Friday, July 31, 2009

On backpedaling and power

At lunch today, I was reading Tim Wise's comments (in his excellent book, White Like Me) on the brouhaha that resulted after a black politican in Bermuda (Premier Scott) sent an email in which he said that he was tired of criticism from "people who look like Tony Brannon." Brannon, a conservative, is white. Only intending to circulate the email to his close friends, Scott mistakenly hit "reply all," resulting in widespread coverage of the incident in Bermuda. The public outcry was such that Scott apologized.

Wise notes:
...the most important aspect of the incident, to me at least, was Scott's apology and the fact that he had felt compelled to issue it. The very fact that Premier Scott felt compelled to backpedal after his remarks were made public is testimony to how little power he had, in effective terms. After all, if power truly resided in his hand or the hand of other blacks such as himself, he (and they) would be able to regularly insult whites, say terrible things about them, and never have to apologize at all. Premier Scott would then have been in a position to say, in effect, "screw Tony Brannon" and everyone like him. But he can't, and that's the point. Deep, isn't it? A black man is forced to apologize to white people for a simple comment, while whites have still never had to apologize for the centuries-long crimes of slavery, segregation, and white institutional racism!

Sound familiar doesn't it? Wise might as well been writing about Obama. Yet, can it be true that Obama's beckpedaling "is testimony to how little power he ha[s], in effective terms"? He is, after all, the President of the United States. There is no question that he wields substantial power, and yet. . . perhaps, at least in this particular incident, he wields not quite enough. And that has everything to do with his color. (Though, as an aside, I felt very smug to see photos of the beer party featuring Crowley sitting properly, stuffed in his jacket while Obama reclined casually, jacketless, his sleeves rolled up.)

I was intrigued to notice during last week's Addicted to Race podcast (which you should listen to) that all three panelists noted that Obama "had to" apologize. I have no doubt that any of these women doubt Obama's agency, so I was curious about the choice of the phrase "had to," as if Obama's hand was forced. Because of course, Obama is also a clever politician and strategist. Perhaps in some way unclear to me, this was a brilliant p.r. move.

What do you think, readers? Does Obama have power appropriate to his office? Or not? And how do you see the apology? Evidence of a certain powerlessness? Necessary but evil? A cowardly sidestep? A brilliant move?

Friday, July 24, 2009

Wait, why is Obama trying to take it back?

Tell me please, why did many feel like Obama was in the wrong for saying that the police officer involved in the Gates incident "acted stupidly"? Why did a whole union come out in support of the officer? Why did the officer refuse to apologize? And, for god's sake, why is Obama backpedaling now?

The police officer did behave stupidly. I don't think there's any denying that. Was he primarily influenced by race or drunk on power or both? I don't think it matters. He was a white cop interacting with a black man in the USA and if he was the great expert in racial profiling the Cambridge Police Force has made him out to be, then he should darn well have been aware of all the dynamics of white cop/black suspect. Gates' anger should not have been a surprise. And if he was this expert, he should have known how to respond in a way that attempted to validate Gates' concerns, perhaps offer an apology. Why is it that the suspect always has to be the one to lose face, particularly if he's innocent? Why can't the police officer be the one to lose face for a change, and take one for the team. There is hardly shame in apologizing or in attempting to calm an increasingly tense racial encounter. Never, never should the response to Gates' anger been the punitive power play that it was. (On an NPR show the other day, someone mentioned that "disorderly conduct" is known among police officers as "disrespecting a cop." That speaks volumes, doesn't it?)

In addition, the officer's refusal to apologize along with his public expression of disappointment in Obama's characterization of his conduct is terribly problematic. I'm sorry, but if the president of the United States called YOU on the carpet, wouldn't you hang your head? wouldn't you apologize? Wouldn't you at least PRETEND that you were wrong, even if you privately felt that you weren't? I find this behavior almost as shocking as McCain supporters' booing of then president-elect Obama on election night. And I have to wonder if race isn't a factor here, too. Because I'm having trouble thinking of a comparable incident where a public servant has corrected a president of this country. (But if you can think of something I can't, please comment--I'd like nothing better than to be wrong on this one.) Yet, Obama's response is to invite the officer to the White House for a beer.

That may be a politically savvy move, but it also seems like a kick in the gut to the next black man who finds himself slammed up against a wall for doing something--anything--that a cop has taken into his head not to like. And Skip Gates has accepted the invitation to join them--what else, really, could he do? Some will present this as an opportunity for racial healing, but I don't buy it. Healing would require acknowledgment, on the part of the officer, of mistakes, poor judgment, the unconscious influence of racism, the desire for authority above all else, and the officer appears unwilling to make such an acknowledgment. What will this meeting be like for Gates? A show, one imagines, that Gates will put on for Obama's sake, to perpetuate a myth of racial progress. I feel for Gates, and I'm not sure that if I were him, I'd be thinking of Obama as much of a friend right now.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

A brief rant followed by humility

All white adoptive parents are in a learning process of some kind or another about race, privilege, negotiating racial difference, etc., and I get that (heck, I'm one of them). But sometimes I lose all kinds of patience with other parents' process. Sometimes I just want to put my head in my hands and despair. I'm going to air my annoyance at what's got my goat this week, but I warn's petty. It could be reasonably argued, I'm sure, that I am being petty. But I'm going to tell you about it anyway.

Every so often some white adoptive parent who belongs to an online forum I frequent starts mildly freaking out over her (black) child's scars. Why are they so much lighter than the rest of the skin? Is there something wrong? Is there a cream or something to help the scars heal? And so on. This week this happened, and I responded, and I responded very politely, but I was so annoyed. White people, please! Have you never noticed that when a scab falls off of YOUR skin, that the new skin is slightly lighter than the surrounding skin? Perhaps if your skin is very pale the difference is almost imperceptible but surely,surely at some time in your childhood you had a bit of a tan and noticed the contrast between your tanned skin and the lighter skin underneath your latest scab? Why this immediate tendency to pathologize/otherize?

But then I did some poking around on the web to see if I could out why new skin appears to lack pigment, and happened upon a Journal of Pediatric Health Care article that has left me feeling less outraged and more humbled. I didn't find an answer to my question about pigment--although I gather that the melanin-producing melanocytes are easily damaged from any trauma to the skin--but I did learn that there are some important differences between black skin and white skin that I would do well to be aware of. Especially this:

All people shed the upper layers of epidermis as a normal physiologic process. The shed layers are darker if the nuclei have more melanin. Thus, when the skin of an African American child is cleansed with an alcohol wipe, for instance, the wipe will look darker than it does when white skin is wiped, not because of dirt but because of shed cells with rich melanin deposits. If after seeing the color of the alcohol wipe a mother comments that she just gave the child a bath, this is a good time to teach her that this skin debris with its natural color is normal, helping to prevent low self esteem as a result of a perception of uncleanliness.

See what I mean? A bit humbling, no? So much for my righteous anger...

Also, I learned that black skin is more prone to the formation of keloids, benign growths that often form at the location of an older injury. Ear piercing can cause keloids on the ear, but since infants generally do not form keloids, ear piercing during infancy avoids keloid development.

Finally, there's a ton to learn about acne-related scarring (also plenty about this on the web).

Unfortunately, I don't think the article is available online free of charge, but perhaps you can sweettalk your local library into helping you out:

W. Smith, C. Burns. (1999). Managing the hair and skin of African American pediatric patients. Journal of Pediatric Health Care, Volume 13, Issue 2, Pages 72-78.


Friday, July 17, 2009

The double-edged sword that is affirmative action

I believe in affirmative action, absolutely. It is a policy that attempts to level a playing field that has been anything but fair, and opens opportunities to people of color that, were our country truly just, would be available to them anyway. It grants no special privileges. It grants access. It's as simple as that.

But the difficulty of affirmative action is how it can be so easily manipulated by the likes of Pat Buchanan to undermine the very people it is meant to help. Buchanan himself demonstrates this ugly (but, I fear, effective) technique in his critique of Sonia Sotomayor on the Rachel Maddow show. Buchanan suggests that Sotomayor is incompetent and unintelligent because she is a self-identified "affirmative action baby." Sotomayor got into Princeton, Buchanan argues, because she was Latina and she's a nominee to the Supreme Court because--you guessed it--she is Latina. Thus all of Sotomayor's accomplishments and achievements are dismissed in one fell swoop.

Of course what Buchanan is really mad about is what I would call the loss of his guarantee of undeniable privilege. (He calls it "discrimination against white men.") He is at least smart enough to understand that he can't count on getting absolutely everything he wants, just by virtue of being a white male. But he's also dumb as rocks not to realize that he retains enough damn privilege to do just fine. White men are not a threatened species, for better or for worse, and this myth of perilous "reverse discrimination" is absurd, but also dangerously insidious. I would feel less concerned if I didn't think that Buchanan represented a sizable number of white men misdirecting their anger.

But back to the absurd part, for a minute, and a bit of family history. My mother's side of the family is pretty WASPy, with a relatively long line of men who went to Harvard and Yale, and got advanced degrees, and had successful careers. My brother felt pressure to continue in this tradition, and though his grades and test scores were top-notch and he wrote a sweet and intelligent application essay, he just couldn't get into an Ivy League. And he was so disappointed. He encountered similar difficulty after graduating from college and looking for his dream job. He struggled and was depressed and felt like a failure. My mother grumbled about affirmative action--"he's a white man--that's the problem," she would say. And I just gave her the eye and shrugged my shoulders at the both of them. It made sense to me that affirmative action would displace white men (and maybe sometimes white women, too), and why not my brother? Why shouldn't he be displaced by someone who has had fewer privileges, benefits, opportunities? After all, my brother would still maintain all the other benefits he had as a result of being white and male and growing up in a family with some means.

It's at least ten years since my brother received his rejection letter from Harvard, and I can say with certainty that history has proved me right. My brother went to a perfectly good liberal arts college, graduated with honors, and finally found himself a the Council on Foreign Relations. And when he was ready, he applied to graduate school at Columbia, and was accepted. See, he didn't NEED Harvard. He didn't NEED Yale. (While, for someone like Sotomayor, Princeton may have made all of the difference in the world.) This is what Pat Buchanan fails to grasp: the "threat" of affirmative action to white males is entirely imaginary. And the outcome of affirmative action is not that incompetent people of color are thoughtlessly promoted. Rather, affirmative action allows competent people of color to rise beyond unfairly limiting circumstances not of their own making. That's the sort of progress our country could use more of.

Now, for a little comic relief (hat tip to Jennifer of Mixed Race America)

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

A sad day

Last night, a truly bright light went out, far too early. She was our neighbor, a dear friend, and had become an "honorary grandmother" to J. And J. just adored her. Her apartment is directly below ours, and every time we pass, J. wants to knock on the door and say hello. Then he'd go running to her for a big hug. She loved it. He loved it. I loved it.

I feel lucky that J. wanted to knock on her door on Sunday afternoon, because we spent a nice hour or so at her house. We chatted, while J. explored her elephant collection. She was full of plans and ideas and enthusiasm. She had catered a party (50 people; everything prepared in her little kitchen without help; AND she decorated...) the day before and was tickled by all the compliments she got on her food, especially from the men. (Men don't usually care about macaroni salad, she told me).

I was with her last night when she passed, although I didn't know that at the time. Her heart had stopped before the ambulance even arrived, we found out later. And try as they might, they couldn't get it beating again.

A family member shared last night that she wanted to be buried in her purple dress, vibrant as the life she led. She loved to put together fabulous outfits, ornamented with jewelry that she found at "the promised land," her name for the best thrift store in town. I know her granddaughters will pick out the jewelry to match the dress and the perfect pair of shoes. She would want to go out in style and color and celebration, beautiful and joyful. And I will try to get into that spirit. I really will. But not today. Today, I am going to miss her with all my heart.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


On an adoptive forum I frequent, someone has posted a link to a petition in support of the Foreign Adopted Children Equality Act (FACES). The response has been enthusiastic, with forum members reporting that they have signed, and posted links to the petition on blogs, facebook, etc.

Meanwhile, Resist Racism has questioned various aspects of the bill, including its privileging of international adoptees over other immigrants to the US, its possible negative effects on adoptee's legal ties to country of birth, and its possible loosening of safeguards that screen adoptive parents. I have not had time to review the language of the bill, but Resist Racism's intelligent analysis has stood me in good stead in the past, so I am inclined to investigate further... (But, believe me, I am all for one part of the bill, which would allow internationally adopted children to become president.)

Also on the adoptive forum is a link to a petition in support of a Department of Health and Human Services regulation that supports lifting the immigration and travel ban on those with HIV. This is particularly relevant to US parents who plan to adopt from Africa, because adoption of HIV-positive children is becoming increasingly common. (Adoption of an HIV-positive child currently requires a waiver). Disturbingly, however, this petition is getting very little attention. I can't help wondering why? Why all the support for the one, where there seem to be legitimate concerns, but little support for the other, which, from a human rights point-of-view alone seems hard to argue with?

It's the end of a lousy week

Well, it's been a lousy week regarding race in the US. At least these stories put the lie to the post-racial America myth we're all so tired of hearing about, but I'd take the myth anyday, over this garbage.

Of course, there was the story of the Philadelphia swimming pool's ejection of children based on concerns about preserving "the complexion" of the membership (how unfortunately apt, though I suspect unconscious, choice of words). This Nation article addresses the incident from the perspective of a parent, and rightly points out the role white adults at this club SHOULD have played in this incident. (I'm all for privacy rights and all that, but I would love nothing more than for the names of all members of that club to be widely publicized. Anyone who hasn't cancelled their membership by now is part of the problem--if not THE problem--and should be ashamed of themselves.)

As if that weren't enough, The Southern Poverty Law Center announced today that it has found evidence of racist extremists infiltrating the US military. How terrifying is that? For the first time in my life, I think I should seriously consider buying a gun.

But there is good news, too. At last, someone intelligently debunks the "race card" myth. It turns out it's an ace of spades. (I kid, I kid.) Seriously, though, it's a very smart, thorough, and persuasive article and I am grateful to its author for going after a phrase I would gladly eliminate from the English language if I could.

Happy weekend, all. Surely things can only get better?

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

A must-see: A girl like me

This has apparently been around for a while, but it was new to me. (Thanks to Macon D. over at stuff white people do for reposting.) The repetition of the doll experiment is just heart-breaking, and the honesty and resilience of those girls impresses me to no end. If my son can grow up to be as self-possessed, confident about his perceptions of the world, and able to voice his own truth as those girls, I will be one happy mamma.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Chances of having incarcerated parent rising for black youth

From the New York Times:

The chances of seeing a parent go to prison have never been greater, especially for poor black Americans, and new research is documenting the long-term harm to the children they leave behind. Recent studies indicate that having an incarcerated parent doubles the chance that a child will be at least temporarily homeless and measurably increases the likelihood of physically aggressive behavior, social isolation, depression and problems in school — all portending dimmer prospects in adulthood.


Among those born in 1990, one in four black children, compared with one in 25 white children, had a father in prison by age 14. Risk is concentrated among black children whose parents are high-school dropouts; half of those children had a father in prison, compared with one in 14 white children with dropout parents, according to a report by Dr. Wildeman recently published in the journal Demography.

Read the article.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Three brilliant things

  1. My chiropractor
  2. The consequent end of workplace fantasies about tylenol with codeine
  3. And on a more relevant note (finally, I know!), this comment from Cheryl at Stuff White People Do. Cheryl was responding to a question blogger Macon D. posted about whether comparing a condom to a sombrero is racist (I know, I know...but it makes sense, I promise). In general, though, she is offering a strategy for deciding if any utterance is racist, and it's super-smart:

My criteria for questions like this is, "if I say this, will it sound similar to something an asshole might say?" Because nobody has a window into my intent. And as a speaker, I believe it is my responsibility to do what I can to deny racism a foothold in my speech -- and that means to, when possible, avoid speech that might provide a place for my audience to hang their unconscious racism, too.

I'd say that Cheryl is a smartie, wouldn't you?