Thursday, July 18, 2013

More Light Topics: Race and the Trayvon Martin Case

After a bit of a writing drought, I just submitted a pieceto the Huffington Post about, oh, you know... something light and non-controversial: race and the Trayvon Martin case.  Why do I do this? I must be a glutton for punishment because I can pretty much predict given the topic I'll get some tasty comments.  I’m a little terrified. (Maybe they'll bury the piece and no one will see it, which could be a mixed blessing.) 

The point of the piece was that instead of hyper-analyzing the minutia of the case, we should turn that scrutiny inward and examine our own biases.  We still live in a profoundly unequal world and there’s too much evidence that the typical American harbors subconscious biases – especially when it comes to race and crime, which doubtlessly played into the verdict.  I suggested that we honestly air our own views about race in order to scrutinize and even cleanse them.  So…. I guess I should go first:

So, I’m going to take a nice big breath and try and write from the heart about my own history with race in America...

I was brought up on a diet of 'Free to be You and Me" and the rainbow (muppet and human) of Sesame Street characters. We didn’t have nightly discussions about race and racism, but we lived in a community of immigrants (Russians, Chinese, South Koreans) and judging anyone because they looked or spoke differently was simply not tolerated in our house, and we never heard my parents say anything derogatory, really about anyone. 

Being Jewish, we learned of our own oppression and the unfairness of being sorted and placed at the bottom of the heap based on superficial differences. Every year at Passover we were reminded that we were liberated, once slaves ourselves.  My Hebrew school teacher bore a tattoo from the holocaust; we recited the banner of the aftermath: “Never Again.”  

Even though we moved to a less diverse area, middle school reinforced this liberal pluralistic credo, and, I, like so many other children was outraged when I learned in detail about the treatment of Native Americans and African slaves.  Ghandi and Martin Luther King were easy and popular heroes to obvious past injustices.  But it was easy to feel indignant and self-righteous  in a homogenous suburb of Chicago, never having to face the fallout of resentment or lingering marginalization or my place in the resulting unequal distribution.

Still, other things sat uncomfortably and unspoken. My grandmother,  a short, spunky woman who was rough around the edges of her enormous heart, seemed to best reach across all social and cultural divides.  She called everyone from the diner waitress to the bus driver to her grandchildren “honey.”  She’d touch their hands affectionately with a conspiratorial twinkling in her eyes.  Even at the end of her life in the assisted living community, the staff – all immigrants and minorities – would pull us aside and tell us she, who they nicknamed “the mayor,” was their favorite, the one who treated them all like her own grandchildren.  But as a child I remember watching an episode of Good Times with her,  Thelma dancing to disco music in her hip hugging flared bell-bottom jeans, hearing my grandmother say, “those people sure can dance.”  My brother, sister and I shifted uncomfortably in our seats, knowing that “you shouldn’t say such things,” but finding it hard to square this with the woman who said them. 

In college, I had my ideals both refined and tested.  I learned about the subtle structural inequalities that pervade our education and justice systems and the efforts to redress them.  I learned about the messy intertwining of race and class. The Bell Curve, that racist tract disguised as science, had just come out and we took down the arguments piece by piece.  We considered ourselves open-minded, even mind expanding.  But I looked around and saw that the college cafeteria was self-segregated, as were the parties and most of the student housing.  The only places true mixing was taking place was in athletics or the arts (for me it was my dance troupe), where some deeper common passion had the chance to override our differences. 

My sophomore year, I spent a semester abroad here in Kenya.  Again, I studied the colonial history and braced myself to be hated for the color of my skin, for my implicit association with past evils.  But instead I found myself welcomed, something in between a curiosity and a celebrity, even admired, for my skin color. And I wondered if this wasn’t somehow worse.  

I lived with a family in a small informal settlement in Nairobi, the first time, at 19, surrounded, enveloped, completely by people with darker skin.  I thought about deeply segregated Chicago, where the newsmedia covered the distant all black neighborhoods only for crime – gun violence, drugs and murder.  I examined my feelings honestly, still unafraid to be self-reflective aloud, and I remarked to another American student, “It’s funny, I think I associate darker skin with danger, even though I know that’s not fair and I know I shouldn’t.”   The other student shot back, “well, in my family, we learned to see all people equally. It’s just how I was brought up.”   It shut me up and made me feel ashamed and also misunderstood.  But I learned not to voice these things. 

But that was the wrong lesson, and it’s taken years to unlearn it.  I still get nervous talking about race, for fear of being misunderstood.  Maybe that’s typically American.  But overall my life has blessed me with an opportunity to come to know and to love people of vastly different backgrounds, and that helps break down false assumptions.  It’s part of what I cherish about living abroad and among people who come from different backgrounds and perspectives, who teach me, in ways lessons about Ghandi and Martin Luther King cannot, that we have more in common than not.  


  1. Congrats (and good luck!) on your HuffPo piece!

    I agree with you 100% on the need to focus on examining our own biases about race. It drives me nuts when people go on and on about the details of the Zimmerman trial like they went to the law school of the internet.

    Talking about race is hard for me too. I'm a white woman who lives in a state where 3.6% of the population is African American. And I feel like there's a lot of, "well, in *my* family, we learned to see all people equally..." lip service but very little actual discussion. It's to the point where I wouldn't even know how to begin having an honest open dialogue about race in American because I just feel so detached, privileged, and guilty.

    1. I know! Everyone is an "expert" on the details.

      And I feel like so many of us are uncomfortable talking about that and that's the crux of the problem. I actually had a friend describe a someone who was to be my roommate as a "tall pretty girl with dark hair" when I needed to find her at the airport. She completely neglected to mention that she was black - which would have been hugely helpful when searching for someone in a crowded airport. IT's like we're THAT terrified of even pointing out. And that's exactly the condition where subconscious biases can fester.

      Anyway, there's an awesome piece in The Nation about this issue I think you'd like

  2. And write from the heart you did.

  3. I found, much to my surprise, tears in my eyes as I read your piece. This is such a complicated and profound issue. I think of my father who befriended a black teacher who was dismissed from his school in the 1950s in Minneapolis when it was discovered that his wife was white. I think of my son's best friend in middle school and high school - smart, funny, handsome, bi-racial - that I secretly hoped would someday be my son-in-law and ached to hear him tell he had been stopped and interrogated by the LAPD for nothing at all other than that he was riding (his own) very nice bicycle in our neighborhood. I remember dating a gorgeous black man in college who was much more welcome in my world than I in his - his mother was furious about us. Yet I know that I do inch closer to the control panel if I am alone on an elevator with a black man - (WHY do I DO that?) - and I do lock my car doors if I am in one of "those" neighborhoods - (WHY do I DO that?). ANd yet, I look at the photos of Trayvon and I simply CANNOT imagine ANYONE thinking it's OK to shoot a teenager for walking through a neighborhood. Our hearts, our heads, our sense of justice, our early wiring...I just don't understand how and why this is so confusing and difficult.

    1. Thanks so much Heidi for sharing your own experiences and being so open and honest about your fears. The truth is some of it is probably rational. We lock our car doors in dangerous neighborhoods and that's just logical, and people of all colors are more cautious in more violent neighborhoods. I think maybe it's about working towards seeing that spark in people which transcends where they live and what they look like. And being smart about your own safety without grouping people too broadly into the "dangerous" category. It's tricky.

  4. Evolution of any sort is a slow moving mechanism, that through trial and error will lead to a refined and consistent result. Any and all separation as a social norm inevitably leads to inequality and resentment. The simple answer is that if everyone understood that we are all the same, and as a collective conscientiousness, that if combined, global peace would easily be reached.

    Unfortunately the obsolete idea of tribalism prevails, be it race, religion, country, or class. We separate ourselves in the interest of self preservation. We see "our way" as the truth, and instinctually assume anyone outside of that is working against our happiness.

    We all want love, happiness, companionship, and to be included in something larger than than us. We fall apart in these simple truths, when we as individuals rigidly define those universal needs, and how to acquire them. When it's defined through religion, it goes a step further as a form of a superiority complex that is reinforced by the word of an omnipotent being. When it's defined through class, the false security of a corrupt monetary system, it separates our value into what we're worth, by what we have. Country and race are further defined by the former. And when a person comes along and tries to dispel this notion like Ghandi, Jesus, MLK, JFK, Malcolm X and others, they're are demonized and typically killed.

    So to repair a problem by simply fixing "stand your ground" laws or implementing "affirmative action" tries to fix the result not the problem. These "band-aid" solutions only further the separation and resentment. The real solution is on the cellular level. We as parents are to teach to love, and respect everyone, to show our children the result of subjugation like the Jewish Holocaust, Native American genocide, and slavery. That understanding that anger in the African American community, isn't because they're "black" people, but because their people have been abused, belittled and marginalized for centuries. The same result would have happened if they were any other race of slaves. Then the hope is those children become leaders where these ancient forms of ego will become extinct.

    Each generation gets smarter, and more enlightened. If not, then to use my cellular analogy again, the hate and separation grows like a cancer, until we all die.