Friday, November 30, 2007

On Racism in America

You know what I've come to realize? Only white people ever say, "I'm color-blind." Or, "I don't know what race So-and-So is; I only see the person, not their skin color." Or, "I don't care if someone is green with purple polka dots!" I've never heard a person of color ever say those things. Their race is a non-negotiable reality that comes up constantly in their daily lives. It cannot be ignored. I have a black co-worker who started instructing his son to take off his coat whenever he goes into a store at the tender age of four, knowing that his son will inevitably be accused of stealing someday.

At 12, he started talking to his son about what he should do when he gets his drivers license, because he KNOWS his son will be pulled over for "driving while black." He started drilling him FOUR YEARS before he can even get a learner's permit. "Get your license and registration out immediately, before the officer gets to the car. Keep your hands visible at all times. Never reach for anything in the glove compartment. Stick to 'Yes, sir. No, sir.' Never argue." He feels strongly that these lessons about traffic stops could save his teenage son's life, and he's not wrong.

Only white people have the privilege of ignoring the issue of race, because we don't experience racism day in and day out. We can ignore it if we want to. We have the luxury of deciding race doesn't matter. The "green with purple polka dots" comment is a perfect example. People don't come in green with purple polka dots. They come in black and white and brown and pink and beige, and people have DIED over this difference.

I'm the first to admit that I am too Politically Correct. For the most part, I'm proud of it. I want to have my finger on the pulse of what is the most inoffensive way of saying things, but at some point, one must speak. When Nelson Mandela was elected president of South Africa, a major American news outlet with an international audience was so afraid of using the word "black" that they ended up having to run a correction the next day. They referred to Nelson Mandela as the first "African-American" president of South Africa when he's, you know, African. He was the first black president of South Africa. He's never been an American anything.

I was recently working on a story about two sisters who are shooting a documentary about the first black residents in Lockrand County. One of the sisters is an attorney who fought and won a case against a huge real estate development company who wanted to dig up the only cemetery where African-Americans were permitted burial for decades in that county. The developers built the Gigundo Mall anyway, but the cemetery was preserved. It's tucked in between a parking garage and a giant Target, but it's still there. Nothing says eternal resting place like Pottery Barn and Cinnabon.

Anyway, we were talking about race and disenfranchisement and history, and this documentary they're filming. They interviewed a local historian- an old white guy who bears an unfortunate resemblance to the crypt-keeper in all but one photograph I shot of him. He debunks the authenticity of claims that a house in Nyack was once a stop on the Underground Railroad, which I find completely fascinating.

I heard somewhere, probably on NPR, that the majority of homes that claim to have been stops on the Underground Railroad really weren't. It's an interesting manifestation of white guilt, in a way. There were very, very few safe houses. Taking in runaway slaves was an enormous risk. It seems like such an easy way to gloss over the brutal realities of enslavement, to say, "Well, slavery was really bad, but in our town? Well! We had good people who HELPED the runaway slaves! Our town was DIFFERENT." And 90% of the time, it's just not true.

The very, very liberal town of Nyack (where Joel and I would love to live) has an example of this. There's a historical marker right outside the Dapper Dog Salon on Main Street, proclaiming the home of the Hesdra family to have been a stop on the Underground Railroad. In reality, Edward Hesdra was a biracial person who was passing for white. He was able to get away with this in part because he was married to a wealthy woman. This wealthy woman was also biracial. Her father was white, unmarried, and very powerful. The Hesdras were able to pass for white in part because of his influence.

As I understand it, there is one verifiable instance where Edward Hesdra brought in one fugitive slave, one time, who was walking the streets of Nyack in a daze. He saved that man's life, definitely, but it's very unlikely he would have jeopardized his family's precarious ability to "pass" in white society by running a full-time safehouse.

I was talking about all of this with one of the filmmakers when my PC White Person ColorblindnessTM kicked in. I wanted to ask about Mrs. Hesdra. I figured her mother was probably one of her father's slaves, but I found that I couldn't just ask that. I simply couldn't say it. Instead, I asked, "So I take it her mother wasn't exactly a celebrated member of society?" The filmmaker looked me right in the eye, and she said, "Oh, he probably raped one of his slaves."

I collapsed in relieved laughter and mocked by own hand-wringing hesitance, saying, "Sorry, that's just my bleeding heart liberal women's studies degree holding White Lady Factor kicking in! That's what I was trying to say, but my PC Censor when into hyperdrive." We started talking about why I struggle to ask about the ugly truth. She shrugged and said, "Just say it. It's what a black woman would do."

On a related topic, Flea, author of, wrote an amazing post about discovering the script of a Thanksgiving play that her son read aloud in class last week. You need to go read her post. No, really. I'll wait. This next bit might not make sense otherwise. Go and come back. *whistles softly, examines cuticles*

Alright, for the cheaty cheatersons who didn't read it, the author's son was learning the myth of Thanksgiving in school about the pilgrims and Squanto and how they all "made friends with the Indians," yadda yadda first Thanksgiving plant-the-corn-with-fish thing blah-de-blah.*

*QUICK DIGRESSION: How come the “Indians” in the children's storybooks about Thanksgiving are always shirtless and clad in, like, loin cloths? DUDE. It was MASSACHUSETTS. In the middle of WINTER. That place is COLD. The pilgrims are in those heavy cloaks for a REASON. Can we see some nice watercolor and pencil drawings of fully clothed Native Americans for once, puh-lease? It's like Squanto saved the pilgrims from freezing to death during the cold, cold winter by warming them with the heat emanating from his magical, super-metabolic bare chest. Sheesh.

Anyway, the author was talking about trying to find a way to talk to her son about the realities of white peoples' relationships to indigenous people without completely overwhelming and scaring him. She writes:

A few years ago I read an essay by a conservative columnist, whose name I won't mention because I can't remember who it was. I remember the article was about her irritation that her son's school was celebrating either African-American history month, or they were studying about Dr. King, or they'd just given a lecture on diversity, something like that. Up until that point, she wrote, her son had no idea about racial issues, or that there was any difference between black children and white. And now she had to explain it all away, so thanks a lot, school..... I understand her reluctance to get into it with her young son. I don't want to get into it with mine, either. Is there ever an appropriate age to learn that your ancestors kidnapped and enslaved a race of people, beat them, raped them, murdered them en masse? ....I don't want to tell him about any of that stuff, either, and the crazy thing is, I don't have to! Our school books will mostly back me up! It's African-American parents, Mexican parents, gay and lesbian parents, and Native American parents that have to do all the heavy lifting. Again. Still.

She's right. It shouldn’t be up to people of color to do all the heavy lifting. Issues of race and ethnicity shouldn’t come as a surprise to white children during Black History Month. I don't know why a lot of white people seem to think that racism ended with the Civil Rights Movement. I don't know why people are surprised when I talk about the Klan having a visible community presence in the region where I grew up. (Although I'm mostly referring to my experiences covering Klan activity at the Dork Raily Yecord, the KKK marched through Lancaster when I was 12.)

I don't know why I'm surprised that a cross was burned on the front lawn of a black family's house here in Stepford, the night before Thanksgiving. This is not the Deep South. It is not 1963. This is practically the WASP capital of America, one of the wealthiest places in the nation. Cross-burning. Here and now, in a town near you and me. Well, me, anyway.


Alissa said...

Yeah, see... I don't want to go into the whole story here, but many of you know it.... In my grad program, there were several white women who repeatedly insisted that they were not only color blind, but "everything blind" - they didn't see any differences in gender, race, sexual orientation, etc, they just treat everyone the same, yada yada, AS IF this were a good thing. As if they are somehow doing them a service by not acknowledging any of those factors and how those factors might have impacted that person's life. Give me a break. You're doing people a disservice to act like you're blind to the way they might have been influenced by any of those things. We are all impacted by our culture and where and how we grew up and the social situations of our community today, and it affects us all in different ways - finding out what the impact was on that particular person is far more respectful and empathic than assuming that everyone is "the same." Ugh. Sorry. End of rant. It's been several years since that particular person was dismissed by our program, but it still gives me the rage to think that she is going to be treating clients someday with that kind of approach. Grr.

Michelle said...

Where do you find these other blogs that you always quote from? And, let me just say, I will be happy if I am half the mother that she is to her kids.

the other leslie said...

I'm responding to your extended breast feeding question at wonderland. I know this probably isn't the place to do so, so please erase this if you want.

I think most people have stories like mine about extended breast feeding. The short answer is that we work hard to balance the needs of our children with our needs.

The long answer is that, personally, I educated myself (and my husband, vicariously) about every aspect of parenting an infant. I knew that I wanted to breast feed because that was the best food for babies.

To educate myself about that aspect, I started attending La Leche League meetings (go while you are pregnant, read their reading list.) I slowly learned the super long, long, long list of great things about nursing for my child and myself, and, also, that the average age of weaning is like 4 or 5. There is no reason to wean a child before he/she is ready. Some people may have a medical reason, but I think most are social reasons. I try not to base any of my decisions on what other people think.

As my first child got older it was obvious that she needed just a bit more nurturing than it seemed most other children needed. She is still sensitive 12 years later. Denying her food and comfort at some arbitrary date would have been cruel. She weaned herself at 3. I now have a 3 year old boy and he is nursing only when he wants to make sure he can. He wants to make sure I'm still there, Mom's still willing, he doesn't have to face that change today. I think you guessed that in a situation where he sees other nursing pre-schoolers he would for sure ask to nurse.

When I said that the simple answer was an issue of balance, I mostly meant that I only nurse him if I'm comfortable. I don't nurse him in church, the grocery store, or anywhere else that may raise eyebrows, now. When he was a bit younger I did, he's very big so I'm sure he seemed older to some folks.

See, but he needed to nurse then, that's how nature, or God, intended it. Supply/demand, oral fixation, pacifiers, thumb sucking are all part of the same miraculous thing. I just decided that my children didn't need a mother decoy like a thumb or a pacifier. I could do the job.

Most people I know who nurse for long periods didn't intend to before their children were born. They do it in response to what they see as a need in their child.

I feel that I must add that after babies start eating well (which is often 1+ years) nursing becomes less about nutrition. Very,very gradually nursing is primarily nurturing. In my house nurturing is more important than nutrition, and certainly more important than the opinions of sneering strangers.

karla said...

Amazing post! You speak (write) with such eloquence.

I have been naively under the impression that in this day and age, racism (although still around) is more rare, but my eyes were opened wide to just how wrong I was when a comment came in on my youtube tribute video to Ava that said, "that is one less white person in the world and the world is a better place for it."

Carl said...

Racism and rape are a double whammy of taboo. It's hard not to avoid mincing up words and wringing hands when the topic is so far out of the general comfort zone. But you go there! So that's cool.

Anonymous said...

Several of the comments regarding the Hesdra's are factually inaccurate. There are a number of sources to contradict what you have written. Feel free to take a look at writings about Edward Hesdra's wife. Do you even know her name? Do you know her father's name or anything about him that is supported by empirical evidence? Please feel free to check historic census records, articles from New York Times Historical files, etc. It is not unlikely that Nyack was a stop on the Underground Railroad. There are other plausible explanations as to why Nyack would be the ideal place. For one, the proximity of the city to the river and the presence of other natural landmarks. The relatively large black population that did not exist in other parts of the county or region. There is much more that could be said on this topic, but this should be enough to get you started on a "fact" finding mission.

levine1944 said...

Where did you obtain your contradictory info on the Hesdra family? Documents I read say the opposite.