Nov 3, 2009

More thoughts on racism

I never really thought about racism as pertinent. I also never really considered the idea of white priviledge. If anybody had mentioned it to me as a child, I would have laughed at them. After all, I grew up in a single parent home. I attended ten different schools by the time I graduated high school. I remember the shame and the stigma of wearing clothes that were out of style and didn't quite fit because they were bought at Good Will, or donated as some act of charity. To this day I cannot stomach the thought of powdered milk or Wonder Bread, they were staples in the food the local church dropped off on our porch. And I hate using coupons, they remind me of the food stamps my mother used to purchase our groceries.

Racism wasn't really discussed in my family other than to say that it was bad. Most of my friends were white, but not all of them. My friends were chosen more from the demographics in my classes than any other reason. And I do remember thinking quite clearly that I could not be racist because my best friend was black. That was in 9th grade. So, as much as racism was not discussed, obviously the idea of it was a part of my consciousness. Dating a black boy later in high school proved to be disastrous. But again, it never occurred to me to think any more on the subject than that my father was anachronistic.

It wasn't until I lived in another country and was surrounded by another language and another culture, that I began to think critically about my own culture in terms of race. There I sat, in a cafe speaking in English with an American friend. I don't remember what we were talking about, but the rest of the events are burned into my memory. A stranger came and sat down at the table with us. He asked us if we were American, since he heard us speaking in English. We told him that yes, we were. Then he asked us if either one of us had ever met a black person. We were both shocked. It offended our sensibilities that 1. a stranger would sit at our table and intrude into our conversation and 2. that he would blatantly talk about race. We told him that yes, we both knew black people. He was intrigued. He wanted to know what they were like. If we were friends with any, etc. I told him that some of my best friends were black, and he actually physically recoiled. He asked how I could be friends with a black person, they were all gangsters, they all carried guns, cussed, etc. Then I asked him, if he had never met a single black person, how he knew this to be true. His answer shocked me, and still has me thinking years later. See? He knew all of this was true because he watched American movies.

I came home, I spoke to my classes in the university about this. I started watching movies and television more critically. If I didn't know this culture, what would I think watching this? What images are we broadcasting to the world about our views, our beliefs, ourselves?

Then this summer I was taking a course for grad school. I had to interview professionals about ethnic and cultural minorities in schools and how we can better serve our gifted students who are minorities. The woman I interviewed told me that growing up she was raised never to hate white people. Her father had always told her that without white people, there would still be slaves.

Just like the comment made to me in that cafe, and the book I read after completing the interview, this comment has stuck with me. It was a complete paradigm shift for me. I'd never looked at the race issue from that side before. But it was very liberating to hear. I find that since that conversation, I am less hesitant in opening dialogues and talking to people. It is almost as if I am not ashamed of being white, which comment sounds very odd because I am not ashamed of who I am, but I don't know how else to explain the change inside. It was also a burden. I hear racist ideas and views in things people say without even thinking. I see racist images in the media. I see racism in the classroom. And now I ask myself, am I behaving in the manner of an abolitionist? Or am I being part of the silent majority who believes something is wrong but who will not speak up out of fear?


  1. I read this post this morning and have to tell you that you so eloquently expressed your thoughts. It is sad that many people throughout this world views and learns about Americans from movies. I corresponded with a gentleman from India a while ago and he thought we lived with a lot of violence in our lives because of what he saw in American movies. I thought "how sad for us that people in other countries who watch the movied produced by us are learning the wrong things about us as people and as a culture." You re-enforced those thoughts in me this morning.... thank you. I think it is important for us to be aware of this false image of American culture.

  2. Hey loca! Thanks for the candor. I really appreciate it. Your ability to articulate those thoughts is remarkable. I read a book in college called Racial Healing: Confronting the Fear Between Blacks and Whites. It speaks to this exact topic and is worth the read. Is that the book you read?

  3. Liz, the book I read was "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?": A Psychologist Explains the Development of Racial Identity by Beverly Daniel Tatum. When I'm done with this thesis reseach, I will check your recommendation out.


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