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Thursday Thirteen #111: Thirteen Ways I Learned About Racism

September 19th, 2007

Hullo, hullo, 13ers and Usual Suspects,

For my Thursday Thirteen, I am talking about skin. Its color, specifically. It all feels the same, skin, doesn’t it? When you touch it? Stroke it? Caress it? Burn it? Jab it and make it bleed? It bleeds the same. It hurts the same. We all have skin. It’s just that mine is white. Maybe yours is, maybe it isn’t. It doesn’t matter. But some people think it does.

How did I learn about racism? Oh, lots of ways. I’ll work backwards, from this week, as things come to mind:

1) From Cynthia Harris, the principal (African-American) of our neighborhood high school, Jefferson High School, here in beautiful, open-minded Portland, Oregon, USA. (Here are four links, because no one can agree on what one thing Jefferson should be). Harris told a group of parents and community members that “Black kids are different” and “Almost one in four black students at my school is in special education. Something is wrong there.” So they’re “different” and “really different,” apparently.

Harris refused to answer questions posed by a woman (white) who, like me, is an advocate for kids and a community activist. Why wouldn’t she answer her questions? Harris told the woman “(I) don’t understand why people who aren’t African-American think they should have any say in what happens at Jefferson.”

I say: Ms. Harris, be inclusive. If you can’t be, then you need to not work with students or any communities. I’m a community member, and I want to help make things better. Don’t say no to anyone who is trying to help — say yes. Your word should be yes. Yes, yes, yes. Yes, let’s talk. You don’t have to agree to everything everyone wants, that wouldn’t work. But I am asking that you listen to what people have to say, have a conversation, answer the questions that you are able to answer. Communication. Yes.

(This subject is also being discussed by Terry Olson, Hockey God, Willamette Week and KGW-8, Portland’s NBC affiliate. (And over at The Mercury, they’re talking about race as it relates to drug- and prostitution-free zones.) If you see discussions elsewhere, please e me.)

2) I was being a smart-aleck when I said “beautiful, open-minded Portland.” Because, while the scenery is quite beautiful in Portland, the people can be quite ugly. We have a long, hideous history of racism in Portland. I just lit a candle for Mulugeta Seraw and another one for the Coon Chicken Inn and another one for Tony Stephenson and another one for Jose Meija Poot and another one for everyone. And I lit one, too, for the Portland Police officers who thought they should “decorate” the doorstep of a business (black-owned) with dead possums. Maybe I ought to light two for them.

This isn’t all of it — these are just a few “situations” that came to mind.

I am not proud of my city’s heritage, you should be aware of this.

3) I learned about racism when my friends had their house firebombed, windows broken, furniture on their front porch burned, in the early ’90s. They are an interracial couple — a woman (African-American and Native American), her husband (white), and they lived with a female roommate (African-American). They chose to leave Portland.

4) When I was in third grade, my girlfriend Teri and I sat down with a table of kids (African-American), at lunch. She proceeded to talk at length about the following: watermelon, and her love of it; her grandparents, and their house in North Portland; did she mention she really loved watermelon?; and how she was always at her grandparents’ house, in North Portland.

I felt really weird, but didn’t know why. I didn’t say anything.

The kids all took their trays and moved to another table. When I asked my mom why, later, she said, “Jesus H. Christ, I cannot believe what an idiot that kid is” and swore for awhile before she explained.

5) In fourth grade, after my dad died, I spent most lunch hours alone on the playground, hoping no one would notice me, and trying not to cry. A pair of twins (African-American) found me. They were a year older than I was, and well-known for their fistfights, which they always won.

“Did your daddy kill hisself?” they asked me.

That’s when I started thinking that black people were mean, and would beat me up if they saw any weaknesses.

6) Then there was fifth grade, when I heard one of the older girls, an eighth-grader (African-American), tell another eight-grader, boy (African-American), “Boy, you are fucking with my nerves.” We did not talk like that at my house and that’s when I learned, sometimes black girls can be mean, but they totally fucking rock. Fuck yeah.

7) Then there was sixth grade, when Paula (African-American) beat me up. I deserved it, I was being a jerk to Dina (bi-racial — African-American and white) and really, I totally deserved it. But they were both friends with me, after that. Dina used to come into the pharmacy where I worked, and the restaurant where I waited tables, just to say hi. Her mom did, too. She’d say, “Dina says hi.”

I ran into Paula a few years ago — it was so good to see her. I told her I had heard that Dina was killed in a car accident, when we were all in our early 20s. It was her husband, I heard. He wanted her dead, there was domestic violence. (I didn’t tell Paula that part; her daughters were there.) Paula told her daughters, “We were all friends.” And I told them, “You just never know how things are going to turn out, so we need to all be good to each other.”

I should light a candle for Dina, too, don’t you think?

9) We had race riots at my school — “Black versus white! Black versus white!” a few kids would scream. They’d all spill out to the park. Some guys (African-American) would break out cake-cutters. They were metal and sharp. Some guys (white) would threaten to have knives, but they only occasionally did. I would watch from the playground next to the park, then I would walk home. Then my mom would ask, “Why are you home early?” and I would say, “Fight.” Where were the grown-ups? I have no idea. Smoking in the teachers’ lounge, I imagine, and complaining about us.

10) I found out that some kids (white) from my neighborhood were being bussed to schools (black), far, far away, in North Portland. (I went to school in Northeast, ten minutes from North). And some kids (black) were being bussed from schools (black) in their neighborhood (North) to my school. Everyone getting on and off the busses seemed to be in a bad mood. There were a lot of fights on that end of the building. I learned to keep my distance. I learned that a lot of times when people got sick of talking they used their fists.

11) Then there was my maternal grandma (white) from Dakota (North) who called Brazil nuts “nigger toes.” Then there were my mom’s relatives (white) from the south who said, “You want some good barbecue, you go get some of that nigger barbecue.”

12) I learned about racism when I fell in love with a man (black) and another man (brown). I learned about racism when I was on jury duty and they asked us, one by one, if we’d ever been involved in an interracial relationship. If you had been, you were disqualified.

“Did you notice that people stared at you when you walked down the street?” the lawyer asked.
“Yes,” I said, “But I just thought it was because we were so good looking.”

13) I learned about racism while we were planning our 20th high school reunion in 2002 and the former cheerleaders (white) insisted on having the reunion and picnic in ritzy areas of town (white) where I told them that a lot of my old friends (African-American and Asian) wouldn’t “feel comfortable” going.

Is that the most stupid expression ever? “Feel comfortable”? “It makes me uncomfortable”? But I didn’t know how to put it. I suggested Peninsula Park, in North Portland. I had talked with Paula, who had talked with some of the other alums. They had asked for Peninsula Park. Cheerleader frowns all around. “It’s too dangerous there.”

It made them “uncomfortable.”

How many guests of color at my reunion? Three (Asian, African-American, African-American.) There were close to 400 kids in my graduating class, which was maybe 60 percent white, 20-25 percent Asian, maybe 15-20 percent African-American and a few Hispanic kids.

Three people.

31 Comments

  1. Zarwen says

    Wacky Mommy,

    I hope you don’t mind if I play devil’s advocate for a moment. But sometimes we have to be careful what we wish for.

    “Don’t say no to anyone who is trying to help, say yes. Your word should be yes. Yes, yes, yes.”

    They’ve said yes to Tony Hopson. He is “trying to help.” And to Bill Gates, who is “trying to help.” And who knows how many others whose efforts to “help” have only made Jefferson worse.

    If I may, I’d suggest rephrasing your appeal to read “any parent.”

    Thank you for your passionate post on this topic.

    September 19th, 2007 | #

  2. megs says

    I’ve heard this before from PPS “black” principals…a friend …an excellent teacher….and white ….pretty much driven out of a school _John Ball…when the principal (black) told her she “didn’t understand” her people’s culture. Racism or what? I think so.

    September 19th, 2007 | #

  3. Damozel says

    A very interesting and insightful post. I guess I was just surprised to find out that racism is alive and well in the Pacific Northwest. I thought it was just a problem down south.

    September 19th, 2007 | #

  4. Nicholas says

    Thank you for this list. Lots of food for thought here.

    September 19th, 2007 | #

  5. Terry says

    Good post, Wacky. Better than mine and Steve’s. Well, better than mine anyway. I remember well the Poot incident and the possums too. All of them actually, since I’ve lived in Portland most of my life.

    I remember when I told you to write about educational issues and you replied that you liked recipes. Well, see what’s happened now that Steve has devoted so much time to schools and PPS. His traffic has gone stratospheric. See?

    But maybe I’m just biased because I still can’t eat regular food. Just soft stuff.

    September 19th, 2007 | #

  6. Malcolm says

    This was a very thought-provoking TT. I have been in interracial relationships myself. When people did look at us, I figured it was for one of two reasons:

    1. They had a problem with interracial relationships
    2. They thought that we made a beautiful couple

    That’s too bad that only 3 people of color showed up at your class reunion.

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  7. No Nonsense girl says

    what great food for thoughts!!! My TT is up!

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  8. april says

    “Did you notice that people stared at you when you walked down the street?” the lawyer asked.
    “Yes,” I said, “But I just thought it was because we were so good looking.”

    That is the best response! Good for you? What did the jerk say when you said that?

    That is a great and insightful piece. I am sorry for your friend.

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  9. Steve says

    Terry, actually, WackyMommy’s blog still kicks my blog’s butt in terms of traffic. Really, it’s true. She gets around twice the traffic of mine.

    She’s the writer of the family. I’m just the lowly engineer/blog administrator.

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  10. PB says

    It is always curious to me how white people love to say how much they understand about being black. Who are you kidding?

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  11. Steve says

    PB, I don’t see where she says she “understand[s] about being black.”

    It’s a personal essay about how a white woman came to understand racism. Many, many white people go through life without ever trying to grasp what it means. I don’t think she’s trying to kid anybody; just relating a personal perspective on racism.

    Too many white folks are afraid to talk about race, or are just plain ignorant. Speaking frankly about it is a breath of fresh air, especially in “politely white” Portland.

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  12. Barb says

    Thanks for enlightening us on Portland. It’s hard to believe policemen would do such a thing! Things are bad enough in this world without having people you are supposed to trust doing something like that!

    I grew up in the era when we were separated by color – I graduated from a white school – so did my children, but not for that reason. There weren’t any people of different races near the school area. But, all of my grandchildren have all races in their schools. And, they all make friends with each other. It’s sad that the rest of the world can’t take a hint from the school kids and not pass racism on to their children. Life would be much easier.

    We just spent almost 3 weeks in an NICU unit with my husband’s sister, who just died last Sunday. If those people could have set in that waiting area during those weeks, color would have made NO difference. Everyone was praying and pulling for one another, hugging necks and crying. Life is too precious to put color between you and someone who might be a prayer warrior!

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  13. Heather says

    I copied and pasted my comment, since I didn’t know when you would be back to my little corner of the world.

    Thanks for the correction, concerning your time put in at your neighborhood school.

    It is hard to align what we must do within the system with what we truly believe in an idealistic way. My Steve thinks I have anger issues. Maybe he’s right. I did get defensive over this one- especially because both of my daughter’s absolutely love the school they are going to and so do I. And it would not be possible for them to go there without the transfer policy. So, I feel like I can’t badmouth something I am gaining from in so many ways. Do you see my point? Would that be a hypocrite? I did get defensive over this one. And that is not the most positive thing, but I do feel I have a valid point.

    I need to stop now. It does get way too personal.

    Posted by Heather on September 20, 2007 – Thursday at 12:19 PM

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  14. bernie says

    Just curious, how many white kids would have shown up at your suggested venue? If the answer is 3 or less than perhaps having it at a place where the majority would feel comfortable was the best approach.

    By the way, I don’t buy into the notion that black kids would feel uncomfortable even at a very ritzy place, but I think even the most tolerant person in the world feels uncomfortable in a predominantly non-white area.

    My TT is up at 13 PETA Poses, Excerpt: PETA is a detestable, wacko organization, but I love those who protest for PETA by going fur-less. Is there a better way to protest?

    Herewith, for your viewing pleasure are 13 images of protesters who have bared it all in their effort to convince you to stop wearing fur, eating meat or fish, and torturing animals.

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  15. WackyMommy says

    PB,
    I wasn’t trying to put myself in anyone else’s shoes. Or skin. I was just saying what it’s been like in my skin.

    Barb,
    Peace to you and your family on the loss of your sister-in-law. I am sorry.

    Heather,
    The girl with no control (me) says sometimes anger moves mountains.

    (and on the other hand…)

    For Hockey God,
    “Always keep your composure. You can’t score from the penalty box; and to win, you have to score.” — Bobby Hull

    Bernie,
    I’m not meaning to imply that they would have felt uncomfortable at a “ritzy” place — just that it was way across town, and the cops in Portland and the white suburbs adjacent, especially, like to pull over anyone who’s not white.

    Around here, if you’re trying to commit suicide, for instance, and the cops are called? They’ll take care of it for you. Get what I’m saying? It’s not pretty.

    The decision was made to have both functions a far distance from our high school. (I went to an east side high school; the dinner was held on the west side of town, and the picnic was held waaaaay south.) If we’d held the events near our alma mater, or at least in a nearby neighborhood (that’s where Peninsula Park is, about 20 minutes from my old school) that we would have had a better turn-out. I think the final headcount was around 125 white alums, plus guests.

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  16. vespabelle says

    The Cynthia Harris thing is interesting to me. I get what she was trying to say but it came out badly. (Blacks and White are treated differently in this country, they are “different” from each other.) But that doesn’t excuse her of calling Shore a White Outsider. Would I be a white outsider? (I’m a parent in the Jefferson cluster!)

    The most recent book on race I’m reading is Making Friends with Black People by Nick Adams. I also recommend Ralph Wiley’s Why Black People Tend to Shout. Both are funny and eye-opening. (and yes, those are totally embarrassing (on purpose?) titles to put on hold at the library!)

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  17. Heather says

    I know maintaining composure is the best angle, but hey, we’re human. I’ve calmed down. Thank you for the link to the comment where you mention your family’s transfer. I also read that posting and subsequent debate, and it is all very reasonable and open. Everyone sees the problem and basically agrees on how to fix it. Unfortunately, we do have the existing structure we are working within with so many things to consider- namely, and most importantly, the most precious things in our lives- our children.

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  18. Debby says

    Excellent post! I especially liked how you answered the lawyer when being questioned for jury duty.

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  19. rsm says

    Good stuff here, woman. But you’re makin’ me all think ‘n stuff. Don’t you know I’ve got homework to do? (Which explains why I’m surfing blogs, right?)

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  20. Cassie says

    Wow, most of the TTs I read are lightheaded and fun but occasionally there are those that make me stop and think like yours did.

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  21. Linda R. Moore says

    Wow. This is really powerful stuff, and though-provoking. Thank you.

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  22. Jenny McB says

    Somehow I had this idea that the Northwest was liberal and laid back, but boy there’s some serious racial tension going on.

    Considering I grew up outside of Boston in an Italian/Irish/ Jewish suburb- mostly white, I am not prejudiced. However, I did work with a Black woman who constantly made racist comments. She based everything on color. At the time, I thought she was ignorant, but now with age, I realize that it was her armor. She grew up with prejudice and this was her way of dealing with it. It would be nice if we could get all get over the color thing when dealing with people.
    Good post today.

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  23. Mallory says

    The Jena 6 situation makes me so simultaneously furious and depressed. Even now, America? I had some hope because my kids have had an overwhelmingly positive experience with other cultures and races so far, and we’ve always lived in NoPo. I thought maybe the kids were finally going to get it right, you know? How very sad.

    September 20th, 2007 | #

  24. nan says

    Here’s a twist for you: I am white, (blonde!) green-eyed girl, who went to a high school which was 50 percent black trini and 50 percent east Indian trini. With a sprinkling of chinese and white. There was one other white girl in the whole school! And wouldn’t you know it, I had teachers who were racist, and girls who picked on me because they were racist. Not that I was totally traumatised or anything, I had friends too, but I thought PB might like to know… Hi PB!!

    September 23rd, 2007 | #

  25. slouching mom says

    “Did you notice that people stared at you when you walked down the street?” the lawyer asked.
    “Yes,” I said, “But I just thought it was because we were so good looking.”

    Perfect comeback, I love it.

    This was a thoughtful, thought-provoking post. I had no idea Portland was so intolerant.

    September 23rd, 2007 | #

  26. WackyMommy says

    It’s a mind-blower, really. You should have heard all the nasty comments going around last week re: the re-naming of Portland Blvd. “Rosa Parks Way.” (That name change went through last year, yay! But a lot of people are still bitching) and the suggestion that Interstate Ave. be re-named “Cesar Chavez Blvd.” Over that one the neighbors turned into white angry yelling mob. But they’re not *racist,* mind you, oh no, they’re not that at all. That would be “uncool” and they are “cool.” (Me, throwing my shoe against the wall in frustration.) No, they’re just angry whites screaming for minorities to go “somewhere else.”

    September 23rd, 2007 | #

  27. megs says

    “Insects taking over the world” is how one of my self-proclaimed racist friends described the ever darkening majority.

    September 24th, 2007 | #

  28. WackyMommy says

    Megs, why do you accept this from a friend? Tell this person, “I’ll be your friend again when you stop being a racist fool.” Then go on your way.

    “If you are the big tree/we are the small ax/sharpened to cut you down/ready to cut you down.”
    – Bob Marley

    September 24th, 2007 | #

  29. BlackFriend says

    I missed this one last Thursday in whirlwind. I am so over people whose children do not now, nor ever will go to Jeff “raising the issues”. I remember that Tony Hopson’s daughter went to Catholic grammar school, and I believe is at private high school, not Jeff. Yet his voice is heard more than mine.

    My head hurts from all of these folks who’ve “moved on up” telling us in the nosebleed seats what’s best for our kids. FUCK YOU!

    I think that’s what Cynthia Harris was saying, in a nicer way than I would. If your kid(s) have tranferred out to daVinci/Mt. Tabor/Grant/Lincoln/Benson or are in private school STFU! Period, the fucking end.

    As was said upthread, it’s okay to say NO!

    September 25th, 2007 | #

  30. megs says

    Megs, why do you accept this from a friend? Tell this person, “I’ll be your friend again when you stop being a racist fool.” Then go on your way.

    Actually an acquaintance would be more realistic term here. Don’t worry, I have my way of calling people out on their crap.

    September 25th, 2007 | #

  31. WackyMommy says

    Megs,
    Good, teach me how you do that ;)

    September 25th, 2007 | #

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