Racism in the dark corners of one’s soul

Hi all,

This spins off of the recent megathread about the teleprompter and racism. There was a separate discussion amongst a few of us in which a liberal had described Herman Cain as a minstrel. I think that was an ugly comparison, but no more so than some of what I read when Obama was running himself. But that’s not what I’m posting about tonight.

I’d never considered myself to be a racist. I grew up in a proper liberal household. My dad was a professor at a small college (Hastings, Nebraska) and my mom was a speech pathologist. It would be accurate to say that I had a non-racial upbringing in that there wasn’t much racial diversity in Hastings, Nebraska (where I grew up) or Pocatello, Idaho (where I spent my teenage years). The only kid I remember spending time with who wasn’t white was Triet Huen (I’m going phonetic here–Tree-ET, Huyen). He was a Vietnamese immigrant. This would have been around 1976, so I’m guessing his parents left before the end. So, I’m just establishing that my interactions up to going to college were almost exclusively with other white kids.

I had an eye opener the summer after I graduated from college. I went to Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. I wound up renting an apartment for the summer after I graduated with three friends. Two of had just graduated and the other two were between junior and senior years. We rented a place on Marshall Avenue. There’s a striking shift in income within just a few blocks. Summit Avenue is mansions. Marshall, about a half mile to the north, is the “hood”.

Our place on Marshall was just off Victoria, about a half mile from Victoria Crossing, where Victoria crosses Grand Ave. It’s a place with some posh shopping and once had a great book store (Odegards). I particularly liked going to Chocolate & Bread as well as Coffee & Tea, Ltd. In order to get there, one walks about a half mile south on Victoria, past a youth center. Outside the youth center, there would often be a group of young, black men. I felt nervous every time I walked past. Know this. Up to that point, I’d never been assaulted by a black man. [I grew up before African American became proper usage, so I’ll stick with black and white for the purpose of this discussion.] I’d had virtually no interactions. And still, I felt nervous every time I walked by.

Without realizing it, I’d absorbed something in our culture. I know that had it been a dozen white teenagers hanging around outside the center, I wouldn’t have felt nervous. It was solely because of their race. It was an eye opening moment for me.

We all make judgements. We all react to race. I think that is equally true, regardless as to one’s ethnic background. That doesn’t make you or me a racist. In my case, I chose to keep walking past that place (corner of Victoria and Selby) as I refused to give into that visceral reaction. I don’t think that I’m a racist, but I am not immune to racial judgements. The struggle against those judgements is something that I face.

Many years later, I faced a little of what it feels like to be judged. I lived in England for four years as an American. Every so often, I’d be hanging out at the pub and someone would make a crack that made it clear to me that I wasn’t local. That’s only a shadow of what others must feel, but it was a valuable lesson.

Good night to all. And just ’cause….

BB

24 Responses

  1. Fairlington, this is a great post! As a fellow Midwesterner I can relate closely. . . I just deleted a long comment that I'd been putting together because I'm not phrasing things well this late at night, but I think you've hit the nail on the head:The struggle against those judgements is something that I face.I was on the judged end when I was 13 and my parents moved from Ann Arbor to a small town 30 miles away, thus I was the outsider. That small town and from my family was where I picked up my racial judgements, and I've struggled against them ever since. I'll try to put my long comment back together in the morning about how I had to reconcile my early years with what I experienced in my teens as far as race relations go.Good job!

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  2. A comic strip for this fine morning.

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  3. yellojkt:Everybody Is A Little Bit RacistSpeak for yourself. I'm not.

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  4. Like the 'blade above, I find myself reacting to people based on their race in ways I don't like. I think that's different from "everybody's a little bit racist."

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  5. Follow the link, Scott. And I do speak for myself.

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  6. yello:Unfortunately I can't view the vid at the moment. So apologies if I misunderstood and the title was meant to be ironic rather than descriptive. But if you do indeed believe that "everybody is a little bit racist", you are wrong.

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  7. It's a video clip from the R-rated Broadway puppet show. Here is a link to the lyrics, but it's not nearly as moving and effective as the stage version with stuffed felt characters singing.

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  8. "I know that had it been a dozen white teenagers hanging around outside the center, I wouldn't have felt nervous"What would you have thought if it had been a dozen African Americans hanging around in business attire? Would you still have felt the same way?bsimon: "I find myself reacting to people based on their race in ways I don't like. I think that's different from "everybody's a little bit racist.""I think this is an important distinction. And what do we mean by "racist"?I react very differently to grim looking African Americans in hoodies with the tattoos and whatnot (and, frankly, caucasians with the grim faces and fresh-out-of-prison demeanors and lots of unpleasant tats) than I do to folks in business attire and a marked lack of tattoos. I'm a little more concerned by people in hoodies loitering at the door and grimacing than I am by folks dressed in business attire on their blackberries (although, arguably, those people can be dangerous, too). If you would react differently to the same people if they were in different attire, with a different demeanor, but the same race–is that racism? Is that even "reacting to race"? If you were strolling through a group of a thousand black people–at the African American Small Business Owners Convention–would you have a reaction to race you didn't like, or feel a little bit racist?

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  9. BTW, I'd be curious where those among us who don't feel particularly racist, or feel like we've struggled with racism, grew up. I grew up in a city with a majority African American population, and went to schools with a 40%/50% African American student body. To later be lectured about my inherent racism by folks who lived in 90% caucasian communities up north, but I digress. 😉 I could relay my story of taking my daughter to see Freaky Friday at a theater (in a neighborhood with a 80% AA population) where it turned out we were the only white people. Didn't bother me. I got a few odd looks, which I did attribute to some folks perhaps being a little surprised by my race–was that a little bit racist?Anyway, when we left the theater, it was late on a Saturday, the parking lot was packed, there were hundreds of people out of their cars, yelling at each other, most of them clearly inebriated, many carrying bottles, lots of them of the previously alluded to grim-faced-tattoo-covered type, and not looking at me and my little girl with affection. At this point, I was concerned, and made a decision that I was never coming to this particular theater again.Would I have made the same decision if I had come out into a parking lot filled with 100, tattooed, prison-population looking caucasians? Damn straight, I would have.

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  10. Kevin:And what do we mean by "racist"?Exactly the right question.

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  11. I am very upfront about my prejudice against teenagers of any variety. Particularly the hoodie-wearing type. I rationalize my fear of people under the age of 25 in many ways but I realize some of these justifications are irrational.As to kevin's point, I was recently in downtown DC while a convention of the alumni of a major African-American fraternity was in town. They were all middle-aged, pot-bellied, and prone to wearing ill-fitting suits or expensive fleece jackets showing their group affiliation. They had a tendency to mill around cluelessly oblivious to traffic as out of state tourists tend to do. I reacted with the same disdain and frustration at them blocking traffic as I would have if they were white. I guess I'm not racist after all.

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  12. kevin, I think you make an important distinction about racial distribution in the areas in which we grew up, but I would add age/time to that. I grew up in a completely segregated small city (Tulsa, OK) in the 50's-60's. The first concert I ever attended was James Brown in 1966 at the Tulsa Civic Center, which was sold out. Four of us went, and I do believe we were the only white faces in the audience. Lots and lots of stares, but no problems whatsoever and I was simply too young and naive to have been concerned. Prior to that, my closest proximity to a black person had been walking past one on the street downtown (where I had been taught by my grandmother to hold my breath because they "all smell bad"). College was the eye-opener for me in regard to race and racism, but it also was civil rights time.

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  13. As I said on the other thread, I have no interest in joining in the ritual of public confession and absolution. It's all just a bit self-congratulatory and narcissistic. That might be all the more I have to say on this.

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  14. "As I said on the other thread, I have no interest in joining in the ritual of public confession and absolution."But you do have an interest in saying you have no interest. Which is interesting. 😉 Just joshing, there's no mandate that anybody join any particular conversation.

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  15. Okiegirl, my freshman year at Rice, spring '61, my date and I seemed to be the only whites at a Ray Charles and the Raylettes concert, in Houston. Two years before, fall of 1959, when I was in HS, my date and I went to see Redd Foxx perform at Montclair St. College in NJ. Mainly white audience.Austin, 64-67, when I was in law school, was actually just plain different. A live music hub, the crowds dancing at Charlie's, Ernie's, and Alexander's to Ike and Tina, Bobby Blue Bland, Lightning Hopkins, and so many others were tri-ethnic [Anglo, chicano, black]. Integration had begun with the UT Law School around 1950. Starting with University Junior HS, a collaborative effort of UT and the AISD,in 54-55, integration trickled down to the public school system by the late 50s. All without incident, and all with the majority support of the parents in the neighborhoods. One of my clients, a black CEO, now 62, recalls that he always wore a conservative suit and tie in the late 60s b/c he was taken seriously that way, but was taken for a jock otherwise. That, in a city where only bankers and lawyers with court appearances ever wore ties. Funny true story: a white woman, an assistant to a Division Director in that CEO's company, heard that story in a staff meeting and accused the black CEO of racism. That story and that accusation became central to her EEOC claim.My friend Fred Strong, who is indeed black and who was a teammate of mine in City League softball in the early 70s, and with whom I still have breakfast almost every Friday morning, got to dance with Tina at Ernie's one night. I did not. Damn.

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  16. "But you do have an interest in saying you have no interest. Which is interesting. ;)"Stay thirsty, my friend.

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  17. I believe that Austin, which has grown from 250K to 760K since 1964 and which is now the 15th largest city in America is the only large city with a small black population [12-15%] that has at large elections but that has had at least one black member on its 7 person City Council since 1966. The County Judge [presiding political officer] is black, as well. But we also have had an openly lezzie sheriff, two gay state reps, and a chicano state senator since then. Nevertheless, there are political tensions based on ethnicity. The majority of AISD's 90K kids are texican, but the superintendent is A-A, and that has caused some static in the chicano political circles. Head Start serves the County, and underserves the poor whites on the far west of the county, by population. Head Start does affirmative action by poverty, only, not by race, so the underserving of poor rural whites is seen as an ethnic decision by some. I actually know it to be a logistics/budget decision, on limited bucks you can serve a larger compact urban population and funding is per student. But the effect is there.We now have significant Asian minorities in Austin. My neighborhood elementary school [tecchie neighborhood serving IBM, National Instruments, and Abbott Labs, among others] is 24% Asian 31% Chicano 34% Anglo 10% black and 1% other. We elected a woman of Korean descent to City Council in 2006. She immediately wanted to know why there were only 6 Asian-Americans [out of 51 persons] on the Head Start council.The police, even A-A police, are accused of being trigger happy in black and brown neighborhoods. Since most of Austin is integrated, like my neighborhood, the exclusively black and brown enclaves are also the poorest neighborhoods in town. But the cops are clearly more nervous there and shoot more often. Honestly, as a one time prosecutor, I do know that our cops are trained in a color blind and "sensitive" way; our chief is chicano and the Captain for training was black from '66 until he retired in '96. Are the cops more anxious because there is more to fear or because they fear more? We cannot know. With the tendrils of the Mexican cartels, no one complains about the cops, however.http://www.statesman.com/blogs/content/shared-gen/blogs/austin/blotter/entries/2011/07/21/authories_arrest_25_to_end_la.html?cxntfid=blogs_the_blotter

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  18. "Funny true story: a white woman, an assistant to a Division Director in that CEO's company, heard that story in a staff meeting and accused the black CEO of racism. That story and that accusation became central to her EEOC claim."Ugh. How did that claim go? I have heard, but do not know, that such "reverse racism" claims don't get a great reception with the EEOC.

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  19. Mark, That is a very nice nuanced analysis. The important take-away is that we no longer live in binary racial environment. As more and more varied ethnic groups reach political critical mass, the old paradigms will have to be adjusted.

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  20. I'm a little disappointed that no one has taken on Kevin's question about defining what is meant by racism, espcially those who think we are all a little bit racist.I'll tell you how I define it: the belief that race is a determiner of human value or worth.

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  21. On a couple of points. I wouldn't have been bothered walking past a dozen black men in suits and ties. I think it's beside the point. I would have been bothered walking by a dozen white teens in the middle of a beating up a black kid. In this particular case, my reaction was striking to me as I hadn't realized I harbored such attitudes.This sort of thing has been done in many studies. Take two applicants for a job or a loan or a house who have identical records and see how people react to them. It's not just race, but can be done with appearance, height, or weight. Incidentally, there is a parallel. I suspect many people would be similarly unnerved by a group of Latinos hanging out, speaking Spanish, etc. I lived in a neighborhood in Arlington for a year that had a development that was heavily Latino across the way. I wasn't unnerved in the slightest and that's almost certainly a product of having spent a moderate amount of time visiting Costa Rica and having functional Spanish. That doesn't make me in any way "better". Familiarity trumps inclination.The term racist has become heavily loaded nowadays, so I'm not sure I can give a useful or uniformly acceptable definition. I think I had internalized some negative stereotypes. That's still true. Take it as you will.BB

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  22. "In this particular case, my reaction was striking to me as I hadn't realized I harbored such attitudes."If you would not have been bothered by the black businessmen, then clearly you're picking up on other visual cues or information. If there was something racial in your attitude, it was clearly informed by something else, as well. Strictly speaking, it wasn't necessarily or primarily race you were reacting to, but perhaps race and other things (and one of the things we react to when we are reacting to race is actually unfamiliarity). "Familiarity trumps inclination."It's natural to be cautious about that which is unfamiliar. If those guys had all been your friends, I suspect you wouldn't have had any reaction but: "Hey, it's the guys! I'm gonna go talk to 'em!"

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  23. Scott wrote:"I'll tell you how I define it: the belief that race is a determiner of human value or worth."That is succinct and will do for me until someone can better it.KW wrote:"one of the things we react to when we are reacting to race is actually unfamiliarity".That seems correct to me. I have never taken a sociology or anthropology course and have absolutely no inclination to read in those areas unless I have to for work.Are there studies of familiarity and unfamiliarity?Studies that show how people react to the unfamiliar and what it takes for them to become familiar? On NPR this morning two adolescent girls were interviewed. They have been friends since 2d grade. They were a Palestinian and an Israeli girl in the same Jerusalem school. Their families had become friends, overcoming suspicions each had harbored. The girls said they did not see themselves in any special light. They were just friends. Hope you heard it.

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