Thursday, September 17, 2009

Under Your Skin...

Future Love Paradise - Seal (mp3)
Informer - Snow (mp3)
It was no surprise that in a liberal city like Austin (Texas), every parent was a welcoming multiculturalist, embracing diversity. But according to (Professor Birgitte) Vittrup's entry surveys, hardly any of these white parents had ever talked to their children directly about race. They might have asserted vague principles -- like "Everybody's equal" or "God made all of us" or "Under the skin, we're all the same" -- but they'd almost never called attention to racial differences. They wanted their children to grow up colorblind...
This paragraph, early on in a Newsweek feature story about children and discrimination, was one of those moments when I was very happy to be reading it in the exclusive privacy of a bathroom rather than in public. Because if others had been watching me read that paragraph (and many others after that one), they would have seen me begin to gulp and fidget and even look around, slightly paranoid that others might notice my discomfort.

In short, that paragraph describes with almost perfect accuracy how I've been trying to raise my daughters on matters of race.

And whenever our behavior or attitudes are called out in a national publication with such accuracy, trust me, it's never a good thing. It means we're fucking up somehow. And I knew it early on in this article. But I kept reading anyway, despite my gross discomfort.

When it comes to issues of race, when it comes to talking about race, I'm astonished anyone from my generation could feel comfortable with the subject.

I was raised by and surrounded by adults who couldn't even figure out their own opinions on the matter. Some of the most memorable "serious talks" my father had with me were about race. One of my father's co-workers at TVA was black, and he and his wife always attended the annual work parties my parents hosted.  On several occasions my father would that night or the following day explain to me that they were good people and equal in every way to everyone else at the party. He would talk about how proud he was that things had changed and improved so drastically since he was my age, because he had black friends who weren't even allowed to come to his front door or enter his house without clear permission from his mother, and she almost never gave permission.

Yet I also saw him struggle with those very prejudices.

Most specifically, I remember us watching Flash Gordon together on HBO back in '81 or '82, making me 9 or 10. There's a scene where Ming gets Dale Arden drunk on some Midori or something. In the scene, Dale is surrounded by a bunch of female "slaves," many of which were African-American, and I remember my father calling them several words. One or two I'd heard before and knew were wrong, and one or two I'd never heard before.

I realize in hindsight that Dad was shitface drunk when we were watching it. Not that intoxication excuses it for the general public, but it helps make sense of what seemed to me at the time as confusing contradiction.

Dad wanted to believe races were equal. He wanted to believe that America was quickly moving past inequality and injustice based on race. But deep down, he was constantly fighting this deep-seeded feeling that black people just weren't as smart, weren't as capable. He wasn't proud of it, but it rolled in like a mild thunderstorm once or twice a year. (If he managed to prevent passing that contagion down through another generation, isn't that at least a small victory?)

All I've ever felt when it comes to matters of race, my whole life, is a mixture of pity and fear. Pity because it's one of the few subjects where no one seems to be allowed to get over their ignorance because all ignorance gets labeled as racism, and being called a racist isn't conducive to a willingness to learn, and everyone on all sides sometimes seem doomed to be stuck in their own ruts because they either shut up and keep it to themselves or they speak up and get raked over the coals.

Fear because I've learned that shutting up is the best approach, and I absolutely hate shutting up.

In college, my freshman RA was a black guy named Chris. He was from inner-city D.C., and he was the President of his black fraternity, and he was sharp and confident and smooth. He was the first guy -- one of the few African-Americans I've met my whole life -- who could comfortably and calmly discuss things with white people who had a lot to learn (or, he'd say, unlearn).

At the time, there was a huge movement (and opposition) on campus for a stand-alone Black Student Union, and a group of guys from my floor got into this debate with Chris. "Y'all have this whole campus," he said. "All we want is one damn building."

"But the whole campus is yours, too," several guys retorted. "You're not excluded from anything or anywhere."

"But it's not ours. It's yours. We're just welcomed to visit."

Later that year, I walked into the Black Student Union -- it was just a couple of rooms inside the larger Student Union building at the time. I was so nervous my knees were buckling, and I honestly fought back tears. I wanted someone to explain to me why I was so scared to ask questions, why I felt so guilty for having done nothing, to my knowledge, that was hateful or cruel. What I couldn't deny, however, was having grown up with family members and, later, friends, who expressed racist opinions and used racist language. And I felt guilty just for being a part of it, for knowing it was out there, and that people who looked like me thought and said those things.

And I felt guilty because I had no idea what I was supposed to do about it or how to make it better.

The BSU's assistant director sat down with me. I don't remember much about the conversation. I remember her actually smiling and patting my shoulder and having a look of pity on her face. I remember her telling me that having the nerve just to come into the BSU and talk was a sign of courage and progress, and that my responsibility was to refuse to tolerate hearing expressions of prejudice from others.

Almost 20 years later, I still feel knots of fear and discomfort. I've tolerated some expressions of racism and expressed intolerance for others, but more of the former than the latter.

So when my daughter, at 5-years-old, referred to her black classmate as "tan," I didn't even try to clarify. We used that a lot in our house for a while. "Tan." It sounded good.

And when I did talk about race with them, it was in those vanilla (Neopolitan?) notions of "everyone's equal," "everyone's the same," yada yada. I was so afraid of educating them incorrectly that I ended up not educating them at all. And I'm using the past tense just to deceive myself, because it's not like I'm suddenly Daddy Diversity.

And I'm left to wonder, is this merely my failure, or are we as a society doomed to continue to fail until we can figure out a way to talk about it without being paralyzed by fear?

4 comments:

Daisy said...

This describes my household perfectly. Last year my kindergartner came home and said Susie goes to afterschool care because she is dark. I said no Susie goes to afterschool care because her Mommy is at work. My child says to me "Susie is the only person in my class that goes to afterschool care and she is the only one who is dark so that must be the reason"

So much for trying to raise children to be colorblind. Any suggestions on where we go from here?

Bob said...

Maybe this is the problem: you're not really talking race, you're talking black and white. The fact that the Asian-American,the Indian-American, the foreign student, perhaps even the Hispanic-American probably don't feel like your campus or this country is just a place where they are "welcomed to visit" says as much about the your African-American RA as it does about you. There are things to be unlearned on both sides.

BeckEye said...

I agree with Bob. Racism isn't just about black and white. And I would've opposed the Black Student Union. It makes no sense. We had things like that on my college campus too, including sororities and fraternities specifically for African Americans. That sort of self-segregation can only serve to promote MORE racism. An assumption that they're just "unwelcome visitors" is racism in itself because it's based on the assumption that, deep down, all white people are racist. True, there are plenty of them around, but backing down to them accomplishes nothing.

John said...

I'm teaching Dalton Conley's excellent memoir, Honky, in one of my senior electives and it's spurred some great discussions about race and class. One of the points that he makes is that when you ask a class full of students to list the top five things that describe them, that white students will 99% of the time never write "white" but that black students will 99% of the time write "black" or "African American"; white is the "default position" and as such, "normal." Watching my students come to articulate what being white "means" is a good first step towards the getting a conversation going.