Wednesday, August 24, 2011

grappling with whiteness

Every time I write out my thoughts on racism, I feel self-conscious, presumptuous and self-indulgent as a white person. But writing helps me process my thoughts and move forward. Also, it is clear that white people need to talk about issues of race more. Otherwise, for us, race is the perpetual elephant in the room and nothing will change. In fact, one thing I am committed to is to consistently bring the topic of racism to the forefront with the white people in my world.

So, here goes my latest two cents...

Taking it in

Since my early years in this country, I have been concerned with issues of race and racism, a topic close to my heart, perhaps because some of my strongest initial bonds in the US were with friends and lovers who happened to be people of color, and who opened my eyes to their experiences. As a white person, I have wrestled with trying to grasp how the reality of living in a racist society impacts me and how I can be useful in efforts to counter and not collude with the oppressive system that exists. This process has taken on a special significance for me since I have become a mother of a white child whom I want to raise with an antiracist consciousness. More recently, I have also become a stepmother to a biracial child, and, again after many years, I am now involved in a black-white interracial relationship.

I spend time every day learning about the inner workings of interpersonal and systemic racism and its impacts on people of color, as well as the meaning of whiteness in all this. I listen with an open heart to my friends' and strangers' stories, read about and watch videos discussing issues of race, I participate in interracial dialogues and workshops. I monetarily support community and civil rights organizations I believe make a difference and occasionally attend protests. Last year I completed a human rights fellowship in Europe, listening to and writing about the struggles of people of color there to educate the international community as well as my white circles in deep denial. I need to know how life is for people of color in the motherland, in this heavily stratified society, and in my overwhelmingly white city. I feel the need to compare how other whites grapple with white privilege, and the responsibility it bestows on them, on us. All this in order to grow and be able to be a good ally; to even perceive injustice, let alone challenge it.

While I process all this, I feel the pain of racism people of color share with me deeply, although it will never be first-hand since I am white. Simultaneously, I get frustrated at how invisible and ungraspable the traps of whiteness are to me. I get impatient, often admonish myself for being slow to understand and, moreover, for not doing enough to upset the status quo interpersonally, and on a larger scale, institutionally.

Parenting right

As a white person who hasn't come across many effective everyday antiracist role models, to use the words of Kerry Ann Rockquemore and Tracey Laszloffy in their book, Raising Biracial Children, I am not sure "how to approach parenting in a way that explicitly acknowledges the omnipresence of race in daily life." I want my family to be one in which "active attention [is] devoted to addressing and explaining race, and where children are encouraged to assume an antiracist stance;. . . where [my son] learns the meaning of [his] whiteness and [learns] to critically challenge notions of white supremacy." I certainly don't come from a family with such a conscious upbringing, so this feels like an uncharted territory. But I know there are valuable resources, such as this article on how to talk to kids about race, available for parents.

In order to provide my children with clear guidance that helps facilitate healthy racial identity development, I feel it would be helpful to form a group of those dedicated to our own growth as antiracists and antiracist parents. That is my next task. (One model I found out there is White Noise, a group of white parents with white children who have been meeting for two years to learn together and support each other in ending white supremacy.)

Claiming whiteness

In my own journey towards racial awareness, being of Jewish heritage (specifically, the granddaughter of concentration camp survivors) and an immigrant whose family was poor for many years, I am still having a hard time claiming my whiteness and claiming US history as my own, even though on an intellectual level I grasp the fact that I am now a part of a racial hierarchy stemming from a very particular historical past, from which even I, a white person who didn't grow up here, benefit tremendously.

I only say this to acknowledge my particular vantage point and history; not as a cop out, keeping in mind the words of Bonnie Berman Cushing and Jeff Hitchcock in their book Accountability and White Anti-racist Organizing: "In an increasingly multiracial society, the historic and present baggage of whiteness and white privilege lead many to eschew a white identity. Yet the privilege remains."

On a cognitive level I grasp that. I am familiar with Peggy MacIntosh's Invisible Knapsack of White Privilege. I get that I have advantages in this society because I am white. For instance, I never get racially profiled while driving or walking down the street. I don't stand out visually in most places in my predominantly white city. I don't generally get followed around in stores as a suspected thief or questioned about items I'm returning with or without a receipt. I am not feared or harassed by the police when in public in a group of my white peers. My skin color makes me seem financially reliable when I pay for merchandise. I don't get called racial epithets. Statistically, I can count on better quality health care and more longevity than people of color. I am aware of all that, but, to be completely honest, there is still a resistance in me in letting the reality of white privilege sink in. Why?

Part of the resistance to claiming my white identity stems from the immigrant and the Jew in me having resisted assimilation so strongly in order to preserve my authenticity and sanity, that I have eventually found comfort, even pride in inhabiting that "otherness" ascribed to me here of someone foreign, someone with an accent; about living psychically on the margins of American society. But when it comes to racism, as a white person I am in the oppressor group. I benefit from the system, and like most white people with whom I have had conversations about this, I have a hard time deeply acknowledging that. For me in particular, it is scary to be associated with the WASP (White Anglo-Saxon Protestant), middle class mainstream influence which I have so vehemently tried to filter out of my life and my identity because, in many ways aspects of that culture have felt empty, hegemonic and oppressive. Clearly, this disassociation on my part needs bridging, which can be found, for instance in the commonality that for US-based whites, it is key, even if profoundly upsetting, to acknowledge that in American society, we automatically get the benefit of the doubt while we stand on the shoulders of men and women of color whose land, cheap or free labor and lives were (and continue to be) taken from them, seen by whites as nothing but fuel for this capitalist beast in whose belly we now find ourselves.

What a history to inherit.

Untangling race at home

Now I'm in a relationship with a man of African slave ancestry. I don't know how to make sense of our different histories coming together yet. Conversation about racism is a daily occurrence. I am learning so much from him and at the same time continuing my own work. While it is true that every intimate relationship is intercultural, to a degree, since the partners almost always have differences in backgrounds, communication styles, and world views to meld, in a black-white interracial relationships, the weight of history and the reality of everyday racism sometimes plays itself out in a more pronounced way. This is especially true, I'd venture to say, in geographic locations where people of color are disproportionately outnumbered and highly visible in a perpetual sea of white faces (as one blogger described in her piece, What does an all-white room mean?). As Randall Kennedy writes in his book, Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity and Adoption, "at the dawn of the twenty-first century, a wide array of social pressures continue to make white-black marital crossings more difficult, more costly, and thus less frequent than other types of interethnic or interracial crossings."

Our most visible differences aside, my partner and I do have some experiences in common. Both of us are immigrants, acutely familiar with being uprooted and on the margins in this society. We are both deeply rooted in our home cultures since we moved to the US as teenagers. We share similar political views. We are "blended culture" people who each speak several languages and are widely traveled. We are both college-educated, both divorced, each a parent to one child of the opposite gender from us. Although race is blatantly salient in our relationship, so are gender, class and culture. All these are so intertwined that it becomes quite a puzzle to try to untangle or isolate them to get at the core of differences or conflict. But it's worth trying. We have overcome several big points of friction already, and excavating the sources of the disagreements has been key.

Longing for healing

But back to the impact and implications of living in a highly racialized society on my experience as a white woman. I have come to recognize that my domain of impact in this life is not organizational or political; it is relational. As law professor and author Randall Kennedy argued when explaining why he chose to write about interracial relationships:

People usually expect talk about regulation of laws at the workplace, the regulation of race with respect to housing markets, the regulation of race with respect to education… People don't think about spending a lot of time on the regulation of race with respect to marital intimacy, sexual intimacy. Though if you think about it, if you think about how people get jobs, if you think about how people conceive of themselves, if you think about how people learn about the world, these sorts of relationships are incredibly important. Friendship as an institution, dating as an institution is incredibly important. One thing that drew me to this subject was the extent to which actually people did not talk about it and thought of these relationships as rather trivial. . . This topic is actually more important in social consequences than some of the other institutions upon which we focus much more time.

The place where I connect most intensely around how racism impacts me as a white person is the pain of loss. I am keenly aware of how racism can cause friendships and close bonds to rupture and fall apart or to never form because of mistrust in the first place. On an emotional level I get how racism divides us. And that is the place that spurs me on; it's the desire for this society to become whole, for us to heal, to find each other alive and breathing under the rubble of centuries of injustice, and to feel the richness, vibrancy and joy in bridging the divide. Only when we come together being our authentic selves, speaking and hearing each other's truths, can we create long-lasting change.

So, I'll keep doing the work of learning and engaging with others … for that; for the love that was, is and that could be.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Black Panthers in my town: a look at how the press shaped local activist history

The media prime us in ways of thinking about the world, particularly in terms of whom we accept and dismiss as legitimate or illegitimate political actors. In this way, the media frame and “crystallize history.” Media coverage of events affects our understanding of history and “preconditions what collective action we take.” These were the ideas with which Jules Boykoff, associate professor of political science at Pacific University, opened the presentation I attended on March 18. The lecture was organized by The Northwest History Network and entitled “'We’re going to defend ourselves': The Portland Chapter of the Black Panther Party & Local Media Response."

Who were the Black Panthers? What was the organization's mission nationally and locally? How were the wider community's ideas about the group shaped by the press coverage of its activities? What is the party's legacy today? These were some of the questions addressed by the presenters, who, aside from professor Boykoff included Kent Ford and Percy Hampton, both original members of the Portland Black Panther Party chapter, and Martha Gies, an Oregon author who has written extensively about the Portland Black Panthers, one of approximately fifty chapters affiliated with the national party, a progressive organization dedicated to social and economic justice and black empowerment.

The speakers addressed a full house of about eighty-five people (more than thirty were turned away at the door for a lack of space), spanning multiple generations, but somewhat lacking in racial diversity, with approximately ninety percent of the audience being white. In attendance were also two nurses and one laboratory technician who volunteered in the Black Panther-run Portland health clinic forty years ago.

The weekly, Portland Mercury, was the only local paper tocover the talk, however, as we will see below, the report failed to explain the Black Panthers' mission or to provide a larger sociopolitical context for the organization's activities. Additionally, the Mercury article neglected to mention any critique of the media whatsoever provided that night. This is curious, given that scrutiny of the press was one of the main topics discussed; a lens so key to the lecture, in fact, that even the title--not once stated in the Mercury article--included the words “Local Media Response.”

In light of understanding the media's power in shaping history, Boykoff and Gies discussed their findings from a survey they conducted of the local press to see what kind of coverage the Portland Black Panther Party received in Oregon during its most active period from 1969 to 1979. Their inquiry, due to be published in the fall issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly, examined all the articles printed in the local newspapers during that decade.

Investigating the press, Boykoff and Gies found that police were nearly always the only sources quoted in the stories, with the press almost never quoting Black Panther members themselves or ever mentioning the party's ten-point plan, which included: “the power to determine the destiny of our Black and oppressed communities;” full employment for the Black and oppressed people; reparations for slavery; decent housing and education; free health care; an immediate end to police brutality and murder of Black and oppressed people; “an immediate end to all wars of aggression;” and “people's community control of modern technology.”

Looking at how the press presented the BPP is important, because, according to many, including historian and activist Manning Marable, quoted in Boykoff's book Beyond Bullets: The Suppression of Dissent in the United States, the Black Panthers were one of the most influential revolutionary organizations in the U.S.

Plenty has been written about the Black Panther Party, founded in 1966 in Oakland California and active nation-wide throughout the 1970s, but it is important to supply a little bit of historical information when so much is missing in the recent local coverage of this presentation. According to the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation, an organization dedicated to preserving the history and legacy of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton, the Black Panther Party's platform and message was so powerful, "it became a movement of itself," resulting in "a rapid proliferation of other, like minded organizations."

From the Dr. Huey P. Newton Foundation website:

"Chicanos, or Mexican Americans, in Southern California formed the Brown Berets. Whites in Chicago and environs formed the White Patriot Party. Chinese in the San Francisco Bay Area formed the Red Guard. Puerto Ricans in New York created the Young Lords. Eventually, a group of so called senior citizens organized the Gray Panthers to address the human and civil rights abuses of the elderly in society. The Party expanded from a small Oakland based organization to a national organization, as black youth in 48 states formed chapters of the Party. In addition, Black Panther coalition and support groups began to spring up internationally, in Japan, China, France, England, Germany, Sweden, in Mozambique, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Uruguay and elsewhere, including, even, in Israel.

. . . At the street level, the Party began to develop a series of social programs to provide needed services to black and poor people, promoting thereby, at the same time, a model for an alternative, more humane social scheme. These programs, of which there came to be more than 35, were eventually referred to as Survival Programs. [These included] free breakfast programs and free clinics, but also grocery giveaways, the manufacture and distribution of free shoes, school and education programs, senior transport and service programs, free bussing to prisons and prisoner support and legal aid programs, among others.

One of the greatest strengths of The Panthers was that they strove for a class-based, rather than race-based, solution to social justice. Bobby Seale, one of the co-founders of the BPP, said: "Those who want to obscure the struggle with ethnic differences are the ones who are aiding and maintaining the exploitation of the masses. We need unity to defeat the boss class – every strike shows that. Every workers’ organization’s banner declares: ‘Unity is strength.’"

In 1968, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, pledged to wage a campaign to crush the Black Panther Party, stating the Party represented "the greatest threat to the internal security of the U.S." He enlisted the assistance of local police departments to do so, and thus began the era of raids and assaults on the Party's field offices, accompanied by the FBI's use of "informants, agents provocateur and covert activities involving mayhem and murder."

A program of the BPP seen probably as most controversial by the wider public, was that of armed citizen patrols, an effort to monitor police interactions with the black community, in order to shield community members from police harassment and excessive force.

Bobby Seale commented on the Party's police monitoring work this way, as quoted in Beyond Bullets:

The party realizes that the white power structure's real power is its military force; is its police force. And we can see our black communities are being occupied by policemen just like a foreign country might be occupied by foreign troops. Our politics comes from our hungry stomachs and our crushed heads and the vicious service revolver at a cop's side which is used to tear our flesh, and from the knowledge that black people are drafted to fight in wars, killing other colored people who've never done a damn thing to us. So how do we face these cops in the black community? We have to face them exactly how they come down on us. They come down with guns and force.

Nationwide, writes Boykoff, the media undermined the Panthers and depicted them as "wrongheaded, antisocial, and a national threat."

In Oregon, Boykoff and Gies identified three dominant angles, or frames, used in the reporting.

In his book Beyond Bullets, Boykoff writes:

The mass media present social movements and their actions through a process of framing, in which easily identifiable lenses refract the news and shape public opinion. A frame is “an interpretive schemata that simplifies and condenses the 'world out there' by selectively punctuating and encoding objects, situations, events, experiences, and sequences of actions within one's present or past environment.”. . . By framing socio-political issues and controversies in specific ways, news organizations present—if tacitly—the foundational causes and potential consequences of a social problem or issue, as well as possible remedies.

The three dominant frames Boykoff & Gies identified in the local press coverage of the PBB were: criminality, violence, and community organizing. Sixty-three percent of all the articles used the criminality frame, amplifying arrests and trials of party members, thus creating the perception of “a threatening, menacing network of criminal enterprise which justified the need for police presence,” to use Boykoff's words.

Criminality was used as a news peg—a central purpose or justification—for a story in about half the articles with a criminality frame. Such coverage only helped to perpetuate the damaging stereotype of African American men as criminals or “black demons” that has plagued the African American community since the colonial times and is still so prevalent today in mass media depictions of black men, according to sociologist Dennis Rome whose book Black Demons: Mass Media's Depiction of the African American Male Criminal Stereotype, which Boykoff referenced.

Additionally, violence was used as a frame in nearly half the stories, making no distinction between self-defense and other types of violence.

Surprisingly, Boykoff and Gies did not find a dominant anti-white frame in Oregon's press, though the depiction of the Black Panthers as anti-white was abundant in national press forty years ago.

The community organizer frame was present in just over a third of all the articles, though whenever the Black-Panther-run Portland clinic or breakfast program for the poor were mentioned, this was done without substance and “without the civil rights context,” Boykoff said.

Letters to the editor were the only places of dissent, contention and more substantial information about the Black Panthers—perhaps a lesson for today's activists to use this space more actively in order to shed a light on often underrepresented voices in the media, as Boykoff suggested.

The Portland Mercury already covered the bulk of the experiences shared that night by the Oregon Black Panther Party members, but what kind of language was used to do so?

The article was entitled In The Shadows: Talking with the Black Panthers. Why in the shadows? The readers are never enlightened as to the reason for this word choice. Again, the BPP's mission or function in the community is never quite explained. We are told that Kent Ford “was the founder of Portland's chapter of the '60s-era black empowerment organization.” But the rest of the activities of the organization are hardly, if at all, expounded upon. We learn about the Black Panthers' free breakfast program: “The free breakfasts the group handed out to school kids on NE 7th and Wygant are no more.” No context there. The readers find out about the free health and dental clinics run by the Black Panthers, again without the larger context. The only example of patients treated there is that of drug-addicted prostitutes.

The paper informs of the BPP's mission to end police brutality in this way: “Tensions between police and African Americans in his NE Portland neighborhood running at a dangerous high.” Again, this brief statement leaves out the historical context of the Panthers' struggle for justice.

Percy Hampton's crystallizing life event which led to his involvement with the BPP is described somewhat ambiguously: Two officers harassed Hampton while he was walking to a grocery store. “The two officers got angry, beat him up, and sent him to jail for 90 days for assaulting the police.” Nothing more.

Next we learn that the local leader Ford “remembers standing on Union Avenue (now MLK) with a shotgun, monitoring police arrests of black people.” To those unfamiliar with the philosophy and activities of the party, this type of a quote again casts the light of a threatening presence that could potentially justify the use of violence by the police, a dangerous image to broadcast without further explanation, given today's heated struggle against recurring cases of police brutality and use of excessive force, disproportionately affecting Portland's African American community.

It is unfortunate that forty years later, the history of one of the most influential progressive organizations dedicated to affecting social change in this country remains shrouded behind the misleading language used by the press, and in what is missing between the lines. The wider public continues to be "underinformed," if not misinformed, by the media about the real work and achievements of the Black Panther Party. The media, especially the smaller, alternative press like Portland Mercury, should strive to do better than this.


Life has been a whirlwind. But because I haven't been posting here doesn't mean I haven't stayed dedicated to my personal mission of working towards racial justice.

Over the last year, I have written several articles that I would like to repost here. They are not necessarily directly related to parenting, but they do show some of my thinking and involvement out in the wider community.

It is my hope that more white people will educate themselves as well as speak up and stand up against racism in both interpersonal and institutional contexts.

Over the last year or so, I have been doing that in the articles I have written, but my commitment to the work strengthens as time goes on and as I find more allies and more concrete ways to affect change.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Diversity at my son's school: are they for real?

A couple of years back, I wrote a post, also published at Anti-Racist Parent--now renamed Love Isn't Enough, in which I surveyed my son's library to examine gender stereotypes and the representation of people of color in his books. I took a trip down memory lane this week, and conducted a similar experiment at his school during my short stint as a volunteer at a Scholastic Book Fair/Fundraiser. Fascinating.

Of course, the school AND the company Scholastic both like to pay a lot of lip service to "diversity." Who doesn't these days.

The first article by Scholastic on "diversity" that popped up in my search says:

Even 3 and 4 year olds are tuned in to matters of culture and ethnicity. For them, the issues are not social but personal, and are closely related to their self-esteem. . . If your child's preschool validates cultural diversity, you'll know it just by looking around. Are a variety of faces represented on the walls?

That article was published in 1996. So, how is Scholastic doing now as far as honoring diversity with the reading materials it sells in the communities who choose Scholastic book fairs as venues for fundraising?

First, let's look at my son's school community. I know that each classroom, during enrollment, tries to balance equally the gender represented in the student body. Racially, in my completely unscientific estimation, the population of the school is about eighty percent white, reflecting--and possibly proportion-wise surpassing--the racial make-up of Portland, the whitest US city with a population of over half-million. (Portland is about 78% white, while the state of Oregon is 87% white. Just to throw in a bit of trivia, the Czech Republic, where I grew up, is about 97% white). Religious affiliations are impossible to determine, though I know for sure that at least three major religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Buddhism) are represented. A myriad of ethnicities are represented, however, the only ones I can determine, other than those overrepresented in the region (e.g. Anglo-American and Scandinavian-American), are ones based on the languages I've heard at the school. I have heard Vietnamese, Chinese, French and Spanish. The languages spoken, of course, don't necessarily give me information on specific ethnicities (for instance, a French speaker could be Canadian, Hatian, or French among many other possibilities) but at least we can establish that a percentage of children at my son's school are growing up bi- or multi-lingual.

Let me just say, that to some, this may seem like an odd exercise in face value symbology. But we would be kidding ourselves if we asserted that we live in a colorblind society and that our ideas about people are not influenced by the racial, gender, and many other types of stereotypes which we encounter just about everywhere--in the media, in books, in advertising and entertainment, in our families, etc.

So, I was curious to see what a giant such as Scholastic was doing to educate our children, and if their book selection for the young was reinforcing or helping to shatter two categories of stereotypes in particular: gender pigeonholes and stereotypes about people of color still so prevalent in this society.

As far as gender, I counted how many book covers featured girls and women, paying attention to the numbers of "visible minorities" (yes, indeed a subjective definition), and to what the girls were pictured doing. Were they shown in midst of interesting and varied activities or just standing there looking pretty (and pretty "useless")?

As far as race, I took note of the number of books showing people of color, and again in what context they appeared.

In this survey, I only focused on book covers due to a time constraint, and because it is the cover that usually determines whether parents and children choose the book to pick up, flip through, and possibly purchase.

So, what was the Scholastic preschool/early elementary-level book selection like? Here are my findings:

Of the nearly 300 books displayed, 75 portrayed people only, and 21 showed people and animals together. The rest of the book covers showed either only animals, a scene, a building, or nondescript characters such as aliens. So, about one-third of the books for sale featured people on the front covers.

Of the approximately 100 covers with people on them, 20 featured "visible minorities." Of those books, 11 displayed girls or women on the front, interestingly almost always with one or more males. Four books showed people of color interacting with animals, six showed people of color alone (though I'm being generous here, because one cover was of a must-look-very-closely-to-ascertain African-American boy's arm carrying a suitcase--and I still counted it). Finally, ten, or about half, showed "visible minorities" together with whites.

Three of the twenty books with people of color had Asian-Americans/Pacific Islanders on the cover. Yes, that's three out of 100 when my son's school has quite a few students of Asian heritage, and when the Portland population is more than twice that, percentage-wise. Needless to say, I was disappointed to see such underrepresentation.

Only one of the books had a Latina on the cover (Dora, the Explorer). That's right; only one out of a hundred books showed a Latina, while Latinos, according to the US Census Bureau, represent fifteen percent of the US population, and in the greater Portland Metro area, depending on the location, 7 to 50% of the total local population.

Sixteen of the twenty book covers featuring people of color showed African-Americans.

Eight of the books with "visible minorities" on the front focused on athletes, all African-Americans, and all but one of the many athletes shown on the book cover "collages" were male sports figures. Additionally, two book covers showed Barack Obama--one where he was alone and smiling, and the other where he was smiling, surrounded by his smiling family. Are you smiling yet?

So, let's talk more about what we see people of color doing on the book covers. The Asian girls are just standing there, one looking startled (whoa, she's not smiling!), the other... drum roll... smiling pretty. The one pair of Asian parents we are shown is smiling, climbing up and hugging a giant dinosaur. And Dora? She's at the doctor's office, sitting on the examination table with a stethoscope in her ears. Dora--pictured with a doctor who is a white woman--is, you may gasp now... smiling. And the African-American characters and personalities? Some are engrossed in sports games, others happily posing in sports jerseys. Other than sports figures, there is one black girl sitting on a bench with a book in her lap. However, she is not reading, but talking to a friend instead. And there is one black kid taking eggs out of an Easter basket. And there is that boy carrying a suitcase--his arm only, rather--because the rest of his body is on the back cover. But the remaining people of color are just standing there or jumping up into the air smiling, looking pretty. Even a photograph of Ruby Bridges on the book cover of her autobiographical story for children about being the first African-American to attend an all-white school in New Orleans, is pictured just standing there, smiling. A beautiful photo, nonetheless, but she is seen without books, pencils or anything hinting at the theme of the book. Inside, the book does have powerful photographs of the protests surrounding desegregation and of Ruby at school with her teacher and friends, but on the cover, her image is stripped of the historical context, so central to the story.

It is interesting to note that of all the people, the athletes (and a couple of kids who look scared of ghosts or who knows what) are the only ones whose facial expressions show intensity, this while focusing on a sports game. Otherwise, all the rest of the people, and especially those of color are seen smiling and looking "non-threatening." Showing people (and animals with human-like features) in their happy-go-lucky best is a definite trend with books for this age group in general.

Of the nearly 100 books featuring people, 39 included girls on the cover (Remember, most accompanied by boys or men). Ten of them were girls or women of color. About half the book covers with females showed girls as active and engaged in an activity, including painting, cooking, playing with dolls, performing theater, riding a horse or building a snowman. The other half of girls were pictured mostly posing with smiles on their faces. A much smaller percentage of "active" females was shown on the covers featuring women of color.

As far as the catalogue for the book fair, designed by Scholastic, of the fifty books featured, only ONE book cover displays a person of color, an African-American girl hugging a dog she rescued.

So, in conclusion. Are we seeing Scholastic breaking with or reinforcing gender and racial stereotypes? I must share that I am disappointed that, though a large percentage of books featured females on their covers, many of the girls, especially the girls of color, were shown not engaged in ANY interesting or meaningful activities. Instead, they were posing on the book cover, looking cute. Most of the girls shown as active were doing typically "girly" things such as art, playing with dolls, dancing or cooking. I didn't see any girls (ok, except for the one building a snowman) engaged in scientific pursuits or activities stereotypically assigned to boys, such as building, using machines or doing sports (other than one female basketball player and a horse rider).

I was also unhappy about the relatively low numbers of books featuring people of color, and even deeper than that, that the range of activities in which "visible minorities" were shown engaging was by far much narrower than that of their white counterparts. I mean, half of all the African-American "faces" belonged to athletes. What about the scholars, the scientists, the artists, the writers, the teachers... You get the drift.

Should I send my "analysis" to Scholastic? I think I'll do that... and report back.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Community shares grief, anger and fear following another life lost in an interaction with police

“If you're shocked, you're not living in America.”

“There are two different Portlands. There is a disparity in treatment many white people don't understand.”

“The stinking sore of racism has been exposed. The band-aid has been pulled off, the disease needs to be treated.”

“This is a fight for life. This is a fight for the life of my children.”

“If you can talk about it (righting the wrong), you have to BE about it.”

The above were just some of the sentiments expressed at Grief, anger and fear: Black lives lost in interactions with police, Portland's own an event put on by Restorative Listening Project on Gentrification, an organization which sponsors dialogues focusing on the “stories and experiences of Portland's Black community and seeks to address historic and continuing harm and disparity.”

The monthly community dialogue—this time focusing on the issue of police brutality—was attended by approximately sixty Portland residents from a variety of backgrounds and of different ages, ranging from young people to veteran activists.

At the forefront of everyone's mind was the recent fatal shooting by a white Portland police officer of Aaron Campbell, an unarmed 25-year-old African-American man. The police officer was acquitted by the grand jury, however Campbell's family has asked the Oregon chapter of Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network to conduct an independent investigation into the shooting death. The case has gotten some national attention with Rev. Jesse Jackson coming to Portland to speak and protest the police shooting on February 16.

On February 15, the experiences of a number of the members of the Portland-area African-American community and their allies resounded throughout the room. Among them were stories of loved ones lost to police brutality. Emotions as well as ideas about strategies and accounts of past actions taken to affect change were shared.

Campbell's grandmother spoke about the stress and grief she has been experiencing since her grandson's death on January 29th. She said: “I keep asking myself why. Why did they have to shoot him down like a dog? He was unarmed.”

Several mothers spoke of the fear they live with; the fear of their black sons getting murdered by the police; a fear which prevents them so often from being able to sleep at night. This very fear was echoed this week in a column by Lisa McCall, an assistant principal in the Portland Public Schools, in Oregon's most widely circulated newspaper, The Oregonian. In the column, McCall writes:

“The tragic death of Aaron Campbell has brought home some of the worst fears the mother of a young black man could have. . . History is against us, against our sons, against our best efforts to protect them. Even in 2010, far from the injustices of the past, we are reminded that our fears are very real. . . .We are reminded that the system has failed to protect us. . . I do wish that police in Portland and around the country would think twice about their own contribution to the fear they see in a black woman's eyes when she instinctively pulls her son close to her while simply walking past a white officer on the street. . . Those good officers owe all those worried black mothers a little respect for that fear, and some public assurance they will try to never let something like this happen in Portland again."

Campbell's uncle and cousin were present at the dialogue as well, both of them upset, grieving, and trying to work with the family to help them heal while also being active in rallying for change in the areas of police conduct and accountability.

There have been exhaustive studies done to show empirically that people of color, especially African-American men, are many times more likely to be searched, accused of a crime, arrested, charged, even killed by the police than any other demographic. Portland is no exception to the disastrous trend of racial profiling and police brutality disproportionately affecting the Black community.


From the American Civil Liberties Union's website:

“The practice of racial profiling by members of law enforcement at the federal, state, and local levels remains a widespread and pervasive problem throughout the United States, impacting the lives of millions of people in African American, Asian, Latino, South Asian, Arab and Muslim communities.

Data and anecdotal information from across the country reveal that racial minorities continue to be unfairly victimized when authorities investigate, stop, frisk, or search individuals based upon subjective identity-based characteristics rather than identifiable evidence of illegal activity. Victims continue to be racially or ethnically profiled while they work, drive, shop, pray, travel, and stand on the street.”

As ACLU states, the problem is that "many racial profiling victims walk away with traffic tickets, but too often for others the outcome of racial profiling is death."

The ACLU report continues: "It is significant to note that research confirms the existence of bias in decisions to shoot. A series of University of California/University of Chicago studies recreated the experience of a police officer confronted with a potentially dangerous suspect, and found that:

- participants fired on an armed target more quickly when the target was African American than when White, and decided not to shoot an unarmed target more quickly when the target was White than when African American;
- participants failed to shoot an armed target more often when that target was White than when the target was African American. If the target was unarmed, participants mistakenly shot the target more often when African American than when White;
- shooting bias was greater among participants who held a strong cultural stereotype of African Americans as aggressive, violent and dangerous, and among participants who reported more contact with African Americans."

At the event, the ways proposed in which citizens can advocate for change included: continue community dialogue with the aim of finding solutions and healing; push for policy change on every level: city, county, state, etc; demand police accountability; work with young men to provide safe release of anger and frustration; create a support network for fathers and sons to connect emotionally and to become more involved in the community; and empower young people to get more involved in their communities (e.g. patroling the streets) with the idea of eliminating the "need" for a police presence in the neighborhood.

As many of the event participants stressed, police brutality is not just a black or white issue; it's a matter of being one family and community. And in acknowledging our interconnectedness lies the imperative to look out for one another and to jointly keep the "powers that be" in check.

For those wanting to show support to the grieving family and those interested in engaging in community activism surrounding the issue of police brutality, there will be a rally at Pioneer Square this Friday, February 19th at 3:00 pm.

Thursday, May 01, 2008

yes, I will return

Yes, I am planning on returning to blogging here again. I am committed to fighting racism. I have just had a difficult several months during which a tragedy occurred in my life. Please stay tuned.

Thursday, July 26, 2007


I am taking a break from blogging for a whole host of reasons, but I plan to be back. Thanks for checking in.