Category Archives: Culture and Society

Overcoming Racism – Understanding Black People (The Truth)

To understand what black people (at least in America) have in common, white people must recognize what we ourselves have in common: our privilege. From childhood, I knew I was privileged because Mother told me I was an aristocrat and better than even most other white people. As a child, I believed her. Although we were poor, I went to the best private schools on scholarship—in hand-me-down uniforms. And, when Greenwich friends invited me to their mansions and country clubs, where the only black people were employees, I learned I was more privileged than black people, too. When my grandmother died, we inherited wealth amassed by generations before us, including wealth from an ancestor who, though a Northerner, had sold tent canvas to Southern rebels during the Civil War. Inheriting is like winning the lottery, but it is an advantage, like education, denied to a people who started as slaves and were later limited to share-cropping and menial jobs.

Many white people don’t enjoy my particular privileges, but, whether or not we realize it, we whites all enjoy privileges black people don’t. Peggy McIntosh’s well-known White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack lists 50 examples, such as, “Whether I use checks, credit cards or cash, I can count on my skin color not to work against the appearace of financial reliability” and “I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.” My favorite is, “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.” It mirrors my last post about white people’s misguided eagerness to “understand” black people based on characteristics.

Black people don’t share characteristics any more than white people do. But black people do share experiences—the experience of being second-class citizens, just as white people share privilege. To understand black people we must recognize that all have experienced—or anticipate experiencing—an inequity based on color. Some are blatant lies—”Sorry, the apartment was just rented.” Some are what are now called microagressions—”I never see you as a black girl.” Each item on Peggy McIntosh’s list represents an instance in which a black person is not treated as well as someone who’s white. Her list reminds us that, in a society still dominated by white males, only white men can feel entirely comfortable. If we want to understand black people, we must acknowledge the truth of these experiences.

The black experience is unlike that of other immigrants in America. Black people were the only immigrants to come here against their will rather than to escape famine and persecution or to find better jobs. Marriage among slaves could be forbidden; mothers, fathers, and children could be split apart and sold to different slave owners; learning to read was risky. Their color made them stand out. Few blacks could elude the slave catcher. Nor could they elude the prevailing myth, designed to justify their enslavement, that black people were inferior. The free labor provided by slavery was the foundation of the South’s economy. Southern cotton fed Northern mills, and America profited. The economic benefits and social evils of slavery, whether in America or elsewhere, cannot be denied.

The painful legacy of slavery and its economic benefits persists in the perception that black people are different from, if not inferior to, other groups—even that they require well-intentioned “understanding.” And, not surprisingly, the people in power since colonial times—white men—want to keep their power. Thus racism persists as a strong undercurrent in politics and the economy. Black people know they can occasionally expect to be treated as second-class citizens. And Africans who’ve just arrived in the States, even those who are wealthy and unfamiliar with racism, learn the same lesson. After all, only white men can feel entirely comfortable, knowing that they will be considered for employment and certain they will never be told that towels are needed in the restroom.

Understanding black people means acknowledging America’s history of white power and black enslavement. Some black people emphasize our painful legacy: “America was built on the backs of our people.” To them, I can’t say “Get over it,” even though I’d like to spare myself a guilt that I, as an individual, feel I don’t deserve. I can’t dismiss those individuals who see themselves as victims because black people, by virtue of their color, are victims of America’s history, just as white people, like me, are beneficiaries. Other black people adopt a “Let’s move on” attitude. That attitude is easier on me, but I shouldn’t assume it means we’ve reached a post-racial society. The past remains alive in Ferguson and on Wall Street. The “Let’s move on” advocates know that much work remains before black people are assured of first-class citizenship. If we want to understand black people, we must be prepared, as we listen to each black person we meet, to accept the validity of either perspective.

Overcoming Racism – Responding to Groups

This is the first in a series of blogs on overcoming racism. Although I’m no expert, I believe that I’ve made progress in recognizing and overcoming my own racism. Perhaps some of my insights will be useful.

Some of my liberal white friends have recently confided that they are afraid of groups of black teenagers. Perhaps they’re revealing their secret now because the police brutality in Ferguson and New York has made them examine their own racism. Perhaps they tell me because they think that I, having worked at Trenton High, will be able to help them deal with their guilt. I’ll try.

Fear of a large group of young people seems to me a commonsense response in some circumstances. So my advice about deciding whether the fear is racist is to ask, “Would I feel the same if the group were of my own race?”

Plenty of black people are afraid of black gangs. A black friend from Princeton was passing out pamphlets in Washington, DC when a group of black teenagers approached. She and her daughter ran to their car, jumped in, and locked the doors. Our janitor at Trenton High, a black resident of Trenton, armed himself with a sawed off weed-whacker for his walk home. He needed it to ward off teenage muggers. An old lady was rolled by a bunch of black girls on crack just last week!

We wouldn’t call the janitor or my black friend racist. And if I crossed the street to avoid an unruly crowd of white kids, I wouldn’t be accused of racism.

A white friend of mine rode her bike to K-Mart but didn’t lock it because a group of black kids was standing near the bike rack. Locking it would show that she didn’t trust them, and that would be racist. The bike was stolen. I bet that, if the group of kids had been white, she would have locked the bike. I also bet that a black biker would have locked her bike regardless of the race of the kids. Sometimes, in our eagerness not to be seen as racist, we overlook common sense.

My black male friends are deeply hurt and offended when white people cross the street, tuck up their handbags, and show similar distrust of them. After all, white people don’t behave like that when passing other white people. Likewise, my black female friends resent being “helped” more than white shoppers when browsing in clothing stores.

Such differential treatment is racist and sometimes backfires. At a sporting goods store, a group of black teenagers came to exchange a pair of sneakers. They showed the cashier the sales slip, but, as they set off for the sneaker department, the code for “Watch out for shoplifters” came over the PA. Meanwhile a group of white teenagers, wearing trench coats and boots in spite of the warm June weather, had entered the store. While the store’s personnel followed the black kids, the white kids walked out with stashes of pilfered items under their coats.

Our reaction to groups of another race is often used as a litmus test for racism, but I question the validity of the test. Isn’t it natural, even atavistic, to distrust groups in general? Compare, for example, our inborn reaction to meeting a pack of dogs versus meeting just one dog. Groups do differ from individuals. Wariness of a “gang” of teenagers may be especially justified. The teenage brain is not fully developed. There’s peer pressure. Someone makes a dare. The group provides anonymity and support.

So, to my liberal white friends, I say, “Don’t worry about groups.” Instead, catch yourself whenever you think or speak about black people as if all were alike – a “they.” Give individuals who are black the same respect you give whites. And, while examining your own racism, notice the institutional racism that’s all around us. That racism is far more insidious and deserves our attention.

The Manger Test

This past Christmas, while thinking about my next blog, I envisioned an experiment that I call “the manger test.” Imagine that you’re walking around town enjoying the colorful Christmas lights and brightly decorated store windows. You pass a church whose life-size nativity scene invites you to approach the statues of Mary, Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. You lean in to see Jesus and find a perfectly proportioned black doll, his curly hair adorned with a halo.

Your first reaction, whether you’re black or white, is probably surprise. Although paintings of a black Madonna and child exist, we’re accustomed to a white baby Jesus in our public nativity scenes. You might then question the historical accuracy of a black baby Jesus. But, since we also know that the historical Jesus wasn’t the blond-haired, blue-eyed white baby of many nativity scenes, why consider historical accuracy at all? The manger test asks how you feel about a black Jesus. If you’re Christian, can you accept this black baby as God’s gift to man, as His son and your savior?

I find my manger test disturbing and enlightening. For me, all babies are beautiful, pure, and full of promise. A black baby Jesus is unusual, but I think I could accept Him. However, little boys grow up into men. I realize that I cannot imagine a black adult male on the cross. Why not? Perhaps because I’ve seen so many crucifixions of a dark-haired, brown-eyed Jesus with either ghostly white or olive complexion, but never a black one. Why is it that historical accuracy weighs more heavily with the crucifixion than the nativity? After all, I accept that in numerous paintings of the Madonna and child Jesus is a blond.

It’s more pertinent to ask whether I could accept an ebony Jesus on the cross. I confess it would take work. But why should race or ethnicity matter? Christians worship a once-living person whose physical appearance was never described. Do we have to make him look like us?

The manger test reveals traces of a deeply rooted racism that I thought I’d conquered, and it challenges me to weed them out. But, if the historical Jesus really had been a black man, imagine how that would have affected perceptions of race today!

Fear and Ferguson

Fear is not professional. Teachers and police who fear members of their community should never have been hired. We damage the very people we are supposed to serve; we damage our professions and ourselves.

Officer Darren Wilson was probably raised to fear black men. I do not hold him entirely accountable for his fear because I was raised to look down on black people, to see them as different from me, which is a form of fear. As children, Darren and I didn’t know any better. American society is responsible for our fear.

But someonethe certification board, our supervisors, and ourselvesshould have screened us for fear before hiring us as professionals. I thought I’d screened myself. During the civil rights movement, I’d rebelled against my upbringing. Although I knew few black people, I was sure they all were good but had been treated unjustly. I applied to Trenton High to help their cause. I did not anticipate the visceral fear I’d feel when surrounded by black faces. And nothing in the certification process or interview revealed my fear. Here is the story, taken from my book, of how I slipped through.

It was almost Labor Day when the Trenton School District offered me a job based on my application alone. I had the choice of an elementary school position and one at the high school. I chose the high school and went for an interview with the special education supervisor, Mr. Lorenzo Dupont. Mr. Dupont, a robust, fatherly white man who wore a short-sleeved white shirt, gray slacks, and an enormous key ring at his belt, stood waiting. A dark-skinned man in his forties, dressed in a Hawaiian aloha shirt, sat at Mr. Dupont’s desk. He seemed tired and distracted. Mr. Dupont introduced him as Dr. Hopfield, the principal. Dr. Hopfield asked me one question: Had I ever had experience in an inner city school?

My mind raced back over my career. I had taught in one city. Among my 120 English students, I’d had the children of blue-collar workers and one girl who was black. They’d resisted literature. “Why do I need this? I’m going to be a butcher like my father.” I didn’t know if the school qualified as “inner” city, but it had been a challenge.

I looked into Dr. Hopfield’s weary eyes and told him I’d worked in Woburn, Massachusetts. Dr. Hopfield nodded, gave Mr. Dupont his consent to hire me, asked that I do my best for the students, and left the office. I’d had my interview with the principal. Mr. Dupont skipped his chance to interview me and led me to my classroom.

Dr. Hopfield must have suspected my fear, but he had a vacancy to fill. Was there such urgency when Darren Wilson was hired for the Ferguson police force, or is fear the norm in Ferguson? And if fear is the norm, would Officer Wilson have tried to conquer it?

I knew I was afraid. I discovered my fear the first time I encountered a throng of black students innocently returning from lunch. I struggled to hide it and thought I was succeeding until the following incident forced me to become a professional.

Even as I romanticized the problems of the inner city, the thought that I might be physically threatened never occurred to me. But one day that fall, I found myself trapped at the back of my classroom by a new student. Large, firm breasts were inches from my face. Dark eyes looked down mockingly, “Try and get past me,” they implied. I made a move toward the intercom by the door. She pressed in more boldly. She seemed to revel in her power over me. The other students, all young men, sat watching us. Embarrassed and desperate, I yelled for the teacher in the next room. She heard me and came in. The young woman took her seat, and I passed to my desk. Nothing more was said.

My vulnerability scared me. I wasn’t used to students being bigger than I was. Big and black . . . . No. Nojust big. What had started it? Why had I lost control? My failure as a teacher scared me more.

Maybe the incident hadn’t really been a threat, just a test. After all, the young woman hadn’t actually touched me. The other students hadn’t banded together to jump me. I’d been tested by students before, though never so openly, and I’d won. Surely, I could do it again.

But the memory of those defiant breasts wouldn’t go away. A woman’s breasts. So much bigger than mine. The confrontation had meant more than just testing the new teacher. A woman’s breasts . . . on a child. A child . . . . What if the child had been trying to find someone to respect and rely on? Someone stronger, so she could put down the responsibilities carried by the woman? If so, I had failed as an adult. My job was to protect that child from finding out that she was more powerful than an adult. She didn’t need to grow up that fast. Maybe she’d tested me because she’d already been made to grow up too fast. I vowed to embrace these children.

Once I embraced my adulthood, the fear was gone. I could then embrace my students. In my 23 years at Trenton High, I was rarely tested by one of my own students and never again lost control. If only Darren Wilson had recognized Michael Brown as the teenager that he was!

Of course, in the halls or auditorium, where students were protected by anonymity, I didn’t have the same control. Kids often spoke with disrespect when I urged them to go to class or sit quietly“You’re not our teacher, “ “Mind your own business,” or “Who do you think you are? Security?”but rarely the “F” word. Trenton High kids didn’t curse, and the “F” word was considered cursing.

I learned another lesson in professionalism: don’t expect respect; earn it by showing respect. Although it was easy to earn respectand compliancefrom my own students (many were overwhelmed that I’d bothered to learn their names), it was difficult in the halls. I learned to interpret disrespect as just a few teens showing off to their peers the power that anonymity bestows. My job was to remain respectful and keep on urging their best behavior.

It was all about anonymity. For a time, girls wore gold earrings the size of index cards with the name of the wearer stenciled in. They were a big help with discipline. “Tonya, it’s time to go to class.” Tonya would whip around, indignant, “How’d you know my name!” But Tonya would start moving to class. When Trenton High divided into small learning communities where teachers knew all the students, discipline problems in the halls vanished.

What did Darren Wilson really say when he found Michael Brown walking in the street? Even if Wilson was originally as polite as he testified, I can hardly believe that Michael Brown’s alleged “fuck what you have to say” was, as Wilson testified, “a very unusual and not expected response from (sic) a simple request” and thus one that drew his attention to Brown. Why was the response “unusual” when Wilson said that he himself later told Brown to “get the fuck back.” Professionals don’t use “fuck;” they don’t need to. But they are not surprised when others do, and they don’t respond to the disrespect. Wilson could have waited for the back-up he’d called for. Better yet, community policing, where officers try to get to know the residents, could have reduced the anonymity that allowed the confrontation.

We ask our doctors to be professional. We require years of education and trainingcut by cut, stitch by stitchunder the watchful eyes of a series of licensed practitioners until confidence replaces fear. Otherwise, doctors could kill us. Shouldn’t we require more trainingand under a variety of supervisorsfor our teachers, who can kill our spirit, and for our police, who carry guns?

When Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch announced that the St. Louis grand jury had found that “no probable cause existed to file any charge against Officer Wilson,” he explained that “the law allows all people to use deadly force in certain situations.” The law needs revision. Those situations cannot include fear because someone doesn’t look like us, because someone doesn’t jump at our command. None of us should be excused. But keeping an illegal chokehold on someone already on the ground, pleading for breath, cannot be excused. When handcuffs, mace, a TASER, or even a gunshot to the leg would do the job, killing is not professional.

Society must demand higher standards. Unions must protect themselves by holding all members to those standards. And Officer Pantaleo of the NYPD must face criminal charges for what the medical examiner, a brave professional, called a homicide.

Fairness versus Family

It’s 10:00PM. The deadline is 11:59, but I still haven’t received from one of the candidates her responses to the League of Women Voters’ questionnaire that I sent fourteen days ago. I leave my lap top and head to bed, praying that she will make the deadline. Otherwise, I face a difficult decision.

I know the candidate’s child came down with a fever and stayed home from school today. Family first! I should give her a break…. But what about the League’s policy of fairness to all candidates: the same word limit, deadline, and time allowed for answering the questions? Out of fairness to all, when setting the deadline, I take into account weekends and the Jewish holidays, which always interrupt election season. And I know that the other candidates also have family health issues and constraints like moving. Couldn’t this candidate have started on the questionnaire earlier?

How to tell a sweet person, a loving mother that her responses will not be included in the Voters’ Guide because, in nursing her child, she missed a deadline? But, if I give her a break, am I not damaging the League’s reputation for impartiality? Isn’t what makes fairness fair allowing no excuses? I return to my laptop and whip off an appeal. “The hardest thing about League is that fairness to all candidates means I cannot give any one candidate any slack. So I hope you can email your written responses before the 11:59 deadline tonight.”

Family first, the mantra at Trenton High School. I was a misfit because I couldn’t understand why my mentor, during my first year of teaching, missed the first eight days of school. Unprofessional! Or why my aide missed class to get shoes dyed for her daughter’s wedding. Perhaps I didn’t understand because my family and I enjoyed good health, and I got my shoes dyed on a weekend. I retired with a year’s worth of unused sick days, and when I was hospitalized for a week, I demanded and got a substitute whom I trusted to make my kids work and wrote lesson plans from my bed.

Is it just me? Uptight? Maybe, but this summer I was the person who looked after a paralyzed friend because her family could not. They had jobs and nothing was going to get in the way of their going to work. They couldn’t afford to get fired or lose their pensions. I understand that. But what if there had been no one to look after my friend, trapped in bed, hungry, soiled, and at the mercy of fire? What if a sick child is crying while Mommy tries to compose responses to a League questionnaire? How to give a break to a misguided teenager without teaching him that he can depend on getting breaks? What about the unemployed father who steals bread to feed his family?

It’s morning. I approach my lap top with trepidation. I read a subject line, “Candidate Questionnaire Response.” The time recorded is 11:50PM. I’m saved! An accompanying email says, “Thanks for the tough love.”

Back to Blogging

I said I’d be away a few weeks, but it’s been two months. Vacation, family visits, and voter service have intervened. And what can I say after Ferguson? Such fear and force. What worth have my words when Shias, Sunnis, Syria, ISIS, climate change and Ebola dominate the news?
Can I believe that if more than 6% of the eligible African-American voters in Ferguson had voted in the last election – if an appropriate candidate had put his or her name on the ballot – a black man would not have been killed? Sadly, no. Our history of racism, the current economic depression, and a fascination with tanks instead of TASERs complicate the issue. But the vote is a powerful weapon. And since I hate settling conflicts with guns, I will be taking the next few weeks off from blogging to continue working for the League of Women Voters.
And if any readers have the courage to run for office but don’t know how, here’s a link: http://www.njwow2014.com/ Many institutions offer free workshops on running and winning. It’s certainly harder to gain power by winning an election than by buying a gun, but it’s so much more civil.

The Subliminal Curriculum – Beautification

A well-meaning pre-school teacher decided her class would make headdresses as a project for Thanksgiving. She cut headbands and lots of colorful feathers from construction paper, showed the children how to glue the feathers to the headband, and then stapled the finished bands to fit their heads. Perfect!

Undoubtedly the pre-schoolers were not aware of the project’s hidden lessons—its subliminal curriculum—nor perhaps was the teacher. Subliminal curricula are not openly intended. But, in addition to perpetuating a stereotypical image of Native Americans, the project suggested that there is one right way to make a headdress and that pre-schoolers cannot choose colors nor draw feathers, much less be entrusted with scissors or staplers. Perhaps gluing was the only age-appropriate and safe skill for a class of three-year-olds. My point is that this project is an example of the subliminal curriculum.

I saw a far more devastating example of the subliminal curriculum at Trenton Central High School when our new principal decided to beautify the entrance hall so that visitors on their way to the main office would be impressed. She placed potted plants on the window sills, installed colorful doormats that read “Working Towards a Future,” and mandated that no student be seen near the main office. A security guard was placed at the junction of the main building and each of its wings. All day long they directed students to go around through the back of the building to get to the opposite wing or to the cafeteria, even though the shortest route was straight across. Because the lunch schedule for each small learning community differed, students on their way to the cafeteria, happily babbling with each other after hours of study, had to walk by classrooms where lessons were in progress. If the students from each wing had been allowed to use the central hall to reach stairs leading to the cafeteria, they would not have had to pass any classrooms, just offices and lounges.

Trenton High’s entrance hall, with its high ceiling, columns, and chandelier, was already beautiful. The plants were a lovely addition. Although the message on the doormats seemed ambiguous to me, I found the message to students clear: you’re not good enough to be seen in your own school. I doubt, however, that students got that message. There was no organized protest against the avoid-the-main-hall rule. A few kids even enjoyed trying to sneak past security into the forbidden zone. I wonder what impression the bellowed “Get back here” made on visitors.

Another hidden lesson was that making the school look good was more important than creating a quiet learning environment. And, of course, the beautification was not intended to be enjoyed by students.

At Trenton High, students and learning often came second to looking good to outsiders. The principal was praised widely in the press for her collaboration with Xerox to acquire the duplicating facility that I wrote about in my blog on vocational education. We on the inside knew how few students it trained. But I was grateful for the Xerox employee who worked there; my duplicating problems were solved.

I have other examples of the subliminal curriculum, but readers will have to wait a few weeks while I take a vacation.