Thursday, June 28, 2012

Checking the Other Box

Dear Mrs. (or Mr.) Ladderprice,
Let me introduce myself, although I do not know who you are as you have hidden your identity.
My name is Dianne. I am a white woman. I am interracially married with interracial twin daughters. I write about race in the hope that it will somehow contribute in a small way to changing our racist culture. I am a racist because I am part of the majority race that holds the political, social and economic power in our country, and I am a beneficiary of that privilege.
You commented on my post titled Can’t We All Get Along? And I responded, but only briefly.  For other blog readers, here is the URL, and don’t miss the heartfelt comment from my daughter Cara about her experiences as a mixed-race person in America.
First of all, I am not certain how you feel about what I wrote. Are you angry and offended by my statement that if you are white in America, you are a racist? I can’t tell, and this is how miscommunications occur. I am going to respond as if you were angered about what I wrote.
Your comment appears to question my credibility and the truth of my experiences. If I am wrong, I apologize; however, I am sensitive to the power of words and the meaning they convey. Time and experience have honed my skills in recognizing racism. I have discovered that some white people question the authenticity of the racist experiences reported by people of color. They might think the person telling the story is exaggerating, reading into the situation, is overly sensitive, or just needs to get over it because we are all tired of talking about race. This kind of thinking blames the victim and allows racism to thrive in our society. Then there are the people that believe those occurrences happen in other places, never in their locale (or pocket, as you called it) because people there don’t act like that. I’m here to tell you they do, but most white people won’t be attuned to racist behavior or even recognize it if they witnessed it unless it is blatant and undeniable, like the KKK burning a cross on someone’s front yard.
You told me that your son didn’t even realize his neighbor was different until he saw him check the “other” box on a school form.
Let me ask you, how would you feel if your son was the one who had to check the “other” box? Checking that box identifies you as different than your peers, not part of the majority, and subject to possible bias, isolation, and sometimes abuse or violence from majority members.
My daughters were those kids back when they started Kindergarten in 1989. We refused to check the “other” box. 
We raised our daughters to embrace their mixed race and multi-ethnic heritage. We taught them about race because they had to know as a matter of safety. They needed to understand that other people would identify them as black in spite of their mixed race heritage and that would define how others treated them. Think about Tiger Woods who calls himself Cablasian, to honor his mixed race heritage, but the media identifies him as black. Think about President Obama, who, even though raised by his white mother and white grandparents and who in some ways identifies with his white heritage more strongly than his black heritage because he had very little contact with his Kenyan father, is identified in the media as the black president.
White children aren’t often taught about race, except in vague ways. For example, maybe they are taught, “everyone is the same.” They are not told the following: we are white, and in this society we are able to negotiate our way with invisible privilege that allows us to go where we want to go, live where we choose to live, work in the profession we have an interest in, and feel free to explore our individuality. The world is our oyster. See that child over there. She is black. She will have to be twice as good as you are to get the same job, and she will probably be paid less than you. She will have to face prejudice and bias as she negotiates her way in society.  She may be denied housing, jobs, adequate health care, and even access to public venues such as bars, stores or restaurants because of the color of her skin. If she is Hispanic or Asian, she may have to carry papers proving she is here in this country legally even if she is a citizen and her family has been here for generations. Her life will be difficult in many, many ways, because she does not have the invisible privilege we whites carry with us.
White children are not often taught the concept of privilege and entitlement, but they learn it through experience.
Even when the white child learns that “everyone is the same,” the child will see that there are differences between him and the children of color, unspoken, but there nonetheless, like when your son saw the boy check “other” when he identified his race. He will see that sometimes assumptions are made about children of color, about their intelligence, for example, or about their behavior, while the white child is given the chance to prove his intelligence and misbehave on occasion because that is what children (white children) do. He will see that white people are smart, strong, and brave when he plays video games or watches his favorite cartoons or movies.  He will learn that blacks are gangsters, criminals, athletes, or abjectly poor, while watching TV. He will see his parents or other white people get nervous or scared if someone of color is walking through the neighborhood or approaching them on the sidewalk.  He will learn that although everyone is the same, some are better.
You talk about progress. You are right. We’ve made progress.
Ronald did not get lynched the first time he looked at me and told me my eyes made his heart skip beats. We did not get arrested or denied a marriage license when we got married.
But we face racism every day. Isn’t it terrible and unacceptable when it happens even once to a single person? It’s an outrage when it happens repeatedly over a lifetime.
Do you think we should forget about or pretend the following events were not racist? You can read about each of these, and many others, in past posts in my blog.
1.     The car that tried to run us down in the movie theater parking lot.
2.     The prejudice and bad treatment my husband received on the job as one of the first black firefighters and the third black officer in the history of the fire department.
3.     The forty white men who swarmed Ronald because they didn’t think he should be dating me, a white woman.
4.      The man who attacked Ronald because he thought he was an Arab.
5.      The time the police arrested Ronald because they told him that no blacks lived in the neighborhood he had lived in since he was twelve.
6.     The seller who decided she didn’t want to sell her house to us because we would ruin the neighborhood.
7.     The photographer at my daughter’s wedding who didn’t know I was the mother of the bride because my skin was too white or that Ronald was the father of the bride because his skin was too black. No matter that familial resemblance is obvious.
Some of those things occurred in the beginning of our relationship, some over the thirty-six years we have been together, and others very recently. They are just a few of the incidents we have experienced. I could describe many, many more that range from stupid to dangerous.
Just last night at the pizza shop, the young white woman behind the counter did what she does every time she waits on us. She took Ronald’s debit card from him. Then she handed it back to me after she swiped it. She only handed Ronald the slip to sign because I walked away, and she had no choice. Why did she hand a debit card back to someone who doesn’t own it? Not just once – every time she has waited on us.
Mrs. Ladderprice, when you believe your country is too great to engage in racism (or any act that limits or oppresses the freedoms of different groups) or that most people are blind to race and skin color, you are fooling yourself and creating an environment where racism can thrive, both quietly and loudly. You are accepting the systemic and institutional racism that our society was built on and that still exists, and you are assisting, through your inaction, to keep it in place. You are a racist because you directly benefit from a system that perpetuates racial division and inequality.  No other action or belief on your part is necessary to identify you as such.
I don’t know you, Mrs. Ladderprice, but can I assume you are white? How many people of color have sat at your dinner table or stayed as guests in your house? How many people of color do you consider close friends, and do they feel comfortable telling you about their race-related experiences? Would you be upset if your son, coming home for Christmas break from college in the coming years, brought home a black girl and told you he was in love with her?
Colorblindness only works when people are truly equal and every person can live and work in a fair and equitable society. It will only work when we have openly, and perhaps painfully, explored our history and the systemic and institutional racism interwoven into our societal norms. But when colorblindness is practiced in a racist society, it allows racism to thrive unchecked by our ideals and better selves.
You sounded angry (and I apologize if I misread your comment) that I had introduced the idea that we live in a country that absolutely divides by race and class. A post-racial society might be a collective ideal – that which our best selves envision as fair and equitable treatment to all citizens of the USA.
Reality is far different. Your experience of being an American is markedly different than the experience of minority Americans or my experience as a white woman married to a black man with twin interracial daughters. The difference is the insidious way racism is institutionalized and systemic in our laws and societal norms and how it negatively impacts people of color every single day and in every endeavor. You live a “raceless” life, one that affords you privileges and freedoms that are not shared by people of color.
If it were simply about people displaying prejudice against others, a different response, one that is just as important because bias is damaging, too, would be warranted. But racism is about power and privilege. It is about passing a constitutional amendment that defines marriage between a man and a woman with hints from certain supporters that it is also about preserving the white race. It is about passing laws that the Supreme Court ruled as constitutional, that require people of certain ethnic heritage to produce their papers to prove they belong here if deemed suspicious by law enforcement, something that is easily abused and misused, just as free blacks had to produce their papers before the Civil War, so they would not be captured and sold into slavery.
Here’s an explanation of how freedom papers were used back then from the historical documents collection titled Slavery in Pittsburgh housed at the University of Pittsburgh. I see clear parallels between our history and the way Hispanics are treated in America today:
Freedom papers and certificates of freedom were documents declaring the free status of Blacks. These papers were important because “free people of color” lived with the constant fear of being kidnapped and sold into slavery. Freedom Papers proved the free status of a person and served as a legal affidavit. Manumissions and emancipations were legal documents that made official the act of setting a Black person free from slavery by a living or deceased slaveholder.
It was prudent for Blacks to file papers attesting to their free status with the county deeds office in order 
to protect them from slave catchers and kidnappers. Antebellum America, including Western Pennsylvania, was hostile territory for a person of African descent. There are records of Blacks being held in local jails because they were suspected of being fugitive slaves. As was stated earlier, Black slaves were perceived as property that, just like other goods, could be bought and sold, stolen or lost.
Filing with the deeds office protected African Americans from the loss, theft, or destruction of original documents, as in all-too-frequent situations where slave catchers confiscated or destroyed freedom papers to force free men and women into lives of bondage. Some free men had to have an affidavit that testified to their free status.
That’s what our country’s history is, and some of that thinking still remains. Just like the lynchings that were popular in the early twentieth century.  Black men were hung simply for looking at a white woman. Lynching is not acceptable today in our country as it was under Jim Crow laws. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 ensured that, but James Byrd, a black man, was dragged behind a truck until he was unrecognizable and his body parts were spread out for miles along the roadway; James Craig Anderson, a black man, was beaten and run over by a group of teens on a mission to “fuck with some niggers;” and Trayvon Martin, a black teenager, was trailed and then shot and killed by the neighborhood watch president for looking suspicious in the gated community where his father lived. These are current examples of black males being subjected to and murdered by vigilante justice. Black men are still considered sexually dangerous and violent, a myth created by white slave owners so they could perpetrate inhuman treatment against their slaves. That thinking still sits like an undercurrent in the ocean of our humanity.
Here is a short description of lynchings from Wikipedia:
Lynching, the practice of killing people by extrajudicial mob action, occurred in the United States chiefly from the late 18th century through the 1960s. Lynchings took place most frequently in the Southern United States from 1890 to the 1920s, with a peak in the annual toll in 1892. However, lynchings were also very common in the Old West.
It is associated with re-imposition of White supremacy in the South after the Civil War. The granting of civil rights to freedmen in the Reconstruction era (1865–77) aroused anxieties among white citizens, who came to blame African Americans for their own wartime hardship, economic loss, and forfeiture of social privilege. Black Americans, and Whites active in the pursuit of equal rights, were frequently lynched in the South during Reconstruction. Lynchings reached a peak in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when Southern states changed their constitutions and electoral rules to disfranchise most blacks and many poor whites, and, having regained political power, enacted a series of segregation and Jim Crow laws to reestablish White supremacy. Notable lynchings of civil rights workers during the 1960s in Mississippi contributed to galvanizing public support for the Civil Rights Movement and civil rights legislation.
Lynchings also occurred in the North where Irish workers feared their jobs would be taken away by blacks, many of whom had immigrated from the South to seek a better life and work.
It is difficult to imagine that the thinking that led to thousands of lynchings could still exist today, but it does.
I write about my experiences to enlighten people much like you, who, I imagine, are kind people who want to believe racism died with the Civil Rights Act and that we have arrived in a post-racial era ushered in with the election of a mixed race president.  You have the best intentions, but your wish to ignore race has made you fall into a kind of apathy and blindness to the racism that is still so prevalent today. Mostly it is because you are not affected by race and may not have personally witnessed any racist acts. I was a lot like you except that four things happened in my life to open my eyes. The first was that my father’s best friend was a black man. The second was an incident I witnessed as a child – our neighbors signing a petition to prevent a black family from buying a house on our street. My parents refused to sign it. The third was meeting my husband thirty-six years ago when I was eighteen years old. The fourth was the way my parents, liberal in every sense when it came to equal rights, condemned my interracial relationship. My mother accused me of causing my father to have a heart attack, and we did not speak or see each other for almost three years, a sad fact, because I would lose both my parents soon after. I saw clearly how different life was for blacks and other minorities in America and how good people who have good intentions can be exposed for harboring racist notions.
I am not trying to spurn or offend you by responding to you in this letter. Rather, I am hoping to open your mind to the possibility that we still have a race problem in America, because I see that you want to do the right thing.
The first step is to acknowledge that being white in America comes with certain privileges that other races do not have access to, thus perpetuating the racism that is prevalent in America. Together, we can begin the hard work of removing systemic and institutional racism from our laws, norms and mores and healing the painful, heartbreaking legacy that racism left behind. Then we can each check the other box, the box that says we won’t stand for anyone being treated as less than because everybody is the same.


Sunday, June 24, 2012

Can't We All Get Along?

So much happened this week: Rodney King, a man troubled by personal demons and unasked for fame, and who was brutally beaten by Los Angeles police officers during a 1991 traffic stop, died in a pool accident at his home; the North Carolina Legislature once again failed victims of involuntary sterilization, who were mostly poor, black women, by denying them restitution; a newly graduated college student was denied entrance to and then forcibly removed from a sports bar in Raleigh, NC, because of the color of his skin; and a study in North Carolina proved that police and other law enforcement are twice as likely to conduct a search at a traffic stop if the driver is a minority person, and minority drivers are twice as likely to be arrested at a traffic stop than white drivers. Race is in the news every day, and the reason is because racism still exists.
When I read Rodney King died in an accidental fall into his pool, I remembered the riots sparked by the acquittal of the police officers involved in the high-speed chase and traffic stop during which Mr. King was severely beaten. Seven police officers were involved in the beating that nearly killed King. Four officers were videotaped beating Mr. King with their batons while the other officers stood and watched. Many Americans did not know about police brutality, but this time it was caught on video, played over and over on the news, and indelibly proved that being black in America negatively influences interactions with law enforcement. The riots that began immediately after the acquittal of the four charged police officers on April 29, 1992 lasted six days and lead to fifty-three deaths and thousands of people injured. Only the National Guard could stop the violence.
I sat sobbing in front of the TV, 3,000 miles away, despair oozing through me, as Los Angeles burned on my twin daughters’ eighth birthday. Cara and Mackenzie wanted to know why I was so sad. I was crying for all the people who felt other Americans hated them, treated them differently and brutally, and then blamed them for their poverty and disenfranchisement. The only thing they could do from their powerless status in America was to destroy whatever crossed their path. I cried because I had always been afraid the police might do something like that to Ronald for being black and being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had some scary run-ins with the Syracuse police. See my post The Tar Baby of Racial Discourse:
Rodney King famously appeared before the TV cameras and pled with the rioters to stop the violence. He said, “Can’t we all get along?”
He became the symbol of victimization by racist police officers in America. The videotape of the beating opened the public’s eyes to police brutality, but I know that police misconduct, brutality, and prejudice still exist.
This week the Researchers for N.C. Advocates for Justice made their findings public after reviewing state data collected on more than 13,000 traffic stops conducted between 2000 and 2011. Dick Taylor, the chief executive of the trial lawyers’ group behind the study said of the results, "When you are stopped, you are more likely to have a negative outcome if you're Hispanic or African-American. The disparities are there. We need to look in a serious way at why that is the case."
While stopping short of calling law enforcement agencies institutionally racist, he said the data certainly raises troubling questions that should be addressed through training. Can that be enough to stop radically different experiences with law enforcement based on race?
The North Carolina Legislature approved the state budget, but without a provision to compensate about 1800 victims of involuntary sterilization (only 146 have actually been identified), so it will be another year of waiting for justice. Some argue that compensating the victims would open the door for other groups, such as descendants of slaves and Native Americans, to file similar claims for restitution. I am not opposed to restitution for other groups for the abuse and genocide wrought against them. How else to help level a playing field that has been unfair, uneven, and one-sided for hundreds of years? Their blood, their heartache, their failures, and their inability to become part of mainstream America in large numbers, are on all our hands. We are obligated to right the wrongs of the past, else how will we progress as a country and not repeat the violence and evil perpetrated against people that were historically considered less than equal?
Jonathan Wall, a twenty-one-year-old black graduate of Morehouse College and a native of Raleigh, NC, wrote about his experience at a sports bar in Raleigh, and it’s been circulating on the Internet. First, he and his two friends were told they could not enter the bar because they were not members, but when a police officer stopped by, the bouncer let them in. They were the only black patrons in the bar. Jonathan was told, as he sat alone at a table, that if he didn’t order a drink immediately, he would have to leave. He told the bartender he was waiting for his friends to return to the table. Minutes later, he was forcibly ousted. A cousin relayed a similar experience at the same location.
I remember a time in the early 1980s when Ronald and I went to listen to a band at a club in Syracuse called The Lost Horizon. As we approached the door, we heard someone tell the bouncer, “Next black guy that shows up, tell him we’re full.”
I wanted to turn around and leave, but Ronald, pulling me by the hand, climbed the steps and stood in front of the bouncer and the manager. He looked directly at the manager and said. “I heard what you said.”
The manager looked at the both of us and said, “No, man, that’s not what I meant. Come on in.”
“No,” Ronald said. “I heard you.” He turned and led me back down the steps, and we left. It would be years before we returned to that club. But I know it still happens. Read about Jonathan Wall’s experience at this URL:
Racism still exists because it is woven tightly into our history, our social interactions, where we choose to live, where we choose to work, and where we choose to worship. Racism is subliminally communicated in video games, movies, and in television programs. It is institutional and systemic to the way our society operates. People use hate language and hateful generalizations in describing the president, for example, or certain groups of people, such as Islamic people or homosexuals. It’s easy to demonize a whole group, rather than look at people as individuals. White people mostly enjoy their individual uniqueness, while most minorities are not treated as individuals as they negotiate their way through society.
It can be hard to swallow, but if you are white in America, you are a racist, even when you don’t personally believe you are. I realized that when I was taking courses toward my first master’s degree and began studying and writing about multiculturalism in a deeper way. How can I be a racist when I am interracially married? I am a racist by virtue of my skin color, and if you are white, so are you.
I benefit because of my skin color in many ways when I am by myself, for example, I’ve used my husband’s credit card at stores, written and signed checks in his name, and even moved money from his account (we have separate accounts) into mine. I can walk into any business and be treated with respect and feel welcome there. I built my career by moving from one company to another, each time accepted on merit (though gender affected my career in both positive and negative ways). In most of my social interactions, when I am by myself, I am openly accepted. When I am out and about with Ronald, and we are identified as an interracial couple, then my ability to navigate my way through society is greatly impacted.
We have been refused service, had to go to court to purchase our first house, even had our canoe rammed one time out on a lake in Upstate New York. I’ve been confronted by angry colleagues, people who embraced me and enjoyed working with me, for not telling them I was interracially married, as if that changed who I am. I didn’t change, but their perception of me did.
See my post Schadenfreude to read about being confronted by colleagues:
See my post Legacy of Racism to read about our housing discrimination experience:
The people who practice racial superiority are the ones demanding to “take back America.” They are afraid of demographic changes and our progress toward equality among people of all races and ethnicities. They fear they will become the minority and what that will mean and how they will be treated. They believe their kind, white Americans of European ancestry, should stay in power and continue to live with entitlement and privilege at the expense of those they consider less than because of their ethnicity or skin color. Yes, they are the true racists, but we all support a society that is classist and racist.
I think that many white people believe they will lose that sense of privilege and entitlement, but in a country like ours, there is more than enough to share, and all Americans could feel they are a part of a great country. Our ideal America is a country where everyone who is able can find a job and make a living wage, have access to affordable education and health care, live in affordable and adequate housing and provide for children and loved ones. That is not the America we live in now. We live in an America of race and class disparity.
Racism is everywhere, and examples of it can be found as easily as reading the newspaper.  
Changing to a truly equal and desegregated country takes work and commitment from the majority of Americans, not just the people being oppressed and a few enlightened people from the majority group. We can change things together. Can’t we all get along?

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Alien Matters

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand

A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name 
Mother of Exiles.
From her beacon-hand

Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command

The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
"Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!" cries she

With silent lips. "Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!"
~ Emma Lazarus
I’m pleased President Obama loosened his stance on illegal aliens called Dreamers. He’s stopping deportation proceedings for two years and allowing them to obtain work permits. He pushed this initiative because Republicans have blocked immigration reform in Congress. President Obama is a leader who leads by an ethical code and his belief in doing the right thing.
Dreamers arrived in this country as children with their parents who came here to work. The Dreamers grew up here, went to school here, made friends, became part of their communities, and some even served in the armed forces. They want to become part of the country they consider their own and not be deported to a country that is foreign to them. They want to go on to higher education and build lives that are better than what their parents experienced.  It’s the classic American dream. Each generation hopes for more, an assimilation into mainstream culture while honoring that from which we came. We are a diverse country because we are all descendents of immigrants from all over the world.
But many Americans, particularly those who think of themselves as “white” Americans, want to penalize the Dreamers. They want them deported to a country they may not even remember. They don’t want them to have equal access to higher education and jobs.
Often corporate farmers and businesses that wanted cheap labor brought the Dreamers’ parents to America. They work in service industries like restaurants and hotels, landscaping, and childcare, or they work in construction or as crop pickers. The same employers, who favor hiring illegal aliens for their work ethic and lower pay, don’t believe they should have the right to pursue citizenship. Once they are done with them, even if they’ve employed them for years, they want them to go back to their country of origin.
Why aren’t we ashamed that some people are considered less than equal because of their ethnicity or race? Why is there no remorse? No remorse for how we treated slaves and continued to treat their descendents? No remorse for locking a group of Americans of Japanese descent in detention camps because they were not considered American enough and a possible threat? No remorse for the way we sterilized women and men because they were deemed not fit for procreation? No remorse for denying the civil rights of fellow Americans because they are gay? No remorse for making health care unaffordable to many working Americans? No remorse for the way we used Mexicans and other minority people, legal and illegal, for cheap labor, with no intention of ever letting them attain anything close to the American dream? No remorse that we used them only to ship them and their children back to their country like returned goods? No remorse.
The problem is no one wants to be accountable. No one wants to take responsibility. “I didn’t personally do that, so why should I care?” But we all need to care. We all need to contribute to reaching the ideals of our country, embodied in the poem by Emma Lazarus and engraved on a plaque at the Statue of Liberty.
But greed and fear of losing something that belonged to one group of Americans prevent us from living our ideals and caring about the greater good.
I see America is changing. I see that our diversity will no longer allow one group to hold all the power. We are a democracy. We are all Americans, including people of all races and ethnicities, no matter when they immigrated here, because we are all immigrants or descendants of immigrants, and we built this country together.
I say let the Dreamers stay here and build lives and have the option of becoming contributing citizens. Give their parents, many of whom have lived here for years, working for low wages and trying to give their children a chance to succeed, amnesty, and a chance to become citizens of the country they live and work in.
Force employers to pay a fair wage to all employees, to stop bringing in illegal aliens to work in sub-par conditions and for sub-par wages, and to create safe work conditions and stable employment. Unions, now demonized among the conservatives, helped make our country one of the world’s richest and most powerful nations in the 1950s through the 1970s. Unions made sure employees had access to fair and equal pay, affordable health care, and secure pensions. Unions helped create a viable middle class that is now diminishing at record pace as Corporate America pushes back salaries and puts the burden of health care on its employees who are making wages that are on par with salaries from 1992. Unions kept executive pay, now hundreds of times higher than the salaries of their employees, in check.
We are a democracy but equality is elusive and based on systemic and institutionalized classism, racism, and sexism. We have to strive to be our best selves, our idealized selves, the ones we think we are even when our actions say we aren’t. We need to do the right thing. We will not achieve that ideal until we can face our fears and prejudices and embrace the diversity of our country.
In honor of my father on this Father’s Day, I’m including a short excerpt about him from my memoir. He would have turned one hundred this past March, but he passed away thirty-one years ago. I still miss him.
(Excerpt from Chapter 2, Bloody Mick, Shades of Tolerance: A Biracial Love Story)
Dad, on the other hand, was quiet until his temper exploded, never revealing much, but he worked with his hands: scraping old paint; patching holes; applying new paint with brushes and a roller, fashioning a hat out of newspaper; tinkering under the hood of his car; fixing leaky faucets; mowing the lawn and planting marigolds and petunias; dropping two or three dollars into the collection plate during Mass each Sunday, even when the mortgage was due and we would eat hotdogs, hash and Spam for the week; holding the newspaper up in front of him in both hands to read, or folded in quarters to do the crossword; helping his best friend Harold to renovate the old house Harold inherited out in Middleburg. “Mashooze,” Dad used to say, his hands clasped behind his back when he walked.
“What about your shoes?” I asked him almost every time.
“Mashooze escalappa,” he answered, rocking back on his heels. I never knew if it was an Italian phrase he recalled from childhood or something he made up because he liked the sound of it. I liked the sound of it, too, and the constancy.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

They Call Him Mister Tibbs

Ronald and I watched In the Heat of the Night on TCM this week. Made in 1967, the year the Supreme Court ruled anti-miscegenation laws unconstitutional, it remains a socially important film. That year Poitier starred in another socially relevant movie, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and a favorite of mine, To Sir, with Love. He was the first African-American actor to win an Oscar for Best Actor for his role in the 1963 Lilies of the Field (Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to ever win an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in Gone with the Wind made in 1939. Halle Berry was the first female of African-American descent to win Best Actress in 2001 for her role in Monster’s Ball).
In the Heat of the Night is about a black homicide detective, Virgil Tibbs, from Philadelphia, who is traveling back home from visiting his mother in the South. He winds up stranded at the train station in the small town of Sparta, MS waiting for the next train. He is arrested for the murder of a northern industrialist based solely on his being a black man. At the police station Chief Gillespie is sure he’s solved the case.
He says, “Well, you're pretty sure of yourself, ain't you, Virgil. Virgil, that's a funny name for a nigger boy to come from Philadelphia. What do they call you up there?”
Tibbs says, “They call me Mister Tibbs.
TIbbs ends up helping to solve the murder, but not without feeling the full weight of the hatred and threats of the townspeople. In one scene TIbbs is questioning a wealthy citizen, Mr. Endicott, in his greenhouse. When Tibbs suggests Endicott is under suspicion for the murder, Endicott strikes him across the face. Tibbs strikes him back.
Eric Endicott: Gillespie?
Chief Gillespie: Yeah.
Eric Endicott: You saw it.
Chief Gillespie: I saw it.
Eric Endicott: Well, what are you gonna do about it?
Chief Gillespie: I don't know.
Eric Endicott: I'll remember that.
[to Tibbs] There was a time when I could've had you shot.
This movie always hits me hard emotionally. I see the same attitudes in people, the same shock, when they see Ronald and me together, as if we are offensive and need to be eradicated.
“Nothing’s changed,” Ronald said. “The thinking is the same.”
He spent an hour trying to explain to one of the golf range guys, an older white man, that it would be odd to tell someone he just met that he has a white wife. He asked the guy, “Have you ever told anyone your wife is white?”
The guy answered “no” and seemed surprised that Ronald asked him that question.
“Then why would you expect me to?” Ronald added. Slap, slap. Did the guy think, “There was a time I could have had you shot?”
Another Sidney Poitier movie I love and have watched over and over is Raisin in the Sun made in 1961. Lorraine Hansberry wrote the play, which debuted on Broadway in 1959, based on her own family’s suit against the covenants of a neighborhood that didn’t allow blacks.
She later wrote in her memoir To Be Young, Gifted and Black:
"25 years ago, [my father] spent a small personal fortune, his considerable talents, and many years of his life fighting, in association with NAACP attorneys, Chicago’s ‘restrictive covenants’ in one of this nation's ugliest ghettos. That fight also required our family to occupy disputed property in a hellishly hostile ‘white neighborhood’ in which literally howling mobs surrounded our house… My memories of this ‘correct’ way of fighting white supremacy in America include being spat at, cursed and pummeled in the daily trek to and from school. And I also remember my desperate and courageous mother, patrolling our household all night with a loaded German Luger (pistol), doggedly guarding her four children, while my father fought the respectable part of the battle in the Washington court."
In the film version, Mr. Linder, the representative of the white neighborhood the Younger family has purchased a home in, has come to offer to buy them out.
Linder: I want you to believe me when I tell you that race prejudice simply doesn’t enter into it. It is a matter of the people of Clybourne Park believing, rightly or wrongly, as I say, that, for the happiness of all concerned, that our Negro families are happier when they live in their own communities.
The family is offended by the offer and refuses to sell.
Linder continues as he gathers his things together and looks at the family who has become hostile towards him:
Well – I don’t understand why you people are reacting this way. What do you think you are going to gain by moving into a neighborhood where you just aren’t wanted and where some elements – well – people can get awful worked up when they feel that their whole way of life and everything they’ve ever worked for is threatened.
Later, after Linder has left, the daughter, Beneatha, wonders aloud, “What they think we going to do – eat ‘em?”

Her sister-in-law Ruth responds, “No, honey, marry ‘em.”
Nothing’s changed. See my post on our housing discrimination experience: The Legacy of Racism:
Speaking of marrying interracially, I love the film Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. I remember Ma talking about it when it came out in 1967. She liked it, but she didn’t know then that she would live the experience in 1976 when I started dating Ronald. Poitier’s character, John, who is asking his parents and his fiancee’s parents to accept their marriage, says at the film’s beginning, “After all, a lot of people are going to think we are a shocking pair.”
Nothing’s changed. We shock a lot of people.
One film starring Sidney Poitier still has the power to make me cry. Patch of Blue made in 1965 is about a blind white girl who sits in the park stringing beads to escape her prostitute mother and her drunken grandfather. She meets Gordon, an educated black professional. They fall in love. At the end of the film, Selina asks Gordon to marry her, and he tells her there are many kinds of love. He is concerned that she does not realize they are racially different, and how difficult it will be to stay together. But Selina surprises him.
Selina: I know everything I need to know about you. I love you.
[touching Gordon's face]
Selina: I know you're good, and kind. I know you're colored and I...
Gordon: What's that?
Selina: ...And I think you're beautiful!
Gordon: [smiling] Beautiful? Most people would say the opposite.
Selina: Well that's because they don't know you.
Nothing’s changed. I feel that about Ronald: so many white people think of him first as black and not as a retired fire lieutenant, an artist, a musician, a dedicated husband and father, and a man. To them he will always be a black man, and the prejudice and stereotypes they carry inside color their perceptions about him. They don’t know him, and they don’t want to.
Sidney Poitier made some important films in the 1960s that made social commentary on the Civil Rights Era. Today those films are just as important because we have a long way to go on the journey to understanding race in America. I told Ronald while we were watching In the Heat of the Night, “They ought to show this movie in every classroom in America.” The surface of race relations may look different, but I know that nothing’s changed.
I’ve included an excerpt from my memoir. It’s one of my Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner incidents.
(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. 

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Get Up, Stand Up: Redemption Songs

I felt discouraged this week. Sometimes I wonder why I keep writing about race and culture. It seems as if people don’t really care when it doesn’t impact their lives directly. On surface, of course, lots of people denounce racism, but most of those people will not ever do a single thing about it, because they don’t see their role in it, and they don’t recognize racist situations. In their minds the racists wear white sheets and burn crosses on lawns. They aren’t the people sitting near us in the restaurant giving us the “Southern stare” or the ones telling Ronald that President Obama is neither a citizen nor a Christian.
We experienced the “Southern stare” again on Friday night.  I described how we coined the phrase in my post Amendment One: I See Hateful People ( 
We had gone out for pizza on Friday, and on our way out of the restaurant, a table full of people stopped eating, talking, and drinking to stare at us, as if they had seen the strangest thing and might never have a chance to see it again. You might be asking, “Why do you have to keep talking about it? Why does it bother you? I’ve been stared at before.”
I bring it up again and again, because it is common in our experience. We can’t go places without it occurring and if you are white, you don’t think about that happening to you. You may have been stared at, but not in this way, I promise you. You are expected and welcome just about every place you go. You don’t surprise, shock, or offend others. We do. Gay couples do. People who have physical deformities do. But if you are white, heterosexual, and physically average (which most people are), no one notices you, and you can go about your business. But for those of us who differ from the majority, our ability to go about our business is hampered and sometimes turns dangerous as it did for Trayvon Martin who was shot and killed returning from a quick run to the convenience store.
Take gay couples in my home state of North Carolina. Not only did the state vote to constitutionally define marriage as between and man and a woman, many preachers have spewed hate about homosexuality during their Sunday sermons. On Mother’s Day a Catawba County preacher railed against gay couples and called for them to be placed in concentration camps. Not only did he reach his parishioners with his hateful message, the church posted the sermon on You Tube where it was viewed 165,000 times before it was taken down.
An alumnus from Wake Forest University took out a full-page ad in the Winston-Salem Journal asking for the removal of the university’s chaplain Imam Khalid Griggs. The alumnus Donald Wood claimed Griggs, a Muslim, would replace all our laws including the U.S. Constitution with Shariah law.
The Ku Klux Klan still exists, and they planned to stage a rally and cross burning near Harmony, NC on Memorial Day weekend. Protestors turned out. One sign read, “Bigotry wrapped in religion is still BIGOTRY.” One resident of Harmony was quoted in the paper as saying, “[The Klan rally] was a shock to me. I thought that stuff died down.”
But it hasn’t died down. Such activity has actually increased. Though most people don’t think they support racism there is a new level of fear and anger about people who are different than the majority, particularly because minorities are now growing in number. See my post Demographic Evolution (
So I keep writing about it hoping I can contribute to changing our social views on race and culture. Over thirty-six years of experiencing race in America has taught me that change is slow and regression is prevalent. Sometimes I think I can’t change anything. Then discouragement paralyzes me.
But last night my resolve changed again.
We went to Ziggy’s, a national club in Winston-Salem, to see The Wailers perform. There is only one original member left, bassist Aston “Family Man” Barrett, but we had seen Bob Marley and the Wailers twice before Marley died in 1981.
We were too early to purchase tickets, so we wandered upstairs to the outdoor bar. Ronald asked me to wait while he went to the restroom. He is always attendant to me at bars. I hated them when I was a young woman because men buzzed around me like flies on dog shit, and I hated the attention. I always thought my large eyes made me look vulnerable to their pickup lines. I’m not as worried now that I am a woman of a certain age, but Ronald is still protective, and I am appreciative.
I stood by the outdoor deck to wait for him. A man stopped him on the way, hugged him, and told him he missed him.  The middle-aged black man with pocked skin stood at my height. He carried a stuffed messenger bag swung around behind his back. I heard Ronald tell him that he had the wrong guy, but the man insisted, “No, man, I know you. I just got out of prison, but I remember you.”
I wondered if he was one of the people Ronald spoke with on one of his late evening forays downtown during the warm weather. He likes to sit on the benches lining the sidewalks, watch the crowds walk by, talk to anyone who stops, and, he tells me, learn about life and people. A minute later the man’s white wife joined them, so I wandered over. She looked weary and shy. She weighed a good hundred pounds more than her husband, her skin was sunburned, her hair lay flat on her head and pushed behind her ears, and her teeth were dark on the edges and spaced apart.
Ronald introduced me, and the man told me I was beautiful and that Ronald was fortunate. Then he told us his wife waited for him while he served a fourteen-year sentence for shooting an intruder during a break-in at his home. He had found God in prison, as many do, and we talked about the Bible for a few minutes. Then they told us they were homeless, down on their luck, and looking for some help. We expressed our sorrow for their condition.
Soon we hugged one another good-bye like long lost friends. The man asked Ronald if he could talk to him privately, and I knew he was asking him for a handout. I stood with his wife and told her I hoped something good would come into their lives, and she told me she had spent a day in the hospital for heat stroke and how her husband was trying to keep her out of the sun. “Take good care of yourself,” I said when Ronald and her husband joined us again and we said our final good-byes.
“You didn’t know him,” I said after we had purchased our tickets and entered the venue.
“How much did you give him?”
 “Twenty,” he said.  I wasn’t surprised. On many occasions I witnessed Ronald give someone money, buy someone a meal, give something of ours to someone who needed it more than we did, or give someone a lift to a destination miles out of his way. His generous spirit is one of the things I love about him.
“They’ll get a nice meal out of it. Maybe at Jimmy John’s,” I said. I felt bad that we spent fifty dollars to get into the concert when it could have bought them a hotel room for the night. I knew they scoped us out, another interracial couple that would be empathic. I knew they lied, but I didn’t know what was true and what wasn’t.
“He worked for it,” Ronald said as if he had read my mind.
“You did what felt right,” I said.
The Wailers came on stage long after the opening band, just as I was growing tired of waiting, just before midnight. They opened with the song Get Up, Stand Up.
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up, stand up for your rights
Get up, stand up, don't give up the fight

Preacher man don't tell me
Heaven is under the earth
I know you don't know
What life is really worth
It's not all that glitters is gold
Half the story has never been told
So now you see the light
Stand up for your rights
My whole mood lifted. I felt awake. Ronald and I, holding hands, moved to the music. I leaned into his ear and said, “I love the drummer.” I sang along with the lyrics. The crowd was quite diverse: people of all ages and all races, quite a few interracial couples. Reggae music has universal appeal.
The main singer was not Bob Marley, but he had a special stage presence, a mellow, soothing voice, and he sang in the pocket of the music, riding on the rhythm, taking his time, as if he were floating on the notes.
When the band took their final bows and left the stage, I was disappointed for a moment. “They didn’t sing No Woman, No Cry,” I said. “They can’t be done yet.”
The lead singer and the guitarist wandered back up on stage about five minutes later.
The singer began singing a cappella. The guitarist joined in after the first verse.
Won't you help to sing
These songs of freedom?
'Cause all I ever have
Redemption songs
Redemption songs
Redemption songs

Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery
None but ourselves can free our mind
The rest of the band walked back on stage, and they began playing No Woman, No Cry. “You have to dance this one with me,” I told Ronald. He wrapped his arms around me and I nuzzled my head against his chin. We held each other tightly as the lyrics washed over us:
No, woman, no cry.

'Cause - 'cause - 'cause I remember when a we used to sit
In a government yard in Trenchtown,
Oba - obaserving the 'ypocrites - yeah! -
Mingle with the good people we meet, yeah!
Good friends we have, oh, good friends we have lost
Along the way, yeah!
In this great future, you can't forget your past;
So dry your tears, I seh. Yeah!

No, woman, no cry;
No, woman, no cry. Eh, yeah!
A little darlin', don't shed no tears:
No, woman, no cry. Eh!
I felt the urge to cry and squeezed my arms tighter around Ronald’s neck. He tightened his arms around my waist.
I know now that I have to get up, stand up. I have to keep writing about race and culture, even when it is painful and when people wonder why I keep talking about it. I may not change anyone or anything. No woman, no cry. All I have are redemption songs.