Friday, May 11, 2012

Admitting My Own Racism

Today, when I walked into the locker room at the Y after my exercise, I entered a tense scene. A Y staffer had just admonished a woman for spanking her daughter. The staffer said another woman in the locker room had been upset by the spanking and reported her to the staff. The little girl (who looked to be about five years old) was sniffling. Her mother was outraged that someone had reported her for disciplining her child and she loudly demanded of the woman who reported her.

"Are you telling me how I should discipline my child when she's misbehaving and talking back?"

The other woman quietly responded, "Perhaps you should not do it in a public place. There are other children here and they were upset by it."

"I have to punish her when she does something, not wait two hours and say, 'Now I'm going to punish you for what you did earlier.'"

The conversation went on in this vein for a couple of minutes. I did not get involved, although my heart was engaged. Why? Because the mother defending her actions was definitely not white; she wasn't African-American, but her skin was as brown as mine. The woman who reported her was white. I wanted to tell the brown woman that she did not have to explain herself to that nosy white woman who was undoubtedly acting out of her perceived white privilege and authority. Would she have reported a white woman for spanking her child, I asked myself indignantly.

After I gathered my things and left. I thought about my reaction.

My first thought was that I don't believe in disciplining children in front of others. I did spank my child when he was very young, largely because that's how I was reared, except that we got whippings with belts and switches. However, I never did it in front of anyone. I was interested in teaching him, not humiliating him.

Because I changed my mind about corporeal punishment a long time ago, my second thought was,  "I'm not sure how I would have reacted if I had seen the mother hitting her child." By the time my son was a tall, sturdy six-year-old, it occurred to me that in order for my spankings to have any meaning, any force, I'd have to hit him really hard with something other than my hand. Once in a rage, I hit him with my umbrella. He looked so hurt by my anger that I was flooded with shame. It occurred to me that using physical force on a child is an attempt to break the child's spirit. That was not my intent. I wanted my son to reach his full potential, so I never hit him again. Instead, I figured out what meant the most to him and deprived him of that when I felt discipline was necessary. Fortunately, I was blessed with an extraordinary child who rarely required restraints, even as a teenager.

My next thought was that if I had seen the mother spanking her child and been disturbed by it, I would not have interfered unless I thought the child's limbs or life were in danger. Why? Because the relationship between a parent and child is unique (even siblings have distinct relationships with each parent) and it is built from birth forward, not on one incident. I wouldn't think of telling someone else how to discipline their child even if I knew all the details of their relationship, which of course, you never do.

Finally, I did not witness the actual spanking, so I have no idea of the severity of it, or how long it went on. I walked in just in time to receive a lesson about my knee-jerk racist thoughts. My initial reaction was based solely on the skin color of the participants. Thankfully, I am conscious enough to check myself when I have racist thoughts, and more important, not to act on them.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

The White Side: Entitlement Run Amuck

Some whites, well actually quite a few of them, believe they know more about the racism I've encountered than I do! To my face they dispute the accuracy of MY experiences. I've run into this a lot since I wrote a memoir about coming of age in Indianapolis back in the day when being racist was standard operating procedure. In the book I describe the daily humiliating incidences of racism I had to live with, and tell how they shaped my outlook. I grew up during the 1940s and 1950s BEFORE the Civil Rights Movement displayed racism in action on the nightly news. The horror of attack dogs chasing children and city water hoses nailing demonstrators to the side of buildings made some whites think that maybe racism was not such a good thing after all.

I spoke to a book club whose members were all white and had read my book. One woman said she was "about my age" and had also grown up in Indianapolis. She belligerently insisted that she had never witnessed any of the racism I wrote about. I responded, "That doesn't surprise me since you're not black." But, she persisted, "There was a black family in our neighborhood and everybody was nice to them." That was her "side" of my story; "proof" that what I had experienced was not true!

I wrote about what happened in the newly desegregated high school I attended. Other blacks who attended the same school while I was there told me about similar, though not identical incidents. (Though a few were actually identical.) Some schoolmates encountered less racial hostility than I, some more or about the same. But, not one of them said, "I don't believe you because nothing like that ever happened to me." There were also white former classmates who didn't deny my experience, but commiserated with me because they had no idea at the time what the black students were going through.

One white male classmate, however (who went on to become a well-connected, prosperous lawyer), was offended by what I wrote. He never saw any of the things I wrote about and couldn't understand how I, who was reared with basically the same values he was, could have come up with such skewed ideas about our high school and home town. I repeat: he's a white male; I'm a black female, both of us born in the 1930s.

Someone I once worked for emailed me that reading my book "creates an immediate urge to tell...your own story, or your side, or whatever." Of course he should tell his own story, but I wrote back that, "There are no sides in my story. It is an account of how I experienced the events of my life at that time." He also wrote that he would send me something to read that, "You probably will not like somewhat autobiographical so I may get back at you." I don't understand his need to "get back" at me, but I asked him to send it. "It will either confirm or contradict my expectations and I welcome either outcome."

It occurred to me that the people who want to tell their "side" are submerged in their whiteness and the belief that their view of the world is not just the right one, but the ONLY one. It's impossible for them to grasp that an experience that doesn't match theirs can be valid.

Either that or they're hopelessly racist.