Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Was Integration a Failure

In this video, Condoleezza Rice talks about how when she grew up in Birmingham, she was somewhat shielded from racism because the town was so segregated.  Many Southern towns were this way, they built a life for themselves on their own side, where they may have had their own dentists, grocery stories, schools, clubs, and more.

When towns began to integrate, blacks lost their economic clout.  Integration was an opportunity for blacks to head over to the white sides of town, not vice versa.  Blacks took their dollars and headed to the white side of town.  They left behind more than failing black businesses though.

For many blacks, going to the white side of town meant experiencing prolonged exposure to the disgust many whites still held for them.  Imagine walking into a store and having someone act repulsed by your mere existence.  As towns began to implement integration laws, more and and more blacks experienced the true cost of freedom.  Their dollars were accepted, but their dignity was slowly chipped away.

As the businesses began to shut down on the black sides of town, there was no longer a safe place to go.  The black oasis, the hub, the streets of black freedom and commerce, slowly started to die.  There was no place of pride and peace to return to.  The shield was gone.

Saturday, August 18, 2012


Through the process of doing this research - by which I mean trying to understand my grandfather’s life and the time and place in which he lived – I’ve had lots of white friends attempt to engage me in conversations on race.  These same friends never brought it up before – but I’ve always been black and they’ve always been white.  I think they’re trying to be “good friends,” trying to show interest in my work and this thing that, in many ways, has taken over all of my free time.

These conversations are almost always awkward.  One friend was telling me about how her grandfather’s friends would go to lynching parties, but her grandfather would never go.  She was clearly proud of him.  I tried to come up with a compelling response.  I can’t remember what I said, but I do remember that she and I just kind of looked at each other for a few moments trying to figure out how to gracefully change the subject. 

I have a meeting coming up in mid-November with someone who has spent their life studying interpersonal and interracial communications.  I’ve been thinking a lot about going back to school and getting an advanced degree in something related to race and class or social justice…who knows.  I want to pick her brain, think about my options, and just have an unfiltered dialogue about race in America.

I have a white friend who wants to come with us because she knows this professor.  At first I was excited.  I thought, “The more the merrier,” we’ll tell stories, engage and it will be great.

Then I remembered another friend who I tried to do this with five years ago.  Barack Obama was running for president and a white girlfriend of mine was up in arms because she felt that too many blacks were turning Republican remarks into issues of race. Our conversations started to get heated.  She really, sincerely, and earnestly believed that racism no longer existed and that blacks who spoke about it were the ones who kept the issue alive. 

I’d shared meals with this woman.  Our children had played together.  Sadly, after many painful conversations in which she tried to explain away all of my statistics, I was never able to enjoy her company again.  I wanted to.  We both home schooled with very similar ideologies and our kids were the exact same age.  But it’s like there was a scent about her that was just off putting to me.  I couldn’t bring myself to include her in my life anymore. 

Many times when I try to provide modern day examples of race-based bias to friends, they politely and inquisitively start asking questions about the situation.  It’s clear that they’re looking for some other, any other reason for why my black friends who drive a BMW were forced to sit on the curb with their four children while the police searched their car for drugs in the middle of the day.  The police officer actually asked my friend's husband where he got the money to pay for his car.  No they weren’t speeding, yes their tags were current, and yes they were let go without being ticketed. 

When I tell stories of modern day racism to friends, sometimes the questions they ask make me cringe. 

But I have to ask myself a question.  I live in a state that is only 4% black.  Many of my friends don’t have any other close black friends, really because they just don’t get to interact with very many people of color.  If they’re interested in learning about African-American race issues, even debating these issues, do I have a responsibility to educate and to expose them to ideas that may never have occurred to them? 

My first answer is “no”.  I don’t have to subject myself to people who want to debate an issue that has so painfully shaped my father’s life, my grandfather’s life and my own.  My aunt was taught to never look a white person in the eye because she would be considered an ignorant n-----.  She certainly never told her children to do the same, but maybe they learned it from her, picked it up in the way that children pick everyday mundane things like how to turn a doorknob or hold a spoon.

The subject of race is filled with my own personal truths and I don’t feel that I should have to defend them to anyone.  That’s the answer I’ve been coming up with all week when I tell myself that there’s nothing wrong with telling my friend that she can’t come to our lunch.

But this morning, like a foreboding fog slowly moving across a landscape, another question entered my mind.  Were they all supposed to be activists?  It’s very easy to judge the whites in the South who basically did nothing before and during the civil rights movement.  It’s easy to think that they had a basic moral responsibility to “do the right thing” in whatever situation they found themselves placed. 

Maybe many of them simply didn’t go to the lynching parties.  But did they try to stop them?  Did they call the FBI and name names?  Many of them clearly chose to quietly hope that all would work out in the end.  They probably felt badly about the families that were left motherless and fatherless by these senseless murders.  But maybe they were focused on building their businesses, raising their children and their cotton.

How many conversations should I have with bright-eyed white people about my life and the way it’s been shaped by race? 

Is it my position that I should be able to say whatever I want about race and that all others who simply don’t get it must be silent.  I don’t want to say that I refuse to listen to the innocent, and often times, excruciating questions from friends about race.  But I also don’t want to end up without any white friends either. 

Maybe I should cancel the lunch all together.  Clearly I'm not ready to spend all day thinking about and talking about race with just anyone.  Maybe I'll get an advanced degree in how to keep my mouth shut without shutting down my soul.  

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Behind the Talk

The simple truth is that talking about race is anything but simple.  It's complicated, messy, humiliating, dangerous, and sometimes it doesn't seem worth it.  But it is.  If we can keep our wits about us, we can move forward, one conversation at a time.

I'm no expert, but I sincerely think that one of the critical aspects of successfully talking about race is actually the stuff behind the talk.  Our country is in a mess.  It seems almost impossible to talk about race without lowering ourselves to schoolyard communication techniques.  I think sometimes we forget that we're talking to actual people and we begin to feel as though we're talking to the issue itself, as if it has taken on the flesh of the one we're arguing with.

There are some basic truths that we may want to hold on to when we engage in these complicated conversations.  We all have the capacity to love, to hurt, and to ache.  We all love our children and would do whatever we think needs to be done to protect them.  (Yes, I know there are some crazies out there who do not love their children, but we're not talking about them).  We want to protect our homes from the unknown.  We want safety and a hope for a bright future.

Let's start there.  Let's start with what makes us the same, because what makes us different is often times found in the slight nuances of how we respond to these same intrinsic yearnings and desires.  At the core of who I am, beneath my shade of skin, underneath my life choices, there is a warm core that is probably similar to the core of a racist.

Instead of inciting more hate, I push forward, determined to find a common ground of shared human experiences with everyone, even those who might cringe if they saw my son in an alley with a hoodie atop his head.  I make a conscious choice to be a peacemaker.