Monday, May 11, 2015

Racism: Tackling a Difficult Topic with Youth*

Over my many years of discussing the topic of race with college students I’ve noticed the prevalence of certain themes that arise in my conversations with whites.

1. While there are still a few racist people around – (and it’s because they’re older. They can’t really help it. This really freaks me out when I realize that the people in question may very well be younger than I am) – racism is over and was solved by the Civil Rights Movement, Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream,” and all that.

2. If anything, it’s white people who are victims of racism through affirmative action policies. Students usually bring up the unfairness of “minority scholarships” here.

3. We should strive to be colorblind because talking about race just makes it worse.

When I did my dissertation research among high school students a few years ago I found that the very same attitudes prevailed. What interested me most was that these attitudes existed among white students who held close friendships with students of color. I discovered that in the midst of these friendships there was a great chasm regarding belief about the topic of racism.

Over the past few years this chasm seemed to widen over the shootings of unarmed youth like Trayvon Martin in Florida and Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. I noticed that opinions about these incidents are highly polarized among white and black people, even in places like churches where diverse groups of people share religious beliefs and maintain close friendships.

Although I wrote The R Word before these events took place, my purpose was to explore this phenomenon. The R Word tells the story of Rachel Matrone, an Italian American, suburban teenager who is being raised by her grandparents and police detective uncles. Rachel, like many of the youth I’ve talked to, believes racism is over and is happy she lives in a world where everyone is equal. Rachel’s ideas about race are challenged, however, when she forms friendships with youth of color and begins to see the world from their perspectives. She becomes especially close with an African American boy named Henry. One afternoon around Christmas time, unbeknownst to her family, Rachel takes a ride with Henry in his broken down car, and they are pulled over by a white police officer. While Henry is visibly shaken by the encounter, Rachel soon recognizes the officer as an acquaintance of her uncle and responds to his questions impatiently.  After the cop lets them go with a warning, Rachel’s only concern is that her uncle will find out she’s with Henry, while Henry is upset for a totally different reason. Here’s the conversation that follows:

(Henry speaking):
“Do you have any idea what happened back there?”
“You mean the cop? I told you, it’s okay. I don’t care if he tells my uncle. I’m kind of glad, in a way.”
“Your uncle? Your uncle! Who cares about your uncle? You could have gotten me into serious trouble back there!”
Henry hardly ever raised his voice, but he was getting louder with every word. Rachel tried to understand.
“What are you talking about? You didn’t do anything wrong.”
“You just don’t get it, do you? You don’t have to do anything wrong to get in trouble. It’s called DWB—driving while black.”
“You heard me. When a black kid, especially a guy, gets pulled over by a white cop, there’s a certain way to act to avoid trouble. You gotta be respectful, and quiet. You don’t give the cop any excuse to go off on you, and the last thing you want to do is smart-mouth him and try to stare him down. Are you crazy?”
Rachel thought back to the incident at the mall while shopping for Sister Gloria’s wallet. “Oh,” she said. “I’m sorry. I guess I forgot.”
Henry sighed, and Rachel felt some of his anger dissolve. “Rachel, there’re certain rules you can’t forget when you’re with me.”
“But you act like every cop is out to get you.” She thought about her uncles. “They’re not all racist, you know.”
“I know that, and I’m not saying they are. But you never know, and you don’t want to take a chance. Why do you think my family’s always warning me to be careful, especially when
I’m driving in a white area? Did you think they’re afraid I’ll trip and skin my knee?”
“Are you saying your family doesn’t trust white people?” Rachel felt herself getting defensive. “Isn’t that racist, too?”
“Call it whatever you want. There’s reasons. It’s reality.”

The conversation ends there and the two drive on to Henry’s house, where they spend the afternoon decorating his Christmas tree with his family. Rachel remains perplexed about Henry’s reaction, though, and later that day they meet up with some friends for a movie. During a trip to the ladies room (where all the best conversations happen), Rachel looks to her Hispanic friend, Sandra, for advice.

“So how was tree decorating?” Sandra asked over the sounds of flushing, running water and hand dryers.
“It was fun. Getting there was a little tricky, though.”
“What do you mean? Don’t tell me Henry’s car stalled out again.”
“No, it’s just that there was a ton of traffic, and then we got pulled over by a cop on the highway.”
“Oh. That’s scary.”
“I didn’t think it was that scary, but Henry sort of freaked out.”
“Was the cop white?” Sandra had a way of getting right to the heart of the matter, and, for once, Rachel was glad.
“What do you expect?”
“But that’s just it. The cop was a little rude, maybe, but he wasn’t that bad. Henry got all nervous. Then he got mad at me after.”
“How come?”
“It turned out I knew the cop from my uncles. So I argued with him a little—all I said was that we weren’t doing anything wrong. And we weren’t. He wound up letting us go with
a warning.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“It’s just that Henry was convinced this had something to do with race, like he was pulled over because he’s black and not because his car sounds like it might explode any second. I don’t get it. Anybody could have been stopped in that car. And I’ve heard of white kids getting picked on by cops sometimes, too. Maybe this had nothing to do with race.” Rachel was so intent on her words that she didn’t realize how loud she had become. An African-American woman standing in line in front of them glanced back and raised her eyebrows.
Sandra took Rachel’s arm, turning her until they angled the wall. “Maybe it didn’t,” she whispered. “But maybe it did. That’s the thing—if a white kid gets stopped, right or wrong,
he knows it isn’t about race. But Henry can never know that for sure, can he? In his mind, there’s always the possibility that it is.”
“Oh. I never thought of it that way.”
“Of course not. You never had to. Go.” She pointed Rachel toward the open stall in front of them and that was the end of the conversation.

Through this scene I tried to show the dilemma faced by people of color in a variety of situations, whether being stopped by police, applying for a job or an apartment, waiting for a cab, being followed around by store employees, or, for kids, being disciplined at school by a white teacher. Like Henry in my story, they can never really know for sure if race plays a part, and in their minds, there’s always the possibility that it does. So, many white people had trouble understanding the response of anger and hurt from African Americans over the Ferguson incident, while many African Americans did not understand the silence, which they interpreted as lack of empathy, from their white friends and coworkers.

As a white person, I recognize that, like Rachel, my whiteness protects me from the anxiety that comes from never really knowing for sure if I’m being treated according to my actions or if my racial background plays a part. My goal in writing The R Word was to explore these issues through the medium of young adult fiction. Through The R Word I examine how our experiences guide our thinking in matters of race, and I hope that my book can help us think more broadly and more critically about how race continues to affect us all.

*Recent talk given at Spring City Library Local Author Fest

Friday, May 1, 2015

Talking While White, Part II

A few weeks ago I participated in a local library’s Author Fest. I had a fun day mingling with local authors and publishers and I’m always happy for the opportunity to talk about racism and to share about my YA novel, The R Word. I did notice that there were no people of color among the presenters and very few among the library patrons that browsed through the tables, chatting with the participants. No big surprise here, since it's a small library in a largely white neighborhood.

Another thing that didn’t surprise me were the comments and questions from other whites at the event. Within minutes of arriving I had a conversation with another presenter that went something like this:

Other Presenter: What is your book about?
Me: It’s about race relations among teens.
OP: Well, that’s certainly relevant. It’s all over the news.
Me: I know.
OP: If you ask me, we talk too much about it. The media blows everything up.
Me: I disagree. I think we need to talk about race more, not less. Obviously there’s a lot of racial tension around and it’s not going to go away if we don’t address it.
OP: Yes, but it has to be addressed respectfully.
Me: Of course, like everything else.

OP then made a quick exit and that was that. I know that lots of white people agree with this person’s perspective, maybe for a variety of reasons. Maybe they are uncomfortable about the media coverage of excessive police force against African American males. They feel the coverage is unfair and they want to see more stories about all the good things police officers do to help people every day. At the bottom of these feelings may be the shame and guilt that I talked about in my last post – the same feelings that drove Ben Affleck to cover up his slave-owning ancestor. Or, maybe they’re just angry. They believe that America is a meritocracy and that people should stop complaining and work harder if they want to improve their circumstances. It’s easy for them to deny the power and persistence of racism because as whites they have been on the receiving end. They’ve spent a lifetime benefiting from their whiteness in small and large, albeit invisible (to them) ways.

The way the person backtracked was interesting, too. When I challenged the position that “we talk about race too much” OP’s argument switched to “we need to be respectful when we talk about race.” In retrospect, I wish I’d asked how and why OP felt conversations about race became disrespectful, but I didn’t. Oh well, chalk it up as another things I wish I’d said moment.

During my presentation (which I’ll post next time) someone asked a question that I’ve also heard many times before: “What made you get interested in this topic?” I have to admit that this question used to leave me blank. I really had no idea when or why I became “interested" in racism (although angered and disgusted by are better descriptors). Then I realized the implication of this question. Why would a middle class white person like me care about racism? After all, race doesn’t really affect white people, right? As one race scholar noted, many whites think of race as something other people have. It’s understandable if people of color care about racism, because it’s in their interest to do so. But when a white person cares – wow, that’s really something!

So now I answer that question with some of my own. Why is it unusual for me to care? Why don’t more of us care? How can we choose to believe that racism is over when we’re confronted with evidence to the contrary every day in so many ways?