Category Archives: Black/White Issues

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.

Overcoming Racism – Recognizing Sensationalism

To make sense of our universe, we categorize. I needed to see all black adults as clones of Dr. Martin Luther King, to put them in a favorable box. Likewise, I needed to see my Trenton High School students as good. Interestingly, one of the security guards at Trenton High, a person of color who also categorized, tried to make sure I did. In my first week, she told me,“My kids are good kids,” her gesture encompassing every kid in school. Perhaps she was afraid I’d pegged them as bad or difficult. After all, most suburban people, white and black, called me a saint for working at Trenton High. They read The Trentonian, whose masthead was “Love us, hate us, read us.” Some of the school’s negative press was valid, but a mild disturbance in the cafeteria would likely be reported in an inflammatory front-page headline.

Sometimes, The Trentonian had a point. During a summer vacation in Hawaii, I picked up two volcanic rocks for my earth science class. I’d heard about Pele’s revenge – the streak of bad luck inflicted by Pele, the goddess of fire, for taking them – but I figured it was only two rocks and for a good cause. Then my father-in-law developed cancer, my daughter broke up with her boyfriend, the refrigerator failed, and my husband’s brand new car was stolen from our driveway and totaled during the police chase that followed. That September, back at Trenton High, I was telling my first-period class about Pele’s revenge when a young man piped up, “Was it a red Accord?”
I gasped, “How did you know?”
The young man explained that as part of an initiation he and other black friends had been required to go to Princeton in the dead of night to steal Hondas, but he said earnestly, “We would never have taken it, Mrs. Schivell, if we’d known it was yours!”

In contrast, my wallet was stolen at Trenton High on two occasions―in spite of the fact that my students knew it was mine. The first time was when I floated among rooms. I had to leave my purse temptingly visible on the teacher’s desk because the desk wasn’t mine, and the drawers were locked. My principal, who was black, advised me to put my purse out of sight, but where? My wallet vanished when I was called out of the room for a minute, but I didn’t notice until class was over. The next day, I chastised the four members of the class, one of whom had to have been responsible and all of whom knew who was. “I trusted you!” I protested. No one confessed. Their spokesman told me I’d been asking for it.

Perhaps these students, unlike my car thief, had little affection for me. I’d just returned from a year’s furlough and hadn’t had time to rebuild my reputation. On the other hand, the young woman who most likely took my wallet on the second occasion may have had other motives. She’d returned to the classroom after school was over, while I was tutoring one of the young men from her class. My purse was on a chair, out of sight under my desk. She walked over to the chair, then turned and played at the chalkboard behind my desk, and finally left, saying to the young man that she’d wait for him so they could take the bus together. Focused on tutoring, I paid little attention to her. But later, when the young man had gone, her strange behavior triggered my suspicions, and I checked my purse. She was picked up and searched by security, but no wallet was found. The young man was not searched. Two days later, a bus driver returned the wallet—missing only cash. Perhaps she took the wallet because she wanted to impress the young man or because they were in cahoots or perhaps because she wanted to get back at me for being hard on her in my attempt to elicit her best efforts in class.

But what about all the other classes? Even in my own room, I often forgot to hide my purse; yet hundreds of students over my 23 years at Trenton High were not tempted. For these hundreds of students I have no stories. Respect for property doesn’t make for stories, doesn’t beg for a motive. Ironically, we don’t ask kids why they behave well, just why they behave badly. The deviant “you asked for it” or “stealing’s OK except from friends” seems more interesting.

It did feel weird to know a car thief and to have him point out in the auditorium the young man, his arm in a cast, who’d driven and totaled my husband’s Accord. Such stories make titillating cocktail party conversation, as does the one about the young man who flashed a $50 bill when I gave him his free lunch tickets—just to show he was gaming the system. But I and the media are guilty of sensationalism when we tell these stories. So are the people who want to read them. The truth is reassuringly boring: although a very few Trenton High students couldn’t be trusted, most were good kids, just as the security guard promised.

Overcoming Racism – Making “Black Friends”

White folks who genuinely don’t want to be racist want to have black friends. The wish is understandable and laudable. But, in the movie Dear White People, the wish becomes a joke: “THIS JUST IN: ‘Dear white people: the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.’”

It sounds artificial to “make black friends” because it is. It ignores the natural process that results in friendship. You can’t go out and pick up black people to become friends. First you need a broad spectrum of acquaintances—fellow workers, volunteers who share your passion, devotees of bridge, tennis, or another activity. You need to spend time with them. Among these acquaintances you eventually find some who share your values and with whom you feel comfortable. They become your friends, whether white or black.

Sadly, many of us older white folks—especially those who live in exclusive communities, who are now retired, and who went to mostly white universities—lack that spectrum of black acquaintances. Even if you know a handful of black people, you can’t expect that one of them will like you or that you will like one of them. The process doesn’t work that way. If you do find a black person with whom you have much in common, you may feel gratified, even justifiably proud. The irony is that saying—or even thinking—“my black friend” is racist (or at least racialist). You don’t have “white friends.” And, until you have several friends of color, you may be lured into thinking that the characteristics of your one black friend define black people. It’s a regrettable catch-22 that’s best solved by greater integration in the first place.

Whether or not we have black friends is perhaps not a valid measure of our racism but rather of our isolation. And if we can’t break out of our isolation, it’s probably phony to try to make “black friends.” Instead we can show we’re not racist by remembering our privilege, voting for candidates who stand for equality, and donating to organizations that work to erase the legacy of racism.

I was lucky to work at Trenton High School, where half the staff was black. Although I was friendly with almost everyone, it isn’t surprising that my closest friends—people I invite to my home or my children’s wedding or with whom I spend hours talking or shopping—are the teachers I saw most often. They either shared my classroom, or they were colleagues in student government or on the faculty senate and school management team. But, of course, these friends are different from each other. They are people—mostly women—with whom something indefinable clicked. That is true for white friends and black friends.

Making friends who are black was a natural process, but it took me years to allow myself to admit—even to myself—that there were some black colleagues I had no respect for, even disliked. I was too afraid of being racist or being seen as racist. “Remember,” I told myself, “one should not think badly of black people.” So I choked down my dismay and anger if black teachers strolled into class ten minutes late, made their students accompany them to the central office so they could pick up their paychecks, or deserted their class to nap in the ladies’ lounge. But I should have known all along that black people are as good or as bad as white people. Once I knew, I realized it’s as natural to dislike someone who’s black as someone who’s white.

Why make friends who are black—or Asian, South American, from India, etc.? Certainly they make life richer because they’re different: exotic food, interesting stories from childhood, and new faiths and points of view. But we can’t be friends because they are Indian or Asian. That’s racist and self-serving. We can’t be friends in spite of the fact that they’re Jewish or black. That’s racist and disparages the whole person. In the natural process, friendship must and will erode whatever bias we may have held against a person’s color, culture, or religion. For me, making friends with classmates who I later found out were Jewish destroyed the prejudice against Jews instilled by my mother. Their friendship then opened the door to others, and life became richer.

Perhaps “making” friends is the wrong word. If we’re lucky, we “find” friends among the people around us—like stumbling on the treasure that is friendship. Finding friends requires opportunity and openness. And when we find a friend, we acknowledge, accept, and enjoy differences—whether of gender, religion, culture, or temperament—while at the same time hardly noticing them as differences. They are just aspects of our friend.