Monthly Archives: March 2014

The Most Dangerous Pronoun

The most dangerous pronoun is “they”—and its objective case “them.” Unless its antecedent is a string of specific nouns, “they” is most likely to perpetrate misconceptions and downright lies. Pronouns are convenient, but please don’t put me in a box with “them.”

The safest pronouns are, of course, “I” and “me.” This is because I know myself well. “You” is probably the next safest pronoun. I would hesitate to say anything about you to you that wasn’t justified and, I hope, sensitive. “He” and “she” refer to just one person and thus may have more validity than “them,” although I’ve heard slanderous things about “him” and “her” that were nothing more than gossipy fictions. Finally, there’s “we” and “us.” Do I really know enough about people like me to use “we” accurately? How could I complete the sentence “We Wellesley graduates…”? Earned high-power positions? Had children? Took up knitting?

This topic came to mind as I was reading comments on the PBS NewsHours’ segment about disparity by race in education, which I discussed in my blog. One comment read, “The black community needs to grow up and start taking responsibility for themselves, and the democrats need to stop treating them as children.”

It’s obviously racist, but taking responsibility for oneself is an accepted standard of adulthood. What would happen to the comment if, instead of “the black community,” the writer had used a string of nouns describing the people who are not taking responsibility for themselves? If I think about why someone might not take responsibility for himself, I get an almost endless list of possibilities: mental or physical illness, lack of opportunity to work, wages too low to pay for food and housing, alcohol or drug addiction, a felony conviction or lack of training that impacts the ability to get work, depression, bad decisions that prevent getting ahead like gambling or having an extra child—and, yes, a willingness to rely on others, be it the government or one’s parents.

Accurately written the sentence would read, “Able-bodied, healthy people who have the carfare to get to vocational school for training or to the job itself and who do not have to stay home with a baby need to grow up and start taking responsibility for themselves….” Wouldn’t adding “black” to that sentence sound funny? Only “black able-bodied, healthy people…have to take responsibility”?

And who are the “black community”? Is there a corresponding “white community”? Do people who are not responsible for themselves think of themselves as a community or act as a community? Interestingly, a number of black leaders see a growing need for community and look back longingly to the days when churches were strong, when neighbors disciplined each other’s children, and even when schools were segregated That black community was a positive force.

“They” is a dangerous pronoun, and using it reflects arrogance. How much can one person know about others?


Disparity by Race in Education

I was eating dinner and watching the NewsHour on PBS when Judy Woodruff announced that for the first time in almost 15 years, the Department of Education had published data…from all 97,000 public schools across the country. “The findings highlight big patterns of disparity by race,” she said.  My fork dropped and my ears perked up. “No kidding!” I thought, but then I learned that although only 18% of students are African-American, they account for half of all suspensions and that even pre-schoolers get suspended! I didn’t know about the pre-schoolers, but at Trenton High, of course, about 98% of the suspensions were Latino or African-American because 98% were students of color. With regard to punishment at least, it was impossible to see disparity by race.

The report went on to say that African-American, Latino and Native American students attend schools with higher concentrations of first-year teachers and less experienced teachers than white students do. That sounded familiar. Positions at Trenton High were never all filled by September. One year, when I took over a homeroom, the students called me “Mrs. Staff” because “Staff” was the name on the classroom door. No teacher had yet been hired for the math class scheduled for that room. But was it that few teachers were willing to teach in an urban school or that the Trenton School District was too disorganized to contact those who did apply? For two years in a row, even though I’d applied in spring, I, an experienced teacher, wasn’t contacted by Human Services until the week before Labor Day. The first time around, I’d already accepted another job. The second time around, I called Human Services myself to ask about the status of my application. It had been overlooked. I was then offered a choice of two vacancies, one at an elementary school, the other at the high school. After two brief interviews, I chose the latter.

The DOE report also found that while more than 80 percent of Asian-American and more than 70 percent of white students had access to a full range of math and science courses in high schools, only 67 percent of Latinos were at a school that offered a range of advanced classes. The figure was 57 percent for African-American students and less than 50% for American Indian and native Alaskan high school students. I recalled an evening meeting of the Trenton High School Management Team in 2001. A student had come to protest that Advanced Placement courses were being discontinued. Our principal told him that because few, if any, students had passed the AP over the previous 10 years, success was unlikely. She reassured him that she had contracted instead with the College Board for Pacesetter, a course of study that would be more appropriate for our students. She suggested that he could take up to six advanced credits at Mercer County Community College. She’d been told by the provost that those credits would be transferable to 40 institutions of higher learning. The young man wasn’t happy; he didn’t want to lose time commuting.

Was our principal, a black woman, just being sensible, not wanting to waste time and money on AP? What role does “If you build it, they will come” play? In the ’80’s, Trenton High had a gifted and talented program that produced gifted and talented graduates. It vanished. In 2002, a colleague suggested resurrecting it, but her committee was stymied because the title sounded too exclusive. Perhaps we should have called it the “AP Small Learning Community.” Sadly, what the DOE found out after 15 years is what Trenton students have known for the past 30 years.

How Are Stereotypes Perpetuated?

How are stereotypes perpetuated, especially among children? This question came to me while I was watching “American Promise” on PBS’s POV . The documentary follows two middle-class, African-American boys from New York City whose parents enroll them at The Dalton School, a prestigious private (and mostly white) school. It turns out that African-American males have difficulty at Dalton, so a group of black parents gather to discuss the problem. A father notes that both white and black parents have the same issueskids forgetting homework and losing thingsbut he says that blacks have an extra burden in this country. Speaking about the boys, he says, “The struggle they’re going to have to face in reality is the way that people look at them and fear them when they see them because everyday you’re inundated with this marketing that a dark black face is dangerous, so watch out.”

This quotation confuses me. First, what constitutes “this marketing” that inundates you every day? Is it photos in the news of black people who’ve been arrested? I’ve heard the complaint that more photos are published of black suspects than white suspects, but since I watch only the PBS NewsHour and refuse to read yellow journalism, I haven’t seen “this marketing.” Can anyone explain it to me?

Second, what is the stereotype? That a dark black face is dangerous? Or that people will look at a dark black face and fear it? To me, the distinction is serious. I can imagine black parents warning their sons that people may be afraid of them. Such a warning is not something I’d recommend since it perpetuates the stereotype, but I can understand parents wanting to prepare and protect their children. And eventually the children are likely to see evidence. In “American Promise” two taxi cabs pull away when the drivers realize that a group of four black teenagersnot just the one who’d flagged the cabwant a ride.

But I cannot imagine either black parents or white parents (except the most overtly racist) telling a child that a dark black face is dangerous. So how is this fear perpetuated? How does it arise?

I am not denying that the fear exists. The fate of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis and stories I hear from black friends are evidence. And I believe I watched the fear acknowledged by the producers of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire” when Cedric the Entertainer replaced Meredith Vieira as host. The first contestants were, in order, black males, white males, a black female, and finally a white female – and she seemed hand-picked, an ebullient actress. I’m almost positive that more than a month passed before an average white female contestant appeared.

What can we do to change “the way that people look at them and fear them”?

Half Empty Half Full – Expectations Clarified

An example from Trenton High in my recent post “Half Empty Half Full” may have led some readers to think that only white counselors had low expectations for black students. Not true! Expectations for black students had no correlation to the race of the expecter. And thankfully not everyone had low expectations.

Kyle, who came to Trenton from Jamaica at the age of nine and who had never been to school, was placed in special education and, in high school, became my student. As he blossomed (he had no learning difficulties other than first having missed three years of school and then been treated as special), I began to see college potential. One of my black colleagues taught a summer enrichment and remediation program for minority students at a prestigious private prep school in Massachusetts. She agreed with me that Kyle should try to get into the program—why not? Kyle’s white English teacher was more realistic than I about Kyle’s chances and accused me of pushing Kyle; nevertheless, the teacher wrote a letter of recommendation. Kyle was not accepted to summer school, but he determined to go to college, especially because as a track star, he might get financial aid. He had my backing, and he was supported by his coach, a black man. On the other hand, his counselor, a black woman, was encouraging him to consider the army rather than college—not that I mean to suggest that a career in the army implies low expectations. Perhaps the counselor, given her large caseload, didn’t know Kyle well or was swayed by his classification as a special ed student. The point is that expectations differed widely; thus the kind of advice and help that students received differed too.

I believe that the adults who advised Kyle were well-meaning, but another incident shocked me. When a young black student in the gifted and talented program confided to one of her teachers that she hoped to become a doctor, the teacher sneered, “That’ll never happen. You’re from the projects.” The teacher was a black woman. Such a black-on-black put-down! Why?

When I first came to Trenton High, I assumed that all the black teachers, counselors, and administrators would be doing everything in their power to inspire students, to prepare students to break the cycle of poverty and discrimination. What I found is that a few did; most did not. Black and white staff alike often didn’t have the inclination or perhaps the energy to push themselves as hard as was necessary to overcome the challenges. Whether we adults pushed ourselves and whether we believed in the kids had more to do with our age and idealism than with our race. What I also found out is that any assumption about race is wrong.

The black teacher who judged people based on where they live really isn’t so different from me. My self-esteem surely rests in part on the fact I live in Princeton. But I never put a student down. Why does anyone put a kid down? Happily, both Kyle and the young woman who hoped to become a doctor achieved their dreams.



Never Say “Get over it!”

The actors in Passage Theatre Company’s “Race – Let’s Talk About It” had read their lines and then, along with the play’s authors and director, had gathered on stage for an informal discussion with the audience. The topics were familiar: poverty, injustice, the depressingly familiar account of a white couple who got up from their table when a black couple was seated next to themeven in this day and age.

We are allblack and whitefeeling the pain of racism. Who had taught black people that black hair is ugly? Suddenly one of the actors, with a passion that seems to surprise even her, explodes, “NEVER, NEVER, NEVER tell me to ‘Get over it.’”

The audience and people on stage cheer her openness, the courage to speak her mind. But I wince. Suddenly I am white. Those words and that anger distance me. I would like nothing more than to get over itto move beyond the pain of slaverybecause it is my people who were responsible. I understand the painmay feel actual painbut there is nothing I as an individual can do to change the history of that pain.

I’m angry now. I do want to tell you to “Get over it” to spare myself a guilt I don’t deserve. I want to tell you to get over it, but white people are not supposed to tell black people what to do. So frustrating! It’s not that I want to minimize history. I don’t want to tell you how to feel. But hearing your anger hurts. Invoking history continues to divide us into white and black. Aren’t we both victims of our history?

Could anger be part of a conversation about race? Why the difference between those who don’t get over it and those who move on? Whose anger is it? Where should it be directed?

Half Empty Half Full

Regarding my blog’s tagline, Roberto said, “I certainly don’t believe we are “post” racial by any stretch of the imagination. I don’t think that term will ever be relevant in our lifetime.” I know he’s right, but I don’t want to believe it. And certainly I want to keep such a sad truth quiet. When Jesus said, “The poor you will always have with you,” I hope no poor child overheard and misunderstood.

I worry about the children—born curious, energetic, hopeful. Do we warn them about the realities of racism or tell them they can be whoever they want to be? Or both? Do we see a black child as an individual or as a member of his race? When I worked at Trenton High, I heard teachers say “Our kids can’t….” as if they were all alike and as if they needed protection. Here’s an example. A friend from Princeton, who was a graduate of Penn State and an alumni recruiter, had told me that Penn State would welcome applications from Trenton High. After I’d passed the word to the guidance department, I ran into the brother of one of my colleagues in the hall. I’d occasionally driven him to his after-school job at the Princeton Medical Center and enjoyed his easy, bright conversation. The perfect applicant! I was pitching Penn State when a white counselor passed by and overheard. He took me aside and shook his head. “We don’t encourage our students to fail.”

I think of the times I’ve held a babywhite, black, and Asian. I’ve needed to believe that that baby could succeed. The alternative is too painful. We bring babies into a world of war, injustice, and suffering. We pray they’ll be spared.

Are we making progress? I had same-day surgery at Robert Wood Johnson Hospital this week, and I can report that the aide who greeted me, took my clothes, and brought warm blankets, as well as the person who pushed my wheelchair were black men. About ten percent of the nurses who worked in pre-op and post-op were black. A medical student rotating through plastic surgery and my anesthesiologist were both black women.


White, Black, So What? Wonderfully Exemplified

That the color of our skin is nothing more than the interesting distribution of melanin is well illustrated in this article about black and white twins

Race is irrelevant within this family, as it is in all families.  If it weren’t for our history of racism, would we even need the concept of “race”? I thank the friend who forwarded this timely link.

White, Black, So What?

Race, like gender, is determined at conception. There’s nothingexcepting modern surgery, bleach, and tanning salonswe can do about it. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if we could say, “I’m white. So what?” Or “I’m black. So what?” But we can’tor don’t. Too often we let race and gender define and divide us.

I keep hearing that America needs to have a conversation about race. What does that mean? What is there to say about race? Don’t we mean racism, or racialism, or, more likely, man’s inhumanity to man?

I am white, which means that, in America at least, I’ve had privileges that perhaps I wasn’t aware of as a child and that I may have been raised to believe that black people were inferior to me (which is how I actually was raised), but what does whiteness say about me now? Could I have changed? What can you tell by looking?

You may be black, but are you the child of an African oil magnate, here in the United States for your degree in business administration, or are you the great-great-grandchild of slaves brought here a century ago? And does even your answer to that question describe who you are and what your life has been?

What is the purpose of this conversation about race? To acknowledge the brutal history of slavery and Jim Crow? To dispel stereotypes? To recognize that power promotes itself by playing on differences?  Hopefully the purpose is to heal, to make race nothing more than what it is: the lovely pigment of our skin.