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Responses to Issues of Racism: Part I

I have an entire redesign of this site coming soon and the launch date is past due because I was told to "keep low traffic on your blog" and then I went and wrote about racism. So, the launch is postponed for now because I have to finish this series (?) while I have the audience.

This is a tough post to get through so I have to use a really peaceful and calm photo that makes me happy when I look at it. When you get upset or indignant about this delicate issue, just look back at this picture. I don't know if it will help you, but it works for me. (Also? What picture should I use for this post? One of me and all my black family and friends?)

Photography by Francesco who always takes me places that I want to visit.

The easiest way to respond to comments is to pretend like this is an advice column where I post the question and my answer. But it's less like my answer and more like my response. So not like an advice column at all. The more I think about that the more uncomfortable I get with the implication that this is Ask a Black Person. From the beginning, I wanted to have a conversation about this even if it did start with something silly.

Jenn @Juggling Life
I will be using your list to expand my readings–wondering what you think about “Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” by Beverly Daniel Tatum.

Ever since I read that book immediately following college I have had a crush on Dr. Tatum. Mostly for immersing herself in the ideas of racial identity, but also for taking on a taboo subject and opening herself up to criticism of perpetuating stereotypes. Her book was deeply analytical and yet so applicable to what I see happening in schools across the country. First, in my own schools were I was a teacher and then later on as an educational consultant. When I saw the same issues from places like Boston all the way to California I realized this problem, a uniquely American problem, had enough merit to study and try to understand. I think kids need to establish and sanction their place in the world and the problem isn't that they're doing it by sitting together by race in the cafeteria, it's that adults are watching from the sidelines and not engaging them in the tricky conversations about why they're doing that. And most importantly, it brings up the issue of white Americans refusing to notice race. It sounds like this: I don't see color. I only see a person. That's just not enough. Ask a person of color who has been seen ONLY as a person of color their entire life to come to grips with being just a person by those standards what that's like. I need you to see my color and acknowledge it because if you ignore it then you might take to rewriting my own history because the sum of who I am is found in that how I've previously been perceived because of that color.

LeahPeah (and then Jennifer echoed her thoughts)
Well, Kelly, you’ve blown my socks off again. Great points, all. And you’ve clarified and brought into focus why the whole racist-cake fiasco bothered me so much. Because it meant nothing.

I don’t know if you recall a convo we had a few years back about the lack of well-known writers on the internet who were women of color? The sticking point for me was near the end when I asked you what someone like me, a middle-class white woman raised with a distinct lack of people of color and not a lot of experience PERIOD with racism in general, raised as I was in rural Utah, could do about this problem. You said to me, You can’t. We need to do it. That’s the whole point.

I get that. I really, really do. (Here comes the but..) But, that makes me feel helpless and on the outside. I want to be a part of helping things move forward and upward and through and out. I don’t want to be “the white lady that saves” anyone or anything. I just want to help.

Tell me how so I don’t come across as what I fear I will be judged as: a white woman of privilege telling a story that’s not mine AND/OR trying to “save” women of color.

I can appreciate the "but" here. Especially because I, like many people, have come to distrust the language we use to define those feelings as "white guilt". Might I amend my previous statement to you, Leah, and say that while I think the conversations are started by people of color that the response and listening to that delicate talk about race include everyone? Because it goes back to that speaking in a vacuum where you're only talking to people who look like you or have your racial makeup. Women of color don't want to be saved, but if people don't even know these women and don't interact with them or have any knowledge about their lives then that's the first place to start. It needs to organically grow from there, but do it together.

Rage Against the Minivan (Kristen)
I had a couple talks with other bloggers at BlogHer about why so many mainstream bloggers shy away from talking about issues of race. I feel really strongly that we should ALL be speaking up. I get that people are fearful of being political or controversial or perceived as racist, but seriously. We need to get this dialogue going!

First, I am grateful that Kristen was the first (but not only) writer who linked what she had written regarding the Psychology Today nonsense. Agreed, we do have to get this dialogue going. People indignant over other issues don't necessarily have a dog in those fights, but when it comes to race people tend to pull up short. The dialogue needs to be We and not Me. See LeahPeah comment above.

Sherry Carr-Smith
“Sherry, if you are worried that you are racist, and you are questioning your reactions to situations and people, then there is almost no danger that you are, or will be, racist.”

That was a fantastic response in the story Sherry told. If more people questioned themselves and took an introspective look at their belief systems we could be halfway home on this issue.

Deb Rox
I think what the general blogosphere forgets in the vacuum is how many marginalized bloggers just stay away from the general stream and in their own communities because it is crazymaking to watch broad level oppressive defensiveness paired with ridiculous crap go down. It’s crazymaking–do you check it, speak against it, educate, question, listen, ignore?

Not only do I watch the crazymaking at times, but I invited it to my blog with comments. You may have noticed that there were actually people still wanting to talk about the cake even though my title was clear in saying that it wasn't the real issue. See how comfortable that is for them? How, if they can extend that conversation then we'll never get to the important meat? To be honest, I have done all things you suggested. I have ignored it and questioned it and tried to educate on it - that's really hard when you're doing that to your friends who have invested time into getting involved with the crazymaking. Sometimes I read what people write and wonder, Is that the worst thing going on with you right now? Not getting the laptop you wanted or missing out on a few days of vacation? but I know where that comes from and I must be very careful not to take all the attached strings of working in areas of poverty or despair and attach it to someone else's woes.

I think that’s the problem, really. We’re not heard, even when people are (supposedly) standing up for us. Remember the Summer’s Eve campaign? I think it was Karen that contacted them and they told her that the campaign wasn’t racist because their research told them it wasn’t.

Think about that: An actual consumer of color told them that the campaign was offensive to them, and her opinion was dismissed.

There’s the problem.

This comment stands all by itself.

In one of Don Miguel Ruiz’s books, he says we have an emotional body that is as real as our physical body. The emotional body gets wounded, and many times we don’t deal with the wounds correctly, so instead of healing, they get infected and painful. Then someone bumps into our emotional wound with a word or a look or an assumption, and we react in what seems to be an outsized way to what the bumper sees as an accidental touch. But they bumped our sorest spot, and it makes us scream.

This is how I see our issues of race and privilege. So many wounds, so much covering up, so little examination or attempts at real healing – just a desire to move on without cleaning up. Those of us who have privilege go around bumping into those wounds, often cluelessly, sometimes thoughtlessly, sometimes from a geniune lack of care, and then when the yelling starts, we say “What? I didn’t do anything! You’re reacting all out of proportion.”

So our other solution is to avoid avoid avoid. Don’t bump, but don’t make any meaningful contact at all. Because no one wants to get yelled at, no one wants to take blame.

I'm not going to muddy Suebob's comment with a response. I just wanted to share its brilliance again.

Someone who called themselves “I’d have to be crazy to say…”
And you wonder why nobody talks about race? I’m not even allowed to talk about cake without people telling me my feelings are invalid. Lesson learned: keep your mouth shut.

You want to talk about cake. That’s the problem. Your problem. Go somewhere else and talk about cake. The rest of us have work to do.

Conversations about race scare me because I don’t want to be seen as stupid, insensitive, unaware, ignorant, or like a malignant tumor on the face of racism. I want people to like me and to know I like them and that I was raised in Portland, Oregon, land of the polite and home of the oh-my-god!?-was-that-a-person-of-color?, which means I’ve never really had much experience around people of color. So I feel like an ass most of the time. Which is rad. And even sometimes because I am probably being an insensitive ass. Or: more often than not. But I try real, real hard to think before I speak about subjects which have the potential to hurt people, no matter who they may be.

I wouldn't want to talk about issues of race in a country like Australia (which, HELLO, Australian commenters from the other day!) since their issues are not quite the same as ours. So, instead of beginning a discussion on that to avoid looking stupid, insensitive, unaware, etc... I would have to force myself to start listening to other people who can speak to it. It doesn't mean I'm out of the conversation, but I have a lot of learning to do before I lead. Learn and lead sounds so very education-y of me, but that's all I've got on that.

Liz Henry
I would add to your list, “At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power”, it’s really good!

So good, in fact, that I'll provide a link to it for ease. Thank you, Liz! The best thing I read last weekend was from a blog called Before Barack. Bookmark this one because it is a phenomenally written piece.


I’m a white woman and I admit, I hesitate to write about race for fear of going about it all wrong and offending someone. I recently wrote about an elementary school classmate and the horrible lessons the school taught us because of their treatment of him. That particular post makes me nervous. It’s more his story than mine. I wonder if it’s my place to tell it.

But my bigger worry is that somewhere, even today, there may still be a teacher putting a black kid’s desk in the hallway.

I saw this as a child and then later as a teacher. Personally, as an administrator, I disagree with a kid's desk being in the hallway unless they're making up a test or waiting while the other students are going over an assessment they haven't taken yet. And since it is my belief, then the reality is that I will question when a teacher does this. That's only one person, though. I can't speak to others, but I challenge anyone who sees this or who's kid comes home and tells him or her that it's happening to contact the school and ask what systems are in place to ensure that kid will learn the same academics things the other students are learning. You know how we always joke that if you miss the day they taught long division how much harder math was for you? Well, think about all the other things that classmate of yours missed. Do you know where he is now? Maybe he has written it. Maybe you can help to ensure it won't happen again by sharing what YOU learned from it and leave him to talk about his own learnings.

I read every word of this post and am so thankful you wrote it. Actually, it was because of one of your tweets a month or two back that caused me to put down the Help and not pick it up again to finish it, nor do I plan to see the movie. (how’s that for influential?) And it has opened my eyes to much more since then. I would love for those inquiries you get to make it in your writing, too.

Someone should put me on a Top 50 Moms list for my influence, Steph.

I appreciate you writing this post. It’s treacherous enough when you kiss ass to keep people from attacking (not that you do that, just speaking to the blogging/pr landscape), I suspect that speaking your mind like this invites a certain kind of trouble.

One time I had an offer to attend the Lilith Fair concert in Chicago and I was excited to see Mary J. Blige. This was an offer I got through my blogging and I was going to have to write about it (as is standard) once I attended the music festival. After I was contacted about the review I was declined and I asked for a reason (as is fair) and was told that the client wanted "snark-free, profanity-free, free of any controversial content, no references to celebrities or religion or politics, no feminists" bloggers for the program. You're not going to make me point out the "no feminists at Lilith Fair" thing, are you? That is asinine.

Anyway, Amanda, the thing is that I'm calling out a lot of people with that post and I think you're right - there is a certain kind of trouble or loss of opportunity that comes with it. So, if a company is reading this right now and decides they don't want to work with me on something I am fine with that. It's not a good fit.

Here's how I know you're right about that: I got several hundred, yes hundred, responses to this privately. Maybe they were giving me a familiar Attagirl! because I know them personally or maybe they were afraid to put their name onto something in the comments. Either way, I am happier with my authentic self of speaking up and couldn't forgive myself if I just let things slide.

Jane Gassner
Don’t know if I’ll hit Send when I finish writing this…

Two years ago at BlogHer, I got well and truly reamed for a Tweet I’d sent at the airport, asking why the black Sky Caps had been replaced by shorts-wearing college boys. I still don’t get how that could possibly be considered racist, but, Kelly, you were one of the loudest critics, seeking me out so you could tell me in person how much I had hurt you. Do you know how much you have hurt me by assuming that an innocent comment was racist? If you didn’t know me, I could understand. But you did know me. We’d been at BlogHer together for the past several years. Didn’t that merit a ‘hey, Jane, what the hell were you thinking?’ Guess not. Much easier to vent than to work at a dialogue. Much easier to assume that since I’m white, I must have racist leanings. Sorry, but I was walking the picket lines and paying my dues back in the ’60s and ’70s when you were probably just a kid. I’m no more racist than you are.

Jane, you took an opportunity to talk about race and you blew it.

You crapped all over my words with your comment. I carefully placed nine things in order that span my life and presented them as evidence that not a day goes by when I have the luxury to stop thinking about race and you marched in and took issue with something that happened two years ago which several people called you on and that you're still defending. Not once did I send you a tweet or an email about it because it was already heated and angry and that isn't how I do things with people I know. Especially someone who I thought would know better.

Jane, not only do I recall that incident, but I mentioned it this past weekend with all the brouhaha going on with the movie version of "The Help". Your tweet, in your exact words, were: "At airport.  Confused.  When SkyCaps were Black, knew what to tip.  Now they’re college boys, not so sure." I remember the resulting conversation I had with you later on very differently. So I'll tell you my version of that story. Everyone that year was up in arms about it and tweeting back to you that what you said was offensive. I was leaving a session early to make it to another one that was going to be heavily attended and I saw you walking so I called out to you and said, "Jane, can I talk to you? You're taking a lot of heat for what you said. What were you thinking"? So it's bizarre that you don't remember that part of our conversation considering everyone else cussed you out and sent angry replies. You spent a good five minutes defending it and then you wrote about it later. At the end of that post you wrote: "I, for my part, will rethink my Tweets lest they offend where I don’t mean it."

Here's what everyone was asking of you: You never finished your original thought in your tweet. So, you were confused because Black SkyCaps are to be paid...less? More than college boys? Are Black and College mutually exclusive? As a flying customer to the airlines you have a different standard of pay for the black and white skycaps? I'm uncertain how you knew they were in college. Did they tell you this information in the span of handling your luggage?

You practiced white revisionist history like a champion, Jane, doing two horrific things with your comment:

1. You defended and maintained, after two years, your innocence. You still believe that everyone that responded to you was in the wrong and you were in the right. In your mind, that trumped all the other words I wrote in that post.

2. The cherry on top of your white revisionism is your painting a picture for me. The illustration you left at the end of your comment leaves an image that I want to reconcile with you. You have more in common with Kathryn Stockett than you even realize, Jane. In your representation, you get to be the white hero standing on the picket lines and paying your dues. Your likeness gets to be noble and valiant while waving courageous banners that you proudly display while standing up against what is WRONG with the world. Me? You reduced me to a little girl. Just some ignorant-of-the-facts little black child who has NO IDEA WHAT THIS HEROIC WHITE WOMAN IS DOING FOR ME. Previous to this painted picture you and I were two grown women having a conversation. But you don't remember it that way. How you recall it is that I hurt you. How dare I hurt you by walking up to you and calmly and quietly (and Jane, I did that part pointedly because I know that I have a formidable presence as a tall woman with icy looking eyes - believe me, I have practiced The Art of Approaching White Women often in my life) and actually asking you the very question you forget that I asked you.

My version is shorter than yours: you tweeted, I confronted you, you denied, I pleaded about being hurt and asked if that made any difference to you, you declined, I walked away. That was it. My version is facts, albeit ones that I remember, and yours posits me as an inferior child by the end.

Jane, you are still not getting it. While you can defend all you want, you need to remember that I'm a grown woman. Don't ever do that to another adult again.

Part II coming later.
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Reader Comments (41)

Thank you so much for writing through all of this.

I have kept fairly silent, because, where I live in Saskatchewan. Canada, our racial divide is less black/white and more aboriginal/white, which is at once very similar and very different in some ways. This series, though, is still so incredibly important. No matter the specifics of racism where we live on the planet, it brings up important questions about who we are, what we honestly think and believe, the power of our actions or inactions, etc., etc.

This is a gulf-bridging dialogue we need to keep alive in both our communities and our hearts.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterschmutzie

I also want to mention something that the Palinode and I were talking about last night with regard to racism.

People equate racism with conscious hatred of a group of people, but that's not always the case. Racism comes in the form of ignorance, lack of forethought, insensitivity, etc. It doesn't always come out of malice.

You can do or say something racist without any outrightly negative intent on your part. A person can deny they did something racist by saying they didn't mean to be racist, but that doesn't change the truth of their action.

This is where courage comes in, to have the bravery and honesty to acknowledge it and learn from it.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterschmutzie

Yes, Schmutzie. Yes, yes, yes.

And Kelly, you blow me away with your caring, thoughtfulness, tenacity, passion, big-heartedness, and just plain capacity to keep addressing these topics.

You are changing the world with your words. More power to you.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterStefania

WOW--- Jane was wrong and that is that. Sorry you were hurt, you are a strong beautiful woman. My mother told me that sometimes people who do not know God don't think about their words and how they can hurt others. I am not perfect but I pray God helps others think about their words, actions and how to treat others.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMichelle Roberts-Nanni

I think this is fantastic. The post I mean. I'm trying to absorb everything you've written, but the thing that stuck with me the most is your response to Stacey that it is okay to tell our story, but to be sure we aren't telling anyone else's. I've had a post brewing in my head and that is very helpful advice.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJennifer

Kelly, thank you for this! I figure any of us who were raised white in this society have plenty of unconscious learned racism, and I appreciate getting to read your responses so I can learn to identify the ways that's still true for me and dig them out as much as possible.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSix Impossible Things

Since you are discussing this, I feel it's ok for me to totally go off on a tangent here...

I am still blown away how many white women are totally ignoring their friends of color's feelings on the Help. People I know. People we know. Just entirely IGNORING.

I don't get it. I heard what EVERYONE said when I asked if I should pick up the book or see the movie. And I chose to respect those HURT by it. Those sticking up for the movie/book went on and on about why they loved it, how it made them feel, why they thought it was ok and on and on and on. Not once did they even acknowledge the pain it brought the women of color on the thread.

It was disturbing.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin

Thank you for the last two posts. I have read with earnest and great interest because I want to be better, be sensitive. Even though I grew up a minority in Toronto, and was raised by a mother who taught me to respect everyone, regardless of anything, it's clear that I still have lots to learn. And I'm so glad to have a friend as patient and forthcoming as you to guide me. Thank you Kelly.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKaren Sugarpants

Thank you.
You bring beauty, even when you talk about ugly things.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

Well done.

Thank you for devoting what must have been a profound amount of emotional and reflective energy to write this post.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

I doubt any white person knows what it's like to walk in your shoes. I remember reading Black like Me after college and thinking "holy shit." Can't really understand something so far out of your experience, you know?

I never really thought about all this before but I'm thinking about it now...

Thanks for being a breath of fresh air. The first step in the road to recovery in the ugly head of racism is honesty. The whole world needs a little of this. I have always been a little perplexed in this arena when I found out around the age of 5 that when my Grandparents came here from Sicily around 1915 they were not considered white. Their Ellis Island paper declared their race as Southern Italian. The lighter skinned mainland Italians were white. hmm. ok. Perhaps this is why my Grandmother when she was mad at him would call him a Honkey & they would always refer to WASPs as" those other people". He told me that they were peasants & very poor. If they didn't leave Sicily he would've been sold into a child slavery mining camp. I thought grandpa was being a little dramatic until I found out that Booker T. Washington even wrote about it in his book, The Man Farthest Down: A Record of Observation & Study in Europe. He then told me in Sicily, Italians didn't think they were white either & they were treated like 2nd class citizens. When they finally came here, they were saddened to learn that when they got off the boat most of the Help Wanted signs included a warning of "No Italians". So they had to move to a suburb in Chicago where all the Italians lived & could find work. All of this was really strange to me in my world of 1975, when all I wanted to do was ride my banana seat bike & play w/ my barbie townhouse but it taught me an invaluable lesson really early on. That everyone regardless of color, are invaluable & that we really need to listen to what people are telling us about themselves & how their experiences have shaped them. In this we can become a better person.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMarianne

Schmutzie is so smart - I'll carry this with me:
People equate racism with conscious hatred of a group of people, but that’s not always the case. Racism comes in the form of ignorance, lack of forethought, insensitivity, etc. It doesn’t always come out of malice.

You can do or say something racist without any outrightly negative intent on your part. A person can deny they did something racist by saying they didn’t mean to be racist, but that doesn’t change the truth of their action.

This is where courage comes in, to have the bravery and honesty to acknowledge it and learn from it.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSuebob

I've been thinking about this ever since I read the cakes entry. I remember tweeting about that ridiculous article by Satoshi Kanazawa, but I didn't say anything on my blog. Of course, I avoid anything remotely controversial on my blog (I'm changing that). I have a tendency to not see color. When I see someone with beautiful eyes, I say they have beautiful eyes, not beautiful green eyes. I think this has it's down side. But I haven't figured out how to put that into words yet.

I have no idea what it's like to walk in your shoes and maybe that's why I feel like I shouldn't write something. What on earth would a white, blue-eyed girl know about racism? But I will read those books (The Help made me angry) and I will be better.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

I love you; you know that.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaria Young

Somewhat coincidentally, my daughter and I had a conversation about color today, and between that and your first post, I've had to blog about it.

Please let's keep this conversation going.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBarnmaven

You know, I keep coming back to your posts. Thank you for making me think.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterChristine

So much food for thought here. You should be proud. Getting people to take a hard look at things is no easy feat.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterslouchy

oh good grief! We are NEVER going to get your site redesigned!

When do conversations about race begin with our children? And how? I pretty much use Todd Parr as the go to as we have a not so normal family unit already...just curious if you or any of your readers had any suggestions.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterDresden

I really wish you would write a book about your life.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJeremy Pepper

Great stuff MM. Lots of stuff in this post resonates for me. The tricky part in addressing racism as it pops up in life is in distinguishing between what people are and their actual words and actions. I really enjoyed this" rel="nofollow">ill doctrine video blog post on the subject from a few years ago. It really helped crystalize something for me and helped understand how things get out of hand so far when discussing a racist statement or action.

Thanks for your writing. Great stuff.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJoe Crawford

And most importantly, it brings up the issue of white Americans refusing to notice race. It sounds like this: I don’t see color. I only see a person. That’s just not enough. Ask a person of color who has been seen ONLY as a person of color their entire life to come to grips with being just a person by those standards what that’s like. I need you to see my color and acknowledge it because if you ignore it then you might take to rewriting my own history because the sum of who I am is found in that how I’ve previously been perceived because of that color.

OK, see, this is where, I guess, I've royally fucked up. I'm trying to teach my kids that there isn't color, only humanity. Allow me to explain.

Let's imagine that some fanatical group out there managed to take over the world and mold said world into their image. People of one skin color, one eye color, one hair color, etc. They want to make a homogenous physical society. So, let's say that were to happen. You know what would happen next? Oh, well that chick has a mole on her face. SHE'S OUTTA THERE! His eyes are just a smidge off. GONE! I honestly think that it's ingrained in humanity, genetically, to fear the differences and embrace the sameness.

And that scares the crap out of me.

So, whenever my kids point out a difference, I acknowledge the difference, but also tell them, "They're a person, just like you and me. They have eyes, ears, a brain, feelings, memories, and all that other stuff that makes us human." I'm afraid of the differences because if I make a big deal out of the differences without pointing out what's the same, then maybe my kids will ONLY focus on the differences.

I don't want them to ignore that someone is African-American, but I want them to see through that to what's beneath. I want skin color, religion, ability/disability, to be secondary.

And because differences were pointed out SO much to me as a kid, I always notice them. And I make a point to force myself now to ignore them.

Did ANY of that make sense? Am I completely wrong?

Educating myself, so that I can be the best teacher and human I can be, is a priority for me--I feel so lucky to have found this dialogue.

Also, I'd like to say that my good friend Aaryn Belfer introduced me to "Why Are All The Black Kids . . ." and I own several copies which I loan out. Aaryn also has a post on race up

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJenn @ Juggling Life

I feel like Michael Corleone in the Godfather 3: Every time I try to get away from talking about race, you keep pulling me back in!

So Jane leaves out the age of the black sky caps she's looking for, sees younger sky caps, assumes they're college students, and tweets something infuriating. Then she acts obtuse about it, saying, 'what? I should've used the phrase, African-American?'

I think her obtuseness is more indicative of her racism than her original stupid comment.

But what are we trying to do here? Are we trying to eradicate racism by having folks fess up to their nefarious thoughts and deeds? Is that even a realistic expectation?

What about the very bleak place we as black folks find ourselves in America? How about the rampant poverty, ignorance, depravity? Don't we have a responsibility to our people to dig out of the muck that is the residue of our enslavement? Our condition is not our fault, but it is our responsibility. What are we teaching our children to avoid pathology?

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterangie

Wow. Thank you for providing an open door and a place to have this conversation, as well as the gift of your perspective. It's pretty powerful.

I grew up in a pretty homogenous county in MD, always knew kids of different races, and, while conscious of color in the same way I might be conscious of a friend's eye or hair color, I didn't think too much harder about it.

Until 4th grade. One of my close friends was of color, and she came home with me after school to play on a day my grandparents were visiting from three states away. Without even bothering to try to speak quietly, my grandpop asked my mom what "that little pickaninny" was doing at the house. I didn't know what the word meant, but I instinctively knew that I hated it, and hated him for saying it. And that I was ashamed, and worried that my friend would think I was like that, or my mom and dad were, when really, I didn't think they were.
I'm sure my friend was as much as or more disturbed than I was by the question, but we both sort of pretended not to hear it and went outside to play. We left my mom with Grandpop to calm him down, and I learned over the years to take down my Michael Jackson posters before he came to visit, because he would rip them off the walls and throw them away. I also learned about the "damn puerto rickans" and that "girls can't play baseball", and why my mom went to secretarial school while her brothers went to college.

By the time I was 15, I didn't want to learn anything else from my grandpop. I was tired of listening to him say words and things that made me sick to hear, and having to not fight because my parents said "he's old" or "people don't change- no sense riling him up." I felt like by just sitting there while he railed against whoever was the enemy that day, I was being a part of the problem of racism.

So I brought my dogeared copy of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" with me to their farm in New Jersey. I left it on the stairs on purpose. When my grandpop asked "Who was reading this trash?" I replied that it was me, because I wanted to learn more about my future husband's people. (There was no future husband, I just went for the jugular.)

And then it was ON. We had the knock down dragout I always wanted, and I don't think he changed. But he did change how he spoke in front of me, and that was something. And I learned about what I will or won't stand by for.

I almost wish things were always that clear cut- a battle, duke it out, and maybe things get clear, like after a thunderstorm. But the subtle, entrenched code of racism, those gray areas where you do a double take and think, "WHAT was that?" , and it's over before you can react...I don't know what to do with that.

We were driving to the airport in our bumpy bus, the last night ONEmoms were Kenya. Our amazing guide (a young man native to Kenya, and of color) asked me a question, quite shyly. I could tell it had been on his mind during prior conversations we had shared, but that it was not a comfortable question to utter.
"Do people still notice and judge other people based on skin color in the US?" I said that it was not as much of a problem as it had been in the past, and that while people acknowledge differences of color, no one I know judges people based on it- I didn't know what elseto say. I hope what I said is true. And I hope my kids stand up to that^&&^ years before their mama learned how to.

Thanks, KW.

August 16, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay Maines

@Coal Miner's Granddaughter: You make sense. I believe that race, although a socially constructed concept, matters because individuals with shared physical traits sometimes share a common experience. To say "there is no color, we are all the same" minimizes the unjust experiences of Black Americans, for example, or the privilege enjoyed by White Americans even if the intentions behind the philosophy are well-meaning. I believe it is not only okay to see color, but important. Color is a part of a person's (and a group's) context and narrative, and to ignore that is safer but less aware and sensitive.

Also, when I hear someone say that we should "look past" skin color, it comes off as though people of certain skin colors are inherently inferior, but we should look past that detail and give those people a chance. So that seems to be a problematic approach to discussing race/differences.

August 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah E.

Kelly, thanking you once again for tackling this topic. Thanks also to my fellow commenters for illuminating further.

If I may, book suggestion for Coal Miner's Granddaughter - Nurtureshock. The chapter on talking to kids about race opened my eyes, and when I wrote about it, most of my commenters were similarly surprised.

August 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Marsh

Another good post. And that stuff with Jane, number 2. That is where I find the biggest problems in these conversations. How people use language to completely change things around. Words can do amazing and terrible things. Thanks for breaking it down so others could see.

August 17, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterlisa

I love this blog. The Mocha Momma rocks. I was glad to see an amendment in this post to a previous response to LeahPeah, a white woman concerned about racism, who was initially informed that she couldn’t do anything about the problem of racial injustice.

I was glad to see the response ended up including the importance of listening, response, and interaction, because racism is EVERYONE'S problem. Social injustice is everyone’s problem. We each have personal power. As white women, we can choose not to be complacent (as LeahPeah already has) about social inequality. We can educate ourselves. We can support political candidates and policies that take action against bigotry. We can refuse to be safe harbors for friends’ and colleagues’ racist remarks. We can raise awareness by sharing our values with our children and friends and other loved ones. We all have an impact on others and on the world.

August 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSarah E.

"But what are we trying to do here? Are we trying to eradicate racism by having folks fess up to their nefarious thoughts and deeds? Is that even a realistic expectation?

What about the very bleak place we as black folks find ourselves in America? How about the rampant poverty, ignorance, depravity? Don’t we have a responsibility to our people to dig out of the muck that is the residue of our enslavement? Our condition is not our fault, but it is our responsibility. What are we teaching our children to avoid pathology?"

@angie All of that?

I wonder...when people learn to change their perceptions of others in regards to race, will they begin to view the poverty and degradation of people of all color as everyone's problem?

August 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBarnmaven

You know what your problem is? You're just OVERLY SENSITIVE.

hahahahahahahahaaaaaaaaaaa......whew. That was fun.

August 17, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBelinda

I was totally on Jane's side until I read the quoted tweet and then... O.o That's not at all what Jane said she said.

I loved this post, especially since I too grew up in a really homogeneous environment and in consequence, I'm totally awkward about race.

I gotta ask though, how is this:
"The Art of Approaching White Women"
not racist? Or if it's not racist, I guess it's just a generalization? Or maybe I'm just naive and presume to be more easily approached than a "tall woman with icy looking eyes"? Or maybe you have to explain what it means, what the art is so I can say, "Ah, yeah, it's true, you do have to do that," or some such?

The rest of the post was so awesome and I'm sorry if I'm picking at the one thing that picked at me out of all these words of sense and personal enlightenment.

August 18, 2011 | Unregistered Commenterp

Sorry I'm so late catching up. I read your first post on my phone and have been telling people to read it. The Help actually came up while at the beach with friends yesterday and I told them to come read what you have to say about it.

Love you, lady.

August 18, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngella

Anxiously awaiting Part II.... :)

August 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobin

I have so much left to say about this, but I'm really enjoying this dialogue and just absorbing all the comments. I think Schmutzie kind of said what I was trying to say yesterday. The defensiveness comes from not realizing it doesn't matter if you didn't mean to hurt someone with your thinking and actions and not realizing it doesn't make you an evil person, but it does make you unaware. And when you're unaware, you participate in institutional racism without realizing it. And when you do that, you teach others by your example that it's okay.

I used to tell my daughter there was no color until I realized it was total bullshit. There are colors, we have history, and the world is not perfect yet nor will it probably ever be -- which is why race is such a dominant theme in science fiction. She knew there were colors -- she's not blind. She doesn't care, nor does she mention it in descriptions, which is more than I could say for myself until I started noticing I did it. I still catch myself doing it. Here's an example.

Kelly describes herself as a tall woman with icy looking eyes.
We already know Kelly is black.

You just met Kelly. How do you describe her so someone can find her in the crowd?

a) Kelly is a tall woman with curly hair.
b) Kelly is a tall black woman with curly hair.

Now, you're describing me so someone can find me in the crowd.

a) Rita is a blond woman with blue eyes.
b) Rita is a white woman with blond hair.

(I know for a fact there are women who are not white with blond hair.)

I almost never hear anyone describe a white woman as a white woman. I almost always hear anyone who's not white described by their race.

This is institutional racism, making the "other" before we even meet someone. It's not necessarily intentional, but look what we've just done with what to us is an innocent description. This is the level of blindness white people have, and it's why we're getting nowhere fast trying to change things.

I watched Battlestar Galactica a while back and was at first shocked that both men and women in exec roles were referred to as "sir." I spent about three days thinking about it. Finally, I decided I loved it, because it took gender out of a title of respect so it could apply unilaterally without indicating gender. But it took me three days to figure it out because the idea that men are usually in the position of authority is so ingrained in my mental model that I had to question what the word "sir" really meant.

When you start thinking about race in that context, it becomes much easier -- for me -- to talk about it. Am I evil? No. Do I need to question how the world works? YES YES YES.

August 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRita Arens

I've been creating ESL educational materials for nearly 10 years now. I want to scream when people ask me if I write books for "the Mexicans." No. I write books for children of every language. There are a LOT of them. My work has shown me more beautiful countries, people, stories, and cultures than I ever could have imagined. Now that I've moved away from the diversity of Chicago and have come back to my small, white town, I miss so much. But I can still read and learn and grow, which is the most important thing. Thank you for sharing your stories, Kelly.

August 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBlondie

I got linked to here because I made a post questioning subtle racism in the movie of "The Help", and because my googles for racial criticism for "The Help" kept turning up nil. I kept finding these rave reviews and asking myself "are any of these people black?"

Thank you for your insights!

August 23, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIf By Yes

Wow, Kelly. I can't even read through your whole comment, it's so filled with rage, but I get your point. I'm the bad white woman; you're the good black woman. So be it.

August 27, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJane Gassner

For what it's worth, I'm the whitest white woman who ever whited - "Stuff White People Like" seems to be aimed directly at me - and the Skycap comment shocked me. We all make mistakes, but it's our ability to learn from them that makes us awesome. I think Kelly's rage is less about black vs white, and more about people's inability to recognize their own unconscious prejudices and make efforts to alter them.

August 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterIf By Yes

I realize I'm weeks late on this, but I've been busy trying not to die...but did you really just turn Kelly into the Angry Black Woman? Are you like, the Queen of racial cliche's? She answered you calmly and appropriately without zero rage...and you turned her into a stereotype? It's like race class 101 up in here, with you setting the examples. Instead of assuming, how about reading what she said and responding. Or am I too full of rage to respond to as well?

September 7, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterErin

[...] She has first hand knowledge of how perceptions of race affect our youth. She has some really great discussions going on over at Mocha Momma. We’ve had some lengthy phone calls, but I’ve narrowed [...]

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