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4 December, 2010

Black Skin White Skin

A few years ago, when I was working at an elite liberal arts college, I held a freelance job as a writer for the college magazine. Part of my duties included covering speakers who came to campus, one of whom was Cornel West. The piece I wrote, ‘Single Man March,’ was drawn from the six pages of notes that I took, notes that transcribed every word that was being uttered in the room, from the introduction of the speaker to the last response from Mr. West to a question from the audience. I don’t always work that way. I’ve had the kind of education that trained me to pick out the important details from the mass of superfluous fluff that usually punctuates our speech. The things that give me a solid opening for an article or those that highlight a point I wish to make, appear in the auditory version of highlighted text in a book, and I write it down.

Cornel West however is a different cup of tea. His eminence and his intellect combines with his fast paced speech to make it literally impossible to simply wait for “the important pieces.” Every word, every sentence carries something of note, something worth listening to, something worth capturing in an overview. I do not believe in disturbing everybody else at a gathering with the clacking of my keyboard and Cornel West does not allow his speeches to be taped. The task before me then was to simply write down everything. Pen the paper and my ears; these were my tools. In writing about Mr. West, I described him using the words of a faculty member who had called him, with a nod and a smile, during her introduction, “and, yes, the violent and eloquent public intellectual he is.” She seemed, in her remarks, to be carrying over something they had talked about prior to their arrival on stage; at the private dinner, maybe.

I used her words because, as I wrote this piece, I was asked to speak to her on account of the fact that she was, I suppose, the most prominent Black faculty member on campus. Since she had nothing to add to the story, and said so, I went back to my notes and used what she had said during her introduction of Mr. West. The day the magazine came out, this professor ripped into my editor claiming that she had never said such a thing. I, initially willing to discuss this matter with the professor, sent her an email which she replied by calling me a racist, who needed to “examine the racism in my own head,” and pointedly referencing her doctorate in her signature – I had made the additional mistake, apparently, of referring to her by her first name. She also emailed her message detailing her outrage to my editor and all the senior staff including the president of the college (via BCC, but of course).

It was the kind of attack that a member of the faculty would never make on someone of equal status – economic, professional or minority hue. I, with no steady job on campus, an outlier without a department or any kind of official position within the college, was easy fodder. Mercifully, my editor, a fellow writer and the author of many novels, stood by me. In the face of her abominable behavior, I told him I would not apologize, I stood by my words and could share my six pages of notes with him and that if this person had some notes of her own that she could show, or could tell us what it was that she had said, we could talk. The correction from the editor was a “she says” that referred to her statement that she did not say such a thing, but issued no apology, although the online version has expunged the word “violent,” from the text.

It amused me, over the years, that whenever I saw this professor in public she always seemed delighted to see me. On each occasion she addressed me warmly, though she never asked my name, quite as if we were old friends. On more than one occasion she paused to photograph me and a friend of mine, as we stood together at the annual ball. I assume she photographed us because we were both Black since neither my friend nor I were acquainted with her. It occurred to me that in her attack on me she never tried to learn who I might be, or what credentials I had to my name, or any history of integrity that might have given her pause. It was simply an easy attack to make, and she chose to make it on account, among other things, of my last name: Freeman, which, Morgan notwithstanding, is routinely assumed to be White, Jewish.

Yesterday, my second grader came home with a blotch on her name. While standing second in line behind a boy from her class, another boy pushed through and tried to take her place. She asked him “how did you get here? you need to go to the end of the line.” The boy went home and told his parents, who informed the school principal that she had said “I don’t like Black People.” It was a dirty way to wiggle out of the spot he was in because, of course, that is the ultimate trump card. Never mind that my daughter is, herself, of mixed race. Never mind that her mother is considered Black. All that mattered to this boy was, obviously, that she looks white (she is light skinned and has dark brown hair), and that made it okay to defame her character that way.

I won’t go into the conversation I had with the Principal, nor my opinion of parents who are raising a kid, a second grader, who knows how to play that game. I will, however, go into the school board meeting that was held not long ago in the Lower Merion School District, to elect a new member to the board due to the sudden retirement of one of the other members. There have been many difficulties for the school board in this district, much of them related to race, and the meeting was full of people, both in the audience and as administrators, who had come there carrying a lot of baggage from that past. I went with the express intention of speaking on behalf of one of the candidates who happens to be White. The candidate of the hour, however, was the wife of a pastor, who happened to be Black. As I listened to the proceedings, and to the interview of this particular candidate, I began to feel that she had something unique to bring to the table, a historical perspective and experience that could, perhaps, add something that was not already covered by one or more of the people currently serving on the board. And so though I got up and spoke, eloquently, I’m told, on behalf of my friend, I also acknowledged the merits of the other person’s candidacy, something I had come to understand in light of the information I had gathered during the proceedings.

What struck me, however, was the tone of many of those who stood up to speak on her behalf, and the room was almost entirely filled with her supporters, both Black and White. Far too many of them made derogatory remarks about the complexion of the current board, their very “Whiteness” somehow a problem that made them “lesser” and “incapable of understanding.” Doing the right thing, as one after the other got up to say, was to “take a look in the mirror.” In other words, there was something inherently wrong about all the White people, something about their “Whiteness” that prevented them from, I suppose, caring about their kids (who also attend these same schools), the schools themselves and neighborhood communities, the achievement gap, the budget, etc. etc. It made me wonder what would have happened if any one person, let alone dozens of them, had got up and said there was something wrong about the candidate who was Black who, because of her “Blackness” could not “understand” the issues pertinent to a district that is predominantly White? (The actual breakdown is below)

White 83.3%
Black 7.9%
Hispanic 1.8%
Asian/Pacific Islander 6.8%
American Indian/Alaska Native 0.3%

Is it ever okay for someone who is White or Other to say something derogatory about someone who is Black? Never. Then why are we all so comfortable with saying anything we like about people who are White? I count myself in that group, by the way. My rants, albeit private, often carry the term “White People” as a group that is engaging in some stupidity, incompetence, lack, in the same way that I feel perfectly justified ranting about “Americans” and all this in the presence of my husband who is both White and American, my three daughters who are also half-White and all American, not to mention my own joint-citizenship of this country.

I can claim that my prejudices are justifiable. My entire career as a journalist began when I had it up to my eyeballs with White women assuming that I was the hired help whenever I was with my light-skinned first born daughter. (Their children never made that mistake, it was always the adults; children notice interactions, they notice the mothering that is so distinct from the work of a nanny.) Just yesterday I sat in the office of a healthcare specialist at the nation’s top pediatric hospital, CHOP, and had the bizarre experience of having her turn to me – after I’d filled out all the paperwork, along with my oldest daughter, after we’d been there for about half an hour – and ask me with more than a little doubt if I was her mother. I will not write here what I could have said there. What I did say was, simply, “yes,” and then I mentally took a step back to evaluate the conversation. Perhaps, I thought charitably, she feels I looked too young to be the mother of this tall young girl, something I hear often. But that was because I was taking the time to be generous. And I was being generous because the specialist was referred to me by a man I do respect and have a great fondness for, my daughter’s coach at Lower Merion High School. In other words, I was taking the time to reflect on relationships.

My life in America and my political work has certainly given me enough reason to feel that it is entirely within the realm of reason and good behavior for me to trash both Americans and White people whenever the American government commits some fresh crime or vast swaths of Americans (of every race and ethnicity), under the Tea Party or some other banner utter some blasphemy (against immigrants, the President, the gay community, artists, women, the entire universe for heavens sake), or whenever another private slight comes in my direction from an inattentive/insensitive person. My White friends laugh along with me, poking fun at themselves for their “Whiteness” – their inability to eat flaming hot curries, for instance, or some other trait that is associated with their race. Perhaps in the correct context, where affection (for friends) or love (for ones spouse), is not in question, such speeches are allowable. Perhaps within the privacy of ones home it is innocuous to let fly at all the petty and large things we cannot control. And perhaps the depth of my obvious civic and other commitments to America, my nurturing and writing in support of its good, and my equally obvious happy co-existence with White people suffice to absolve me. But perhaps not. Because in the end, what we talk about around a dining table has a way of filtering out into the world in the minds and hearts of the children we raise.

Mine will never be heard saying they don’t like Black People. That is an out-of-bounds that holds within these four walls as steadfastly as it holds outside them. And they will never be heard saying they don’t like White People (or Americans), because that would indicate a level of self-loathing that they are too joyous to carry within them. But somewhere in the midst of the goodwill that they embody, sits their mother who feels just as comfortable expressing strong and public support for White people as she does expressing equally strong dislike for certain groups of people or even specific individuals whose skin color is part of the discussion. So what, exactly, am I teaching them? Quite possibly the same thing that was taught to all those people – Black and White – who got up and felt comfortable looking directly into the faces of fellow hard-working, all-volunteer, much beleaguered elected officials and trashing them for the whiteness of their skin.

It is far too late for the professor, but not for us. I hope that as I sit here mulling over these issues, somewhere else in this neighborhood, there’s another mother re-evaluating her prejudices tonight. Perhaps it will be possible for both her son and my daughter to grow up in a world where nobody uses race as an easy out or an easy in, and where the humanity of a person – even a person whose politics they dislike – is never obscured in their eyes by the color of their skin.

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14 May, 2010

Birthdays and Prayers. Looking Back, Looking Forward

Today my best friend celebrates his birthday in a state, New York, which denies him and many of his friends basic rights and benefits that the rest of us take for granted.

As I think about that, I am reminded of a Fall morning many years ago, when I sat in a class on Black Women in the Americas, at Bates, and was told that we were going to watch the romantic saga that brought Vivienne Leigh to independent theaters worldwide. “Gone With The Wind? I love that movie!” I exclaimed. My friend, an African-American woman, stared at me, aghast: “But it’s so racist!” Thanks to our subsequent discussions, Mammy and Pork took up a full screen in my mental map of the movie, revealing a subtext that I, a foreigner, had missed in my awe over Scarlett’s waist and the beautiful green velvet drapes.

Recently, I revisited that moment in light of the debate over same-sex marriages in New York, and the attacks that have been made on those who have tried to bring equal rights to everybody in this country as well as those initiatives that seek to export our basest impulses overseas. In an article for the NYT early this year, Jeffrey Gettleman talks about three American evangelical Christians, who went to Uganda to give a series of talks about “curing” homosexuals:

For three days, according to participants and audio recordings, thousands of Ugandans, including police officers, teachers and national politicians, listened raptly to the Americans, who were presented as experts on homosexuality. The visitors discussed how to make gay people straight, how gay men often sodomized teenage boys and how “the gay movement is an evil institution” whose goal is “to defeat the marriage-based society and replace it with a culture of sexual promiscuity.”

The end result was a law, introduced by a little known politician with ties to the U.S., called the Anti-Homosexuality Bill, which will impose a death sentence on people exhibiting homosexual behavior. The role of individual Americans, (usually those with an agenda of proselytizing thrown in), in instigating and supporting bigotry in other nations, particularly in the recent past in African nations against gay individuals, is bad enough, but we have troubles closer to home.

Here’s the current status of human rights with regard to gays in the US: five states, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont and the District of Washington DC, allow legal marriage between same-sex couples, along with the Coquille Indian Tribe in Oregon. Previously, the state of California granted the same legal right to marriage for same-sex couples, and then rescinded that right although it continues to grant the right to the benefits of marriage to same-sex couples, although only those who were married before November 5, 2008, are allowed the designation, “marriage.” In NY, Rhode Island and Maryland, same-sex marriages are recognized but not performed.

So back to that movie. I first saw the driveway to Tara projected on a screen at a private screening in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Apart from the movie, I watched a young man, Michael, who was wearing blue shadow on his eyes and had his arm around the shoulder of his boyfriend. My parents – an educator and a senior member of the Ceylon Civil Service – were deeply involved in the arts community, and Michael, new to the fold, became a good friend.

I went from 7 to 17, with a dawning realization that our home was a haven for my parents’ non-heterosexual friends. Neither my brothers or I or any of our friends ever questioned their presence under our roof. Uncle Eustace, trained in England and a Brigadier from the Royal Army, a fine actor who played Alfred Doolittle with aplomb, cheered us up when my father lost his job, and commandeered an army ambulance to get him to intensive care when he had his first heart attack. I called Uncle Tony when I needed a ride somewhere. There he would reliably be, a very large gentleman in a very small red Morris Minor, on time and ready to shuttle us where we needed to go. Uncle Damian, Director of the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, cleared both my American husband and me for our International Drivers Licenses. These men and women joined the many others who created the social backdrop to my childhood, coloring it with their generous spirits and purposeful lives.

It has been bewildering to me therefore, to watch each wave of fearful and vitriolic reactions to bills ensuring that the rights extended to all citizens and legal residents are not withheld from those who choose to consummate their romantic relationships differently than others. Much of the debate has been centered on God. As a practicing Buddhist who attended a Roman Catholic convent and then a Christian missionary school, reads both the Bible and the Qu’ran, worked for the Quakers, and conducted research on the Jewish and Druze faiths, I have come to see that there really is no God who is not present in every person. Among the words of wisdom that have guided me in how I raise my own three daughters, are the words of Jesus who said, “whatsoever you do to the least of my brothers, that you do unto Me.” (Mt. 25:40)

It is difficult for me to understand how some of God’s followers have taken it upon themselves to decide that they must judge other human beings. Not for the massacre of innocents or the pursuit of material gain at the cost of destroying all creation, but for how two consenting adults choose to conduct their private lives.

In trying to understand the motivation behind these assaults, I go back to that class I took as a young adult. Ignorance is usually at the root of our most repugnant and non-inclusive political positions, but it is also at the root of our blindness to what life might be like for someone other than ourselves. I learned, by seeing that movie through my friend’s eyes, that it both left things unsaid and stated other things loud and clear. It did not diminish my enjoyment of the chemistry between Scarlett and Rhett. It did not make me stop grabbing the unyielding soil of my garden from time to time and declaring that “as god is my witness I’ll never go hungry again!” It did make me understand her experience, it did enlighten me about American history. It broadened my mind, it made me a better human being and it made us real friends, the kind whose friendship is based not only on shared activities and interests but deep empathy.

Surely our lives should be defined by the people we stand up for, not by those we seek to destroy? One of the early Quakers, William Penn, once said that “Love is the hardest lesson in Christianity; but, for that reason, it should be most our care to learn it,” which is not unlike the verse in Colossians, Chapter 2:13-19: “clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience…and over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.”

May my friend wake up someday soon to a home that recognizes that which is holy in every living being. Happy birthday, Charles.

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The Books:

The Books:

On Sal Mal Lane

In the tradition of In the Time of the Butterflies and The Kite Runner, a tender, evocative novel about the years leading up to the Sri Lankan civil war.

A Disobedient Girl

A Disobedient Girl is a compelling map of womanhood, its desires and loyalties, set against the backdrop of beautiful, politically turbulent, Sri Lanka.


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