Reflections on race
Four writers share experiences that shaped their views.
Editor's note: The so-called beer summit at the White House consists of three men, Cambridge police officer James Crowley, Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., and President Obama. But across the nation, Americans are talking about race in ways they haven't in years. We asked three writers – Sara Libby, Daisy Hernández, and Lawrence Harrison – to share experiences in their lives that shaped their views on race. We asked a fourth writer, Michele Bratcher Goodwin, to reflect on their remarks.
Small-town girl enchanted by hip-hop
I didn't have any definitive run-ins or conversations growing up that affected my understanding of race – that probably would have required at least one person of color in my tiny, rural hometown.
Instead, my formulations about race were slowly shaped and crystallized through the beats and breaks of hip-hop music, which enthralled me before I even entered middle school.
In the tales of young black men trying to "make it out tha hood" I saw myself, too, trapped in a place that I felt held few opportunities for greatness. Rap stars' abilities to meld wit, braggadocio, and civics lessons made them seem more genuine and relatable than pop or rock musicians who happened to look more like me.
In turn, I developed a sort of reverse racism in that I admired – almost idolized – an entire class of people with whom I'd had virtually no real interaction. I yearned to know African-Americans, yet was also uninterested in the Hispanic culture around me: the Mexican immigrant farmworkers now an intrinsic part of our rural West Coast community. Even so, once I did get to know an African-American in a deeper, more substantial way – my brother's Harlem-born best friend from college, who visited us in Oregon – I realized I wasn't the only one. Many people in town bent over backward to be friendly to Chad, seemingly to prove how unracist they were to the point where he joked that he felt like responding, "On behalf of my people, I bid you greetings."
My love affair with hip-hop and black culture helped me come full circle in college, where I flocked to classes on black literature and historical perspectives on race, and where the only white face in the room often belonged to me.
It's all evidence of why I have little tolerance for people who shrug off racism as cases of people who simply don't know any better because of their lack of exposure to other cultures. Even the smallest of small towns aren't too tiny for simple concepts such as consideration, care, and acceptance.
The courage to ask tough questions
Last year, I was invited to talk at a college in western Pennsylvania about immigration. During the Q&A, a young white college student asked why immigrants don't learn English. "It's about respect," she said. "If I were visiting another country, I would learn their language."
I pointed out that immigrants aren't visiting. She would be a tourist elsewhere, whereas most immigrants are forced here as economic refugees. She countered that she knew a couple who was learning English. If they can do it, her reasoning went, so could others. Not everyone has the same ability or access, I said. But she didn't seem moved.
To my surprise, though, the student sought me out afterward. She came from a conservative family, she explained, the kind of people who have never left their small hometown. But here she was in college, babysitting for an immigrant family and even thinking of traveling abroad. In particular, she wanted me to know that her father was very conservative and these ideas I had presented were new for her.
I realized then that she wasn't just asking questions about immigration. She was questioning all she had grown up hearing about race. She was even beginning to doubt the most powerful figure in her life: her father.
And I felt hopeful.
It didn't mark the end of racial profiling, or racial disparities in healthcare, but it felt powerful to me that this young white woman was asking the hard questions. It reminded me that I, too, had left my conservative Latino father's house to see the world for myself and pose a number of my own questions.
I get so caught up in the fantasy that social change happens in one single swoop (the election of a black president, my winning a debate), but real understanding is more likely to come from being honest about where we are, entertaining new questions, and, of course, listening.
Daisy Hernández is editor of ColorLines, a newsmagazine on race and politics.
One of the gifts my parents, the American-born offspring of Eastern European Jews, gave me as I was growing up in Brookline, Mass., was an unwavering belief in racial equality. They backed up their words with action, inviting a black mechanic at a nearby gas station to dinner, and making it clear that any black acquaintances would be welcome.
My brother got to know a prominent black high school athlete who dined at our house, and when I started playing tournament tennis, two black tennis players were welcomed by my parents.
My commitment to equality was strengthened by several instances of anti-Semitism experienced by my family and me. We were told that we were not welcome at some resort hotels. When I was 15, I was ranked 18th in the nation for boy tennis players 15 and under. But, being Jewish, I was unable to join the Longwood Cricket Club, which had indoor courts – very uncommon in the 1940s – so my tennis season ended in October, not to resume until April.
My experience directing USAID missions in Latin America opened my eyes to the key role that cultural values, beliefs, and attitudes play in explaining why some countries and ethnic groups do better than others in the pursuit of human progress. My belief in racial equality was strengthened when I became aware that the people of backward Haiti and progressive Barbados both had their roots in the Dahomey region of West Africa. Culture matters. The history of Haiti, independent in 1804 in the wake of a slave uprising against the French colonists, is one of corrupt, incompetent leadership; illiteracy; and poverty. Barbados, which gained its independence from the British in 1966, is today a prosperous democracy of "Afro-Saxons."
While in Latin America, I encountered "dependency theory," which explains Latin America's backwardness as a consequence of US imperialism. The late MIT political scientist Lucian Pye describes the theory as "demeaning and despairing." There are some obvious parallels between "dependency theory" and the "victim" psychology that appear to dominate the thinking of many successful African-Americans, including Henry Louis Gates and Spike Lee.
Lawrence Harrison directs the Cultural Change Institute at the Fletcher School, Tufts University, in Medford, Mass. He is the author of "The Central Liberal Truth: How Politics Can Change A Culture And Save It From Itself."
These three reflections capture snapshots of America and reveal how mistaken we are to claim that there is "one" American experience.
While not the thrust of their testimonies, a shared theme from their "witnessing" is clear; an education is transformative. At a time when racial dialogue has again been reduced to a police arrest, remembering the larger goals of equality, particularly a vibrant, rigorous education that challenges comfort zones and ignorance, is important.
Sara Libby, Daisy Hernández, and Lawrence Harrison dispel the notion of a colorblind society, while also implicitly revealing that we craft the racial realities we desire. Sometimes that means playing the role of victim, but at other times ignoring the ways that class and gender confer significant privileges, such as access to tennis courts and determining the quality of a child's education.
As a little girl, I sought the comfort of a Jewish couple in our neighborhood. They were older, like my grandparents, whom I missed very deeply. They were the only Jews, and we were one of only two black families in the neighborhood. I preferred their company to playing outside.
Like the commentators today, they provided testimonials, and I eagerly listened. Our shared journey in a predominantly German-American neighborhood in Milwaukee was reflected over latkes, matzos, and apple sauce.
Our culture, and even our legal system, emphasize the importance of testimony or witnessing in ceremonies, church services, court proceedings, and even police reports. But too often, the testimonies we hear or seek in our personal lives affirm our worldview and come from people who look like us. There is something important in this exchange as it informs our own unique subcultures.
Yet, taken to extremes, we become insular as a society and certainly as individuals when the only experiences earning our respect or seeming legitimate come from next door. The starkest contemporary example played out 15 years ago on the world stage with relentless ethnic appeals over the radio urging Rwandan Hutus to kill fellow Tutsis. After 100 days, as many as 1 million Tutsis were dead.
More challenging is to hear a different version of life and reflect on it with the respect and deference given to our peers and families. Doing so is easier than we think, except we cling to race, class, and gender roles like security blankets, unwilling to relinquish them for fear of seeming disloyal or sending the wrong message to the people we admire.
I remember a black college classmate, who refused the romantic entreaties of a Jewish guy only to be pulled into unhealthy romantic relationships with men from her neighborhood back in Washington, D.C. Later she revealed concern about seeming inauthentic around black students. Quite possibly, that may help explain why the late Senator Strom Thurmond, the symbol of segregationist policies, kept secret his African-American daughter, (the product of his youthful indiscretions with the family's maid).
It is this idolatry of race that keeps us from understanding those we have most in common with – fellow Americans. It is also what obstructs our understanding of nuanced and deeply entrenched class dynamics in America. And, as much as I believe that we still have yet to understand our shared race history in the United States, we have not begun to scratch the surface at class, which perhaps should serve as our next point of testifying.
Michele Bratcher Goodwin is a professor of law and a professor of medicine and public health at the University of Minnesota.