Saturday, February 24, 2007

Tracing Race: one immigrant's journey from race awareness to anti-racist consciousness

I have often pondered what it is that my husband and I had in common in our lives before we met. We share many of the same values, though we grew up in different parts of the world in very different environments. We both grew up in small families with a lot of quiet time to ourselves, respect for nature, close siblings, and often minimal, yet loving supervision. Those are the commonalities we've known about for a while, but only recently did we both realize that one of the experiences we both had was that of growing up white in a homogeneous community, comprised almost exclusively of other white people.

Unlike my husband, who is American, I am a white European immigrant to the U.S. who grew up in the Czech Republic, a former communist country, where whites make up about 96 to 98% of the population. As a comparison, my husband's home state's white population is about 90% of the total.

This is interesting. We are now white parents of a white child in the whitest major city in the U.S. (coincidence?) and are working on our own race awareness and thinking about how to raise our child in an anti-racist way. In order to parent this way, I find that I have to do a lot of soul searching. How have I thought of "race" throughout my life? What was I taught about the concept and how do I perpetuate what I was taught? What kinds of things do I want to perpetuate and how are these related to what's ingrained in me? In order to begin to answer some of these questions, I need to look at my early experiences and how these have shaped me.

In my country of birth, the largest racial minority of color are the Roma people, a self-identifying term of a group also known as Gypsies. According to unofficial estimates by the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations and the European Roma Rights Center, there are approximately 200,000 Roma living in the Czech Republic. This would make the Roma people about 2% of the total population, though on the census the numbers are much lower, one of the reasons being mistrust of the government and historically-based fear of categorization and discrimination based on race.

The second largest group of color are the Vietnamese, who, according to the census make up about 0.2% of the population.

Because I grew up in such a homogeneous culture, having had only a couple of short-lived friendships with a few Romani children when I was very young, I was very sheltered from the concepts of race and racial diversity, though not from the concept of racism. The only memories of outright racist comments I have were those made by whites about the Roma. These had to usually do with stereotypes regarding negative personal characteristics that white Czechs commonly attribute to this group. I also remember jokes about Asians. You know, the ching-chong-style ones a la Rosie O'Donnell.

Despite this, I don't remember having any negative feelings about any groups based on race growing up. Maybe a little bit of fear around groups of Roma, because of the stereotype that many Roma are pickpockets. Mostly I din't think about race. It just wasn't on my radar.

I do remember feeling confused about why the Romani kids in my class were dropping out one by one until there were none left by the third grade. Today I know more about institutionalized racism in the Czech school system (and all other sectors, for that matter) and about the racist practice of segregating disproportionately large numbers (between 46 and 75%!) of Romani kids in special education schools. It is estimated that between 75 and 85 percent of all Romani children drop out of "mainstream" schools. Why? Much of it has to do with discrimination, absence of inclusive curriculum and multicultural teaching techniques, the lack of diversity among school staff, and in general, a sense of alienation these children often experience in, let's face it, racist and hegemonic institutions. From my own observations and readings I've done, I have found that this parallels the experiences of many minority and immigrant children in the U.S.

Because people of color and whites live very separately in the Czech Republic and because a vast majority of the only children of color with which I came into contact left school, the majority of my childhood was spent surrounded solely by whites. It was at the age of fourteen that I suddenly found myself in an environment where whites made up only the tiniest minority - maybe 2%, in my own estimate.

When my family immigrated to the U.S., I began attending a high school program for new immigrants. The majority of the students were Asian and African. The school had some Latinos and just a handful of Europeans. Three or four of us, I think. I was thrilled. Ecstatic, in fact. "So many new people to befriend! So many cultures to learn about!" I remember thinking. Freshmen year I had three best friends: a girl from Ethiopia, a Romanian girl, and a girl from Laos. I flirted with a boy from the Philippines and began learning vocabulary and phrases in all the above languages. I felt totally in my element.

When my English got "better", I was transferred to another alternative program, this one catering to American-born teens returning to school after having dropped out. Many of these students, or so I was told, had been in gangs or were teenage parents. All students but two in this program were black. Only one of the students, an African-American girl became my friend, but we never really got that close because there just wasn't enough contact time. The foreign children and I shared the experience of being new to the U.S. and learning English as a foreign language. The African-American girl and I seemed to have very little in common other than attending a school where "rejects" congregated.

After a year in two alternative programs, my Ethiopian friend and I were transferred to our neighborhood high school. I felt a sense of community with the other English as a Second Language (ESL) students, but the ESL classes were academically not challenging enough for me. Mainstream classes were too difficult, because I was still new to the English language. My friend and I skipped classes together and talked and joked freely about race and race relations, albeit in what many would now call politically incorrect terms. This was my first opportunity to reflect with another person on the questions of race.

On Ally Work, a blog dedicated to "helping White people fight White Supremacy", contributors Rachel and vegankid talk about the significance of approximating moments in the development of empathy needed for anti-racist work. To quote Rachel, "approximating moments are a way Whites can develop more empathetic orientations. . . that help Whites grasp what it is like to be the victim of racial discrimination."

One such defining moment, I remember clearly, occurred when my Ethiopian friend related a story of traveling to the city, where ironically I live now, shortly after an Ethiopian man was murdered here by racist white skinheads. My friend was terrified. Hearing her talk about this had an enormous impact on me.

At the time of our friendship, I began to feel like a social outcast, because school wasn't working out for me since my mainstream American teachers didn't have the skills or time to include English language learners. Maybe that's why I gravitated towards others in the school that may have been perceived as "outcasts" by the school system.

My first love interest in regular high school was an African-American boy who ended up in "juvie" . At the time I became obsessed with listening to rap, R&B and African-influenced world music. Though I couldn't understand most of the rap songs I listened to, I thought I had "found my groove." I was mad about white on black racism, though I had a very limited understanding of the underlying historical context. Around that time I began dating my first boyfriend, who was also African-American. I hoped to have a child with him, because I believed that if races mixed, racism would be eliminated. A few other interracial relationships followed. This intense race awareness-building phase lasted a couple of years and while in it, I managed to humiliate myself thanks to some very awkward and insulting interactions I initiated and ridiculous papers I produced in college.

In college, I also learned about my family history. Though I knew that my father was Jewish, I didn't know that most of his family members were imprisoned and died in concentration camps. I had heard a sanitized version of this as a child, but, perhaps because my family wanted to protect me emotionally, I hadn't really ever learned what all of this meant. I was also not in touch with my father and we reconnected during my college years. He came to visit me and told me stories about his parents and relatives and gave me a little star of David pendant. This was another defining approximating experience for me that shook me to the core.

Other than friends, authors like June Jordan and Tony Morrison opened my eyes to racism and oppression.

The strangest paradox of that time is this: Perhaps because I was so ignorant and naive (though teaming with compassion for the oppressed), I felt completely free to pursue friendships with anyone and say whatever was on my mind. Now that I know more (of course there is still so much to learn!), I am more reserved and fearful of bridging the gaps I, too, was socialized to internalize.

The quiet, inward phase of learning about oppression and trying to understand the inner workings of this culture and my place in it lasted many years. I have lived in the U.S. for nearly two decades, but it has taken me this long to finally begin to be able to put my finger on what it is I have experienced and observed here.

The new phase of my life, as I see it now, is about continuing to learn (and unlearn much of what I've internalized), but also about talking about this process, taking a stance, and following through with action. After all, that is why I started this blog. I look forward to linking up with other allies in this work, because it is crucial to not work on this in isolation.

I don't want to be paralyzed by the fear of saying something wrong or the fear of being punished if I stick my neck out and act against injustice. I want to take responsibility for the white privilege I've inhereted and help dismantle white supremacy. Though I may have once been a stranger in this land, this is my home now. And I do come from Europe, the cradle of white supremacy. And because I am beginning to see clearly how racism plays out, it is my responsibility to work towards social justice. I vow to continue doing internal work, an essential step towards becoming an anti-racist parent, and to follow up with action in a more public sphere. What that looks like will begin to materialize the more I focus on anti-racism work.

Friday, February 23, 2007

feelings on "race" project

I found this neat project, a website with quotes from ordinary people describing their feelings on the subject of race. Anyone can add their quote anonymously and the moderator will post it once it's reviewed. These quotes provide excellent fodder for reflection on the subject of identity and racism. Here is the site. Check it out: Sharing My Feelings on Race.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

White History 101

Read this excellent article in The Nation by Gary Younge. Here is an excerpt to wet your appetite:

So much of Black History Month takes place in the passive voice. Leaders "get assassinated," patrons "are refused" service, women "are ejected" from public transport. So the objects of racism are many but the subjects few. In removing the instigators, the historians remove the agency and, in the final reckoning, the historical responsibility.

. . . Logic suggests, you cannot have black history without white history. Of course, the trouble is not that we do not hear enough about white history but that what masquerades as history is more akin to mythology. The contradictions of how a "free world" could be founded on genocide, or how the battle for democracy during the Second World War could coincide with Japanese internment and segregation, for example, are rarely addressed.

"I am born with a past and to try to cut myself off from that past is to deform my present relationships," writes Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue. "The possession of an historical identity and the possession of a social identity coincide."

The purpose here is not to explore individual guilt--there are therapists for that--but collective responsibility.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

could O'Reilly be onto something?

There was a bit of buzz earlier this month about Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly saying they’re scared to have black friends because they could say something wrong and get yelled at for it. I would normally not waste any breath or energy on these men, whose rhetoric I find utterly messed up and angering. But, what caught my attention was the reaction in the liberal circles that Beck’s and O’Reilly’s statements got.

I first learned of Beck’s quote on Sam Seder’s Air America show. A caller called in about it and Seder just dismissed the whole thing very quickly with one phrase “Oh, Beck is just a racist.” And then he moved on to something else. Many other liberals on blogs and such just smirked at this incident, arrogantly placing themselves on a high horse with that “I’m so much better than him” attitude.

But I thought to myself, as much as I hate admitting this, the Beck/O’Reilly combo is on to something here, though I’m not sure how sincere their comments were – and who cares if they weren’t since these men are pretty much just shock jocks in suits anyway, right? My gut feeling is that in this case, they speak for a lot of white people who are terrified to say the wrong thing in front of a black person. What are they scared of? They’re scared of making another person mad, they’re scared of being called racist, they’re horrified of being associated with the crimes committed against people of color in this country, afraid of being perceived as ignorant, or to be seen as bad people.

As I sit here writing this, I wonder if I am one of those white people. I remember one very significant time I said the “wrong thing” to a black person. And it was so bad and offensive that I made the person furious. Did I mean to? Of course not. I said it out of ignorance. In fact, I thought I was being friendly and funny. And yes, I it was a terrifying situation. But the crazy thing was that we stuck through it and talked and hugged and cried together and I learned something. I will never forget that moment. It was one of those breakthrough events in my life.

In friendships or conversations with people of color, as a white person I am inevitably going to say offensive things. I, like most other white people, have been conditioned to think racist thoughts. I may not always get challenged on these things and that’s fine, because hopefully I can get better at challenging my own thinking. I may not get any affirmation that I'm doing fine or better, but that's fine. I can learn to notice that myself. The trick is to not let the fear that we, white people, will make a mistake stop us from getting close to people. As anti-racist activist Paul Kivel says in his book on how to be a white ally to people of color, "Don't take it personally, . . . don’t be scared of my anger, (and) make mistakes.” So, persevere, I say. Get close and stay close, if you haven't yet. You know you want to. I know I do.

books to check out

This post is a list of books with an antiracist theme that look worth checking out. I haven't read any of them yet, but I wanted to keep a list of them on this website. I will add new titles to this post as I come across them and post reviews as I read them. All of you readers are welcome to add more to the list and to chime in with your reviews or opinions on these books. You can do that by emailing warpblog*at*gmaildotcom or commenting below.

The Antiracist Cookbook: A Recipe Guide to Conversations About Race That Goes Beyond Covered Dishes and "Kum-Bah-Ya" by Robin Parker and Pamela Smith Chambers

Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel

Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

White Supremacy and Racism in the Post-Civil Rights Era
by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva

40 Ways to Raise a Nonracist Child by Barbara Mathias

Everyday Acts Against Racism: Raising Children in a Multiracial World by Maureen T. Reddy

Monday, February 19, 2007

my bad

Remember my anti-racist parenting 101 post a while back? Well, I learned a lesson. When "Jay" started crying at the store last month, I thought he was crying because he was scared of the cashier who was black. Last week we went to the same store and our cashier was a white woman about my age. Again, I had to step closer to the credit card machine as she pushed the shopping cart behind the counter to get the groceries out of it, thus separating Jay, still in the cart, from me. And... Jay began to cry. The separation seemed too much and he was scared. The same exact scenario played itself out again today. Again, the cashier was a young white woman. So much for projecting racialized reasoning onto my son. Interesting the way my adult mind connected things like that. Shouldn't be so quick to judge. My bad.

- Tereza Topferova

taking stock of the diversity in my town

After listening to the latest episode of Addicted to Race, I decided to take stock of the racial diversity of the city where I live.

Over the years, I've heard lots of white people make comments that Portland is too white. I've always scowled at this, thinking that these people are just too blind to the diversity we do have here. I didn't believe these people. Maybe because for several years I lived in a neighborhood populated largely by African-Americans and Latinos, but now seriously gentrified. Perhaps I didn't believe these people because for the great majority of my time in Portland I've worked at a non-profit agency which serves refugees and immigrants and boasts a very ethnically and racially diverse staff.

Well, now after reading some demographical data, I have to concede. Those people were right. Portland is considered the whitest major city in America with 75% of residents being caucasian. Compare that with New York City, the home city of the host of Addicted to Race, in which whites are a minority at 44%. New York state, however, has a white population of about 74%. Oregon as a state has a white population of 90%, compared to the U.S. average of 80%.

Despite all this, I still think that I am right to say that my city, with a population of people of color hovering around 20% and every eighth resident being an immigrant, there is lots of diversity to appreciate here.

One of my white son's two best friends is a child of mixed heritage (Asian-American and white). So, there is no way he'll grow up racist. Just kidding. There is a lot more to anti-racist parenting than exposing my child to racially and ethnically diverse people. Still, the above-mentioned podcast episode made me take a closer look at the environment in which I'm bringing up my child. More to come on this topic.

- Tereza Topferova

Sunday, February 11, 2007

the new form of racism

What do you think of the points in these essays: Colorblind Racism and Colorblind Racism vs. Old Fashioned Racism? The books by Eduardo Bonilla-Silva from which this blogger Rachel, who is a professor of sociology, quotes sound excellent, dont' they?

Friday, February 09, 2007

quiet on the set.... action!

To go along with my last posting, I would like to start a discussion here about the involvement of white anti-racists in actions taking place in the public sphere. (Hopefully more people will join our blog community soon.) It would be great to hear on this blog from anyone already involved in actions challening systemic racism. It would even be great to begin collecting stories about the actions of other white anti-racist activists. Though I myself am still stuck in the self-education and discussion phase, I want to be a parent who models civic engagement and anti-racist action to my child. Hearing other people's stories and experiences as activists is always inspiring and helpful. Please share any experiences or thoughts you have on this topic.

more about the history of race in the U.S.

The quotes below are from a resource on race and racism that I found today. It's a website accompanying the 2003 PBS documentary Race: The Power of Illusion. I haven't seen it, but the website has some good stuff on it such as historical information and a discussion on the role of race in science research and medicine.

The most concrete action that any one individual can take is to educate themselves about the ways that race and racism work and to see things in terms of social relations rather than discrete individual acts. Every racial group is always linked to every other racial group. So when you talk about something like white privilege, you have to understand it's a system of inequality that relates groups together. That's a very important part of how institutional racism works: it perpetuates inequality in a way that most people who gain the advantage don't realize. People need to understand these relationships and recognize that if we do the same thing we've always done, we're perpetuating inequality.

- John Cheng, Assistant Professor at George Mason University, where he teaches American history, Asian American studies, and cultural studies.

There needs to be collective action. As an individual you may have to take the SAT even if you are convinced it's racially biased. At the same time, you can take action with others who are likeminded to lobby the University of California to get rid of it, like it is currently happening, or lobby the ETS to change the way they pre-test the questions. You have to do it in the larger public sphere.

- Dalton Conley, Director of the Center for Advanced Social Science Research (CASSR) and Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology at New York University.

Monday, February 05, 2007

what we can do as white allies

Because I'm just beginning my journey of anti-racist parenting and because my child is still so young (17-months), my musings have had to do with mostly learning about racism and working out some issues inside myself. That is something I will continue to do, but I appreciate Vikki's push for practical suggestions.

I haven't yet read the book How White People Can Work for Racial Justice by Paul Kivel, but it looks great! Have any of you read it? A website I found offers some good advice reprinted from this book, if not for parenting, for us adults to put/continue putting into action. Here it is. (It's cool to notice that our group on this blog is already doing a couple of the things from the list :) What are your reactions when you read this?

What People of Color Want from White Allies (an excerpt, page 96)

What kind of active support does a strong white ally provide? People of color that I (Paul Kivel) have talked with over the years have been remarkably consistent in describing the kinds of support they need from white allies. The following list is compiled from their statements at workshops I have facilitated. The focus here is on personal qualities and interpersonal relationships. More active interventions are discussed in the next part of the book.

What People of Color Want from White Allies
"Respect us"
"Find out about us"
"Don't take over"
"Provide information"
"Take risks"
"Don't take it personally"
"Teach your children about racism"
"Speak up"
"Don't be scared by my anger"
"Listen to us"
"Don't make assumptions"
"Stand by my side"
"Don't assume you know what's best for me"
"Make mistakes"
"Talk to other white people"
"Interrupt jokes and comments"
"Don't ask me to speak for my people"
"Your body on the line"

I guess some of the things that come up for me when reading this are: "What would it take for me to speak up more? What would it take for me to trust my thinking on this issue?", "What does committment to anti-racism look like? Does it mean 'my body on the line', and if so, am I willing to go there?"

Friday, February 02, 2007

A little discomfort, if you please

I am intrigued by the idea that teaching our children (and ourselves) to be comfortable with discomfort could be one of the foundations for an anti-racist life ahead. This came up in one of Susan's posts and before that I was already thinking along the same lines. I think this comfort with discomfort, which can then translate into a willingness to continue with important but difficult grapplings, is really key to helping dismantle the "isms" in our lives. Instilling the patience and desire in our children to stick with people and issues even when things get hard for the greater good is so important.

In our society, the touted values - instant gratification, individualism, and a care-free existence, contradict the values key to building a more just and equitable society. It strikes me that in order to transform our society and ourselves, we must focus on goals diametrically opposed to what we are taught matters. (I know I'm generalizing. But I'm just talking about what I perceive to be mainstream U.S. values - i.e. middle class Anglo/Protestant values.) The main thing is to learn to trust others more and to build stronger ties with our neighbors and community, even our friends. In general as a society, we must learn deep empathy and accept that difficult issues we may never stop grappling with are a part of life and that it is healthy, even exciting sometimes, to have to wrestle with things. All of this contradicts what mainstream media and socialization into the mainstream teaches us.

Buy, don't grapple

Advertising (including product placement in movies and TV shows) has a lot to do with how we develop emotionally as Americans. Advertisers bombard us with images of the ideal life - carefree and happy-go-lucky. And this lifestyle is supposed to be something we're entitled to; our prerogative, which adds another dimension to the emotional equation. Of course, corporations want us to look to their products for solutions. Products, we are taught, can fix any kind of problem for us instantly, whether it be a stain on a shirt, a dirty window, or social anxiety. So, if there is an item or service we can buy or dream of buying, why do the work ourselves? At the same time, we are made to feel more insecure by the advertising we see. We question our looks, our lifestyles, tastes... And all this makes us the perfect consumers, because our insecurities and emotional needs trap us in a web of buying or dreaming of buying. I, for example, though I'm not very materialistic, do find a strange sense of false hope and excitement in buying something once in a while, whether it's new or used or useful or not. I am definitely guilty of projecting hopes and dreams onto items I buy sometimes. And I am conscious of this and am trying to figure out how to become less attached to things and more deeply trusting of people.

But my point is that in order to become better citizens and human beings, we must stop being the perfect consumers, precisely because consumerism encourages values such as individualism, selfishness, a sense of entitlement, and discourages trust in our own capabilities and closeness with others, two of the many makings of a caring, just society.

So, how do we do this? The messages are so pervasive that it's hard to keep them from colonizing our minds, but I try. I want to model strong friendships and trust in others more. Many of us live pretty isolated lives filled with work and so it's hard to get enough contact time with friends and family. That feels very unnatural to me. But I'm trying to be more present with my friends literally and figuratively, so my son sees that.

But as far as advertising, at my house, we have packed up our TV and put it in the basement. We listen to very little radio that plays ads. We don't buy toys or clothing which display huge brand names or messages that perpetuate inequalities or insecurities, etc. My family tends to de-emphasize the materialistic. Most everything we own, including furniture, is found, hand-me-down, or used. I don't mean to preach. I'm just brainstorming here. I'm sure the pressure to buy stuff and watch TV will increase as my child grows older and becomes aware of advertising and who has what. And then I will have a harder time shutting out "the messages," so I will have to teach him to be critical of the media.

The comfort of the right answers

There is an interesting article I read a while back that has stayed with me. The article is not directly related to the topic at hand, but it has some excellent food for thought relevant to anti-racist parenting.

In her piece Standardized Tests: A Clear and Pleasant Danger, published in Rethinking Schools: An Agenda for Change, Dr. Terri Meier, professor at Wheelock College specializing in cross-cultural communication and language development, discusses language socialization among different groups of children. She cites studies which have revealed some fascinating patterns:

Numerous studies of language socialization in white middle-class communities indicate that the largest percentage of questions addressed to preschoolers by mothers and other primary caregivers consists of simply structured questions to which the questioner already has the answer (e.g., "How many eyes do you have?"; "What color is this dolly's dress?"; How many fingers is mommy holding up?"). The purpose of such questions is not for the questioner to gain information, but for the child to display information, for which she is typically rewarded with extensive verbal and non-verbal praise.

When reading stories to preschool children, many middle-class parents often intersperse their reading with questions that focus the child's attention on noting and recalling specific details of the text.

. . . Research indicates that many working-class and minority children come to school with very different values and assumptions about what constitutes meaningful communication. In a 1983 study, Shirley Brice Heath found that in the working-class black community where she spent eleven years studying language socialization, children were almost never asked questions to which the adult or older child already knew the answer. According to Heath's data, the most prevalent type of question addressed to preschoolers in this community was the "analogy question," calling for an open-ended response drawn from the child's experience (e.g., "What do you think you are?" to a child crawling under the furniture). Other frequently asked questions were "story starters" (e.g., "Did you see Maggies' dog yesterday?") and accusations (e.g., "What's that all over your face?"). But very seldom were they asked test-type questions, the assumption being, why would you ask someone something you already know the answer to?

Reading was also often perceived differently, according to Heath. It tended to be a social event in which listeners, young and old, were free to throw in comments or to elaborate on some connection with their personal experience, rather than a context for testing children's reading comprehension or teaching appropriate school behaviors. People in this community were admired for their ability to tell a good story, draw insightful analogies, or present an interesting and unique point of view, rather than for their ability to display information or show off knowledge for its own sake.

How does this tie into anti-racist parenting? The middle-class emphasis on knowing and displaying the knowledge of right answers strikes me as directly related to the comfort/discomfort question. If right answers are so important and we're praised as children (at home or IN SCHOOL) for regurgitating them... the faster the better, this is the pattern we may learn. We want to do good, be good, be accepted, so we learn this style of communication and the values accompanying it. But what happens in situations when there are no right answers or when we have to work as a community to come up with answers together instead of racing to be the first one = the winner? What happens when there is no one to praise us? Catch my drift? Maybe anti-racist parenting extends even to this - the values we communicate on a daily basis to our children in the way we read with them or through the types of questions we ask. What do you think?