Friday, November 25, 2011

Being aware is no fun

Given all that I have learned this year, I find that I hate the Thanksgiving holiday above all others. Between the hypocrisy of the whites eating with the Wapanoags one day and slaughtering them the next (not to mention the genocide which followed) and the reductionism of gratitude, I spent a good part of yesterday angry and depressed.

I'm even conflicted about how I spent the day: serving Thanksgiving dinner to a predominantly white group of mentally ill and addicted folks in a group home. The servant part is good. No qualms about that. It's just that I feel I'm still supporting the holiday. No help for the mostly white part - Portland is mostly white! In fact, given the city's demographics, blacks were overrepresented in this home and whites, Hispanics and Asians underrepresented.

Fortunately, my daughter-in-law gave me room to vent before I got to the home, so my attitude was sufficiently better to interact with people who insisted on wishing me a happy Thanksgiving. Also, several of the other servers are friends/fellow students, who understood - without explanation - why this holiday was difficult for me.

In fact, I enjoyed the servant role so much, I am considering volunteering to serve on Christmas day - another holiday I don't celebrate, though for entirely different reasons.

I will spend today writing and rehearsing a presentation I'm giving on Monday about an experiment to quantitatively measure the reduction of prejudicial attitudes through intergroup dialogue. I also need to do some housework and make chicken n dumplings before the chicken goes over. Tonight I host a karaoke show, then spend the night and part of tomorrow with my kids and grandchildren.

See? How can I reduce my thanks to an annual event, when I have so much to be grateful for every day?

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Review of "The Help" (film)

Having read one scathing review and having watched an interview with Tate Taylor, who wrote the screenplay and directed the film, in which he defends his soft-pedal approach to the rampant racism of 1960s U.S., I was certain that I would not be contributing my hard-earned dollars to the makers of the movie, "The Help." Then Cindy called. She had read about the movie and, knowing of my interest in racism in general and the negative stereotyping of African American women in particular, she invited to me to go see it with her. Now I had a dilemma: an incredibly rare night out with a woman whom I respect and admire or sticking to my principles.

Initially, I warned Cindy of my skepticism regarding how black women would be portrayed, based on what I had read and seen to date. (For a thorough but concise background on persistent stereotypes of African American women, see Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire and their Sisters, by Yarbrough and Bennett.) She assured me that, after the film, she would be open to any venting I needed to do. So I reluctantly agreed. As days passed and the night out approached, I read more reviews - a couple of them positive - and spent some prayer time on whether I should go to the movie or back out. This prayer also included a request to help me reconcile my budget (or lack thereof) with the cost of a movie and after-movie drink. The place I came to was, it was not fair for me to judge a movie based on reviews which agreed with my bias that Hollywood rarely portrays African American women as anything but Mammy, Jezebel or Sapphire (aka, the Angry Black Woman). Further, even if the critics were right, how could I educate those who buy into the stereotypes unless I, too, had seen the film and could give specific examples of how those stereotypes had been reinforced? And so it was that I entered the theater with my cynic's hat and a (relatively) clear conscience.

In the first few scenes, I cringed. There was Mammy and Aunt Jemima, in all of their glory, caring for the white family - especially the white children - at the expense of their own families. There were the servants in the kitchen, cracking wise about their employers with stereotypically colorful dialects and jokes. Around this point, Cindy leaned over and told me that, if I needed to leave the theater because the movie was too offensive, she would get up and leave with me. (I am blessed to have Cindy in my life!) But I had decided; I would stick through whatever caricaturizations I encountered, for the sake of educating others who had seen the film through culturally racist eyes. 

Soon, however, the tone shifted and the truth was revealed. Most of the white characters in the film indeed viewed the maids through a Mammy lens. And the maids were keenly, painfully, aware of this perception. But the maids also had families to support, children to feed and clothe, rent to pay. So they played the role which socioeconomics forced on them. And the hurt they felt at their circumstances came through beautifully. Kudos to Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer for the powerful subtleties they brought to their roles.

I cannot recall a single Jezebel in the film, and I was looking for her. Sapphire never made an appearance, either, even though Spencer's character Minny lived with an abusive husband. Did the black women ever get angry? Absolutely. But their anger was appropriate and directed at the sources of their mistreatment, not the loud, mindless venom and man-bashing associated with the Angry Black Woman stereotype.

I had only two issues with this movie. First, men are not generally painted in a favorable light. However, men play an incredibly small role in this film. It is, first and foremost, about the experiences of Aibileen (Davis), Minny, and Skeeter (played by Emma Stone). Men are but a tertiary influence on the story. The other maids and the other white women provide most of the interaction and influence on the plot. My second problem is  subjective; I do not care for happily-ever-after endings and this one had a few too many for me. Again, though, a self-check brought the realization that not all of the sub-stories had positive conclusions and, frankly, I was upset that the side story I cared about the most was not one of them.

As for the suggestion that Taylor played down the violence of the times, I have two thoughts. First, if he wants to influence those who do buy into the negative stereotypes, aggression is not a productive approach. Secondly, most of us are at least somewhat familiar with the events of the Civil Rights movement and the horrors committed in the name of white supremacy. What Taylor does in this film is to bring it home, into our living rooms and day-to-day activities. It's not about lynchings or sit-ins. It's about Aibileen, and Minny, and Yule Mae, and Skeeter, and Celia, and Charlotte. If you are tempted to think that the overtly bigoted characters are one-dimensional and overdone, I suggest that you've never sat in a social gathering of middle- to upper-middle class women - and I don't just mean in 1963, either. Both Cindy and I have had relatively recent experiences to which we could relate the gossip and mean-spirited comments which surround the bridge parties in the film, not to mention the peer pressure to conform, even when one is aware of the harm she is causing others.

Overall, I would rate this movie 4.7 out of 5 stars. It wasn't perfect, but it was darned good. Also, Cindy is minoring in Theater Arts at Portland State University and so has an eye for details such as settings and cinematography. She pointed out several incredible shots which Taylor captured. So here's my final recommendation: Don't wait for it to come out on DVD; go to the theater and see it now. Even if you don't have an interest in issues surrounding race, you will find this film to be well worth the price.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A White Woman's Impressions of Black Women

An old adage claims that experience is the best teacher. Some argue that education is the key to enlightenment. However, research indicates that combining the two produces the best results when seeking to change attitudes surrounding racism (McClellan and Linnander 27). Yet many people rely on either one or the other when trying to learn about other cultures. We have all met people who believe that they are not prejudiced because they “have friends who are black (or Hispanic or Asian, etc.).” I was one of those people for most of my life.
Based on my interactions with family, friends and acquaintances of African descent, I thought I understood how black people experience life in the United States. Recently, while participating in an intergroup dialogue between people of color and whites, I discovered just how little I knew. That insight, among other things, led me to a class entitled "Images of Black Women" at Portland State University.
Prior to this course, my impression of African-American women was that they came in every shape, size and shade; that some were ideologically conservative, others liberal, and still others in the middle. My impression of African-American women was that, intellectually, some were smarter than I, some less so, and most right around the same. My impression of African-American women included people in every profession, from police officer to maid; from U.S. senator to waitress; from doctor to stripper. I could not imagine a profession in which a woman’s race would be a consideration, though I was aware that there were people who made choices based on race, presumably out of their own personal prejudices.
My impression of African-American women was that most are Baptist. Economically, I was aware that African-Americans are overrepresented in social entitlement programs and often stereotyped as welfare-dependent, even though numerically whites still comprise the majority of those receiving government assistance. In terms of personality, my impression of African-American women was that some are outgoing, others shy; some are relationships-orientated while others are ruggedly individualistic; some are highly organized and methodical, others more laid back and spontaneous. My impression of African-American women’s communication style was that many are more straightforward and assertive than white women, but that many are not.
Having completed this course, I stand by most of my original impressions of African-American women, with a few adjustments. Based on this and other college courses, plus what I have learned through intergroup dialogue, I now see that it is not merely personal prejudice that inhibits a black woman’s professional options, but institutional and cultural racism, as well. In terms of religion, I can see how movies and television have influenced me toward a Baptist assumption. After all, though some of my black family members and friends are Baptist – most are in Texas, after all – many were Methodist, some Seventh-Day Adventist and others Lutheran. My black friends in Oregon include Muslims and atheists.
Further, this course has demonstrated how those in power manipulate cultural standards and encourage cultural racism in order to maintain their elite positions (Jewell 4). I was aware of the power-elite’s manipulation of the American public in other areas, but I did not see the intentionality behind racial stereotypes. Nor was I aware that I had bought into them. Because of what I learned about Mammy and Aunt Jemima, I have a new reason to reject the film “Gone with the Wind,” with which I had already begun to feel discomfort. Further, I have changed my brand of pancake syrup because I believe that my voice is most clearly heard when it affects the power-elite’s wallet.
I had never heard Jezebel used as a stereotype of black women. I was familiar with the Biblical story from which the name derives, but I did not associate it with race. Understanding this stereotype and the damage it inflicts on black women caused me to reconsider the film, “Imitation of Life,” in which a Mammy-type character ignores her mulatto daughter in favor of taking care of a white family; the mulatto daughter reacts by trying to pass as white and seduce white men.
Though I was familiar with the stereotype of the “angry black woman,” I was unaware of several of the traits ascribed to her in our course. I was especially surprised by the emasculating aspect of her character, although I now recognize how much I enjoy that particularly damaging humor. The most painful learning from this course surrounded internalized racism. I have heard the term a few times, but did not have a framework for it until I interviewed my friend for the mid-term presentation. Before the interview, I primarily considered internalized racism in terms of little girls who preferred white dolls or wished that they had straight, blonde hair. However, after listening to my friend, whom I’ve known for more than 20 years, personally identify with Sapphire and express her opinion that the caricatures are not stereotypes at all, but based in truth, my heart broke. The conceptual framework required for understanding something I have not experienced was in place with a vengeance.
In terms of an African-American woman’s culture, I was fairly ignorant prior to this class. I only recently learned that I had been applying a color-blind brush to my perceptions of people of color, so all I knew was that I did not know. Taking this class has helped to give me an appreciation for some of the cultural influences on black women in America, including influences which pre-date African women’s captivity by slave traders. Further, I learned about some of the direct impacts that slavery has on African-American women even today, such as the intentional fracturing of black families in slave owners’ attempts to break the spirits of both husband and wife.
I believe that the story of black women in America over the next 25 years will be one of accelerated progress in terms of societal perceptions and, as a result, they will see increased professional and economic parity and an increase in access to resources previously reserved for those deemed more worthy by today’s generation. Though I do not expect there to be any fewer struggles than they have faced over the past 200+ years, I do foresee more successes than previously experienced. Despite the high number of stereotypes perpetuated in the media, we also have black women in visible positions who can and do inspire today’s young African-American women.
Michelle Obama is an excellent role model, not because her husband is the president of the United States, but because of all that she had accomplished in her life prior to his election. Further, as she has fought for acceptance as our “First Lady,” Obama has repositioned herself from the successful professional image to the more traditional wife and mother role. Though she faced criticism for this, Brittney Cooper points out that even this image challenges stereotypical myths of black women as bad mothers (50).
Recently, Lieutenant Colonel Merryl (David) Tengesdal flew a U.S. Air Force U-2, the first woman to do so (Burton). Also in aviation, Captain Rachelle Jones, First Officer Stephanie Grant, Flight Attendant Robin Rogers, and Flight Attendant Diana Galloway made up the first all African-American female flight crew in the United States (
Right here in Oregon we have Avel Gordly, who served in the Oregon House of Representatives and in the Oregon Senate. Senator Gordly is perhaps best known as the first African-American woman elected to the Oregon Senate. However, her list of accomplishments is long, broad and deep. Most recently, she added “author” to her repertoire (Avel Gordly Biography). Senator Gordly’s visible success, as well as others, will inspire the African-American women of the upcoming generation to achieve even more.
Regarding portrayals of black women in the media, there is always Oprah Winfrey, who is a savvy businessperson, as well. I am in the process of evaluating characters of my favorite television shows, such as Caroline Julian and Camille Saroyan on “Bones.” While researching for this paper, I discovered an online article which suggests that positive African-American women can be found on television. The author listed several television shows with which I am unfamiliar and suggested that the problem is not availability of positive representations, but that viewers of all races prefer the sensational to the sensible (Arceneaux).
The simple existence of this class and similar courses in colleges and universities across the United States encourages me. That I am not the only white in the class encourages me. As we all become better educated on issues surrounding gender and race, and interact with those of other ethnicities in classrooms and conference rooms, we can pass what we learn on to others not only of the next generation, but to those in our own generation. As other adults see the need for change and work to make that change in their own lives, they too may teach their young ones of a better way of interacting with people. Further, when enough of us get angry enough, movements similar to the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century will once again arise, demanding change from those who least want to see it.

Works Cited
Arceneaux, Michael. “Yes, There Are Positive Images of Black Women on Reality TV.” The Root. Web. 14 July 2011.
Avel Gordly Biography. Portland State Black Studies. Web. 14 July 2011.
Burton, Von L. Real African American Heroes. Web. 14 July 2011. Transcripts. CNN Newsroom, 27 February 2009. Web. 14 July 2011.
Cooper, Brittney. "A'n't I a Lady?: Race Women, Michelle Obama, and the Ever-Expanding Democratic Imagination." MELUS. 39-57. MELUS, 2010. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 14 July 2011.
Jewell, K. Sue. From Mammy to Miss America and Beyond. London: Routledge, 1993. Print.
McClelland, Katherine, and Erika Linnander. "The Role of Contact and Information in Racial Attitude Change among White College Students." Sociological Inquiry 76.1 (2006): 81-115. Academic Search Complete. EBSCO. Web. 14 July 2011.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Personal Guilt

Since I last posted, I have shifted to a double major: Psychology and Social Science. My career goals are the same, but I can use the Social Science major to incorporate the classes on conflict transformation and ethnic studies into my academic plan. My summer term courses reflect this: a psychology class on human relations, a black studies class on how black women have been and are depicted in the media, and - coming in the second half of summer - a class about white privilege.

Both my full summer and first-half summer classes have heavy reading and writing loads, which doesn't bother me. However, I got hit with a double-whammy in terms of personal impact. For psych, I read a research study on differences between Japanese, Asian Canadian and European Canadian subjects in their perception of self and relationships. This triggered my usual disgust at applying Western standards to people from other cultures. The first draft of that response paper needs to be edited for a more academic voice.

Moving on to the black studies' readings, I was affected deeply in several ways. First, I erroneously expected a "fun" course - too much of Jaime and her pin-ups, I believe. Secondly, I was again confronted with how I unconsciously have been perpetuating racism. While I value this because it helps me to grow, I doubt I will ever like having my shortcomings brought into such clear light. And while white guilt predictably arose, I found very personal illustrations of my contribution to cultural racism:
  • I worked on the Aunt Jemima account for seven years at an advertising agency in Dallas.
  • My son appeared in an Aunt Jemima print ad which ran nationally. Though clearly of mixed heritage, he was initially used for placement in Ebony and Jet. Later, his image was used in the general campaign, as well.
  • I already knew that my childhood love of "Gone With the Wind" could never be recaptured, but now I need to review the 50s version of "Imitation of Life" with the new knowledge I have gained.
  • "Gimme a Break" perpetuated the mammy myth. That seems so obvious now, but at the time, it was just another comedy.

My current challenge for this class will be to keep my white guilt to myself and not burden the people of color in  my class. That means double the writing load - my first response can be as visceral as I need it to be. I can share this response with my white friend Dick, mentioned in other posts, to help me move beyond my emotions. I've already written him with a heads-up. Once I've vented about myself, I will re-read the material and respond academically - or at least as much as I am able. So an already reading- and writing-intensive course will require twice the amount of time I anticipated.

I am incredibly thankful to be in a time and space in my life which allows for this!

Monday, April 25, 2011


Interrupting negative and/or stereotypical language is not fun. I have been told that those of us who do are "over-sensitive" or "holier-than-thou." I'll concede that I am sensitive to language and behaviors which perpetuate hatred or misinformation. But the idea that I feel righteous is completely erroneous.

When I hear statements like "All Christians are hatemongers," my knee-jerk is to contradict or correct. However, fast on the heels of that thought are dozens of other reactions, most concerned with my personal well-being.

"They're going to hate me if I say something."
"They'll think I'm a prude."
"They won't speak freely in front of me again."

Then come the rational thoughts such as, "What is the most effective way to say something?" After all, while I don't wish to alienate anyone - especially those whom I like or with whom I enjoy talking about other subjects - it is rarely effective to go on the attack or to be defensive.

In face-to-face interactions, I rarely have time to dwell on these issues. The moment passes or the conversation changes course and I've lost an opportunity to present another point of view if I don't respond quickly enough. I make plenty of mistakes and sometimes do miss my chance.

Using social media, I get more time to consider my personal safety and the best way to respond. This is a mixed blessing, however. I wind up agonizing over my desire for social desirability. I edit my response endlessly hoping that the post's author can hear me and possibly consider my point of view. Yesterday, a person on a discussion board, who states his opinions well in other matters, made a very cruel joke about Christianity. Perhaps his intent was satire (I like to give the benefit of the doubt), but if so, it failed. I carefully weighed (and edited and re-edited) my response. I said something to the effect that, although I am not Christian, I do not make fun of Christianity or any other religion. He deleted his comment, but another poster said that she makes fun of all religions equally. Rather than comment on that, I simply deleted my comment because it identified the first person by name.

Did I do the right thing - either time? I don't know. I do know that I awoke with it on my mind this morning. I have probably alienated at least two people whose opinions I value. I have no idea whether my remarks made a positive difference for anyone. I feel neither self-satisfied nor particularly righteous. Believing that I did the right thing is not a significant comfort to me, and it is a very lonely comfort, as well.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Dismissed: Ramblings on discussing racism in everyday life

In a private, face-to-face conversation about an article I had posted to Facebook regarding illegal immigration, I was told that I am overly sensitive to subjects with racial and/or cultural overtones. Once again, my opinion had been dismissed. This time, instead of backing down, I used his phrase to reinforce my point.

I told him that I doubt I will ever be “under-sensitive” again. I have learned too much about the relationships between direct, cultural and structural violence to be able to view the smallest slight with equanimity. I have followed too many news stories over too long a period to not see that irrational fear grows if it is not checked. I have listened to too many mothers tell the story of the first time their child – a person of color – learned that U.S. society views them as less valuable than white children.

Did I change my listener’s mind about the damage a third-grade worksheet could perpetrate on children in particular and society in general? Not that I could tell. But he did re-frame how he perceived the piece as a result of my reference to parenting. He fears for his daughter and the messages she will receive about herself regarding gender and ethnic heritage.

That’s enough for me. I don’t need you to agree with me. I simply want to be heard. I want you to consider another perspective, just as I consider other perspectives – including yours – before forming an opinion. This is, of course, easier to do in written form than face-to-face. When we’re sitting in front of one another, we feel a need (perhaps this a Western-culture thing) to respond quickly and, if possibly, pithily. Time to reflect is not valued.

My solution to this dilemma is to say, “I had not heard that/considered that before. I will look into it.” I have answered swiftly; I have acknowledged that I heard you; I have asked for time to reflect in a socially acceptable way. 

It’s not pithy, but I will gladly sacrifice wit for understanding.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Intergroup Dialogue - Learning about others; learning about myself

Last night I attended the final session of a six-week dialogue group between people of color and white people. It was an intense experience, which I am still processing. Following is a letter which I wrote to my white friend Dick during an ongoing discussion about the use of the word "nigger" in the movie, "Black Snake Moan." As you will see, I went in an unexpected direction. Nonetheless, I feel the letter adequately expresses some of my take-away from the group.

Dearest Dick,

Thanks for giving so much thought and time to this. Yes, it was all very useful information. You touched on the crux of my dilemma in the last sentence of the first response. That is, I am uncomfortable that I was not uncomfortable with the use of the word in "Black Snake Moan."

I know that life is shades of gray, rather than black and white (no pun intended). Still, I want to be consistent in my stand about the word "nigger." It is either a word of hate/self-hate or it isn't. Intentions matter (using it affectionately), but impact is important (reinforcing an oppressive theme). Nonetheless, listening to Lazarus and the preacher talk was like hearing a beloved old song. The rhythm, cadence and vocabulary were like a lullaby which reminded me of happy days.

After reading your thoughts on this, I concede that I am bothered that I wasn't bothered primarily out of white guilt. I want to be an ally to people of color and I feel that according a contextual acceptance to the use of the word contradicts this goal. However, being an ally does not require me to approve or disapprove of how someone communicates within his own culture. In a nutshell, I need to get over myself. That seems to be the driving lesson of the past several weeks.

However, in order to overcome my knee-jerks and my intellectualizing, I have to do self-work. For instance, I entered the dialogue group between people of color and white people with the intention of learning more about how racism affects people of color on a daily basis. I wanted to empathize with the experience of having my skin color impact the simple act of going to the grocery store or putting gas in my car. I thought I knew what it was like to be white; I wanted to learn more about other perspectives. And I did gain insight, thanks to some very frank sharing by the people of color in our group. I did not expect much self-discovery. In fact, I dreaded it - I was afraid that I would learn that I am a bigger racist than I already knew.

I knew that personal and cultural racism hurt me at a very core level. But I had never had the opportunity to share it with anyone before. I didn't even know that was a need I had. I did not know the level at which I distrust white people, until I was put in a room with all whites to discuss racism. I did not know how much hurt and anger I had at being rejected by my own race, until I told the story of my family's and peers' reactions to my first interracial dating experience. I had not acknowledged how very lonely I feel being a white ally to people of color, with no other white allies with whom to process my feelings. Heck, I didn't even know there was such as thing as an "ally to people of color," much less that there were others!

These are but a few of the self-discoveries I experienced during the past six weeks. There were so many self-revelations that at times I feared I was not hearing the others in the room. My thought was often, "How dare I feel hurt? What people of color experience is far worse, far more persistent, far more pervasive than my experience!" And that's true. But that doesn't mean that I don't feel hurt or that my pain is not also valid.

Also, my pain can be used. Perhaps that is the most constructive lesson from the dialogue. When I am talking with a white person about racism in America, it is not always effective to share the experiences of people of color. Sometimes, it is more effective to say "This hurts ME and here's why." Keeping it real, making the pain accessible to the person with whom I'm speaking, can open doors to honest discussion wherein the person I'm trying to reach feels safe talking about her pain and her fears regarding people of color. Once that intimacy has begun, the potential for change increases infinitely.

Thank you, Dick, for being a support to me. You are my first official white ally. What an unexpected blessing!

Upon re-reading this (which I almost always do before clicking on send), I find that I would like to share my discoveries with others. Don't be surprised if you find this, or a slightly revised version, on Facebook as a note.

Peace and love,