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Reflections on race

Four writers share experiences that shaped their views.

(Page 3 of 3)

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."

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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.