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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.