Wednesday, January 24, 2007


Please note: I'm going to tread very delicately here, but know that you may get your hackles up and feel the need to rant. Before you post a comment, which I encourage you to do, please read carefully, and then read again, and then read again. Then, if you want to comment, I ask, if you must, to please do so respectfully.

Yesterday, in my new feature "In the BIN," I called attention to two bloggers who have engaged the issue of race and racism as a means of opening the door to dialogue. I've watched with interest the comments that have come into Creole In D.C.'s blog. It was rather distressing last night to note on Creole's blog that her objective--opening a conversation--has not been achieved as she had hoped and has resulted in "slings and arrows" being "slung and shot" across cyberspace between blacks/ African-Americans/ persons of African descent and whites/ Caucasians/ persons of European descent.

One recurring theme I've seen is that many people feel white people should apologize to black people for slavery. In many respects, I wholeheartedly agree. And so, right here, right now, let me say, as a white person of European descent, I am ashamed and sorry that my ancestors enslaved your ancestors. I am sorry that my ancestors built their wealth on the backs of your ancestors. It was wrong. It was shameful. And there is no pride to be derived from it.

Likewise, I'm ashamed that the religion of my upbringing saw fit to deny many of the blessings of my faith to its black members because it taught and bought into the doctrine that said God cursed Cain with a dark skin for killing his brother Abel. For decades, my faith denied certain rights and privileges to its black members because it didn't want to side with the abolitionists and risk not obtaining statehood, when in truth, it was polygamy that denied them statehood. For decades after the Civil War and the Emancipation Proclamation, my faith continued to deny certain rights and privileges to its black members because it didn't want to upset the segregationists. Finally, in 1978, my faith--largely as a result of social pressure to extend civil rights to all of its members--extended all the rights and privileges, all the blessings and authority, that were already the purview of white, Asian, and Latino members to its black members. What a blessed day, but what a shame that it took so unnecessarily long. For that, I apologize to my black brothers and sisters of faith.

Having said that, and not wanting to diminish it, I want to ask this: is it possible that, having apologized, we can begin to talk to one another in a manner that allows white people to ask questions without being presumed ignorant or racist and can black people answer those questions in a manner that builds bridges and creates a conversation?

I am reminded of a conversation I had years ago with a German national. His parents had belonged to the Hitler Youth and his grandfather had fought with the Nazis. For decades after World War II, Germany and its citizens carried a burden of collective guilt for what it did to the Jews of Europe. For decades, Germany and its citizens apologized, often and sincerely. And rightfully so. At what point do we, the supposedly civilized nations of the world, accept their apology and begin reconciling and moving on? I would ask the same of race relations between whites and blacks. How long, how often, and how sincerely must we apologize for the ways in which we have wronged not only blacks, but the indigenous peoples of this country? As individual citizens, we cannot make reparations. That rests in the hands of our legislators. But, we can apologize and are apologizing and we can open the door with sincerity to begin talking about how we are different and how we are the same, as well as why those differences and similarities exist.

The heaviest burden for apologies and forgiveness lies not entirely on the shoulders of the apologist or the sinner, but is a shared burden on the shoulders of the one who has been wronged and sinned against. In the Lord's Prayer, we pray, "Forgive us our trespasses, Lord, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us." I can apologize repeatedly and often for the transgressions of my ancestors and of my faith. Those apologies are sincere and heartfelt. But, we cannot begin to have the dialogue or the conversations that will heal wounds until those we have so egregiously trespassed against say to us, "I accept. Let us draw the line here and begin anew." Those of us who have apologized will not soon forget our transgressions and those of us who accept the apologies must set them aside with grace so that we can begin, in grace, to help our transgressors understand who we are, why we think and behave as we do, what we value and why, and so forth. More than that, many of us want to share in the joys and sorrows, the triumphs and defeats, the color and the diversity that make you who you are not only as a person but also as a people. We can't do that, though, if we keep shutting each other out and pointing fingers. Many of us want to end discrimination and fulfill Dr. King’s dream of “judging you not by the color of your skin, but the content of your character.” Please help us to do that.


CreoleInDC said...

My hat's off to you. This was a well thought out post.

Bent Fabric said...

Brava! Well said!

As an African American let me state the obvious by saying it is hard to build bridges when one party still harbors a grudge. Forgiveness is imperative because without it there can be no progress. Forgiveness does not mean forgetting the 400-year-long stain on the face of the country. It means relinquishing the rancor and anger in favor of positive interaction.

My views have ofttimes led me to being accused of betraying my race. That is unfortunate because it signifies a symptom of the fact that we have begun turning on each other.

It's late, I'm exhausted and I have not yet gone to bed so I hope my missive makes sense.

NG said...

Nicely put. Thanks for putting voice to thoughts that (I hope) a lot of us have.

Roslyn said...

This was a very good post. What are the questions you want to ask, and what type of help are you asking for?

DJ Black Adam said...

An apology is not called for in most cases, unless you yourself owned slaves or started the doctrines of your faith. In the case of slavery, acknowledgment that it being legally dealt over 150 years ago didn’t change the state of African Americans being looked at as 2nd or 3rd class citizens, that inequalities exist to this day and REALLY existed up until the mid sixties. As such acknowledging, we really are a generation or two removed from the real drama, and that some drama still persists.

You don’t have to apologize; you just have to not say “Get over it” (not saying you did, just saying what is appropriate).

Second, as for your faith, nothing to apologize for, repent if you participated in said discrimination and tow anyone whom you may have offended if you did, and move on.

Third, I don’t need an apology per se, but I am very weary of people, especially non black people, who feel inclined to act like someone is physically harming them when the subject of an apology comes up, it sort of reinforces the reality that some people still harbor the mentality of justification in the historic wrong.

Other than that, I hope people can respect each other overall in discussions regarding race so that things can be talked about, because it is obvious, it is not a done deal as of this point in time.

Kristin said...

Well said! I wish I had half your eloquence.

JMK said...

Creole In DC: Thank you. Although... you started it! ;-)

Bent: Your missive makes perfect sense and is excellent. I think the infighting in African American culture is somewhat similar to the argument that goes on in religion: are you orthodox enough? The result is a lot of talking past each other rather than with each other. Instead of finding where we're similar--both within and without cultures/faiths/whatever--we focus on the differences to the point of disintegration. It's sad and so useless.

BG: Thanks. I think a lot of us have these thoughts, too. The challenge is, how to move forward constructively.

Roslyn: Thank you for being willing to answer questions. Having said that, I think for me it isn't so much that I have a litany of questions so much as I wish it was okay to just ask whatever without fear of creating a conflict or seeming like a hick.

I'll give you an example. Last night, I was at a friend's house when the State of the Union came on. In their living room were four white people, two African Americans, and one Hispanic. There were four women and three men. One of the white women is an emigrant from Sweden. I say all of this to say, we were a pretty diverse group from a demographic and ethnographic standpoint.

So we're watching Supreme Court justices, enter the House Chamber. Then, the President's Cabinet was announced and they entered, led by Condi Rice. The African American woman in our group turned to the African American man and said, "Oh, she needs to clean up her kitchen." He agreed. And I said, "Clean up her kitchen? What does that mean?" I'd never heard the phrase before and I had no clue what they were referring to. I mean, I thought Secy. Rice looked pretty nice last night. I've seen her in person and she always looks very Secretary of State-ish, like her predecessors and her fellow cabinet colleagues. As it turns out, the African American woman observed that perhaps the hair at the nape of her neck needed a little cleaning up. "Huh," I thought, "Okay."

The point is, I learned something last night. White people ask their hair stylists to "clean up the scragglies" or "clean up the hair at the nape of my neck." African Americans say "clean up my kitchen." For me, that was fun! It was a simple moment to learn a phrase. I'd like to know the origin of the phrase, but we didn't go into that.

Another example: I grew up in a very white community in very Mormon Utah. In my neighborhood, all the houses had porches and folks would sit out in the evenings and visit. It's one of my fondest childhood memories. I recently moved to a neighborhood in Upper NW that is older and historically African American. I notice that my neighbors, especially in the summer months, sit out on their porches and visit--often into the wee hours of the night. I love that folks are out on their porches. As we don't see this phenomenon much anymore, my question is, why does it thrive and survive in black, perhaps even inner city, culture?

In terms of other questions, I want to understand the African American perspective on discrimination and whether it truly is ALL the fault of white people keeping black people down or if there isn't a part that black people play in keeping themselves down. (I ask that because I remember during the OJ Simpson trial a black woman I worked with saying to me that she felt some of the racism and discrimination she and others experienced was brought on not by white people but by themselves. As a sociologist of religion, I've often noted that sometime religious persecutions are brought on a religious community as much by themselves as by others. The origin of the persecution/discrimination is a byproduct of the discriminated group talking defensiveily at/past others rather than to or with others outside their realm. Does that make sense?)

Let me see if I can make better sense of this. When I decided to study sociology of religion, I chose to focus on Mormonism. There are a lot of misconceptions out there about this American born faith and a lot of people think Mormons are really weird. (In some ways, they are really weird.) A lot of people were fearful of asking "stupid" questions or offending other Mormons. In their experience, Mormons responded to questions in one of two ways: either defensively or they'd start proselytizing. This is often a turn off for folks. As a result, I made an effort to find new ways to talk about Mormonism that were inviting and created dialogue. For example, instead of saying, "We believe in such and such," I would say, "Mormons believe in such and such." I was still stating what my faith/area of specialization believes, but doing it in a non-threatening manner. The other thing I would do is engage the other person in their faith and try to learn where they were coming from, the words they used to describe their faith, and the tenets that were important to them. As a result, I can have a conversation with a Catholic, Muslim, or Buddhist in a way that still honors their faith while at the same time honoring my own. In the process, I learn to speak and hear in their language and it's an enlightening process because I realize that saying things or seeing things just through my white/female/Mormon/whatever label eyes isn't the only way of seeing or hearing or saying things. The result is a rich vocabulary and a rich conversation with a variety of rich folks.

I don't know if any of that makes sense. I guess what I'm trying to say is, I'd like to learn your language, but when I sense hostility or tension like I've seen in people of my faith, as an example, or like I sense in some African Americans, I back off. I worked with an African American woman once who made it quite clear she would not countenance even the smallest comment or compliment. You couldn't even tell her her hair looked nice because somehow that was pointing out her black hair and contrasting it to the complimentor's white/hispanic/asian hair. She would get very cold and unapproachable over stuff like that. I once commented on how great I thought it was that Warren Brown followed his dream and started Cake Love. She huffed at me and said something like, "Well, why shouldn't he?" as if I was implying that a black man can't quit his job and follow his bliss. I eventually stopped talking to her and we all walked around on pins and needles around her.

All of that to say, somehow, I want to overcome that tension and just talk and interact and learn. Sure, I know I can't just say anything without there being possible consequences. But we can't know what we can and can't say if we don't start somewhere.

Okay, I'm stopping now, because I don't know if this is getting me/us anywhere. Thanks for listening, though. Oy.

JMK said...

DJ Black Adam: Thank you. I'm definitely not in the "get over it and move on" camp (Good Lord! Could the senator from VA be anymore of an ass?! But I stray.) I try to treat everyone like I'd like to be treated--as an equal. In a post about presidential candidates several days ago, I said, I don't care if the candidate is a woman, black, a war veteran, or a Mormon. What I care about is how that person will lead and care for our nation, its citizens, and its place in the world. As a woman, I'm tired of being talked down to by white men, so I try not to do that to others. I would never want to do or say something that would make another person--regardless of their race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, whatever--feel put down or 2nd class. (I'm not longer a participating Mormon because I got tired of being treated like a 3rd class citizen within my faith community. Twelve-year old boys have more authority/clout than I do.)

I, too, hope people can respect each other overall in discussions about race. There are a lot of things that need to be discussed and that I'd like to understand so that we can all move forward together.

Kristin: Thank you.

Honest said...

Great post. Discussions regarding race are very difficult even among blacks and even among families. I recently spent Christmas with family in Europe and their views on race relations in their country is one that is very different from mine as an American.

I grew up in NYC, went to college in NC and have spent the majority of my adult life in DC so my perspective on race and race relations will be different then someone from Utah, or even N.C. I think the different perspectives are one of the reasons a cohesive national dialogue or even local dialogue about race relations are difficult.

My perspective, I don't expect an apology but I do expect recognition of what slavery has done to this country and how much families, institutions and businesses have benefited from it. I expect politicians to acknowledge the fact that it existed and the Jim crow era also existed.

What makes it especially hard in this country to move on is that racism still exists and is in my view institutionalized in certain areas.

My ancestors were enslaved, fought for their freedom, kicked their slave masters out of the country and declared independence as the first black republic. Now we're the poorest country in the western hemisphere and have problems that I believe stem from slavery and slave mentalities. How to solve those problems I have no idea.

Sorry to be all over the place.

Roslyn said...

JMK, I don't think any of the questions you asked are offensive. But then, I'm a social scientist too. I think its funny because I said the same thing when I saw Condi last night! I think we call it 'the kitchen' because the kitchen is typically the messiest room in your house. At least that's what my mama always told me.

As for folks on the porches, that probably originated in the South. Most blacks, of course, have southern roots. Most of the blacks who live outside the south are products of the Great Migration, and often spent their summers down South with relatives. There was no air conditioning so we sat on our porches to catch a breeze in the oppressive summer heat. I remember even sleeping on the porch when I was a child. I would imagine that many inner-city blacks live in housing that's not air-conditioned, so they would continue that tradition today. I wish I lived in a neighborhood where folks still sat on porches. I miss that.

Of course blacks have some ownership in keeping themselves down. That's why I have such beef with folks and a victim stance. In fact, given that we know up front that the cards are stacked against us, some of our behavior is downright insane.

As for black women and hair, well, all I can say is its best to just leave that topic alone. There are issues there. Deep-rooted painful issues that strike at the heart of a black woman's sense of self, her beauty and femininity. Not to go on endlessly, but essentially we live in a culture where black woman's beauty is not only unrecognized, its often made the butt of jokes. As you know, the beauty standard in this country is a big-busted, slim-hipped, blonde size 00. Clearly black women have no chance at attaining most of those standards and for that many of us have been humiliated and denigrated. That's no reason to strike out at someone giving one a compliment, but in many ways some people are like wounded animals in this regard. Indeed, I think a lot of black folk are walking wounded, and its best to proceed with caution.

We also have to factor in that there are some white people who ask questions that are meant to be a put-down. Or if that's not the intent that's certainly the way it comes across. I can't tell you how many questions I've had about whether I wash my hair. Or questions about the texture of my pubic hair. I find it hard to believe that such questions are asked out of genuine curiousity or interest.

Zanne said...

Great post and discussion my friend! I really like where you're coming from. I too feel grieved by the way we look to define ourselves by our differences, not out similarities. Let's hang on to the vision of something better!

CreoleInDC said...

One of the traps I don't want anyone seeking enlightenment to fall into is by thinking that the person they are speaking to speaks for the entire race because they don't. Take the hair issue for instance...I don't have a problem with people asking me hair questions. I wonder why they are relevent in the grand scheme of all that you COULD ask me...but it doesn't bother me.

The reason forgiveness is possible but forgetfullness will never be is because we all must know our history so that the worst of history NEVER is allowed to repeat itself. You have to recognize the signs and the only way to do that is to know what the heck they are.

Keep going...I'm grinning from ear to ear reading these comments. This is good.

JMK said...

Honest: I thought your comments were/are spot on and weren't all over the place. Thank you for sharing them.

This sentence stood out to me: "What makes it especially hard in this country to move on is that racism still exists and is in my view institutionalized in certain areas."

I agree with you that racism still exists and is still institutionalized. And that totally bugs the crap out of me! The ugliest part about racism is, not only does it keep down the people at whom it is targeted, but it brings down those who engage in it. Racism benefits NO ONE. (The same can be said of sexism and any other form of harassment and discrimination that denies people their full humanity.)

I hope, as I interact with people that what they get from me is someone who sees them as a human first. Everything else after that is a label. Granted, those labels have a history and a meaning, but they are not all-encompassing or all-defining. Or, at the very least, they shouldn't be. In other words, you are "Honest" a human being. You also happen to be female, African American, a >name your religion<, a member of the >name your political party<, the xx of xx children of >name your parents<, etc., etc. Those are all important things and tell me a lot about who you are, where you came from, and perhaps even what or why you believe certain things. But bottom line, what matters most to me is, you're another human being and you deserve to be treated with respect and dignity.

Perhaps, if we could all feel that way (or feel something similar and ennobling) we'd be able to end racism and disinstitutionalize a practice and way of thinking that is harmful, hurtful, and denigrating to all involved.

JMK said...

Roslyn: Thank you for the kitchen explanation. See, now to me, that's just fun information. I don't know; maybe I'm wacko that way, but I love little things like that.

As for porch sitting, you're welcome to come over and sit on my porch anytime! Although, I'll have to break out the bug spray. The mosquitos around here can be quite the detractor.

I like what you said about choosing not to be victims. I once let someone tell me that since I was a woman, I couldn't possibly go to medical school and all I was good for was getting married and having kids. I believed them and, as a result, dropped out of pre-med. I finally got my head on straight a few years after that, though, and decided I would never again let someone tell me what I could or couldn't do. When I get up in the morning, I look in the mirror and even though I'm a woman, what I actually see is Janet. And I believe that the only thing holding me back is me. That doesn't mean there aren't still obstacles and I won't even pretend that my obstacles are on par with the barriers racism creates, but you're right in saying that we each have a say in whether we stay down or get up.

As for the hair thing, it's actually ironic that I used that as an example, because I have hair issues. I wear my hair really short and sometimes I make it spiky. I can't tell you how many people--especially professional adults--will reach out to touch it. DRIVES ME NUTS! As a result, I never touch or ask to touch the hair of African Americans. I can tell it's different without having to feel it and invade someone else's space in a manner that is not only inappropriate, but degrading. (Although, I mentored a little kid once in San Francisco who was so proud of his hair. I do have a tendency with little kids to ruffle their hair or playfully guide them by the head. I remember doing this one day to James and he looked up and in all seriousness said, "Hey! Don't do that! You're denting my hair." Cracked me up. But, he was right and I hadn't realized that putting my hand on his head would leave a dent in his hair. I never put my hand on his head again.) As for asking about pubic hair, please, please, please tell me that isn't true? Good Lord! Do people have no sense of propriety?!

You're right about what constitutes an appropriate question. Questions that are gratuitous and do nothing to further your understanding of a person are meaningless and ought not to be asked.

JMK said...

Zanne: Hear! Hear! I look forward to that vision becoming a reality. And I'd love if that would happen in my lifetime, but we still have so far to go.

JMK said...

Creole in DC: Can you give us some examples of questions you wouldn't mind having people ask you?

As I said early, I don't have a litany of questions per se. A lot of times, my questions arise out of things I observe and am trying to understand.

There's almost a surreal quality to this dialogue because you (that's the royal you, btw) don't want people to feel compelled to ask questions, plus it's hard to know where to start since each person feels so differently about various aspects of an issue. And yet, there has to be some way of knowing what's a good question and what isn't (i.e. informative vs. gratuitous.)

So, back to my query: what kind of questions would you like to be asked?

As for history and never forgetting: you're right, we can't forget or we'll repeat the same atrocities over and over and over again.

CreoleInDC said...

LOL! Just ask. Trust me...if there is a question I feel uncomfortable'll know. LOL!

JMK said...

Creole: All right. How about this? If I see or hear something and I want to learn more, I'll email you and pose the question. Deal?

Gunfighter said...

"My views have ofttimes led me to being accused of betraying my race."

I know this song well, Bent.

Good work JMK, clearly, you aren't about the superficial... of course, I already knew that about you, but I thought I would put it out there for all to see,



CreoleInDC said...


JMK said...

Creole: Excellent! Done.

Sister Mary Lisa said...

Great post, Janet. You are a great writer, and an understanding soul.

Rachel said...

jmk ~ I just found your blog and am incredibly glad thatI did.
This is such a fantastic post and it brings up some angst that I harbor.
I have a question for the African American readers if they would like to answer.
I am caucausion. My son's father is African American. I am no longer with my son's (D) father. I am raising a bi-racial child in a mono-racial home.
I try and be proactive and discuss things with D so that he can learn more about his diverse heritage and when I inquired, he told me that he percieves himself as black.
I am fine with that and want to embrace that part of who he is and teach him to grow up to be a good man. Whether he perceives himself as black, white, bi-racial or any other way doesn't matter to me, but I want to respect that part of him and encourage him.
How can I, as a caucasian woman, teach my son what he needs to know to survive and thrive in this society if he perceives himself as black?
He does have contact with his fathers family but I don't feel that this issue should be handled solely by them.

Roslyn said...

I think its generally easy to tell when someone is asking a question from a 'good place' and otherwise. And then, some questions are just inappropriate regardless of what the asker's intent may be. I definitely am put off by questions about sexuality, genitalia and pubic hair. (Yeah, they do ask.) And questions that imply that I don't use good hygiene are probably off-putting as well. But otherwise pretty much anything goes. I'm not put off by hair questions for the most part. I have dreadlocks and a lot of people are curious about them, including black folks. So I'm accustomed to plenty of stares and questions. I'd probably also be more receptive to questions from someone like yourself who, being from Utah hasn't been around many blacks.

I too am curious and I'm sure I drive people from other cultures crazy with my questions. There's an East Indian store that I frequent and I'm constantly asking the lady who owns it questions. I try to be diplomatic and not too intrusive. Sometimes that's complicated when you're dealing with a culture not your own. There are lines there that you might ignorantly cross, but most folk seem to be receptive to my inquiries and are generally tolerant.

JMK said...

Gunfighter: Thank you! All I have is me. Sometimes, it ain't pretty, but I try to keep it real.

SML: Thanks!

Rachel: I just sent you an email about your questions. I'm not equipped to answer them, but others likely are more than qualified. See my email, though, and let me know what you think.

Roslyn: I'm the same way when I go into the Indian market or a Halal market or even my favorite German deli in Falls Church. I think the underlying character traits I try to exhibit when asking questions are humility, enthusiasm, respect, and gratitude. And, if I sense I've been offensive, I apologize immediately. Thank you for your graciousness!