Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sherrod, One More Time

If you’ve been listening, watching, or reading the news at all this week you’re probably tired of hearing about the Shirley Sherrod fiasco by now. (In case you haven’t been watching, here’s what happened – an exposé style blogger, Andrew Breitbart, posted a brief video clip of an African American USDA official named Shirley Sherrod saying that she did not fully assist a farmer in need because he was white. Big hoopla, Ms. Sherrod denounced by NAACP and White House, forced to resign. Turns out the clip was taken out of context – the incident was decades ago, and Ms. Sherrod had recognized her own prejudice and helped the farmer to save his farm. More big hoopla, lots of apologies, Ms. Sherrod offered new job.)

This story has more layers than the onion I’m about to add to my potato salad (I really am making potato salad today). Why was the video posted? Why were leaders, both white and African American, so quick to speak and act? Why do charges of “reverse racism” rise to the top so quickly? Research shows that many whites feel racially victimized by affirmative action policies, among other things, and stories like this confirm and validate these feelings. If I’m honest, I’ll admit that I’ve sensed that little, “Ah-ha, you see!” at stories of whites being treated unfairly – maybe some of you have sensed it, too. In terms of the African American leadership who jumped on the story, I imagine they felt much like my mother when JFK ran for office – although Catholic, she didn’t vote for him because she feared a Catholic President, in avoiding favoritism, would ultimately hurt Catholics.

But I’d like to suggest we see the Sherrod story as a metaphor for how many of us view policies related to race. We saw a brief clip and passed judgment (that’s not fair! she’s racist!) without knowing what came before or after. We see a college scholarship that whites are not eligible for and pass judgment (that’s racist!) without knowing the context – the decades, the centuries of racism that excluded all but whites from institutions of higher education. We hear of a firefighters’ exam that was thrown out by the city of New Haven because African Americans failed, and shout, racist! without knowing of the history of discrimination in that city. Yes, fairness is important. But judgment without context can never be fair.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Was Michael Jackson Still Black?

Strange question, right? But it made perfect sense to the thirteen-year-old who asked it: if race is determined by phenotype (especially, in his mind, skin color), was Michael Jackson, whose skin was as light as many white people’s, still black? My first reaction was to brush the question aside with a quick response, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized what a very good question it was.

We know through recent studies of the human genome that the genetic variation among people of any given race is greater than that of people between races -- in other words, I may be more genetically different from a white person than I am from an African American or Asian person. Some may say that this is proof positive that race doesn’t matter – in fact, biologically speaking, there’s no such thing as race. No need for further talk, and please, shut down the blog! Still, my answer to the question was, of course, yes -- regardless of skin tone, Michael Jackson was still black. Why? Because while it’s true that race isn’t biologically significant, it certainly has been and still is socially significant. What’s more, the social significance of race in America was created and maintained by whites with one clear purpose – to maintain the place of power in society.

So Michael Jackson was still black. Race still matters. And we still need to talk.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

You can run, but you can't hide

Madeleine L'Engle writes, "If you are an artist, regardless of your religion, everything you do is your witness. You cannot hide what you are." I've been working on a children's fiction project this summer -- a modern-day reworking of a familiar rags-to-riches theme. My main character is a young boy named Ryan, who is biracial. I needed to create a situation that leaves Ryan somewhat destitute (like Sara Crewe in A Little Princess). When I completed my first draft, I asked an African American friend to read it. She pointed out what I already knew, but couldn't quite bring myself to admit -- in my story I'd recreated several stereotypes about African American males. Of course, I was horrified.

My point? As L'Engle said, I cannot hide what I am. I'm white. No matter how hard I try, those prejudices and stereotypes that come with my whiteness emerge, and all I can do is to ask for help when I need it. If I were colorblind, though, I wouldn't know enough to ask.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

What I Didn't Say

Facebook friends might remember a post of mine from about a year ago describing an ethical dilemma of sorts. On my way into the supermarket one early Saturday morning, a thin, strung-out looking woman approached me. She flashed a veteran’s I.D., explaining that she needed some money for gas in order to get to the V.A. hospital several miles away. Her hands and voice shook as she spoke. Should I give her some cash? I wondered. I come from NYC, where cynicism is a way of life. (Note – I was raised by a woman whose favorite summer saying was “Mr. Softee is a crook.”) Somewhere I’d heard never to give strangers money because they would probably use it to buy alcohol or drugs. Still, I wanted to be a good Samaritan – what if she were telling the truth? So, reluctantly, I pulled out a twenty (the only bill I had) and gave it to the woman, who thanked me profusely and drove away. My facebook post asked, should I or shouldn’t I have given her the cash?

Did you assume that the woman in the story was white? Since I didn’t mention her race, you probably did (a topic for a future blog), and if so, you were correct. What I didn’t have the courage to post at the time, but what I still wonder is this – would I have given her the money if she hadn’t been white? Would I have even engaged in conversation with her, or would I have waved her away and kept walking?

Author Lee Anne Bell notes that, “though mediated by class, gender, age, sexual orientation and other factors, whiteness accrues benefits.”* Although she seemed troubled in other ways, the woman that approached me possessed one unearned benefit – her whiteness, which made her feel safer to me. So, the question remains, would I have helped her if she hadn’t been white? I’m not sure, but it’s worth thinking about.

*Storytelling for Social Justice, p. 30.