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.



  1. First my intent was not to comment anonymously - for some reason my wordpress profile would not let me post. I didn't realize the google address was hidden.

    I asked some sincere questions and instead of being able to open a dialogue where ideas could be exchanged, I was met with an entire post that chastised me. If your intent was to make me keep my mouth shut and my eyes closed, you have succeeded.

    FYI, I am multi-cultural and check the "other" box as well.

  2. My apologies that I misunderstood the intent of your post. I don't want to shut anyone down from dialogue about race, including you, and I hope you will reconsider. Communication about race is difficult because it is an emotional topic. I was being honest when I said I wasn't sure of your intent. I wrote about what your post inspired me to write about. If you don't want to keep communication open, I understand. It's difficult on all sides of the conversation.