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Posts Tagged ‘race’

We like to think our society in 2015 has made great strides in treating everyone fairly. Too often, however, we’re reminded that just isn’t the case, whether it’s in race or gender issues. And even saying you’re pro-whatever might brand you as something you’re not. For example, I guess I’m a feminist. I’m pro-life (anti-abortion), fairly conservative when it comes to politics or “values,” but I am a feminist. Pretty simple: I believe women should be treated with the same respect as men. Women should vote, hold office, run companies, raise families, … whatever they would like to do. Their opinions should be given the same weight as men’s. They shouldn’t be abused by men, they shouldn’t be raped. These are very basic principles. Goes the other direction, too, of course: women need to treat men with respect and kindness.

Same goes for color. I was raised just believing we’re all alike. Sure, we’re all different where it counts, in our personalities, our talents, our interests, etc., but how we look certainly has no bearing on those real matters of identity. Heck, I married an Asian, we have three half-Asian, half-white kids, and we adopted a black girl. I respect whatever cultures we bring to the table, but they’re not the defining things about who we all are.

I could go on and on. But I hope you get the idea: we’re all people. And all people deserve kindness, respect, civility, hope, opportunities, the chance to pursue happiness, and so on.

I’m always disappointed, however, when I see that other people apparently don’t see others of the human race that way. The latest story in the news is just that an 8th-grade girl’s T-shirt got Photoshopped out of a class picture because it stated that she’s a “feminist.” I’m still not quite sure what about that is offensive: like I said, if you believe women and men should all be treated with respect and have equal opportunities, it’s pretty simple.

It struck home because right now I’m angry (yes, I got angry about this!) because my daughters’ high school allowed sexist (insulting, demeaning) messages on posters at a pep rally a few weeks ago. The student government/leadership group (ASB) led the charge on a “Battle of the Sexes” theme that’s been going on for some years (at least all four years my oldest, who graduated last year, attended). Done right, could be fun. But done wrong: ka-blooey. Here’s what some posters said, according to some students: “Stay in the kitchen,” “Female president? Nah” and “You woke up ugly”. Here’s a photo of one.pep rally

Anyone think these are respectful, fun, kind? This school and all the others in this system are always stressing how they are trying to instill character in the students, such as respect. The principal’s official online message even says this: “To help provide a safe and secure learning environment for everyone, staff members require students to treat every person at (our school) with respect, both in and out of the classroom.”

Hm. Curious. So in this situation, where the student “leadership” group’s members actively wrote and posted for the whole school to see messages that were disrespectful (and ridiculously antiquated: what decade IS this?), staff members who are required to be in place as overseers and advisers OK’d these messages.

I complained to the principal about this situation as soon as I could. We had a good conversation. I told him these messages were anything but respectful, and I said it would be a good opportunity for him and other staffers to use this as a learning situation for the students involved. Teach them what kind of messages we do want to send to others, whether it’s of the opposite sex or other races (can you imagine if the posters had been talking about race?!). Then have them take some responsibility for their poor choices and apologize themselves to the student body at the next rally.

Well, the next rally came and went last Friday, and the principal did none of these things. He stood up for three minutes and talked about how great the ASB is, how more students should be involved in it, and that some posters at the previous rally had bothered “some people” and he took “full responsibility.” The ASB teens were, after all, just 15- and 16-year-olds and didn’t really know what they were doing entirely. He pseudo-apologized and that was it.

This isn’t news because it’s unusual, just like the Ohio girl’s “feminist” message being censored from a class photo. It’s news because it reminds us just how much we still accept or gloss over disrespect to others, even when we know in some part of our brains that it’s “wrong” and we even get regular, “packaged” messages about respect. In practice, though, we treat people of other races differently and “less.” We accept all kinds of ridiculous messages in the media about how women should behave and look; we’re all about image, and the vast majority of us who don’t fit a certain image feel less than. Weight shaming is still tolerated. Commenters still somehow feel they’re perfectly entitled to comment online about how fat a certain celebrity is getting (see Pink or Kelly Clarkson, just in the past few weeks). In what universe does this all really seem OK? Ours, apparently.

When is this stuff going to stop? When are we going to put our collective foot down and say, “This is NOT OK!”? It’s not OK to body shame, it’s not OK to call names because of gender or race? It’s not OK to insult. Kindergarteners know this. Why do teens and adults seem to have forgotten?

When will we all just be people: people with all kinds of fascinating diversity of backgrounds and interests and talents and personalities, people who happen to look different because of color, because of disabilities, even?

I was hoping that day would come much sooner. In the meantime, I am putting my foot down, and I am saying loudly that respect to all matters. People matter.

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I was appalled, but not surprised, to read this morning about Alabama state Rep. Alvin Holmes’ comments during an abortion-related debate last month. As Yahoo Shine wrote, “In addition to claiming that 99 percent of white legislators would force their daughters to have an abortion if impregnated by a black man, Holmes also said, ‘I will bring you $100,000 cash tomorrow if you show me a whole bunch of whites that adopted blacks in Alabama.’ … Now he may need to head to the bank, as families who have done just that staged a press conference at the Alabama State House Wednesday.”

Mothers Day 2007As a family who ourselves lived in Alabama for 12 years and, while living there, adopted a black baby (born in North Carolina), I have so much to say about this topic (and all the topics branching out from it) that it’d fill pages and pages of blog posts. But I think what I’d like to focus on today is racism. That’s at the core of this.

Here’s where I come from on race: I am white. I come from a very white family raised in the Northern United States. My parents are from Ohio and I lived the first 10 years of my life in Pennsylvania, where I remember seeing so few blacks that each “sighting” was cause for actually remembering each incident. This was in the 1970s, mind you, and things likely have shifted since then, but this, again, is my story. Then I moved to Mississippi when I was 10 and then on to Kentucky. But I had plenty of opportunities to spend time with blacks from then on. My take was this: hey, they’re people, and they have a different skin color. OK. So? On to other things.

My husband is Filipino. Asian. Not white. He felt keenly enough at certain points in his life the fact that he was a “minority” in the United States in the places he lived, particularly his two years in Utah, where we met at college. He stood out among the majority of whites there and was all too aware of that. Funny note about that: when we met, he owned and frequently wore a black cap with an X on it in reference to Malcolm X. Suffice it to say because of his minority status, he empathized with African-Americans in America and their history and status. When we dated, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and Coretta Scott King’s story, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. and found them fascinating and informative.

My husband was always a bit surprised that I just didn’t “care” or “notice” that he wasn’t white like me. Despite my Northern, white, homogeneous background, my parents had still taught us that people’s race just didn’t matter: we’re all people and deserve to be treated as such, equal human beings.

Then he and I moved to the South together. We ended up spending 12 years in Alabama, mostly in a small-ish town called Anniston. There, my husband had his first experience living in a place where the so-called “minority” was actually in equal numbers to the “majority.” Don’t ask me census numbers, but there were plenty of blacks.

There, we saw how separate the races still were in many ways, how many of the poorer, not-middle-class blacks lived on one side of town and the whites on the other. How the schools had essentially become segregated again because the middle-class whites had moved to different areas and were joined by some blacks who were also middle class and well-off enough to do so. We lived “in town” and went to those schools that were majority black. And I was fine with that. I refused to be part of “white flight” for a number of reasons.

But we also saw the other side of the story, one few people talk about, that blacks themselves are far from being immune to racism. On far too many occasions, blacks would look at my husband, the Asian who was truly a minority there, and call him names related to his race. I was absolutely shocked. How could these people who had been so horribly mistreated and still were largely in worse shape economically than whites in that area of the country not have more compassion, more understanding, more empathy, for the feelings and perspective of someone also a minority? When given the opportunity, they acted just as badly.

It’s great that there are black leaders in government. That’s the whole idea, that the U.S. has a representative government. But if black representatives, who supposedly speak for their constituents and act on their behalf, have such ridiculous notions of race relations as Rep. Holmes (and believe me, this is not an isolated incident), what are their constituents thinking and feeling and saying? (No, I don’t think all his constituents agree with him, but I doubt it’s just a really tiny number that do.)

Yes, the United States, particularly the American South, has an abominable history when it comes to race relations and the treatment of blacks. I just happen to be in the middle of reading Sue Monk Kidd’s latest novel about slavery in the early 1800s, The Invention of Wings, and the unspeakable things that were done to humans then still astonish me and cut me to the core. There are no words for how I feel about those things. But human beings, with our capacity for love and goodness and wonder, still have ugly capacities as well. And those capacities did not end with the abolition of slavery or with the Civil Rights laws enacted in the 1960s or anything that has improved since. Whites and blacks and any other race still have the capacity for ignorance and prejudice and saying and doing ridiculously stupid things. Holmes is just the latest example of this. When we push and hope for a “color-blind” society, our efforts can’t be focused just on whites; blacks and any other minorities need to be included as well.

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The older I get, the more I realize there are certain lessons I’m just not learning, despite life’s intentions otherwise. One big one is this: I fall victim to one of the classic blunders—the most famous of which is, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia”—

Oh, whoops. I mean, I fall victim to one of my own classic blunders: trying to race through a marathon when I should be walking steadily, turtle-like. A scripture I find quite true but somehow manage to keep ignoring says to serve others, feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, etc. But very wisely it goes on to say, “And see that all these things are done in wisdom and order; for it is not requisite that a man should run faster than he has strength.”

Lately, all in the name of doing good for others, I have been running mental and emotional marathons, at the rate of probably 50 miles a day, and stopping only very briefly for breaks. A little water and food here and there, maybe a quick bathroom stop. I’ve almost managed to keep running at this crazy and unwise pace. I’ve powered through walls, I’ve kept going in hopes of second winds, I’ve told myself that I’m “almost there” a hundred times, only to find that the race is far from over. And sure enough, I’ve now managed to spectacularly flame out. I’ve collapsed in the middle of the road, nearly getting trampled by other runners, and I’m just getting myself over to the sidelines, where I can continue to heave and pant and moan.

empty track

The road’s looking a little fuzzy from where I am right now…

Yes, I have four daughters — plus an exchange student — living at home. One is a senior in high school and is in the middle of applying to colleges. The second has Down syndrome and certainly causes some excitement (see my previous post if you don’t know what I mean). The third is a precocious sixth-grader, the fourth a six-year-old who has very definite ideas about how she wants to live her life, which tend to run contrary to how the rest of us see things. My responsibilities toward these growing people are certainly demanding enough, so when you add in my own interests (editing for pay, writing for fun, running a book-review website for the benefit of other like-minded readers, reading, exercising, spending time with my husband of 20 years) PLUS the commitments that I’ve perhaps foolishly made (the past couple of years it’s been a hefty investment of time and energy to the band boosters, to just name one), it’s more than this one woman can carry.

People who don’t know me well (maybe) keep telling me they “don’t know how I do it.” Others who do know me well keep telling me I need to start saying “no.” The answers: I’m not doing it: I’m coming apart at the seams. To those who tell me to say no, I’ve only been able to reply (wail?), “But how???” Because that has been the question of the year. I’ve had no idea how to stop what I’ve already started.

So what’s happened now is I’ve fallen apart and found myself unable to continue. So instead of even walking slowly along the race route, I’m splayed out on the ground. I’m hoping that soon I can regain my wits and strength and start limping again, slowly making some progress.

I’ve had to quit the band boosters mid-year because I simply can’t function anymore; someone else will have to step in. Today, I went to see my therapist a week and a half earlier than I had scheduled because I had to have someone to talk to, to think aloud with, to vent to; to tell about my frustration, my disappointment, my exhaustion. I have an appointment in two days with my psychiatrist, who monitors the medication that keeps me (mostly) “normal” or what I would call on a baseline with others who don’t have the mental-health challenges I have. Perhaps I’ll find some ways to really recuperate and regain my strength so I can once again take up the baton and jog a little down the race course.

I’d like to think I’ll learn something from this latest flame-out. I know I’m trying. Balancing all the responsibilities in life and my desires to do good and make a difference with my own body’s mental and physical needs is a very, very delicate job, and it’s one I’m far from mastering. The problem is when I have some spare energy, I immediately want to use it to do something good for someone else, when perhaps I should be keeping some in reserve. I have to remember the rainy days and save for them in my mental-health bank even when the skies are perfectly clear and blue right now. That’s hard.

I’m likely going to need the rest of my life to learn how to balance, to keep energy in reserve, to really carefully exercise wisdom to gauge when to say yes and when to say no, to keep running or kick in a burst of speed or slow down to a trot or a walk. But I’m going to keep trying.

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So I read another article that just made my jaw drop. It said that while international adoptions are becoming more difficult, and thus are dropping in numbers, would-be parents from other countries are finding it fairly easy to adopt babies from here in the U.S. — and many of those are black babies, because there are more of them in the “waiting child” category.

Yikes. The article actually reminds readers that racial prejudice is still an issue here in the U.S. and that some black birth parents hope that by letting foreigners adopt their babies, that their children might face fewer racial issues in other countries, such as the Netherlands.

Here I am the first time I met my gorgeous baby Charlotte, the day after her birth.

Here I am the first time I met my gorgeous baby Charlotte, the day after her birth.

As the wife of an Asian man and the mother of three biological children who are mixed-race (Caucasian and Filipino) and one adopted black daughter, I am certainly sensitive to racial issues. Most of the time, however, since I personally just don’t see any difference in who people truly ARE at their core regardless of what they might look like on the outside (and I suppose this also extends to disabilities, since one daughter has Down syndrome…), I tend to not think about racial issues too much. I’m not saying I’m being insensitive; I guess I just don’t think about it frequently because of my attitude about people and race.

But this article, though a bit shocking, isn’t a complete surprise; when we adopted our daughter, we heard that some other prospective parents weren’t interested in adopting a baby who didn’t share their race (i.e., since many were white, they wanted a white baby). And I knew there were some agencies and services out there that specifically work on finding homes for black or mixed-race babies (in addition to children with special needs), because they’re harder to place.

Again, as with so many issues today, even though we’ve come a long way as a country when it comes to race, we’re not color blind yet. And don’t even get me started on the hateful comments some people made about one of Mitt Romney’s sons adopting a black baby (as if it were for political purposes!). I just wish that prejudice and all the assorted other hatefulness out there didn’t have to affect babies.

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A friend drew my attention to the voting for NPR’s “best ever” teen books some months back, and I gleefully voted. Then I wrote a post about the final picks. Now a friend has alerted me to the latest “buzz” about the NPR list: it’s the “whitest ever.”

To be completely honest, I suppose my first reaction as a white person was: “So?” I think that if this list is what the most enthusiastic readers (who were aware of the NPR poll in the first place) voted for, then so be it. Can we not talk about race all the time? I am not going to say that our society has evolved to a level at which race is no longer an issue. In fact, I can say for sure that it’s not. If we were at that wonderful place where we could say race just didn’t matter anymore, we wouldn’t ever have to talk about it. It simply wouldn’t be an issue anymore. (For instance, when Barack Obama was running for president and then elected as president of the United States, everyone talked exultantly about how wonderful it was that our country was open to a black “leader of the free world.” It was talked about a LOT. Right there, I felt confident in saying, No, we’ve made strides, but we have not reached that ideal point yet because if we had, no one would have talked about his race AT ALL. It would never have been brought up. Merely stating that it was great we were electing a black president showed that it was still an issue.) So that’s my take on the race topic in general. Someday we will truly be color-blind as a society, and that will be the day when no one even thinks about someone’s color or ethnic background, let alone talks about it in the media.

Let me also clarify this point: I am white, but my husband is Asian, and my three older daughters are half-Asian. The youngest is black. And they’re just people to me. It just never occurred to me that my husband’s race could be any kind of topic. He just was and is who he IS. But from the things we talk about now and again, I do appreciate that he feels somewhat of an outsider sometimes in our culture at large, especially in certain areas of the country.

But on to the actual “best” list. The list was compiled in a non-scientific manner, and it was answered by NPR readers/listeners and those who heard about it from readers/listeners. NPR is clearly known to have a white, older audience. For its poll to skew white was a “duh” to me. If it had been otherwise, I would have been surprised.

I also observed that probably half of these books are from years back (one to two generations), and the diversity in books representing more of the American experience wasn’t there decades ago like it is now. So if we were to post a list that just contained new and current books, that wouldn’t skew quite as much to the white past.

I should also note that I am not an “expert” on YA. I just love to read anything; I remember with great fondness the books I read when I was young and still want my daughters to read because they just hold special meaning for me; call it nostalgia. And I do read a fair amount of newly-published YA, but I also read a lot of “adult” fiction and nonfiction. I don’t specialize in YA. But from what I can gather, it is still true that a lot of the most popular books even now in the YA market have white protagonists. Yes, there are lots of other books that have non-white protagonists and are well written, but they’re simply not getting the attention. Look at the best-seller list: Twilight, Hunger Games, Harry Potter. The main characters are all white, with some sprinklings of other ethnicities as secondary characters.

Which brings me back to my earlier point about our society and color-blindness. We’re not there yet. While definitely pretty well mixed in terms of diversity, our society is not thoroughly past a white-dominated era. This is reflected in media. I think as we continue to move forward, that will slowly change and diversity will be better reflected in all media, including the best-sellers in YA. It’s still good to have conversations about race and how we as people view it, but I do think that these kinds of large tectonic shifts just take time. Maybe in twenty or fifty more years this list will look much more diverse. In the meantime, this is a reflection of our society as a whole (and, again, just the white-skewed NPR; the source is not diverse, and the methods for gathering the “top” picks were hardly geared toward getting diverse answers).

What do you think?

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Gabrielle Douglas

Photo by Los Angeles Times

My husband and I were struck particularly this week by some of the talk that swirled around the Web after the amazing Gabby Douglas won all-around gold in gymnastics. We were both dismayed to read how many of her fellow blacks commented not on her performance or her history-making status as the first black woman to win gold in the individual all-around at the Olympics, but on … her HAIR.

Yes. Her hair. Now, I have read a couple of fairly reasoned comments by blacks explaining why the intense focus on her hair and disparaging comments about it, saying that since she is “representing black people” as a whole, who have experienced a clearly bad history of injustice and who now feel they have to essentially overcompensate to be seen just as equal, that even appearance is an important facet of that sense of proving themselves. There is no question that that is sad.

It’s bad enough that women today are being pressured more than ever to look perfect according to current societal norms. These norms are admittedly different (within each community, at least, though not in our society overall) for whites and blacks. And blacks make no secret about how their hair is always a challenge. Comedian Chris Rock put together a very interesting and entertaining documentary about the topic, in fact, called “Good Hair.” It was just a glimpse for those of us who do not have that texture of hair into what it’s like to try to come to terms with it.

I’m only weighing in on this topic because it’s a personal one to me. We have three biological daughters, but we also adopted our youngest daughter, who is black. And from the second we got her (the day after she was born) and took her out in public, we started getting advice from blacks on how to take proper care of her hair. Five years later, we are no less inundated with opinions.

They haven’t been unwelcome. It’s clearly true that I have no experience styling black hair. I have dark blond, smooth, straight hair. Easy-peasy. I wash it and comb it and that’s pretty much it. I’ve got it good even for a white person. So it’s helpful to have people who have experience give me ideas. What’s been interesting, however, is just how varied and sometimes clearly opposite those tidbits of advice have been. My husband had co-workers telling him from the start to use Vaseline in our daughter’s hair. Others said absolutely categorically that Vaseline was NOT what we should use. When it came to products, then, I ended up fairly early buying and using the products made by Carol’s Daughter. I like them, they smell wonderful, and they seem to keep our daughter’s hair mostly smooth and manageable if we use them every single day. So, end of story. The product side is done.

What’s the other even bigger issue is that of STYLING. I’ve been mostly interested in just letting her have a natural style, keeping it oiled nicely and combed, but nice and curly and as-is. I’ve even been bolstered in this opinion by seeing all of the emails and information that Carol’s Daughter is sending out to customers about “transitioning” to more natural hair. I absolutely refuse to straighten her hair with strong chemicals. If she chooses to do that when she’s “of age,” she can, but I am not going to put lye on her tender scalp.

So straightening chemically is out. But what about styles? When I’ve gotten ambitious, and had some time on my hands, I’ve put her fairly short hair in little “poof-balls,” as I call them. They look super-cute. But I have never learned how to do cornrows or other similar styles. This week, however, I decided to try just braiding her hair. We sat down and spent half an hour getting this done. I put about 15 little braids in her hair, and I think it looks cute and, I think, SHOULD be approved by blacks.

Then again, I worry. With five years experience getting blacks’ advice (sought and un-sought, from friends and strangers), I know it can be contradictory, and that it is taken VERY seriously. This is why I am not surprised at how Gabby Douglas’s hair was discussed in what most whites would consider rather mean terms. Blacks are serious about their hair, and it’s a complex issue for them. Many women, thanks again to the not-helpful culture in which we all live, feel self-conscious about their textured, very curly hair. They want to have smooth, straight hair that isn’t so “ethnic.” As with all the other topics I’ve written about so far in the broader issue of beauty and contemporary culture, I find this sad and disappointing. Why in the world can’t we have a whole variety of “ideals”? And why does there have to even be an “ideal” shape or look anyway? Can’t everyone just be who they are, whatever shape, size, color or hair they have?

I suppose now I’m just being idealistic. It’s probably crazy to hope for something so drastic. But it doesn’t hurt to discuss it and remind ourselves that just being our own best selves is desirable. It’s a tough fight because we’re battling against SO MUCH societal pressure and messages, but we can still try to fight it.

I suppose also that I could have spent more time over the past five years going to special salons to get blacks to style my daughter’s hair. But, as with many issues I’m aware will crop up over the course of her life with me being white and her being black, I hope we can strike the right balance between pretending (ridiculously) there are no differences between us and making a big deal out of them (I just want to always acknowledge that, yes, she is adopted, but I am her mommy always and forever, and that, yes, she is black and I am white, and, yes, her hair is different than mine, and then just go about the business of being just who we are). I am just taking this interracial-adoption situation a day at a time, and just being her mom. (And, really, adoption and interracial adoption are just whole other big blog-able topics, aren’t they?) I’m doing the best I can to be a mother, period, and to be a mother to both biological children and an adopted child.

For now, I hope to be true to each of my children, for who they uniquely are. My youngest is black and adopted. My second-oldest has Down syndrome. The older three are half-Caucasian, half-Filipina. And each has her own amazing talents and gifts and personality traits. And each will have her own hair and appearance issues. But I hope that no matter what, each can feel good about herself and not succumb to society’s negative values, especially about image.

Yes, I might be treading on a minefield here. I’m well aware of that. I hope to be respectful but also share my own experience. My daughter’s only five. So I’m sure we have many years ahead in which we will just continue to take one day at a time in dealing with hair or anything else that becomes pertinent.

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