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.

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 – Understanding Black People (The Fallacy)

In our attempt to overcome the racism we’ve been taught, many of us older white liberals try to “understand” black people. I know I did. I went to teach at Trenton High believing that all the black teachers and administrators would be like Martin Luther King, Jr. They’d be devoted to improving the lives of their students. Eager to think the best of—but totally unfamiliar with—black people, I chose a stellar example to define my “they.” And whenever my colleagues turned out not to be clones of Dr. King, I was confused and disappointed.

White people who remain racist have often chosen a negative stereotype to describe black people. A childhood acquaintance who still lives in Greenwich, where I grew up, employed a black woman to look after her own children. Yet, when I visited and told her that I worked with black people, she said, “Isn’t it awful the way they raise their kids!” I was shocked by this racist comment. She certainly didn’t know enough black people to generalize about how “they” raised their kids. I also wondered why she hadn’t chosen the nanny she’d trusted for years as her definition of “they.”

My acquaintance and I were both misguided. We wouldn’t have tried to understand or describe white people. Why try with black people? What I didn’t recognize at the time was that, although my acquaintance was certainly racist, I exercised a more subtle form of racism myself. I wished that those black mothers who didn’t raise their children well would realize they were giving black people a bad name. “Don’t you know what white people are thinking?” was my silent plea. “Don’t you know how many of us generalize from individuals to groups, from ‘you’ to ‘they’?”

Liberal white folk don’t want to think badly of black people and so don’t like to be reminded that some black individuals actually do bad things. After Ferguson, I heard white friends complain that Michael Brown should have gotten out of the street, shouldn’t have used the “f” word, shouldn’t have taken those cigarettes, should have backed off. I think they complain partly because better behavior might have saved Michael Brown’s life but perhaps partly because, even though they side with Michael Brown, they would have preferred to support a model black teenager. Michael Brown’s aggressiveness makes them uncomfortable. Yet, if Michael Brown were their son’s troubled white friend (their own son, of course, would never lock horns with a cop), wouldn’t they overlook his behavior and concentrate only on the outrageous over-reaction of the police?

Black professionals know that, because of America’s history of racism, they must be better than their white counterparts to achieve the same success. We white liberals acknowledge that this pressure is unfair. Yet we pressure a Michael Brown or a black welfare mother because we fear that their behavior will feed the racism of other white people—and perhaps our own. That pressure is racist because we don’t ask the same of the in-your-face white teenager or white welfare mother. Their behavior is no reflection on us—unless, of course, black people generalize from the individual to the race, as many white people do. Yet if I don’t want to be held responsible for the actions of the Ku Klux Klan, I can’t expect a black person to be responsible for the behavior of other black people.

White people are good, bad, smart, dumb, beautiful and ugly, and so are black people. White people who’ve grown up in integrated communities know this from childhood. I didn’t. But, I was fortunate to work with a cross-section of black people. I learned it then.

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!