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Many years ago, when working in a small company, I warily initiated a conversation with our lone African-American employee, a tech support guy. “We’re looking to hire a few more IT people,” I told him. “Do you have any friends or contacts -- you know, black friends or contacts — who might be interested?”
“I’ll think about it, but I can’t think of anyone off-hand,” he answered.
“Is it okay that I asked you that?” He assured me that it was, and didn’t seem to take umbrage at my question. I felt emboldened and so I probed deeper: How did it feel to be sought out for being black, to have me assume that he would know other black people? Was it welcome or just a smiley-face form of racism? Did he appreciate our fumbling efforts in affirmative action, or feel patronized by them?
what I remember most about it now was what an enormous relief it was to simply ask direct questions, hear honest answers, to talk about race without speaking in code.
We talked for about 20 minutes, what I remember most about it now was what an enormous relief it was to simply ask direct questions, hear honest answers, to talk about race without speaking in code. The conversation was cordial and direct.
So beyond their tortured rationales for perpetuating double standards and white privilege, what so struck me in the widely publicized comments of Donald Sterling and Cliven Bundy in the past few weeks is the common tenor of their voices — misunderstood and superior. Let me explain the world to you, they declare. It’s not that I don’t get it; you don’t get it.
I’ve been comparing their injured, belligerent tone with that of Carol and Beverly Ann, two African-American women in their 70s, with whom I’ve had the privilege of working as a memoir coach with Grub Street Writers’ Memoir Project. The program, conducted in partnership with Boston’s Commission on Affairs of the Elderly, collects and preserves the stories of senior citizens throughout the city, helping them to create narratives that illuminate some aspect of their lives and inevitably, the broader historical forces that have shaped them.
Carol grew up in Roxbury when it was an integrated neighborhood. Her parents never taught or warned her about racism, she told me. She only gradually began to directly encounter its effects when she noted the puzzlement of some white teachers who were surprised by her intelligence and ambition. Once out of school, she felt it in the actions of supervisors who gave her challenging assignments without the title or compensation they deserved. “Was it because I was a woman,” she recalls thinking, “or a woman of color, or both?”
Beverly Ann felt torn between two worlds from an early age. She went to an academically demanding, integrated school in the South End, while her brothers went to an all-black school in Roxbury where little was asked or expected of them. She entered her teens in the early 1960s, when Freedom Riders were being attacked and killed in the South, her friends and siblings were demanding that she choose just one affiliation and identity — assimilated Negro or militant black — and, as she matter-of-factly tells me, “I was starting to understand white privilege, and I didn’t like it one bit.”
Neither of these women is writing a memoir about race. Carol’s story is about becoming an artist; Beverly Ann’s is about a youth spent living at an actual and metaphorical crossroad at the intersection of Northampton Street and Shawmut Ave. But the fact and implications of race infused their outlooks, informed their choices, flavored their parables. Their stories are tales of discovery — about learning who they were and wanted to be, and noticing how the world worked along the way.
How exhausting it must be to frantically erect these walls of denial. What effort it must take to compartmentalize like this, to look anywhere but inward.
As they told them to me — a middle-class white woman who’s led a relatively privileged life — they spoke without rancor, with a clear understanding that race shapes but doesn’t define us. In contrast, listen to the tortured audacity of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy as he voices his solidarity with Rosa Parks and expresses sympathy for those African-Americans misguided enough to be offended by his suggestion that they’d be better off as cotton-picking slaves. You’ll hear a similar arrogance in Donald Sterling’s exasperated condescension as he demands that his mixed-race girlfriend not publicly consort with African-Americans. How exhausting it must be to frantically erect these walls of denial. What effort it must take to compartmentalize like this, to look anywhere but inward.
In contrast, Carol and Beverly Ann’s willingness — in fact, their hunger — to make meaning of their own experience and to share it, has been exciting for them, and given me answers to questions I might otherwise have been too skittish to ask.
Bundy and Sterling’s beliefs are destructive and worthy of the condemnation they’ve received. But public denunciations and broadcast apologies aren’t enough, and whites talking with whites and African-Americans talking exclusively with other African-Americans doesn’t constitute the authentic, enlightening “dialogue about race” we aspire to. We actually need to find ways to sit down across the table from each other, and to create those opportunities where they don’t organically exist.
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