Author Archives: Chrystal Schivell

White Supremacy

It’s been a long time since I last blogged, but Trump’s election left me speechless. Then I read the latest Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report on white supremacists and was suddenly struck by how pathetic their beliefs are. I’m better because my skin is white? Skin color isn’t even one of my accomplishments. It’s like little kids boasting “I’m older than you are.” Wouldn’t it be more valid to base one’s worth on something internal? Probably that’s what experimenters realized when they tried to correlate white skin with larger brains, more refined morality, etc. Their attempts, now discredited, are an admission that skin color is a feeble basis for superiority.

Do we need white supremacy to compensate for our individual disappointments? My mother based her superiority on the triple bulwark of race, ethnicity, and religion. We were WASPS, “not Catholic, not Irish,” she often added, to reinforce the point. But mother had few personal accomplishments, and her ambition was to be rich and a member of high society. She was thrilled when I dated the grandson of IBM’s founder, ate steak with his family, and drove around his property in an antique car. She was furious when I turned down his invitation to go yachting because I’d already promised the day to a young man of lower class.

I can understand that she resented my failure to bring her status. I can understand that she was not content with having kept me well-fed, clothed, and educated. I don’t understand what kept her from trying to find herself and to take pride in her own accomplishments. By ninth grade, I had an inkling of what I might accomplish and no longer needed to rely on being a WASP. But perhaps personal disappointmentsunemployment, poverty, and a sense that the American dream is no longer possible lie behind today’s resurgence of white supremacists.

Of course, supremacy denotes power. For our own safety, we’d like to be members of the group in power, and, in America, that’s people with white skin. I’ve certainly benefited, and I’m well aware of the institutional injustices that people of color have been powerless to prevent. It’s natural to fear that people who don’t look like us won’t share our interests and so will trample us if given power. White people, black people, Latinos, Asians, Muslimsall of us want to protect ourselves. Trump’s “Make America great again” was a familiar appeal to white supremacy. But did white people win?

Trump really represents Wall Street, corporate interests, and billionaires. Look at his cabinet nomineescertainly mostly white (and male) but all members of the 1%. Look at his policies. Trumpcare would have reduced by millions the number of people who have healthcare while letting each of the nation’s 400 richest families save $7 million per year. Medicare, Medicaid, and social security are on the chopping block. Investment brokers who handle retirement funds will no longer have to put their clients’ interests ahead of their own compensation or company profits. Banks may risk our savings. The Environmental Protection Agency is being decimated, and global warming, which threatens our existence, is denied.

The 1% is now supreme, the group with power. They do not share our interests, and they will trample us. People of color will be hurt the most, as usual, but so will the rest of us. For all our whiteness, we are watching our social safety nets disintegrate while the richest among us get tax breaks.

White supremacists have been duped. Skin color has nothing to do with values. If we want supremacy and its power to protect, we must band together with people who may not look like us but who share our interests. We’ll need a platform that rises above the divisiveness of race, ethnicity, and religiona platform based on the need for shelter, sustenance, and security. And we must vow to vote in such numbers in 2018 that no elected official dare ignore us. Paradoxically, our success will give each of us a sense of personal accomplishment.

My College Reunion

I’ve just returned from my 50th reunion at Wellesley College in Massachusetts and, as after every reunion, I’m struggling not to evaluate my life in black and white.

Reunions are joyous: catching up with classmates, revisiting Wellesley’s gorgeous campus, and huddling in the dorm with my old roommates until the wee hours, just as we did fifty years ago.

But reunions invite us to take stock of what we’ve achieved. Every five years our class produces a fat record book full of statistics and personal narratives. Reunions invite us to compare ourselves to others, and, compared to Wellesley’s famous “others,” I’m a failure.

Perhaps such comparisons are a hazard of any reunion, but at Wellesley the bar is high. I remember my interview at Wellesley fifty-four years ago. On a table in the admissions office was a Chinese vase given by Madame Chiang Kai-Shek, a Wellesley graduate. As the daughter of a name-dropper, I was impressed. Would some of her fame rub off on me? Today I share the Wellesley name with Madeline Albright and Hillary Clinton, who was a freshman when I was a senior. Perhaps I passed her on campus without, of course, knowing she is likely to become the first woman President of the United States. Being a Wellesley graduate makes for a good game of six degrees of separation.

But there is pain in having known famous women. Cokie Boggs Roberts and I were together in the Wellesley Widows, an a capella singing group, for three years. I adored her. We shared intimacies. She even stayed at my home in Greenwich after the Widows took a spring trip to Jamaica. But we went our separate ways. She became famous, and I know that now she doesn’t remember me. I shared a dorm with Diane Sawyer. Same story. Everyone in the Class of 1966 is proud that one of us became a Wellesley College president and another is a wealthy woman whose generosity built the college’s social center and whose contribution put our class at the top of giving this year. These classmates know me, but they’re too busy, and I’m too intimidated to consider ourselves friends.

And there’s the challenge of Wellesley’s motto: Non Ministrari sed Ministrare. “Not to be ministered unto but to minister” – four Latin words that capture the College’s mission: to provide an excellent liberal arts education for women who will make a difference in the world. Have I made a difference?

After every reunion I must remind myself that I am me, that apples can’t fall far from the tree, that it’s OK to fill the center of the bell curve. Without the bell, there would be no end-points for the famous others. But this year, while I’m consoling myself with clichés, I receive a letter from a classmate whom I don’t know very well. She’s seen my blog and writes, “I was really glad to have made the time to read your pieces, and I respect, too, your long career teaching in an inner city school. You have made a more lasting and positive impact on America than the rest of us put together.”

What an overstatement, but I’ll take it! I needed affirmation of my contribution. I realize, again, that failure is not the opposite of fame. And if fame is recognition, perhaps I am famous. Last week a security guard at the Sun Arena in Trenton asked if I’d worked at Trenton High School. He hadn’t been my student, but he remembered me bustling around the school on student government activities30 years ago.

My reunion doubt is gone. Why make comparisons? Why be a name-dropper? Instead, like my classmate, I’ll write letters affirming the contributions of others who, like me, are neither famous nor failures. We all make contributions, and we all need recognition.

I’m Racist

Recently I was told by a person of color that I’d ignored racist comments made by my white friends at a meeting we’d both attended. I was amazedmortified. Why hadn’t I heard or recognized the racist remarks? How could my friends have made such remarks? The accusation seemed based on a huge misunderstanding.

I asked whether my accuser had assumed we were talking about race. I begged for the specific words used so that I could address the issue. But she replied only that, no, there was no misunderstanding. She hadn’t made assumptions, and she found it disheartening but predictable that I, like everyone else, would not want to lose my position and prestige or to address microaggressions. She advised me to be honest when looking at my friends and to recognize that it’s comforting to look around a room where everyone looks like me and assume they’re not racist. Clearly, she was disappointed in me.

I take seriously the criticism and counsel of a black person. I’ve learned enough about white privilege to realize that I and my friends might unwittingly be at fault. And microaggressions are tricky—sometimes intended to be complimentary to an individual but always demeaning to that person’s ethnicity or race. (“Courtney, I never see you as a black girl.” “ Are you really Asian?” “Are you sure you have the right room? This is an honors section.”) We could have tripped up. I am disappointed in myself.

But was my accuser right? When I’d told a former colleague and friend from Trenton High, a woman who is black, that in retirement I’d been attending a discussion group about race and white privilege, she fairly shouted at me “Why are you wasting your time?” I protested that I was learning from black people in the group. “They’re all victims. Move on!” she said in disgust as she hung up. I felt disappointed in myself then, too.

At Trenton High we rarely talked about race and never about white privilegethough that same colleague laughingly told me that, when I arrived at Trenton High, she’d thought, “White woman…? Probably can’t get a job anywhere else.” At Trenton High, values trumped race; black and white idealists battled the black and white staff members who preferred the status quo. Ironically, after I’d retired and begun attending discussion groups, a second black colleague complained that I thought too much about race. I can’t seem to please everyone, but I’m still more anxious to please black people than white people.

Am I racist? I guess that depends on whom I ask. Some black people perceive racism where others don’t. Some insist “Never tell me to ‘Get over it.’ ” Others cry “Move on.” But black people don’t think alike and don’t have to. White people don’t.

What now? I know better than to continue questioning my recent accuser about her perception of my racism. Such dismissiveness would only bolster her contention that I’m unaware of my privilege. Of course, I don’t want to be racist. It would be helpful to know exactly what alerted her to my friends’ racism, but I will probably never know. I’m grateful to have a diversity of black voices in my life and to have learned that no one black person speaks for all black people. So I will take my accuser’s criticism and counsel seriouslyand move on.

Giving Time

My recent posts have been about giving money, but when a friend expressed awe at my husband’s and my generosity, I felt embarrassed. I hadn’t meant to boast but rather to point out a need. And I know that my friend gives generously of her time. I’ve overstated the importance of money.

The gift of time is, despite the clock, immeasurable. My friend has become a surrogate mother to the mentally handicapped daughter of a friend who died years ago. Each night the young woman calls. My friend listens to the young woman recount her day and reassures her that she cares. It’s tedious but necessary. I know because I get calls from a similarly handicapped fellow I taught almost 50 years ago. I listen to the litany about his trips to Walmart, the mileage on his car, his problems on the job (with nary a question about me). But he calls only once a month. Listening every night is true generosity, and I admire my friend’s devotion.

Another friend has chided me for seeming to belittle the time given by Princetonians who volunteer in Trenton with TASK, “People and Stories,” and soccer. I apologize. Time given to otherswhether individuals or organizationsis time taken from oneself. And driving to Trenton adds more time. Of course, time spent with others can be rewarding. I enjoyed my time teaching so much that sometimes I’d forget it was payday, and the school secretary would have to wave my paycheck to catch my attention as I clocked outbut only sometimes. Nowadays I devote a day each week to visiting my paralyzed friend in her nursing home. Time spent shopping for her and sitting with her eats into time to accomplish what I’d like to get done, but I love our visits. She does too. Time is a gift.

Then I remember her exclamation of joy, “I can look out my window!” For a year, she had lain in bed or been placed in a wheelchair facing the TV. To see outside required turning her head because she was unable to move her chair. Medicare had promised a mobilized wheelchair as long as she stayed in her home, and we tried to keep her there until it arrived. But bureaucracy delayed delivery; money for round-the-clock care ran out; and she had to go into a home as a Medicaid recipient. Medicare doesn’t give motorized chairs to people in nursing homes, and even the appeals of our Congressmen couldn’t produce a waiver. Finally I bought a Jazzya bright-red, motorized chairand unwittingly gave her the simple joy of looking out her window.

My thesis collapses. Which is worth more: the time I spend with her or the time she spends looking out her window and driving independently around the nursing home because I bought her “Jazzy”? I guess the answer is: give time, but, if needed, and if you can, give money too.

Giving – With Strings

Since the publication of my article “Volunteering in Trenton,” I’ve found a young man, recently home from the army, who needs financial help. He’d like to become an EMT and then go on to college to become a social worker. He was on the way to his goal— had gotten a job near a bus route, saved money, bought a used car, and then found a better-paying job to which he drove fellow workers. But the car broke down one morning on the way to work. He called at 7:15, but my husband and I, cozy in bed, suggested they take a taxi. We weren’t getting up to drive to Hamilton and rescue them. It turned out that he and his fellow workers were fired for failing to show up at work. Without savings to fix the car, he fell into depression, rarely leaving his bedroom in his mother’s house in Trenton. Six weeks later I learned the whole story.

I could have suggested that he buck up, borrow bus fare, and start all over again. But since I’d just told my readers that the “effective help” Trentonians need is money, or at least a ride, I’d have felt like a hypocrite. Besides, depression is a disease. Instead, I suggested to my husband that we get the car fixed and pay the tuition for the EMT course so he could start immediately. He’d be responsible for finding a job that fit with his class schedule, maintaining the car, and getting his financial house in order for the future.

My husband surprised me. He balked. “We don’t have the money.”

“How much do we give to charity?”

“Thousands.”

“Couldn’t we make him our charity for 2016?”

“Yes, but how do we know he won’t waste it?”

“How do we know for sure that the charities we give to don’t waste it?”

“OK, but what if he doesn’t finish the EMT course, and we lose our investment?”

“I think we can trust him. We’ve known him since he was a little kid.”

“Don’t you remember the Land Rover?”

Ah yes, the Land Rover! Almost twenty years ago, we supported one of my Trenton High students through college and then added his wife and her tuition, a car, and, eventually, their child. Of course, maintaining such a household wasn’t cheap, but it was an excellent investment. They earned degrees, got good jobs, and finally were on their own. Then the first car they bought was a new Land Rover. We were dismayed. Why something so ostentatious? Hadn’t we taught them not to waste money?

But it went deeper. I was reminded of the stereotype of black people and cars and felt a chill. Suddenly the young man who called me “Mom” was not like me: he didn’t share my values. For my husband it was a slap in the face. The person he’d been supporting at my request now drove a more expensive car than he’d ever owned. Given all the money he’d shelled out, the Land Rover should have and could have been hisif he’d wanted one. That Land Roversynonymous with being taken advantage of.

Now, in our conversation about helping this second young, black man with his car and EMT tuition, my husband uses words like “hand out” and “soft touch.” But is it a hand out or a hand up? Can we just leave someone to drown in depression, perhaps become suicidal? After all, pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps is physically impossible. You’d give him foodthe Trenton Area Soup Kitchen is one of our charities. But isn’t it better to teach him to fish? And won’t having a car to get him to class for EMT training be like teaching him to fish?

What about returning to the army? Sure, they’d look after him, but is that his choice? Isn’t the problem that poor people have so little choice? Wasn’t the army his only option when he graduated from Trenton High? How depressing to be back at square one!

What about getting a bang for our charity buck? We just saw a segment on the PBS Newshour comparing the cost effectiveness of vaccinating dozens of children versus delivering one baby in Nepal by C-section. Yes, but didn’t at least one doctor defend everyone’s right to health care? How can anyone say “No” face to face?

I, too, hate to feel used, but we had no contract that said, “You can’t buy a Land Rover with your own money.” Isn’t any investment, whether in people or the stock market, a risk? Is a gift with strings a gift? Is giving about the giver or the recipient?

The young man has told me that he will disappoint himself, as well as us, if he doesn’t complete the EMT course. I want to trust him. I do trust him. And finally, my husband trusts me. We’ll see.

Volunteering in Trenton

The following two articles were published in the Princeton Packet In October, 2015.  The first is by my writing instructor, Anne Neumann, the second by me.  We were both responding to a question about volunteering in Trenton that had been raised at a forum we attended together.  Our responses, however, are quite different.

Volunteering in Trenton

by Anne Waldron Neumann

On September 20 the Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) sponsored a panel on racism: a praiseworthy effort. But eight panel members and two topics—the Black Lives Matter movement generally and racism in Princeton specifically—made the resulting discussion somewhat disconnected and overly general.

Given two minutes each for initial comments, a Princeton historian got as far as black homeowners being displaced by Palmer Square in the early 1930s, and by Paul Robeson Place in the late 1950s. Young panel members described social media as disseminating both productive exchanges and vitriol. Ministers discussed religion’s role in overcoming racism. One panel member said that white people use “playing the race card” to mean taking unfair advantage, while black people know that race taints the entire deck.

Final questions for the panel were collected in writing. Several people asked about a clergyman’s suggestion that something like South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission could address Princeton’s racialist history. Someone else asked about Hillary Clinton’s belief that government can’t change hearts and minds. (“I don’t believe you change hearts. You change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate,” Ms. Clinton said.)

And one anonymous audience member, presuming extreme economic and therefore class disparities between many Princetonians and many Trentonians, asked how to be involved in Trenton in ways that “might be effective and comfortable.” Since none of the panel members addressed the question, the moderator asked the largely white audience instead.

As I see it, the question was both crucial and contradictory. Several audience members did describe volunteering in ways they found effective and comfortable: serving food in the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen, participating in “People and Stories,” and combining a passion with outreach by coaching soccer. But wouldn’t being meaningfully helpful in Trenton entail, for most white people, being profoundly uncomfortable? Wouldn’t it clarify both the disadvantages many Trentonians suffer and the white privilege that’s usually invisible?

“White privilege” includes systems that determine wealth over generations: going to the “right” school, acquiring the “right” cultural capital, getting the “right” job, and (probably, with your parents’ help) buying the “right” house—one that will never lose value precipitously. White privilege also includes seeming trivialities such as, if you’re well-spoken, never being called “articulate” and never being asked to be a spokesperson for your “race.”

Racial sensitivity training is designed to make white privilege visible. An African-American friend described participating in a well-known exercise in which workmates stepped forward if they’d ever been asked to show identification when paying by credit card, been stopped for driving too slowly (perhaps even in their own neighborhood), and so on. By the end of the exercise, the black employees had crossed the room while white ones had hardly budged.

It’s easy to think of ways to get white people across the room in this exercise: just ask the good opposite of the usual bad questions. If you don’t know any jokes about people like you, take a step forward. If you own your own silverware, take a step forward (take another step if it has at least three initials on each piece, and a baby step if the initials are from a previous generation).

But what about good things that might get black people across the room? Step forward if you can sit on your front porch and know a neighbor will stop by to chat. Or bad things that would cause white people to step forward? “If your child ever told you to f*** off and lived to tell the tale, take one giant step,” my friend suggested.

Clearly, cultural differences as well as economic ones may divide white and black folks. So, to return to the PCDO forum question, can privileged white people genuinely help underprivileged black people? White volunteers might give some black people more experiences—hopefully positive—of interacting with white people. White volunteers might gain experiences—surely sometimes painful—of interacting with black people. As I see it, volunteering in Trenton would at best change hearts and open minds.

I do think government can also help change hearts and minds. The presidency is a bully pulpit, after all. But, by and large, I’m with Hillary Clinton. Not that Princetonians shouldn’t volunteer in Trenton. But we need to change the laws and systems that determine how resources are allocated. We need, as Thomas Piketty argues, to tax not just return on capital but its possession. We need to make rent partly tax deductible, not just interest on mortgage payments.We need equal treatment under law enforcement. We need universal voter registration. We need campaign finance reform. We need voting districts set by bipartisan commissions.

In short, we need the healthful society that promotes healthful hearts and minds. We need to make volunteering in Trenton both comfortable and unnecessary.

Volunteering in Trenton, Part 2

by Chrystal Schivell

In last week’s “As I See It” column, Anne Neumann discussed a recent Princeton Community Democratic Organization (PCDO) panel “Getting Beyond Racism.” Like Anne, I was troubled by the question about “how to be involved in Trenton in ways that might be effective and comfortable.” As I listened to audience members mention TASK, “People and Stories,” and soccer, I remembered situations I’d encountered in my 23 years’ teaching at Trenton Central High School:

A young lady in Trenton High’s nursing program has prepared diligently for the test that will certify her as a nursing assistant and allow her to work in a hospital after graduation. The test is on a Saturday, and her father has agreed to drive her. The father fails to show up; a taxi is out of the question. She misses the test and is not certified.

Tamara, the vice-president of student government and a gifted student, is accepted at Syracuse University, her dream school. Buoyed by monetary awards she received at graduation, she attends freshman year. Back home, her mother is in a traffic accident, a new car is needed, and insurance rates go up. Tamara’s family can no longer afford Syracuse, and she enrolls at MCCC.

A Trenton High senior has been accepted at Georgetown and runs to show a black teacher the letter. “Why did you choose such an expensive school?” is her response, not “Bravo!” But she’s intuitive: no guidance counselor has explained to this bright young man how to apply for scholarships. His regal bearing belies his financial ignorance and need as the son of a single mom, recently arrived from Jamaica, who works as a domestic. At Georgetown, one week, his meal ticket runs out. He’s “hangry” (hungry and angry). Friends ask him to join them for drinks. He covers with “No, you guys run along. I have to study.” But he cannot study, cannot sleep. He remembers he has $4 in his bank account, but in those days the minimum withdrawal from an ATM is $5. He goes to the gym to work out, finds a $5 bill on the basketball court, buys a TV dinner, and credits God for his luck.

A colleague asks me whether I have any candle stubs. Her electricity has been cut off.

The effective help these people needed was moneyin some cases advicebut primarily money. Were the members of the forum’s audience aware of the need? Did they feel a need to address it?

“Trenton” is a code word for “poor black people.” Let’s examine what happens if we split “poor” and “black.” Probably we white Princetonians who become involved in Trenton see our involvement as enriching the lives of black folk. It soothes our guilt. But if, as panelists noted, race is a fictionwe are all members of the human racewould we be equally satisfied helping poor white people? Is our emphasis on poverty or race? I’ve known black teachers and counselors who cared little about enriching the lives of their black students; some even resented their success, jealous that the students might be getting ahead of them: “You’re from the projects. You’ll never become a doctor.” My point: effective involvement in Trenton means addressing its poverty.

Anne Neumann called for legal and systemic changes to lessen economic disparity. I agree, but meanwhile, for me, the disparity is immediate and has faces. A Trenton High colleague often said, “You can’t save all the whales,” his analogy for dealing with the poverty we witnessed. No, but my husband and I saved two.

My advice is to find among the poor children in “People and Stories” or on the soccer team one with whom you have a natural affinity. Ask permission of the parent(s) to become financially involved in their child’s life. If they agree, start with emergency funds for that taxi or TV dinner. Give your phone number and be prepared to drive the child to tests, science fairs, or out-of-state competitions. Suggest joining the parent(s) for parent-teacher conferences. When necessary, provide tutoring and pay for SAT, and AP tests. Invite the child to your homeand to Washington, New York, and Philadelphia. Use your experience to help the child plan for college and then check that the scholarship money and student loans really do cover the child’s needs. The list will go on: will you help with housing if the child goes to graduate school? What if the child needs a car to get to work? It’s the commitment that’s crucial—being there for that phone call if things go awry.

Money is never a comfortable topic. And if you treat your financially adopted child as you would treat your own child, you may find that you spend very generously. But you will have been effective. The enrichment you gave initially with soccer and “People and Stories” will enhance your adopted child’s futurenot dead end in frustration.

One of Our Own

My series “Overcoming Racism” feels pointless when today’s theme is “Black Lives Matter.” Since I began my blog a year ago, the country seems to have become more divided. Black people have been forced to take as their own every black male, regardless of his guilt or innocence, because law enforcement and the judiciary—from Ferguson and Chicago to New York and Baltimore—protect their own from scrutiny and responsibility.

I feel hopeless. Will white America interpret “Black Lives Matter” as divisive or as an appeal to make black folk our own? Can we expect professional organizations—police or teachers’ unions—to weed out those individuals whose actions defame their professions? (That Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby charged the six officers involved in Freddie Gray’s arrest offers some hope, but, sure enough, the Fraternal Order of Police immediately protested.) And when politicians are backed by billionaires and lobbyists, whose interests do they serve?

With admiration, I watch my husband grieve for the victims of the earthquake in Nepal as if they were his own. With impatience, I pass Trenton Central High School—surrounded by fencing since last fall but not yet demolished, much less rebuilt—and grieve for the year already lost to its students, who are now scattered around town in buildings without libraries, science labs, or gyms. Young minds matter. When will we care for the least among us as if they were our own?

This will be my last post for a while.