Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Decoding Hate

Hate groups in our country continue to thrive. They may market themselves as religious conservatives, fiscal conservatives or even protectors of Western civilization or white culture, but what they do is promote hate, insularity, and divisiveness. Jared Taylor, a fundraiser for YWC (Youth for Western Civilization), was quoted as saying, “When blacks are left entirely to their own devices, Western civilization – any civilization – disappears.” 
Kevin DeAnna, YWC leader, wrote in a letter that “radical multiculturalism” and the “far left…destroy our people and our culture.”
He was also quoted as saying, “Even if you prove to me…that [curtailing illegal immigration] would hurt the economy, I would still be opposed to immigration because it’s about our dispossession as a people.” (The Intelligence Report, Fall 2011, Issue 143)
I think America was preserved and pristine at the hands of its first natives who helped the white man so he would not die in the harsh conditions during the early years of settlement, even as the settlers engaged in genocide. I think America was built on the backs of slaves, most of whom were African or descendants of Africans, and the Chinese and the Irish. It was built on the backs of immigrant women and children who lived in tenement housing and worked in factories where they were locked in and forced to work in inhuman conditions. It was built on migrant workers, mainly black and Hispanic, who still work the fields today and live in poverty and squalor. Liberals helped the progress of our country by supporting social programs, such as social security, Medicare, Medicaid, welfare, and Headstart programs. These programs equalize and diminish the difference between haves and have-nots. They also allow our country to tap into the vast potential of those who may not have the access and resources to reach their full potential by giving them avenues to do so. Helping those who need help, who need not just bootstraps with which to pull themselves up, but the boots that are connected to the bootstraps, without regard to race, gender or ethnicity, helps all of us in ways that most of us take for granted.
Fear of change and loss of power are what drive most of the hate groups today and have always been the driving force behind them. These groups use words that have coded meanings and instigate, support and perpetuate violence. Either their members feel dispossessed because they assume they are entitled to a piece of the American pie, or they already wield power and wealth and fear losing it.  I don’t care if they want to hate, and I don’t hate them in return. They have the freedom to feel and think as they do, but they don’t have the right to impose their rhetoric, beliefs and actions on others.
They could not exist if racism did not still exist, if all the isms did not still exist. Yet here I am imposing my own beliefs on you, dear reader. But I am only trying to say that we are all equal, more alike than different in our needs and aspirations, but diverse in our approaches and perspectives. Our different ingredients make up the American pie and there are enough slices for all of us.
I’m not always so serious. I’m actually quite funny. Read another excerpt from my memoir, Shades of Tolerance, below, and maybe it will make you smile.

(Excerpt from Chapter 7 The Ubiquitous They, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Dad picked me up at the Schenectady bus station, a tiny room surrounded by windows. He drove down Central Avenue toward Colonie, and neither of us spoke. I watched the buildings and cars and people out the side window, afraid to ask how Ma was doing.
I do not remember much about my stay those few days except that Ma was released from the hospital and she told me to go back to school and finish the semester. I was angry and embarrassed I had called all my professors, my voice shaking with grief, telling them I had to go home because my mother was near death. Now I would be back for final exams after all. I worried about taking exams after such a disruption. I worried the faculty would think I had lied or exaggerated. I considered whether or not Ma had exaggerated her illness or got sick on purpose, so I would come home. I wondered if her illness was my fault, just as she had accused me of causing Dad’s second heart attack the summer before.
I spent the bus ride back to Syracuse with my forehead pressed against the window, deep in thought, watching each mile marker streak by the window. Just as I had stopped drinking a few years before, I decided now to stop going back to the source of my feeling abandoned and anxious.
Ronald met me at the bus station in Syracuse and walked with me back to the dorm, carrying my bag. When we got to my room, I told him what I thought about the whole ride back in the bus. “I’m not going back to Albany this summer,” I said.
“Where are you going to stay? Where will you work?” he asked.
“I’ll figure it out,” I said.
“Don’t do anything rash,” he said, “It’s only a few months.”
“I can’t stay in that house again.”
Copy Services at Bird Library had a new supervisor. Maxine had moved to Technical Services and Mary had taken her job. Mary was almost six feet tall, a linebacker with long, fine blonde hair and pale blue eyes. Her voice sounded like a whisper. She had a twin sister nicknamed Bug who looked exactly like her, unless you studied the shapes of their faces, and you realized that Bug’s face was softer at the edges and smaller than Mary’s. Mary and Bug made all their own dresses: the same empire dress pattern with long sleeves, but in different solids and prints. The personalized license plate of their shared station wagon announced their avocation: QUILTERS.
“Oh, your poor mother,” I had said to Mary upon realizing that the person I was waving to on campus was Bug and not Mary, and that was why she ignored me.
‘Why do you feel sorry for my mother?” Mary had asked.
“To have twins for her firstborn. It must have been very difficult for her as a new mother,” I said.
One day she would laugh at me, looking at my belly circumference that nearly matched my height, when I, too, would have twins for my firstborn. A few weeks before I went on maternity leave, Mary would throw her arm around my waist, heft me up like a sack of grain, and walk across a runnel of rainwater rushing towards the street drain.  All in good humor, she and Bug made quilts and stuffed teddy bears for my set of twins.
I told Mary my plight when I went to pick up my paycheck.
“I have one more summer position open,” she said, “You and Ron can work all summer, full-time hours.”
“Great!”  I said. I called Peggy that evening and begged to use her spare room in the house she and Dawson had just bought with another couple. It was an old two-family, built in the 1920s, down in the ghetto on the south side of Syracuse.  Peggy, Dawson and baby Liza lived in the first-floor flat and the other couple and their baby of the same age lived in the second-floor flat. Peggy said she would be happy to have me stay.
Even though I had rushed home to see Ma in the hospital, I had kept conversation short and directed at her health. I did not want to call her to tell her I would not be home for the summer, so I sent her a letter. Syracuse became my hometown for the next thirty years. Ma would fight to keep Andy home, and he obliged, if only because he had no other plan. She had called Andy and me “the two little ones.” She never wanted us to leave, and now she was angry that she could not make me stay, could not make me choose her over Ronald. Syracuse, already home to Peggy and Rocco, had stolen another child.
Mary and Bug lived in the Valley section of Syracuse not even a mile from Peggy’s house, and they beeped their horn each morning to let me know they had arrived to pick me up. Ronald walked to work from his Euclid Avenue home. He and I worked together, leaving at noon to wander down to Marshall Street and the Burger King at lunchtime.  After lunch we would stand side by side, working to get the copy requests completed.
The Copy Center was walled by glass that looked out on Periodicals. Often as we stood at the copy machines, we watched one of the Library administrators walking by, his head turned in our direction. One day he slipped in the front door and told Mary he wanted to talk to her.
Mr. Bullard came up to Mary’s chest. He was middle-aged and balding, his suit a grayish green. Rumor was his hero was Winston Churchill. He had read every one of his books and all biographies about him. He must have fancied himself Churchill-like, his finger resting in the watch pocket of his vest. He also imagined himself as a wise and desirable mentor to young female employees in his charge. I thought he was creepy.
“I’ve had complaints,” he said to Mary.
“Complaints?” Mary echoed. She dwarfed him and her usually soft features looked menacing.
“Those two can’t work together,” he said, nudging his chin toward Ronald and me, standing behind copy machines side by side.
“Who can’t work together?” Mary asked, her voice losing its whispery quality. Ronald and I looked at each other then back to the scene playing in front of us. We kept the copy machines humming, turning pages of the books we were copying from, flipping the books over and flattening their spines so the copies would not be black on the bound edge of the pages. We did this without looking down, our eyes fixed on Mary and Bullard.
“One of them has to work in Technical Services,” he said, pointing at us.
“They are my students,” Mary said, leaning toward Bullard. He looked down at the counter separating them.
“It’s voluntary. Otherwise, someone will have to be fired,” Bullard said, “I told you people have complained.”
Mary picked up a ruler from her desk. She used it to slap her palm to emphasize each word. “Who complained?” she said again, slapping the ruler twice.
“People,” Bullard said, “I can’t say who.”
“The ubiquitous they,” she said, slapping her palm again on each word, her voice seeming to bounce off the walls and glass.
Bullard took a step backward. I looked out the glass into the Periodicals Department and noticed all eyes, students and staff, were turned to Copy Services. Everyone had heard Mary’s whispery voice turn dangerous.
“And what did they say their complaint was?” she said, continuing to slap her palm with the ruler. Now it was a constant slap, slap, slap.
Bullard stared at the ruler. I think Mary was imitating some nuns she knew, or at least one or two that I had run into during Sunday school classes, and I was even surer that Bullard had attended Catholic school based entirely on his expression and body posture.
“I can’t say,” he said, his voice faltering. Then he straightened his spine and looked up at her.
“I’ve spoken,” he said. “I want an answer within the hour. Someone is working out back.” He turned and reached for the door.
“Oh, you’ll get an answer,” Mary said.
“No,” I said, staring at Bullard, my copy machine now silent. “I’ve got an answer now. I quit!”
“You can’t quit,” Bullard said, turning to look at me.
“No, she can’t quit,” Ronald said, “ because I quit.”
“I still quit,” I said.
Bullard stood rooted in his spot, his hand still reaching for the door handle, staring at us.
“I quit, too!” said Steve. Steve was the night manager at Copy Services. He had only started his shift an hour earlier. Wispy and bespectacled, he sat behind the microfilm reader/printer and it seemed we had all forgotten he was there.
“Are the ubiquitous they being hired on as my new staff?” Mary asked, the ruler slapping at a fast and furious pace now.
Bullard dropped his hand to his side and turned to face Mary.
“Okay, drop it for now, but don’t think this is over,” he said. He quickly turned, opened the door and slammed it behind him.
We all watched Bullard through the glass as he marched across the carpeted floor in Periodicals and up the center stairway. When we could no longer see his feet, students and staff in Periodicals started applauding and we burst out laughing.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

The Face of America

If I asked you to imagine an American, what would the person look like? Do you see President Obama as the face of America? Oprah Winfrey? Tiger Woods?  Jennifer Lopez? Marc Anthony? For many people, the face they’d envision would be a white face, probably a man, someone of European descent. Yet the 2010 Census shows ethnic minorities are growing. The Hispanic population grew 43 percent since the 2000 Census. Hispanics constitute 16 percent of the US population. The Asian population also grew by 43 percent, and they represent 5 percent of the US population. African-Americans represent 13 percent of the US population. Nine million people, or about 3 percent of the population reported being more than one race, or mixed race.
Texas, California, the District of Columbia, Hawaii and New Mexico are states in which there is a majority-minority population, where more than 50 percent of the population reported being from a minority group.
Yet most people still picture Americans as white. White is more of a mindset, a social construct related to power and privilege, than a race or ethnicity. Many white Americans don’t feel culturally connected to their countries of origin.  Mainstream culture, though often influenced by the cultures of ethnic minorities, is often assigned “whiteness.” Yet many things uniquely American were originated within ethnic minority cultures in America – jazz and tap dance are the most well-known examples.
Some people are calling for a colorblind society, and I hope for it as well, for an acceptance of everything and everybody that we are in America. It is a different way of viewing the concept of the melting pot. Initially it was thought immigrants would assimilate into mainstream culture. But the new, progressive view of the melting pot could be the sharing, acceptance and acknowledgement of all the cultures that contribute to making mainstream American culture unique.
We are not there, though there have been attempts – the multicultural movement in the 1980s and 1990s, for example. Unfortunately, terms such as multicultural and diversity were often used incorrectly, only in reference to ethnic minorities. It was misunderstood that we are all ethnic and that is what makes us diverse, each one of us. Even for individuals who came from family that has multiple generations in America, their family origins were passed down to them through the food they eat, the legacy of migration or immigration, the stories they pass on to the next generation, the traditions they keep, and the way they celebrate holidays and rites of passage.
Until we recognize and acknowledge that each American has an ethnic origin, that the concept of white or black or brown skin is a social construct and has little to do with race, culture and ethnicity, we cannot live in a colorblind society. At this time in our history, colorblindness will mask the very real racism that is woven into the fabric of who we are. It is a part of our history, our institutions, and our collective sense of identity. Are you in touch with your ethnicity? Who do you picture as the face of America?
(Excerpt from Chapter 5, Why You Gotta Be Jerkin’? Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Dad looked gray, and he sat quietly in his chair. He laid the newspaper on the floor in front of him, and held his chest as he leaned over and read, just as he had when he had his first heart attack. This time he did not wait the entire weekend to go to the doctor.
Frank drove us to see Dad in the intensive care unit. I sat in a chair by the window, the sun falling on my hair, lighting it up like a red flame. Ma always told me she thought I would be the one to have red hair; she hoped for it, for a child that looked more Irish than Italian. But I was not that child.
I did not know what to say to Dad as he lay in the bed with tubes and wires connected to him. I could not think of anything to make him feel better. The hospital smells and the beeping of the heart monitor made me anxious.
“Your hair is red,” Dad said, “You dyed it, didn’t you?”
“No, it’s just the sun,” I said.
“Yes, you did. I can tell,” he said, laughing a little, but I knew he was upset.
“It’s the sun, Dad. If I move, you’ll see. I haven’t touched my hair.”
I stood up and moved to the end of the bed, away from the sun, so he could be sure.
I called Ronald the next day from work on the Watts line.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“No,” I said. I wanted to run back to Syracuse.
Ma started in on me minutes after Steve dropped me at home that evening.
“You were my princess,” she said.
“I had every hope for you,” she said.
“Ma, I don’t want to talk about this.”
“You caused your father’s heart attack. You might have killed him.”
I stopped breathing. The room swirled around me.
“Ma, don’t say that!”
“You’ve thrown your life away!”
“Stop, Ma, just stop!”
“You’ve broken my heart! I want to die!”
“Ma, why do I have to choose? I’m happy. I love him!”
“Your children will be hated. You’ll be ostracized. My princess,” Ma said. She moaned. She began to sob, and I joined her. “Aunt Josephine cut you out of her will,” she continued.
“So what?” I said, “What’s that supposed to do? How would that change my mind?”
“You’ve cut yourself off.”
“Ma, what if I choose you?” I said, the words thick in my throat, “You won’t be here forever. You’ll leave me alone.”
I cried. Ma bawled. I pleaded. Ma accused.
The next morning, with no sleep, I showered, dressed, ate some breakfast, and left the house at 11:15. My eyes were swollen and dry – I had no tears left. I walked down Locust Park toward Central Avenue to the bus stop.
Steve pulled up beside me in his brown Pinto.
“Hey,” he called out the window.
“I feel like shit,” I said, “Ma and I fought all night.”
“Over Ron again?”
“Yes, I don’t have time to tell you about it. I’ll tell you later.”
“Want a ride?”
“No, I need to walk,” I said. He waved and drove off.

Steve drove me back to school that fall. We stopped at Peggy and Dawson’s house to visit her before Steve headed back to Albany. After her daughter Liza was born, we had found our way back to each other. I often babysat Liza at the dorm, letting all the girls on the floor dote over her as she played peek-a-boo with me in the mirror, her large, azure blue eyes with the dark ring around the irises surprising her reflection, her blond hair falling in sweet baby curls. I felt about Liza the way I imagined Peggy felt about me when I was little.
I told Peggy about my many arguments with Ma, about how difficult it was to see Dad in the hospital again, and how hard the whole summer had been.  I had been berated and chafed every day to make a choice.
“So maybe you should just stop talking to her,” she said, “then she’ll have to choose if she wants to lose you or be in your life with Ron as part of it.”
“How could I do that?” I asked.
“You just have to,” she said, “When they come up, I’ll have you and Ron over, so she can get to know him. That might make a difference.”
“It won’t,” I said, “She won’t change her mind.”
“She might. But either way, you have to be strong and live your life,” she said, hugging me, and I remembered how she took care of me when Ma couldn’t or didn’t.
I stopped talking to Ma. 

Friday, August 19, 2011

Racial Equality - Tale of Two Countries

I picked up the USA Today this week because an article on the front page caught my attention – Poll: Racial Divisions Remain.
It’s no surprise to me that the quest for racial equality is measured differently depending on whom you ask, but I was glad USA Today conducted a poll on the topic and considered it important enough for front page coverage. In spite of the potential for inaccurate results with a lot of these newspaper polls, I think there is something to this. I hear it when I speak to others on this topic. There are those who believe we live in a post racial society, based on the fact that we elected a black president. There are others, myself included, that think President Obama’s election was a first, not a trend, and certainly not indicative that we no longer live in a racial society. Racism is alive and well – different, but still present, still insidious.
I worry about the idolatry of the movement to “take back America.” For me, it’s code that a certain, elite group believes it owns this country: those that want to push the hands of time backwards, who fear social programs and government intervention (except when it comes to certain hot button issues: abortion; gay marriage), who wish to force fundamental religious dogma on all citizens and in our governance, and who wish for segregation and exclusion of those deemed different.
I’m as American as anyone, and I’m proud to be an American, even as I hope for change, progress, and inclusion of all the people who make up our great country. We have room for different philosophies and approaches – it’s what makes us great. What’s your vision for America?
(Excerpt from essay What’s Race Got to Do with It?)
Ma descended into depression and then alcoholism in the years after she crossed an ocean to be with Dad at the end of World War II. Her in-laws refused to accept her because of her cultural and religious differences, and she felt profound isolation and loneliness. Her drinking escalated as my three older siblings each left home, leaving my youngest brother and me behind.  The chaos inside our house, and the brutal verbal abuse my parents engaged in daily, eroded my confidence, trust in others, and sense of self. My home environment probably exacerbated my shyness and fear of strangers. Everything about my life felt skewed and fragile.
When I met Ronald, he seemed the epitome of self-control, stability and protection. Our different races and culturally different upbringings felt a bit like déjà vu, but also contributed to the feeling that our relationship would deliver me far beyond the circumstances of my childhood. Perhaps it was the same hope Ma fostered when she fell in love with Dad.
Monica McGoldrick says the following about exogamous relationships:
Couples who choose to “marry out” are usually seeking to rebalance their own ethnic characteristics, moving away from some values as well as toward others. During courtship, a person may be attracted precisely to the loved one’s differentness, but when he or she is in a marital relationship the same qualities can seem grating.

This is true of our marriage. It took me years to realize that when Ronald speaks loudly and passionately, he is not angry. It took him just as long to understand my silence is a coping mechanism, my way of hiding inside my head when the external world is overwhelming.
Human beings are social and crave interaction. Being interracially married can break or eliminate one’s social support network. In the beginning we did not worry about what others thought. We were too busy focusing on one another, the pull and excitement of new love occupying our full attention. But soon, external pressures intruded.

Erica Chito Childs, an interracially married white woman, studied the social dynamics of interracial couples and documented her qualitative research in the book Navigating Interracial Borders. She borrowed the term “miner’s canary” from Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres who defined it in their book The Miner’s Canary: Enlisting Race, Resisting Power, Transforming Power. They described the ways in which the experiences of racial minorities in America expose the hidden toxicity of racism much like canaries in coalmines expose toxic air.
Chito Childs says, “In many ways, the experiences of black-white couples are a miner’s canary, revealing problems of race that otherwise remain hidden, especially to whites. The issues surrounding interracial couples…should not be looked at as individual problems, but rather as a reflection of the larger racial issues that divide the races.”

Back in the early eighties Ronald joined a men’s bowling league with a white friend of ours, Randy. We had known Randy since undergraduate school. His wife Sharon, also white, and I decided we would go watch the men bowl. Almost immediately one of the white men on the opposing team started making comments about me, like, “What’s she doing with him?” and “She’d be better off with me.”
At first I thought it was funny. Ronald was in his twenties, a firefighter, a musician, and an artist. He dressed handsomely and neatly. He was of average height, but he had bulging biceps, and his backside, as he stood at the lane ready to throw his ball, made my head swim with delight. The white man was much older and overweight with a beach-ball-sized belly. He wore a T-shirt stained with food and dirt, needed a haircut, and drank like Ma. I wondered aloud what made him think I would choose him over Ronald.
The more he drank, the bolder he got. When Ronald got up to bowl, the man purposely distracted him. He stood close to me, invading my space. I grew frightened, and Ronald became frustrated and angry. Then the man said something to Ronald that I could not hear. Ronald picked up a nearby beer bottle and smashed it on the table edge, holding the jagged top like a weapon. All of a sudden, I lost sight of him.  A group of thirty or forty white men had swarmed him.
I pushed my way through the men, my heart pounding. One of them had his arm around Ronald’s neck and others pushed their faces into Ronald’s and shouted profanities at him.
“Stop it,” I screamed, pushing at the men surrounding Ronald and trying to pull the man’s arm from around his neck. I felt swallowed by the mass of bodies. Terror raced through me, bright lights flashing in front of my eyes. At that moment I realized our relationship could move some people to violence. “Stop, please! Let go of him! Why are you doing this?” I cried looking at the faces around me. The men backed away.
“Let go of me. We’re leaving,” Ronald said. They let him go and he walked through them to get his bowling gear.
“Why did you do this?” I asked the man who had held Ronald by the neck, my voice squeezed by disbelief. “Didn’t you see what your teammate was doing?”
“I guess it wasn’t right,” he said.
Randy and Sharon stood planted, side-by-side, spectators to it all. Randy looked puzzled.
“Should we leave, too?” he asked Ronald.
“Do whatever you have to do,” Ronald answered, his breath heaving.
“I know a few of these guys. That’s Mr. Bigelow. He’s a nice man.”
“He’s nice to you,” Ronald said, picking up his ball bag and turning away. I followed him to the exit. He held the door for me, and, as I stepped through it, I turned back to see Randy packing up his equipment. Outside Ronald opened the trunk to put his ball bag in the car, and he picked up the tire iron, testing its weightiness.
“Don’t,” I said.  “It isn’t worth it.”
Ronald looked at me and held the tire iron out in front of him. Then he put it back in the trunk and closed the lid.

Ronald developed his own explanation about interracial couples and racism. He called it the “’Does Your Dog Bite?’ Theory.”
“Does your dog bite?” the theory goes.
“No, he doesn’t bite.”
“You mean he doesn’t bite you, but you don’t know how he’ll act around me.” And so it goes with people.
Despite my parents’ marriage fraught with cultural discord, I wanted to believe Ma and Dad would understand. My father’s best friend was a black man, and their friendship spanned six decades. Ma and Dad said the neighbors were ignorant when everyone except my parents signed a petition to prevent a black family from buying a house on our street. They were friends with an interracial couple in the1960s, having them over to our house several times for coffee, tea and cookies. My sister’s friend from college, a black man from Kenya, stayed with us for a weekend. My godmother called in a panic when she heard about his visit, but Ma laughed over her concern.
So it was with astonishment that I witnessed my parents attacking my relationship with Ronald, using the kind of verbal abuse usually reserved for one another: invoking the N-word, refusing to speak to Ronald, and making predictions that I would end up on welfare with a passel of mulatto children.  I wonder now how many children constituted a passel, since there were five of us. And there was the time Dad had a heart attack when I was twelve.  He was unable to return to work immediately, so he and Ma collected welfare. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Legacy of Racism

Ronald and I went to see The Help on Saturday. The theater was full, people still looking for seats as the previews played on screen. The audience was diverse, young and old, black and white, male and female, all packed tightly into seats.
I didn’t start crying until maybe twenty minutes into the movie. It was so well done; the actors were amazing. But the subject matter was too painful for my sensitive soul. Ronald held my hand and glanced at me throughout the movie, checking on me, squeezing my hand to remind me he was there.
At the end of the movie the audience broke out in applause. I wanted to clap, too. I wanted to acknowledge how well this film told its story. I wanted to celebrate the hopeful ending, but I was unable to move. I had to concentrate to prevent the bawling that pushed from within me from escaping and ruining everyone’s good time. I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and patted the tears from under my eyes. Ronald held my hand as we exited the theater.
As we walked toward the car, dusk settling humid and gray all around us, I said, “It’s going to take me a long time to get over that movie. How can people hate so much?”
“I know it still feels new to you,” he said.
I feel like it’s been my whole life, but it still hurts too much and sometimes it spills over and I can’t stop how it makes me feel.
“I had a lot of relatives who were maids,” he said, trying to pull me away from my sadness, but acknowledging it, too. “You know Mama Mack ironed. She was proud to talk about one lawyer who refused to let anyone else iron his white shirts.”
“I remember,” I said, my tears pushing at me again. I think about all the work that needed to be done, the children who needed to be raised, and the other children who were afterthoughts of most employers. They had mothers who loved them, and were scared for them, and sometimes watched them die because of hatred.
I am sad for my husband who aspired to so much and felt so little when he arrived because so many did not want to see him succeed. I feel sorrow for my daughters who work hard, who embody creativity, energy and action, but who have the mantle of race hanging over them.
I am sad for this country, for the people, who think that racism is gone, who think we live in a post-racial society when a man was beaten, run over and killed just this past month for being black. I feel sad for those who know it still exists but no one wants to talk about it. Why can’t we have an honest conversation about race? Why is it hidden in our speech and our actions and our values? Americans want to forget, or they don’t want to change, or they have no idea.
But we can’t change until we acknowledge racism. We can never become the post-racial society we aspire to until we have an honest conversation. We will not rise to become our best selves, to live the values we espouse. Until each one of us realizes his own role in perpetuating this burden, this legacy, this history, this underlying current that is strong and damaging, in our culture, we cannot stop it. It might look different but it will still exist. I will cry for a long time to come.

(Following is an excerpt from Chapter 2 Bloody Mick, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Our twin daughters, Cara and Mackenzie, were just two years old, and they were two of just three toddlers in our apartment complex.  Most of the other tenants were young, childless professionals and could not abide hearing toddlers running in stiff, hard soled shoes back and forth across the floor or crying after toppling over or because they were tired or hungry. Tenants slipped notes under our door asking us to keep our children quiet. Our landlord kept asking when we were moving. Ronald and I decided it was time to look for a house.
Our first realtor only showed us houses in the “black middle class” neighborhood on the eastside of Syracuse. He said we probably could not afford a house in the neighborhood called Outer Comstock, abutting our apartment complex. He was a pleasant, middle-aged white man who always wore a gray and blue plaid jacket and gray tie. We finally put an offer on a house in the eastside black neighborhood. We did not hear from the realtor for two days, but when he called us, he said he held the offer while he asked a banking associate to check on our credit. We pre-qualified for a mortgage, but the two-day delay caused us to lose the house to an earlier bidder. We dropped that realtor and picked a new one. He showed us a house with a cracked foundation, also located in the “black middle class” neighborhood, and told us we were expecting too much when we declined to make an offer.
The third realtor we selected was willing to show us houses in the Outer Comstock area, a neighborhood where many Syracuse University staff and faculty lived. We chose a lovely, neat and well-kept ranch house just three blocks from our apartment. The realtor called to tell us the seller had accepted our offer. Just minutes later he called back to tell us that the listing agent had told the seller we were “a young interracial couple with two children” and the seller did not want to sell the house to blacks. She said she could not do that to the neighbors because the values of their houses would decrease. She cited the way blacks lived on the south side of the city, the ghetto, in rundown houses with trash on the lawns. Even though she had signed the purchase agreement, she said she would not honor it.
Our realtor was outraged, and we were shocked. We called our attorney who said he would cite breach of contract. Our realtor called me a couple of weeks later at the university library where I worked and said the house was being shown to other potential buyers even though we had a signed purchase agreement. I left work and walked the mile and a half to the New York State Human Rights Division. A human rights officer filled out a questionnaire, then called Ronald and invited him down to the office. The officer transcribed our responses. Within a few hours, we had filed a housing discrimination complaint. Human Rights went to court the next day to place a lien against the house to ensure it could not be sold. It would take five months of meetings, interviews, letters, and, finally, a court date was scheduled to determine a cash settlement because the discrimination charges were founded in our favor. We agreed to settle out of court for just the right to buy the house and to keep an original clause in the contract that said the seller would pay $1500 in points at the closing.
We called the realtor to let us do a final walk-through before the closing. We had Cara and Mackenzie with us, Ronald holding Cara, Mackenzie in my arms.
“I still love it,” I said to Ronald. I had been worried because so many months had passed, and I could barely remember what it looked like.
“I’m going to pull the carpets up,” he said. “I like the hardwoods underneath.”
Our realtor stood by the front door as we wandered from room to room, still carrying the girls. It was not our house yet. As we walked back up the cellar steps, we heard someone come in the front door. It was the seller.
“What are you doing here?” she demanded. She was a tiny, older, Italian-American woman with dyed blond hair, a harsh expression, and large, manicured hands with gem-stoned rings. A bearish man stood next to her with his hands dug deeply into his pants pockets.
“The Hagans are here to do a final walk-through,” the realtor said.
“We’re not closing yet,” she said. Ronald and I were silent, each of us clinging to the child in our arms. We had heard about this woman, but had never seen or met her because her lawyer represented her at the many discrimination claim meetings. She was the executor of her sister-in-law’s estate. The sale of this house was one of her duties. She was also responsible for selling the contents of the house: furniture, linens, and kitchen items. I had spoken to an estate sales company to see when the sale had been scheduled, but the man I spoke to on the phone told me his company, though initially chosen to conduct the sale, had been fired.
“She found out I’m gay,” he said.
“We have to close by October 20th,” Ronald said. “Our mortgage offer is due to expire.”
“Well, I don’t know what you are doing here. I can’t sell until the estate sale is done. It’s too bad if it expires.”
“I heard you are a firefighter,” her friend said.
“Yes, I am,” Ronald said.
“I know Chief Hanlon very well,” he said. “I can ask him about you.”
“Go ahead,” Ronald said.
“I’m calling my attorney if you don’t leave now,” the seller said. “The neighbors called and told me you were here.”
“We’ll talk to our attorney,” Ronald said. “We have a right to do a final walk-through.” I stood beside him, scared and angry at the same time. I hated that she did not want us in the house. I hated that she did not care that our two-year-olds were in our arms, and that she spoke in an angry, hate-filled voice in front of them. I wondered how she would feel if someone spoke that way in front of her grandchildren.
“Let’s go, Dianne,” Ronald said. “Tell Chief Hanlon I said ‘hello.’” I followed him brushing by the owner and her friend. I held Mackenzie tightly to my chest.
“She’s got to let us close,” Ronald said as we each put a twin in her car seat.
“She hates everyone,” I said.
We closed on the house at 4:00 in the afternoon on the very day our mortgage offer expired at close of business. Had there been any problems at closing, we would have had to reapply for a new mortgage and start over.
The seller refused to pay the realtors’ commissions and sued our realtor for slander. The realtor called us and demanded we pay him his commission because he had been honest and told us why the seller did not want to sell to us. We told him we could not afford to pay his commission and wished him luck in getting it from the seller. He continued to call us for several months. He even stopped by the house one day.
“You don’t know how this whole situation has ruined me,” he said.
“We’re sorry. You need to get that seller to pay you,” I said. He countersued the seller and changed realty companies.
The Syracuse Herald published a story about the case and our settlement. Then the Fair Housing Commission invited me to tell our story at their training sessions for housing discrimination testers.
Some of our friends and family thought we should have looked for another house instead of fighting to buy this one. But Ronald and I thought no one should be denied housing or be forced to live in particular neighborhoods. We fought because we did not want Cara and Mackenzie to think they did not deserve to live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood because of the color of their skin. I remembered the black family who wanted to live on my street in Colonie but was driven away by signatures on a petition.
After we moved in I had nightmares of the house burning down around us, flames licking the edges of my sheets, black smoke preventing me from finding the girls, an act of retaliation: the seller and a man pouring gasoline around the foundation of the house, lighting it, both holding the same match, and standing in the backyard to watch the house burn. I would wake up screaming, in a cold sweat, wondering if it were real.  After a year or so, the nightmares dwindled and stopped.
The police stopped in front of our house on several occasions as Ronald worked in the yard, asking where the owner of the home was and if he was the gardener. Sometimes he had to show his driver’s license to prove it was his home.
One cop said, “I didn’t think any black people lived in this neighborhood.”
“They do now,” Ronald said, pushing in an aerator so the lawn would grow lush and green in the spring. And after we moved in, more black families bought houses in Outer Comstock.
We lived in the house for twenty-two years, not only because we loved it, but also because the thought of being discriminated against a second time ticked like an analog clock in the background.
The next house we bought was seven hundred miles away, down South – a place where I still see Confederate flags displayed on vehicle vanity plates or as window decals or on caps or vests. I went house hunting with just the realtor under the guise that Ronald was too busy to make the trip. I showed the house to Ronald via the Internet and put in a bid the next morning with just my signature. Ronald saw it in person an hour before closing during the final walk-through. We left no room for second thoughts.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Ethnicity of White in America

“Do you think of yourself as ethnic?” I like to ask people, and I’ll ask you, my blog readers, as well.
I remember a conversation with my aunt Josephine, my father’s sister.  She and my husband Ronald were going round and round about ethnicity and race. Both talkers, both Cancerians born three generations apart but sharing birthdays within a couple days of one another, they loved a good debate. Aunt Josephine told the story of how, in the 1960s, she was turned down for a better position at the New York State Department of Education after the (white) man interviewing her asked why her father hadn’t changed their last name to something less ethnic sounding.
“You know,” Ronald said. “A lot of people don’t consider Italians to be white. That’s why you had a hard time.”
“That’s not true,” Aunt Josephine said. “We’re white. It’s the Sicilian’s who aren’t.”
(The following is an excerpt from my essay “Keep Hope Alive”)
I grew up in an era that embodied the civil rights movement and the fight for women’s rights. I lived through the fire hosing of black protesters in the South, watching it from afar in our parlor in Albany, New York, and the push to pass the Equal Rights Amendment. Yet I felt equality was more an ideal than a reality. I experienced sexism, male managers more interested in picking me up than in the skills I brought to the job when I first entered the workforce after college.  I witnessed racism especially after meeting my husband who is African-American. I saw the inequality between classes, too, as a child of one of the poor families living in a suburb outside Albany.
I don’t feel white. I never have. I’ve always thought of myself as other, an outsider. My father was a first generation Italian-American who didn’t speak English until he attended St. Anthony’s Catholic School in downtown Albany. My mother was a protestant war bride from Sydney, Australia where my father was stationed during World War II. Neither one graduated from high school. As a child I felt on the fringe of mainstream white America, far afield from the clapboard houses with white picket fences shown on TV with mothers in starched aprons, high heels, and pearl necklaces, and fathers coming home after work in suits and ties, briefcases in hand.
In my house a boomerang hung over the kitchen threshold and a black plaster aborigine sat on the knickknack shelf in the parlor. The Infant of Prague statue, dressed in red and cream finery, stood at the center of my dresser top, a stuffed koala bear, made from real koala fur, next to it.
Ma wore housedresses and vinyl slippers and Dad came home with shirts soiled with newspaper print from handling bundles of papers in the mailroom where he worked. His face always had a five o’clock shadow, the whiskers making him look swarthy. He carried the afternoon newspaper, which he would read in its entirety that evening, folded under his arm.  He washed up and shaved a second time each day before coming to the dinner table.
Dad spent his weekends tinkering with the engine of the car he bought used and that he hoped to keep running for as many years as possible. Ma read novels, watched old movies and yelled at the kids in the neighborhood. “I’ll cut your bloody head off if you do that again,” she said when one boy threw dirt at the mutt we kept chained in the backyard. The police arrived soon after because the boy’s mother thought Ma meant it.
I looked different than the little children at the feet of the blond-haired, blue-eyed Christ in the picture on the wall of my Sunday school classroom. I had skin as white as snow, but my dark hair and amber eyes made me look foreign in comparison.
My parents were older than the parents of my schoolmates. Most people could not pronounce my last name.
We ate pasta and Italian bread to satisfy Dad or boiled dinners like ham and cabbage to please Ma’s palate.  I liked both with equal zeal. When I heard the neighbor tell my mother she grew up calling Italian bread “WOP bread,” I felt the same shame I felt when I heard other kids call Brazil nuts “nigger toes.” Even if I did not know what the words meant, I could hear how unclean the words were in the way they were spoken, spit out with disgust. When Ma lost her temper, she often said Italians were barbarians, trying to hurt and diminish Dad.  I don’t know if she understood how it made me feel, as if I were not as worthy as white children.
As an adult I learned my skin color afforded me certain invisible privileges in spite of ethnicity or class after I met my husband Ronald and witnessed how easily I blended into white society while he could not, or how we could not blend in when we were together. Our relationship, our marriage and our children indelibly sealed my sense of otherness in a white America.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Tar Baby of Racial Discourse

Senator Lamborn announced on radio while discussing the debt ceiling problem that “they will hold the President responsible. Now, I don’t even want to have to be associated with him. It’s like touching a tar baby and you get it, you’re stuck, and you’re a part of the problem now and you can’t get away.”
He later apologized, but I cannot disassociate the image from the man. It’s one more incident that offends my sensibilities. The salt has been poured yet again on the open wound of racism that I experience as a white woman who is married to a black man and the mother of interracial daughters.
Tar baby, which originated in African folklore, became popular in the early twentieth century and was used to describe nasty situations that only grow worse by attempts to solve them. The term is also derogatory and racist, especially as used in the mid-twentieth century.
Language evolves and changes with social and cultural evolution. Otherwise English would be spoken in the same way it originated – a language that is more different than the same as modern English and which sounds incomprehensible to most current speakers of English. Words become obsolete, are modified, pronounced or spelled differently, and some words fall out of favor or become associated with a negative legacy. New words are created to capture advances, new ways of thinking, new things, or someone’s creative verbal play. Other words are added from other languages.
Words can be emotionally charged, used one way and meant or interpreted in another.
I sat at a meeting in the early 1990s as an assistant director of a university department. The meeting was called to introduce the new Dean of Students who had been personally recruited by the chancellor. He stood in front of us, a white man in his forties, well educated, and well-spoken. He talked about the challenges of his job and decided to tell the story of one student’s recent experience to illustrate what he faced on the job everyday.
The story went something like this:
The coed went to a bar with friends and got drunk. She met a male student at the bar who was also drinking. They seemed to hit it off, and she invited him back to her apartment. Her roommates heard noise in her room and went to check on her. They opened the door to discover that their roommate was having sex…
The Dean paused for dramatic affect.
… with a black man.
I felt my hands and armpits moisten, my vision blur, and my heart thud against my ribcage.
The Dean continued the story with what registered in my racing mind as smugness.
The roommates called the police and when they arrived they asked the couple what was going on. Both responded that they were having consensual sex. The man was getting ready to leave. The police said there was nothing they could do since it was consensual. The young man got up, dressed and left.
The next morning the young woman’s roommates asked her if she realized what she had done. Did she realize she had sex with a black man? She called the police and filed a rape report.
I felt a collective gasp in the room and my anger boiled. All the attendants were white with the exception of one young black woman. I raised my hand.
“Yes,” the Dean said and nodded his head toward me.
“You lost the power of the story,” I said, my voice shaking, “when you racialized it.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” he said.
I felt my whole body thrumming. I said something like, “the story is about a woman drinking and bringing a stranger into her home. You didn’t mention her race, but mentioned his. You diminished what really happened. You racialized the situation.”
“No, I didn’t,” he said, shrugging his shoulders as if I were a crazy woman, and turning to address the next question.
I gathered my papers together and left the meeting, in front of everyone, before it concluded. I cried all the way back to my office.
That woman put herself at risk. She drank too much, didn’t know the man, and invited him to her home. The danger was not that he was black, but that she was under the influence and had invited a stranger back to her apartment. But I knew the danger that young man put himself in, too. Maybe the promise of sex overrode rational thought. Maybe he had not experienced racism that way before.
Several months prior to the meeting, my husband, my black husband, got arrested. A loving partner, involved father, dedicated firefighter, and talented musician with a college degree in sculpture and music, there was nothing criminal about him.
He was at a Westcott neighborhood bar, situated just beyond the east end of the campus, with friends, and they bought him a couple of beers. A non-drinker, he decided to leave his car and walk the couple of miles home. The police stopped him. They had gotten a call about a window peeper on a street Ronald had not crossed, and they claimed to have followed tracks in the snow that led to him. They told him no blacks lived in that neighborhood even though he was less than a mile from our house and his parent’s house. His parents had lived in the neighborhood since the 1970s, as had Ronald who spent his teen and early adult years there. The police charged him with trespassing, attempted to bump his head against the doorjamb as they put him in the back of the cruiser, took him downtown, refused him a phone call, had his car towed, and told him even if he didn’t do it, they would make sure it cost him money.
The panic I felt as I wondered where Ronald was in the early hours of the morning paralyzed me. He had run-ins with the police before, DWB, driving while black, incidents, like the time he unlocked the door to his Toyota Celica and felt the cold metal of a gun barrel at the back of his head. An officer was holding the gun and said, “Black guys don’t own foreign cars.”
I called hospitals while I waited for word from him, hoping no officer would ring my bell to deliver bad news. Ronald was allowed to call me at 6:00 a.m., just as I had about given up hope that he would come home safe.
The trespassing charges were dismissed. I thought I could file the incident away as another case of racial profiling that ended without anyone getting hurt. Then my graduate intern, who was white and dating one of the white campus security officers, told me a disturbing fact: she had visited her boyfriend while he was working and noticed Ronald’s mug shot hanging in the guard shack. When she told him she knew Ronald, he told her his photo was in every guard shack on campus. Ronald often came to campus to pick me up from work or to have lunch with me, and I worried what would happen if one of the guards recognized him from the mug shot. To my relief, my intern convinced her boyfriend to request their removal.
When the dean told his story at the meeting he sealed my belief that the campus was a dangerous place for people of color, particularly black men, particularly my husband, even though he graduated from there. I was afraid that our daughters would lose their father and I would lose my spouse in some sort of nightmarish misidentification or misunderstanding.
The dean and his story became my tar baby.
I wrote the Dean a letter and asked to meet with him. He was aggressive when we met in his office, frightening. He said he was not a racist, that he never said the word black, only that the man and woman were of different races, and that I must have something personal going on which set me off. I didn’t tell him I was interracially married.
Then I went to the Dean of Social Work, one of the first black deans on campus, to tell him the story. I told the vice president of my division. She was a white woman who became one of the first female VPs on campus. Finally, I filed a complaint against the dean at the EEOC office on campus. The black EEOC officer interviewed other attendees at the meeting and since no one else cited the story as racist, the complaint was dropped. The VP called me and told me to back off. I had become the topic of conversation in the upper echelons of the university. I felt defeated. I wondered how many students would suffer at the hands of this man who had been hired as their advocate and guide.
About a year later, I was at home listening to the university radio station on a Saturday morning. The newscast included a story about the Dean of Students losing his position after the campus women’s group complained about his treatment of coeds who had been victims of date rape.
Soon after I saw an article about him in the newspaper. He had started a home-based business, a Christian family values website.
Twenty years later, I haven’t been able to get loose from my tar baby.
I still wonder what I could have done differently in response to that dean and his story.  What would I say now that I didn’t know to say then? Maybe that I know he tried to bully me in his office the day I met with him, and that his bullying did not change my opinion. Maybe I would have been open about my experiences of racism. Maybe I wouldn’t have looked so hard for allies to come to my assistance.
What I wouldn’t change is how I feel about the way the dean manipulated the story, as if the man’s race posed danger. His racialization of the event distracted the listeners’ attentions from the real problems that come from making poor choices. He planted an image in their minds or awakened one already there. If anything, the story should have been a cautionary tale about overindulgence and instant gratification.
If I had the chance to speak to Senator Lamborn, I would tell him that his word choice was insidious. Consciously or not, he planted a racist and derogatory image in the minds of millions of Americans who don’t understand their own role in the perpetuation of racism in this country. Most people don’t define themselves as racist, but many support a racist, segregated society, a system of haves and have-nots, a particular definition of what an American is that is inclusive of some but exclusive others. Senator Lamborn perpetuated the narrow concept of Americans when he used the term tar baby in conjunction with President Obama.
But liberals aren’t free of the tar baby either. They have stumbled as much as the conservatives. Maybe President Obama, who has stayed mostly above the racial fray, has taught us something about racial discourse. Don’t fight dirty, participate at all times with dignity and respect, don’t let your emotions get the best of you, and acknowledge the truth of your experience.
I’ve not used the term tar baby in conversation before I wrote this, and I plan not to use it in the future. That’s the beauty of language, changing to meet our social and cultural evolution.