Tuesday, August 24, 2010

The black elephant in the elevator

I must admit I have never felt the oppression of racism.  The concept has always seemed other-worldly to me actually.  There has been only one time (a disturbing incident in a Huntsville, Alabama Macy’s) when I walked away with a strong suspicion that I had just experienced racism.  Otherwise, rude people have always been simply that - rude. I never assumed that slights, denied career opportunities, or diverted eyes had anything to do with my color.

My husband and I have had an unspoken agreement to not make race an issue in raising our sons.  We have always lived in multi-cultural communities, and they have always had classmates that represented the widest cross-section of the nation.  We never talked about race, always affirmed them and each other, and discouraged using race as a descriptor when talking about someone:  “the short girl with black hair and dimples,” as opposed to “the black/white girl.”   Racial references were so avoided that the boys, when they do refer to someone’s skin color, don’t follow the concepts of race, but of Crayola.  They say tan or brown, instead of white or black.

I expected that my boys will be part of an enlightened post-racial society and I wanted to do a good job preparing them for it.  These days, however, I am not so sure.  I am not sure that there will ever be a post-racial society (or what that even means).  I am not sure that I am doing a good job of preparing my sons for the society that will be.  Recently my 5 and 6 year-old sons in discussion at the breakfast table, both decided aloud that they would marry tan (white) girls.  I was stunned, scared and heartbroken, though I was not sure that I should be.  I tried to find out what had led them to their decision, but neither seemed to be able to identify a catalyst.  They wanted to, “just because…dunno why.”  An equally important consideration: if I am indeed above and beyond the considerations of race, as I like to consider myself, why was their pronouncement bothersome?  A recent struggle with my sons and their visiting cousins over Nintendo Wii Miis turned teary and gave me an ugly answer.  None of the kids wanted avatars that were representative of how they look.  They wanted lighter skin, narrower noses, and straighter hair.   When I created an image that I thought resembled my son he said it was ugly and burst into tears.

My peers almost all reacted with the same resigned shrug of the shoulders and noncommittal references to “other influences” affecting our children when I told them about the incident.  No one seemed as startled or as worried as I was.  Race is not so much a bothersome personal issue for Blacks who have been saved the direct burns of racism through education, attainment of wealth, or geography of birth or residence.

Concern for my sons makes me conclude though, that it should be an issue.   We cannot afford to ignore race in our homes when there are those “other influences” – subtle yet effective – affecting our children.  They will form opinions about culture, race and themselves, and parents have an obligation to try to influence those opinions.  If I continue to deny race to my sons, but the world is telling them they are ugly because their skin is dark and their nose is broad, I am not preparing them for the world, I am sacrificing them to it.  So there will no more ignoring race in my house.  There will be lots of talk about skin color and beauty, about men and women of color who left their mark on the world, about self-worth and the necessity for more than a little bit of arrogance. I will teach them what I have learned – that racial equality and the elimination of racism require us to affirm and value our place on the rainbow.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The problem with faith

Recently I completed the book Eat. Pray. Love. by Elizabeth Gilbert and saw the movie starring Julia Roberts.  For me, the book was transformative.  I completely identified with the author's journey  to self-actualization, inner peace, and personal happiness. When I began reading the book, I couldn't stop talking about it to friends and family, but as Gilbert's story took her to an Indian ashram to study yoga, I stopped talking.

I learned some time ago that most Christians - as most of my friends and acquaintances identify themselves - see exploration of other religions and forms of worship as a threat to their own.  For many, questioning is the opposite of faith and not to be tolerated.  I knew more than a few of them would be discomforted by the spiritual questions the book raises and the conclusions the author reaches. Extolling the virtues of the book was not worth the uneasy conversations I was sure would ensue.

I don't agree with much of the author's beliefs and have no plans to study with a yoga guru any time soon, but I believe that exploration within and outside of our belief system is healthy.  While understanding the role of faith in religion, beliefs that flourish only in the absence of questions are not beliefs that will survive any real tests.

The ongoing discussion of creation vs evolution is one example of how dogged Christian views ignore science and make no room for an answer that lies outside the boundaries of Bible stories. Despite the wide variety of Biblical interpretations of concepts of hell, heaven and redemption from one denomination to the next, every one stands resolutely on their own, completely dismissing all others.  Even Christians who question some elements of their faith, only whisper those questions and don't truly look for answers, certainly not outside their frame of reference. This narrow view is Christianity's greatest liability I think.

Surely truth is to be gleaned from many sources.  Surely faith can exist in the face of questions - even those that go unanswered.  Surely we can stand to open our ears and minds to other arguments and possibilities.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Black Media for the people, or for the dollar?

I am happy to hear the discussion that has come out of Essence magazine's hiring of Ellianna Placas, its first white fashion editor - as muted as that discussion as been.  It is always a good time to talk about how well - or not - Black media is serving the Black community.

I have long opined the lack of a Black forum among the national issues discussions.  Soledad O'Brian gets a couple of specials every year on being Black in America; Donna Brazile, Rolande Martin and Tavis Smiley are the official talking heads on all matters related to the dark-skinned; and BET has apparently given up on doing any substantive programming.  There is no place where issues of national interest are discussed in the context of their effects on Black people in America.  More than not acting in its best interest, some Black media are actually doing a disservice to the community.

Trite entertainment trumps valuable information on radio shows like The Steve Harvey Show and the Tom Joyner Show.  Director/Producer Tyler Perry has proven that he can pull an audience to the movie theater with an interesting story, but seems to prefer to dumb-down his characters and his content on television.  (Does any character on Meet the Browns represent you or anyone you know?)  There are more pages dedicated to consumer products than education or edification in O, Essence and Ebony - despite the fact that Black Americans make less than 58 percent of what Anglo-Americans make in salary and are in more debt.  On the Food Network's Down Home with the Neelys, Pat and Gina Neely never discuss healthful alternatives to their fat and sugar laden recipes, though African-Americans are particularly at risk for diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.

Long before Essence Magazine thought a white woman could represent the fashion tastes of its audience, popular Black Media has been absent in any movement for the betterment of Black people - or any people.  We have been satisfied with just seeing color representations of ourselves on television and on magazine pages, and have not held the people who hold our eyes and ears to their social and political responsibilities.  Selecting Ms. Placas is only the latest disrespect and disregard of our community.  Frankly we deserve it.  We have not thought to demand more.