually be surprised that I was as old as six when I realized that I was Black.

This doesn’t mean that that was the first time I’d been told that I was Black, it just means that it was the first time that I realized it. It was the first time that I understood that, to some people, and often structurally in society, my “Blackness” was a bad thing.

I was raised in a very “Afrocentric” household. I had black dolls. I read children’s books by Jamaica Kincaid with little black girl protagonists. Names like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Harriet Tubman, Wilma Rudolph, Garrett A. Morgan, and Charles Drew, with heroic stories of achievement to match, floated around constantly. I understood that people like me had done great things.

If anything, Dr. King’s childhood rejection didn’t comport with what I had been raised to believe about Blackness up until that point. I knew that Harriet Tubman had been a slave and I understood that that was a horrible thing (and even that many other people who looked like me had suffered the same fate). However, the emphasis of those stories had always been on the magnitude of our triumph in spite of this, and not on the struggle.

So, if anything, that realization while reading the book about Dr. King was more like an “oh-that’s-what-they-meant-by-Black” rather than an “oh- snap-I’m-Black? (as in, you mean I’m not white?)” moment. Even in the melting pot, which many people view as New York City, neighborhood class lines are often organized along racial lines. So, everyone in my neighborhood was Black. At the time, pretty much everyone I went to school with was Black too. So, Black wasn’t a revelation; it was my reality.

Of course, I wasn’t oblivious to the presence of people of other races. My teachers, in particular, were all white. I subconsciously associated whiteness with authority. White people were my teachers, principals, police officers (except for the few Black ones my mother knew), doctors, politicians, and most people who reported the news. I didn’t quite understand why they tended to be in these positions and I didn’t necessarily think about why many of the Black people I knew weren’t. It was just the way it was. We were just different. I couldn’t understand the appeal of Friends (which, thanks to reruns, is actually now one of my favorite shows), but I loved Living Single. It was that simple.

Ironically, within the next several years, I quickly started to wonder about the reasons for the apparent discrepancy–not so much because of what I was being told, but because of things that were happening and what I was seeing. We all know that the world gets realer as you get older. Little by little, I began to lose my security blanket of childhood innocence, as if I had been wriggling too much in my sleep.

For me, one such incident that snatched at that blanket was the NYPD attack on Abner Louima. At seven years old, I had no idea what sodomy was, but I understood: black man, white cops, severe beating, Brooklyn. I saw the pictures, the protests, the news reports and could feel the anger of the adults around me.

A few years after that, Amadou Diallo was shot and killed by the NYPD. By that time, I was older and I still understood: black man, white cops, 41 shots (wow, that’s a lot), unarmed, “a wallet is not a gun,” and acquittal. And again I saw the rallies and the news reports, and again I could feel the anger of the people around me. Later on, the pattern, which by that time I had learned was not a new one, continued: Timothy Stansbury, Sean Bell, the list goes on…

Around the same time, but possibly before that, I got the universal “you’re-Black-so-you-have-to-be-twice-as-good” speech. I honestly don’t remember the reason for or the context of my being given that speech at the time because I had had the “twice as good” mentality for as long as I could remember, and it had nothing to do with my being Black. I was just ambitious. But the mentality became different when it was put in a historical context. Suddenly, I had the ancestors on my back and I could not let them down. Now I understand that they are actually the ones who carry me.

By the time I took my first ride from lower Manhattan all the way Uptown and watched as the neighborhoods gradually changed outside of my window, I was curious. I could no longer just accept things as just the way things were. I wanted to know why they were that way. I visited a school on the Upper East Side–not a college or a graduate school, just a school–that had a fireplace in the classroom and a spiraling staircase. I understood that I was still in New York City, but I felt that I was literally and figuratively a long way from home. I understood that very few of the people who went to this school looked like me and that if I wanted to come to this school, I would need to get a scholarship. And I started to understand that we lived in different worlds that were deeper than Friends v. Living Single.

A friend of mine who comes from a multi-racial family told me that growing up his “Black side” of the family would talk about numerous injustices committed against them by whites and that it was in stark contrast to the way his “white side” of the family was. He said that that dichotomy was a big help to him in terms of learning that one can’t fully be judged by the color of his skin. For me, it has never really been about judgment or skin color as much as it has been about access and self-determination.

Of course, now I understand that white does not necessarily equal rich and powerful, but I didn’t always understand that. I did understand that Black seemed to mean less likely to be rich and powerful and more likely to be poor, uneducated, criminalized, and even killed. It was a realization that didn’t fit in with the stories and feelings of pride and greatness that had been instilled in me. It still doesn’t. It hopefully never will.

But I also know that Black history, present, and future are all bigger and better than that. So, this month especially, as we used to say in my spoken word circles, I hope to “go in and get free,” to pay homage to those stories by telling our stories and working to create new ones.

Standard