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.


12 thoughts on “Black Skin White Skin”

  1. Jenn De Leon says:

    This post has given me much to think about, primarily the ways in which assumption plays such a role in anything race-related. People assume I can teach them how to dance salsa, that I voted for Obama and not Hillary, that English is not my first language, all because I am Latina, because I am brown. Never have the assumptions been so bold and bright, though, as in a university classroom, where, this time around I am the professor. My students of color seem to think I won’t lower their grades for late papers, unexcused absences, or the like, and my athlete white boys seem to think that slipping in oblique compliments of my cheekbones will somehow motivate me to swap their Bs for As. It is bizarre. And yet I don’t blame them. As you noted, this “game” is taught at a young age by many parents of all backgrounds. While the demographics of your community don’t reflect the country’s breakdown, I do think that we are moving away from chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs (strictly), and with that metamorphosis, new issues arise. Segregation exists intellectually as much as it does in physical terms. But going back to higher education, I have to wonder: to what extent our “progress” work to foster such backward behavior? I hope that by the time your second-grader reaches college, that things will be different.

  2. Mary Akers says:

    Thank you for this, Ru. So very timely and important. It speaks to me on many levels.

  3. Rosemari Banks says:

    Reading your blog was disturbing, but we so need to talk about race. I am African American and found it frustrating to read your assumptions and perceptions about African Americans that you encountered (professor, black people at school board, etc.), and how you found them biased, perhaps even more biased than whites? Maybe that is how your words made me feel and not specifically what you wrote.

    It amazes me how often individuals who are not black (you said you are mistaken as such) assume that black people are simply angry and against all white people for absolutely no reason. It’s just some flaw that comes along with being black. A thing now condescendingly called the race card.

    In one of my writing courses several years ago I wrote a story about a racist encounter I had while living in New Orleans. My professor and most of the class who were white, insisted that my perceptions were perhaps overly sensitive and that these people were probably not racist at all.

    In the same course we read a book about the Holocaust and I had the nerve to say I was not that impressed with the way the book was written. The professor accused me (in her office) of being anti-semitic. I am not.

    My point is that we are all deeply wounded and frightened about race.

    I do not want to judge you, but I would just like to suggest a book called “Slavery by Another Name” by Douglas A. Blackmon. I think it could give anyone, especially someone not born in this country, a stronger understanding of how deep the wounds are.

    I’m not saying whether the black people you described were right or wrong, but you should certainly leave some space in your heart for compassion and understandin for what black people have been through in this country and the struggle that never stops for so many of us.

    That’s all I’m sayin.

  4. Ru says:

    Rosemari –

    Thanks for reading and yes, we do need to talk about race.

    One of the interesting things to note here is that nowhere did I make any assumptions about African Americans. I was writing about an assumption a Black professor made about me. And nowhere have I made a blanket assumption about Black people – I am not African American but I would be considered within that strange mix of bedfellows called ‘People of Color.’ What I have stated is that all of us, Black, White and everything else, have given ourselves permission to say disparaging things about each other based upon perceptions and easily transmitted short-hand (around the dining tables), instead of valuing each others humanity, and that this way of looking at the world enters us at a very young age – as was the case with the second grader. I was writing this post in order to examine *my own* set of prejudices no matter how concealed they may be because of my actions, my professed allegiances and public life.

    Yes, I do not know what it is to be born African American in this country. You are absolutely right. And it is the job – as Tim Wise points out in his series of essays – to ask the victim of an injustice what that injustice may feel like, not the perpetrators. His talk, ‘Race is not a Card,’ is a fascinating look at the ways in which prejudice works, particularly “White” prejudice.

    I think that if you read this post again you will find that it comes from a place of compassion – not just for one group but for us all.

  5. Beth Hahn says:

    Hey Ru,

    Lovely piece.

    I was lucky enough to be raised in a suburban, middle class community that, in the late seventies and early eighties, boasted an equal population of blacks and whites. We were neighbors and classmates, and we were all taught that racism is wrong. Our parents and schools expected us to freely intermingle. There was, of course, self-segregation, as there sadly is sometimes, but for the most part, we grew up with far fewer engrained racial preconceptions and stereotypes than many Americans do. Needless to say, it was a shock when I left Columbia, Maryland, for Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the tension between the races was, and might still be, palpable.

    Admittedly, when I read that people still form opinions about others based skin color–whether it be President Obama, a friend, a professor, or any random stranger, I am surprised and saddened, but no longer shocked. I feel it in my bones when someone makes an assumption about me because of my race or religious background, and I often have little to contribute on the issue of race because of my background; it takes me a while to notice when someone else is drawing racist conclusions. It’s an odd position to be in in America, but I share it with my many former classmates. I thought you might like to know about this, because I think it means that even in America, our race might be secondary, tertiary, and one day, the last thing considered when we form our opinions about others–and about ourselves.

    Wishing you and yours lots of love, and thank you for such a wonderfully thought out and honest post.

    xo B

  6. Serena says:

    I have often wondered how it is that being “white” or “black” can make one incapable of understanding something that would universally impact all members of a community with children, etc. Even those who do not have children should have the capacity to reason and understand the impacts of adverse policies. It boggles my mind that centuries later we are still holding onto these prejudices and that we cannot see ourselves simply as humans. We are all human, we all suffer, we all love, etc. Even today’s generation spends time categorizing their friends by race or gender or sexual orientation when they talk about something fun they did, etc. It is disheartening to say the least.

  7. TJ Jarrett says:

    I understand that we need to discuss race, that we need to understand one another and that this job of being a nation means that all are pulling the load. But maybe I should frame it in the larger context: we need to talk about humanity.

    Sometimes we (by we I mean Black people because I can) are so busy tending our wounds (of which are many) that we miss opportunities to heal these wounds. It absolutely offends me that we as Black people, or people en masse find ourselves in positions where we are to excuse the piss poor behavior of others because we ‘understand’ the struggle.

    I voted for Clinton (twice). I cannot defend his asking what IS is. Why would I begin to defend that? By extension, why would I even consider thinking about motive when the result of the act is so hurtful?

    Point 1: Where overreaction and overreach start is exactly where empathy for said pain should end.

    Point 2: There is a certain kind of person who is so busy thinking about what they don’t have (rights & privileges) that they regularly forget the rights and privileges they do. And they run riot over those who have fewer than they do (e.g. deranged woman yelling at a MacDonald’s employee. Like that poor sap doesn’t already have problems.)

    I refuse to live in a world where it is acceptable to say: ” I’m not saying whether the black people you described were right or wrong “. This is a cop-out. That’s what we were marching for– the right to be taken as individuals, to rise and fall based on our achievements and character. That includes the ability to make judgement calls on the acts of the individual.

    Dislike of Black people does not racism make. That’s prejudice. Disagreement and/or disapproval with individuals of color does not make one racist. Curtailment of the employment, enfranchisement and civil liberties and enjoyment thereof IS racism.

    That said: there are well documented histories of why being Black in America is to be a little jumpy. There are good reasons that Blacks are cautious in our interactions with the instruments of power. Part of the healing process just might be to better discern what ‘power’ embodies and not to shoot off at the mouth before identifying if the perceived threat deserves the intended response.

    But isn’t that just common sense and decorum for everyone? Shouldn’t we all step back from the brinkmanship that passes for political discourse and engage in a spirit of goodwill and honesty? Even when that honesty hurts?

    I’m afraid we don’t live in that world. But dammit, sometimes we could try.

  8. Ru says:

    TJ – So sorry I didn’t see this until now! Thanks for the words. Looking forward.

  9. Ru says:

    Tanya – I’m posting this link because I think it also addresses some of what you bring up.

  10. Rosemari Banks says:

    Ms. Jarrett:
    You make too many assumptions. Because I’m African American and you’re black, you need to jump in and put me in my place? You give me flashbacks to so many college classrooms.

    Out of respect for Ms. Freeman’s reflections I stated that, ‘I’m not saying whether the black people you described were right or wrong’ because I was trying to address the sentiment of her essay and not judge a situation that I have no means of actually judging.

    But I do not like your tone, your familiarity with me, while not even having the respect to address me, and furthermore, after your “that’s what we were marching for” remark, because I did march and members of my family died and went to jail as well, I now tend to agree with you. It was a cop-out. I actually think the black people dealing with the school board were absolutely right to want their own representation!

    As for me, I refuse to live in a world where African American people no longer have the respect and compassion for each other, that they so willingly extend to others.

    We live in an extremely racist society but no one is racist and African Americans go around making accusations of racism for all kinds of sinister and hysterical reasons is what I actually took from Ms. Freeman’s essay.

    I think you, Ms. Jarrett, and your friend Ms. Freeman, may be living in that post-racial world that economic stability affords so well.

    My heart is with those in poverty, who Obama refuses to address by even saying the word poor. Rather than blame them for their inappropriateness, I am dedicated to changing a society that has rendered them in perpectual poverty, angry, depressed, ignorant, always barely surviving.

    We can discuss character and individualism, achievements, etc. some where in the future. Right now, I will be doing all I can for the faces at the bottom of the well. Because they are me.

  11. Ru Freeman says:

    Hi Rosemari –

    It is bewildering to me that your take-away from this entire post was that “we live in an extremely racist society but no one is racist and African Americans go around making accusations of racism for all kinds of sinister and hysterical reasons.” Which part of this makes you believe that is the thrust of the message?

    First of all, I’m admitting to my own racist world-view whereby I rant on a regular basis about all the white people. Unless, of course, you believe that racism is only racism when it is directed at us black people by white people? Secondly, I can assure you that the professor who tried to screw every chance of continued employment at that college, and my entire reputation (of such paramount importance when living in a small town), was not poor, angry, depressed or ignorant. She was a fat cat with a cushy job at the top of the proverbial heap. Perhaps it was not a black/white issue but an issue of class. I only say what happened as it happened. She was good to my (black) face, but totally fucked with my (presumed) “white” face behind the name.

    I am glad that you continue to work on behalf of the poor. So does Tanya and so do I and so do millions of other black and white people. Refusing to have the conversation, however, or “face” the ugly truths, does not serve that common end.

  12. Rosemari Banks says:

    Hello Ms. Freeman:
    Discussing race is really a circular conversation. We seem to end up exactly where we started, licking our own wounds. Like the classroom discussion where you let the other person talk, so that you can make your own point (again), while never hearing what the other person actually had to say.

    I believe that you and Ms. Jarrett have the best intentions, but you’re from a different generation and your perceptions are extremely different from my own. “Ugly truths”? The difficult experiences you describe are love taps compared to the suffering and discrimination that has devastated my family and community. There I go, back to me.

    Peace. And I’m out.

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