Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Race Relations

Sometimes I feel compelled to dive into it—I'm not sure if it is a self-destructive streak, but the honest answer is... I don't get it and I'd love to have some intelligent feedback. So here we have a mini-rant, with a real life question... Please read patiently, as I fumble a little and don't want you to take away something different than I mean.

My kids' elementary school had some press while I was gone. I had no clue until I got back, but when I heard my husband's version of details, it didn't surprise me overly much... you see, there was a scientist of some sort (possibly an astronaut) visiting the area, and a 'lunch bunch' was invited on this special field trip and nobody else got to go... fine... bonded group who has had an investment... I'm okay with that... but the fact of the matter is the scientist was Black and ONLY KIDS WHO WERE BLACK got to go (it is completely beyond me that this lunch bunch would be only black—this is NOT a segregated school, and only about 20% of the kids are black—I suspect they are an economically disadvantaged group and lunch bunch is a euphemism for a little extra school help—but the OTHER kids in this group did NOT get to go). My issue here is such a hard one to articulate, because I am a SERIOUS advocate for the fact that society has wronged MANY groups of people for a LONG time and we have some making up to do—I am an advocate of affirmative action and believe the supreme court got it WRONG when they said race couldn't be considered—a case at the University where I WORK, so I am VERY familiar.

But I ALSO am a social psychologist who knows if the selection criteria is strictly racial you open the doors to criticism of ALL SORTS, and among elementary school students who don't really understand the full social implications of history, all THEY GET is one group gets to do something and THEY don't. It creates a huge division—a chip on the shoulders of the excluded. These poor kids were 'booed' on returning from this field trip that was supposed to be a special treat. THAT is not the legacy you want from an 'opportunity'--resentment from classmates? No thanks.

Some Situational History

Now this is the principal who was VERY willing to paint my (blond, blue eyed) son a BULLY when another kid LIED about him. This principal is, I think, too ready to SEE racism in a place I just am not willing to buy it is happening. As fourth graders the fact that my son and his friends used the term gang for their 'gang of friends' HE too to mean... you know... GANG... holy CRAP, this is Ann Arbor, Michigan. REALITY NEVER COMES HERE. Among these kids with highly educated parents, it is JUST A FREAKING WORD. Both my kids have friends from several racial groups, and at the moment BOTH have black best friends (my son's has been for years the same boy, so I don't see it changing). The principal, when accusing my son, actually seemed surprised to hear this FRIEND was the group 'leader' (being a charismatic guy) but happens to also LIKE everyone, so he is not the one to ever exclude anyone. It is perhaps my son's status as this boy's best friend that caused the jealousy that led to the lies... My POINT though, is I think if my son had brown skin, the principal would have cut him a break. I think the principal WANTED to see Sam as the bad guy—real easy—tall, handsome, good-looking kid... but he is a kid who NEVER lies and is almost always nice and considerate (and a straight A student). Yes, he has a low tolerance for jackasses, but we think we've finally taught him to hold his tongue on the topic, and he only EVER said, 'you're annoying, go away'--nothing ruder. (something that when most of US were kids was the correction needed to change behavior of said annoying child)

I KNOW as a GROUP we need to ensure institutional racism doesn't happen (or rather, STOPS happening, because it's REAL)—I am SO FOR THAT I can't even get it across—sheesh-I study HEALTH disparities for a LIVING, but I feel like this INDIVIDUAL is going too far with INDIVIDUALS to counter stuff. Well I guess he got busted.

And on some level, it is too bad. It sounds like it was a good opportunity, but it also sounds like it could have been handled SO MUCH better—ALL the lunch bunch included... or maybe all the FREE LUNCH kids, then let others 'pay' to go, if they could and wanted to.

I GET wanting role models for Black kids—successful scientists are a fabulous form of that, but if you are trying to convince me that white kids don't need to see successful black role models, you don't get it. I really HOPE that isn't how they see it (though I suspect maybe the principal misses this point). Instead what they saw was a black principal offering only black kids this special trip. The lesson ALL these kids need is ANYONE can do ANYTHING. I grew up in the Stephen Hawking era, and if a quadriplegic man can do the things he did, THAT is inspirational... not that this other stuff isn't—it is... I'm just saying you don't have to be LIKE somebody to be inspired, and to get the message ANYBODY CAN achieve high standards.

So there we are... mini-rant over. What is the answer? How do we balance giving kids from disadvantaged homes a leg up without creating resentment from other kids? How do we both acknowledge our miserable racial history and move past it at the same time. I KNOW the playing field has not been leveled—it may NEVER be, but... in a place with little racism, should the rules be different than in places where it is rampant? Was this principal RIGHT and I am missing it because he mistreated my son?

Anyone out there address race in your writing? I would LOVE to hear about that. I try to not be completely white with my cast, but my familiarity... ability to be authentic, requires that be diversity that includes whites, as I just don't think I could accurately portray the interactions without reflecting my own experiences, which have always included a white person...

So maybe we should end with a nice, diverse group hug...

And on a completely different note: thirty years ago today Mt. St. Helen's blew... 

 [<--this is a before and after shot] 

they'd been saying it was going to and watching it for quite a while, so THAT wasn't terribly surprising. What WAS surprising was the direction of the wind and the warning that Moscow, Idaho, some 200 miles due east, was going to get some ash falling... and did we. School was canceled for the rest of the year. We had to wear masks for a while, and it was the STRANGEST stuff—so incredibly soft to run fingers over. I have a few pieces of pottery that have been glazed with ash and they're beautiful, but it was very surreal to have it get dark in the middle of the day and have that strange stuff falling from the sky. I guess compared to what Iceland is doing to Europe it's not so much, though I would argue the primary difference is in population density—the entire state of Idaho has maybe as many people as Cardiff... In fact it is so SPARSELY populated, that if you walk in the deep woods by the lake where my grandparents used to have a cabin, you can STILL kick up ash from under the fern leaves because nobody else has been there in the last 30 years.

So there you have it...


Anonymous said...

Check out Tim Wise's essays--he's an antiracist writer and educator, and very articulate. http://web.mac.com/timjwise/iWeb/Wise/Essay%20Collection.html

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

People don't realize that racism and prejudice occur for all people.

KarenG said...

This is a hugely difficult topic. The obvious logic is what if it were a white principal inviting only white kids and excluding any black or brown kids? But the obvious doesn't cut it in our current political climate. I think your point that it would have been excellent for the white kids to see a black astronaut/successful role model is the best argument ever for why to include white kids in this outing.

Watery Tart said...

Anon-that's a great collection--I've seen some of them before, I think, and he does do a great job articulating some difficult topics.

Alex-it's funny, because before I moved to Michigan, I'd actually never SEEN this variety--and on some level, i get it... a defensiveness to make sure these kids get their chance. But they are not seeing the big picture, I think.

Karen, yeah--my husband likes that reversal argument--I try to be a little more sensitive than that because of the historical and socioeconomic stuff tied in there, but it does hold some weight.

Sugar said...

I have lots of feelings about this. Nothing personal though, so I keep them to myself. Mostly. I don't think we have moved past segregation, back of the bus propaganda and now, it's like we are being punished for something we didn't do. (we being white people) I feel bad for even saying that, but it's what it feels like. The political correctness of everything is out of control. I have a hard time expressing myself here, but I do get what you are saying. And I agree. It doesn't need to be about race. If I sound harsh and unempathetic, I am sorry, but get over it already. Move on or it's always going to be about skin color and what certain groups did or didn't have in the past.

B. Miller said...

This is really frustrating to me. It seems like in our efforts as a country to move past racism we've shot right past the mark and gone to the other end of the spectrum... of racism! Sigh. This is something we deal with a lot in the South. Greenville even has a "black chamber of commerce" that's specifically for businesses owned by black people. Anyone else is NOT welcome to join. I don't understand how this is fair. Shouldn't business transgress race? Aren't they painting themselves (and their members) into a corner?

Glad your son is in fourth grade and close to moving up to a different school...

Anonymous said...

Lots of good tips here. http://resistracism.wordpress.com/racism-101/

3) Flipping the actors does not lend clarity to an issue, nor does it mean that you have created equivalent analogies.

5) Seeking the empowerment of people of color is not the same as disenfranchising white people.

James C. Wallace II said...

I spent a number of years living in Hawaii where white folk are treated like dirt, then another year in Arkansas where Northerners/black folks are treated like dirt. I worked with inner city kids in Indianapolis for years and found so many issues, including illiteracy that can be traced directly to racism. I HATE racism. It serves no purpose and causes nothing but trouble.

BTW, I lived in Milan, just south of you, for many years as a child. Dad worked at the Federal pen there.

Watery Tart said...

I think combined you guys all illustrate the VAST regional differences. In Oregon racism really just wasn't tolerated, or so it seemed in the company I kept--but that was Eugene (college town) and Portland (liberal mecca) and frankly, there wasn't a ton of diversity. Oregon is pretty white.

I guess I don't mind the Black Chamber of Commerce (or the Latino, or Korean, or whatever)--I think Portland has a Gay and Lesbian Alliance Chamberish thing--THOUGH, i don't think they exclude other businesses--it is more a networking system. I think the excluding shoots themselves in the foot--why would anyone exclude if the goal is a nice large network?

Anonymous--I think you are arguing with me as if I've disagreed with you. I'd really prefer you sign on, or at least sign your name so I know who I'm talking to. I think you're making a valueable contribution, though it also seems you are either selectively reading me or I'm not clear who you are responding to. Just in the interest of civility, it helps to all own our arguements.

James, I'm TOTALLY with you. I hate it too. I think my trouble with this incident is it created a lot more problems than it solved by marking those kids as having gotten something for no other reason--the other kids NOTICE.

Not Hannah said...

Okay, I'll wade in (keep in mind that I've been dealing with puke for DAYS, so I might not be lucid.)

I think first we have to talk about what is racism and what isn't. Racism is prejudice against a particular race and the exercise of power over that race. Now, it might be entirely possible in the case of WT's son that the principal was being racist--he had power to wield over a white kid, against whom he already had prejudice.

The issue of the black kids going on the field trip is tougher. I can't imagine the logic that went into that cluster f*ck, but I guess it probably went to the giving the disadvantaged children a role model to look up to: "Hey, look! It's a successful black dude. Here are some potentially unsuccessful black kids, so let's trot them out." I mean, if you look at it squinty-eyed, it COULD be construed as being racist in that the successful black specimen was withheld from the white kids.

I don't know. My perspective comes from living in the Deep South. I don't mind separate civic groups, clubs, tables at the lunch room. The black culture in the South IS distinct from white culture in many ways, and those distinctions can be quite lovely. It also allows us, in my personal experience, the opportunity for some important and meaningful conversations.

I don't personally feel that I owe anybody anything for the past nor has anybody ever tried to make me. Having said that, it would be foolish for me to assert that the horrors of the past are completely eradicated by the laws of the present. There are pockets of ugliness that must be carefully monitored by folks who don't want to return to the past.

Watery Tart said...

NH: I don't think you're lacking lucidity at all--I think that was well said. And I think I agree with pretty much everything you said.

I do feel something is owed SOCIETALLY--that there are generational legacies carried forward--advantage leading to advantage and disadvantage leading to disadvantage that cause me to think we need to DO some making up for the past, but I just feel like this principal went about it all wrong.

Bridge Marie said...

I agree that we need more diverse role models in everything. It can be difficult to really appreciate the impact of role models... and the equally powerful impact of stereotypes. I consider myself a fairly open-minded person, but I hadn't realized until I met some people from various other cultures and countries just how deeply some stereotypes had been ground into me. I'd be looking at someone speaking with a German accent and really, truly, focusing on what they were saying but at the same time thinking about these really contradictory images of lederhosen and angry, shouting, strict Germans. It was really kind of horrifying to realize how much my thoughts had been shaped by that. But now when I think of Germans I think of Marcel and Katrin and Till and other friends, not old movies and various beer commercials. Same goes for other stereotypes. It makes me want to meet more people, and prove more stereotypes wrong.

Wow, conclusion... It really helps so much to get to know other people and to try to see things from their point of view. So I think it's best for all kids to be able to see all kinds of people in all kinds of roles... but that's of course very difficult to manage in practice.

Not Hannah said...

I agree, WT. I'm not sure that there was any "making up" done in this case. How much better would it have been for this visiting scientist to come speak to the entire school as a whole as an example of how success does not have a color.

Bridge Marie, I always thought of myself as open-minded and colorblind until I volunteered for Meals on Wheels. I go into neighborhoods considered "dangerous" for white folks and I was afraid, to be honest, the first few times. That was shocking for me.

Maxwell Cynn said...

I was born and raised in the south (North Carolina) lived through desegregation and all that. I think the biggest problem we face now is heavy-handed affirmative action. A generation ago it may have been needed to level the field, but now it serves only to keep the racial division (and animosity) going. We will never be colorblind as long as all we see is the color of someones skin. Racism continues in both directions. Affirmative action is racism in reverse. My own children, raised to be colorblind, get angry because they are not eligible for most college scholorships because they are white males. What am I suppose to say to that?
I try to use diversity in my writing. My settings are usually in the south so it wouldn't be realistic otherwise. But I also try very hard not to stereotype. I get so tired of hearing Obama is the first Black president. He is the president -- period. He's not just the Black president. We need to stop catagorizing everything by race. Let a man be judged by his actions not the color of his skin.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Would have made more sense and caused less trouble to pt the kids' names in a hat and give all an equal chance to go on the field trip. Preferential treatment for some always fosters resentment among those who are left out.

I'd like to add that the current practice of some politicians and individuals calling anyone who disagrees with the president a rascist is most unfortunate and disturbingly manipulative. It's an ugly way to discourage free speech.

Annie said...

Why is colorblindness a goal? Why isn't it remarkable that Obama is the first black president? In a society where black men are deeply stigmatized, it is incredibly important to acknowledge that, before Obama, most black male youth had few positive role models at the international level. It is nice to say that white people are attempting to be colorblind, but what good does that do? We should be encouraging and embracing diversity, not whitewashing it.

Watery Tart said...

Bridge--TOTALLY with you on how much it helps to meet diverse people.

NH: I had a similar experience when I was first here--I was surveying middle school kids in Detroit, but some of those schools were in very rough areas and some of those kids experiences I wouldn't wish on the most jaded adults.

Maxwell-My thoughts on affirmative action are relatively complicated. I guess I feel like there maybe should be some things that cancel OUT affirmative action's priveleges--with college, if you are the third generation headed off to college, I'm not sure you still need the boost. And I think ability to pay is ability to pay no matter WHAT the skin tone. At the same time, I think ALL students benefit from a diverse student body. At Michigan, since the Affirmative Action was banned, the number of black students has decreased--it used to be about on par with state demographics... no more. Seems to me everyone loses that way.

Totally agree though, about judging on actions.

Patricia, I agree that the rhetoric, especially by the ends of the political spectrum, can really escalate stuff. This principal may be suffering a little from that. I have a friend here who thinks this just didn't merit national news.

Annie--I agree that I would MUCH rather see a celebration of MANY cultures. I guess with Obama, I wish there could be a duality, where he is celebrated as black president, but that his ACTIONS were looked at with color blinders, instead of attributions being made that his actions are based on race.

Kassy with a K said...

Really not sure I want to jump into this too terribly much, but I WOULD like to add that I completely agree with Maxwell on how frustrating "affirmative action" can be. I happen to be a white, middle-class female, and this somehow restricts my chances of getting into certain programs such as one of the internships I applied for that specified they were looking for "diversity" and made me list all of my ancestry (German, Irish, etc). I just don't understand what good that does. It's frustrating to know that someone else might get chosen over me because they happen to not be white... even if I am better qualified for the position.