Black, White and Grey Areas
By Walter Ryce
Posted: Thursday, February 21, 2013
The childhood stories are telling.
Here are three:
When Maren, who lives in Pacific Grove, was a little girl, her grandparents employed black husband-and-wife couples as cooks, housekeepers, gardeners, mechanics and dining room servants. Dinner was a formal affair, she writes, wherein her grandmother would step on a buzzer to signal the houseman to begin serving, and every time she wanted something else of him. Maren was ashamed of this arrangement and would abscond to the kitchen to hang out with “the help” when she could.
“I got more warmth and interest from them than I ever did from my grandparents,” she writes.
Brenda lives now in Salinas, but grew up in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in a modest home with “several domestic servants” whose hard-to-pronounce African names were simply changed to make it easier for Brenda’s white parents. One, renamed Dora, tied little Brenda onto her back with a blanket, cared for her when she was sick, once saved her from nearly drowning.
“My cocoon smelled like Dora,” she writes. But when Dora one day did not come back, Brenda recalls that she cried, felt “feverish and afraid” and “furious” at her mother, whom she suspected sent Dora away. She later learned to despise the system of Apartheid as a “division of humanity, love and compassion.”
“What I did learn,” she writes, “was that people, especially those people I love, cannot be trusted and will someday leave me… I insulated myself from grief, trusting less and less, [and] I remain collateral damage.”
JT of Carmel recalls her Oberlin College-educated and wealthy parents’ liberal home as a politically active place where Rosa Parks, Eldridge Cleaver and Malcolm X were discussed. They also had a “kind, soft-spoken” black housekeeper named Catherine who made her feel loved, warm and safe. But when Catherine died, going to her funeral “wasn’t even considered.”
“I feel so very sad when I think about how close we were in one way and how divided and separate we were in others,” JT writes.
These are all written stories, testimonies, extracted from 53 white people about their earliest memories of race and racism. The arrangements of blacks employed by whites as domestics can seem stereotypical, or typical of the wealth and power imbalance that has dictated the relationship throughout history.
For most of the writers, it’s a subject they seemingly haven’t visited – until now. The book begins with the earliest memories, like, appropriately, regression therapy, and the discomfort and force of long-buried emotions being prodded awake – sadness, shame, fear, guilt, anger, joy, confusion, grief, mostly a tumultuous array – comes through.
That was part of the mission of former marriage and family therapist Ann Todd Jealous and Caroline T. Haskell, a licensed social worker and director of Health and Wellness Services at CSUMB, when they enlisted their white respondents to talk about racism and how it affected not people of color, but themselves. They compiled those stories into Combined Destinies: Whites Sharing Grief About Racism, which will be published Feb. 28 by Potomac Books, Inc.
Ann Jealous is 72 and lives in Pacific Grove. The daughter of 96-year-old civil rights activist Mamie Todd, Ann is black and married to a white man, Fred S. Jealous; their son, Ben Jealous, is the youngest ever president and CEO of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The idea for the book originated with her, triggered by her 50th high school reunion in 2008 where she met a schoolmate from the mostly white all-girls school she attended.
As kids in the 1950s, the schoolmate made a racial comment in Jealous’ presence.
“She then realized I was there and looked at me and said ‘I’m sorry.’ And I said ‘It’s OK. I’m used to it.’”
The apologetic girl grew into a woman, and carried that guilt for 52 years, until she could finally unburden herself at that reunion. Jealous didn’t even remember the incident.
“Something clicked in her brain,” she says. “She changed the way she lived.”
It’s a casual comment like that – an unintentional rebuke of another person’s very existence – that civil rights activist Julian Bond, who co-wrote the book’s forward with his wife Pam Horowitz, frames by quoting Martin Luther King Jr: “It is the ultimate arrogance of saying God made a creative error.”
The inspiration for the book evolved through Jealous’ interracial marriage, their stretch of moving to and living in Carmel in 1971 and Pacific Grove in ’78, her leading diversity and multicultural training, and her practice as a therapist when white clients brought “their racial pain to me for healing.”
Most of those white clients, Jealous writes in the preface, didn’t seem aware of the “emotional price” of living in a racist system – the enforced separation, the fear of otherness, the blanket ignorance, the undermining insecurity.
When she closed her practice at the end of 2008, she decided to begin work on the book and wanted an ally in the project – a woman, white, someone at ease with race, and younger. That was Caroline Haskell.
“White people will say things that will be offensive and they feel it’s safe to do so because I’m white,” Haskell says. “It provides me a really different opportunity than Ann, certainly.”
Haskell, who is 54 and married to a Japanese-American man, had done a lot of work on racism because as a therapist, she posits, she had to if she were to help others improve. And she’s the CSUMB affiliate director for the National Coalition Building Institute, which navigates to the headwaters of racism, sexism, classism, etc., by examining and releasing formative childhood learning of such.
Combined Destinies begins with childhood stories because, over 30 years in social human services – mental illness, substance abuse, HIV/AIDS, homelessness – Haskell has learned that simply makes human sense.
“All of those social issues have, at their core, oppression… I needed to do more work to dismantle the institution of racism,” she says. “We’ve been conditioned; we are not born this way.”
That early indoctrination reestablishes and reinforces a racist system so ingrained it can be as passive and obscure as it is omnipresent.
“A white man and a black man walk into a bank,” Jealous says. “Same economic status. And the white man gets preferential treatment. That doesn’t surprise you, does it? That white man [may not] want to be participating in the racist system.”
Hence the inspiration for their unique approach: Because racism damages everyone in its malevolent blast radius, even those would conceivably benefit, and because Jealous could not find such an anthology out there that focused on white people, whom the power and privilege of systemic racism favors, with this kind of clinical mental health and healing approach.
“I grew up in de facto segregation,” Haskell says of her childhood in Arizona. “Redlining. A lot of white people don’t look around and say ‘Hey, where are all the people of color?’ I want us to notice who’s with us and who isn’t. Most white people haven’t had the opportunity to be asked these questions.”
They sent their detailed set of questions to white friends and colleagues, asking them to remember, revisit and write about their experiences with racism. The 53 people who responded were mostly locals, mostly non-writers and, per the two women’s associations, a preponderance of mental and spiritual health professionals.
“I think racism is a mental health issue as well as a social justice issue,” Haskell says.
The book recalls the way that journalist Studs Terkel allowed his subjects’ voices to fill the page uninterrupted. But here, Jealous and Haskell took turns writing introductions leading into each of the numerous stories across the eight chapters labeled “Sameness,” “Guilt,” “Silence.” The word “separation” appears again and again, evolved out of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “… many of our white brothers… have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.”
Some stories are accounts of commonplace racism, years past but, significantly, not forgotten. And still vivid.
Susan M’s mother forbade her friend Andy, who had a “Mexican-sounding” surname, from coming over the house to play. Not understanding, Susan complied. They were in the first grade. Then in high school, her friends froze her out, prompted by their parents, because they were going to finishing school and Susan was not “of their social class.”
“Andy and I clasped hands across time,” she writes.
Linda, a 70-year-old who lives in Marina, writes that she and her friends sang the “Ring Around the Rosie” song in the churchyard in Denver with the stanza “Pocket full of posies/ Last one down is a nigger baby.” The adults around her said it.
Jeffrey, a writer and journalist who lives in Pacific Grove, recalls taking a class trip to Washington, D.C., to learn about American history, but a side trip to Colonial Williamsburg, Va., showed another very alive part of it: “white” and “colored” drinking fountains.
When Jeffrey was an adult in the U.S. Army, a black soldier suggested that the memory of the fountains carried weight.
“It was a form of shame,” Jeffrey writes. “I hadn’t put up the signs above the water fountains, but in a sense they were put up in my name… More than half a century later, I still feel ill at ease when I recall those events.”
Some of the stories are ugly.
On Feb. 28, 2011, the last day of Black History Month, Bob Zellner, a white Southerner, came to CSUMB’s University Center to talk about his 50-plus years in service to the Civil Rights Movement. His grandfather and his father, a preacher, were both in the Ku Klux Klan (a schism that he believes drove his father to a nervous breakdown) but in college Zellner aligned himself with the progressive movement that was making hazardous inroads in his home state of Alabama. The story he submitted to Combined Destinies was difficult for Jealous to absorb.
“I had to read it many times before I could sit with it, edit it and treat it like other stories in the anthology,” she says.
Zellner writes about recalling how adults in his childhood talked in hushed tones about Claude Neal. Neal was 23, a black peanut farmer, accused of raping and killing a white woman in Florida’s panhandle. In jail just a week, he was snatched up by a mob and a “lynching party” ensued, involving thousands of white spectators and participants from several states. Zellner traverses the details with detached horror over the manner in which the mob had its way with Neal, both alive and dead.
“Little children who lived in the neighborhood waited with sharpened sticks for the return of Neal’s body.”
The stories tell of kids losing respect for parents and family who revealed, reinforced or taught racism. They traverse friendships and even love torn asunder. They explore shameful power inequities played out face-to-face. They demonstrate a whole strata of people supporting each other’s prejudice and hatred, and of confusing encounters with a system of racism that left people feeling shaken and persecuted.
Carol, a Stanford historian who has extensively researched and chronicled in articles and books the history of Seaside, writes a story of the “hostility” she encountered from the all-white Historical Commission and “aggressively vocal and mostly white antagonism” when she deigned to write about the city’s diversity and civil rights activity.
Elaine’s story painfully discusses how a white boyfriend bragged – in her presence – to his friends how he may pick up a “hot-blooded black from South Boston,” to which one of his friends lifted Elaine’s arm like she was a specimen and said “She’s not much better.” Elaine is Jewish.
Gayle’s story is equally dispiriting. “I’m about as white as you can get,” she writes. “Frank is African American.” They had a romantic relationship as students at San Jose State in 1966, swept up in the exciting politics and spirit of the era. Though she says that Frank’s parents welcomed her wholly into their home and church, Frank’s two older sisters completely shunned her throughout their eight-year relationship.
One of the sisters, 30 years later, wrote a heartfelt letter of apology to Gayle about the mistreatment and prejudice. Gayle writes that though she and Frank happily married others, “I still think about this first big love and how the racial divide had a part in bringing it to an end.”
The emotions coursing through the stories, written sometimes in a contorted writerly style and sometimes in a conversational tone, are the tough ones, the guilt, fear and sadness that drive people to therapy. The stories are penetrated, though, with the light of confession, of admitting that something has gone wrong. And that, Jealous and Haskell say, is where they want to begin.
“It surprised me how long people carried these heavy feelings for so long,” Jealous says. “Some were not even past them or resolved with them.”
So how does a person, a white person, in particular, get past and get resolved?
“Just having the conversation,” she suggests. “‘I don’t like the way I feel about [this].’ ‘I feel powerless.’ Just saying those words out loud incurs movement. And the chapter on Resistance and Freedom.”
It’s the final and longest chapter in the book. It opens with a rare interview among the written stories, between Jealous and Yolanda. Yolanda was one of two white girls whose parents allowed her to go to the formerly all-white New Orleans school in which “one little black girl” named Ruby Bridges was breaking down segregation, six years after the Supreme Court’s 1954 landmark ruling Brown v. Board of Education. The kids were 6 years old and all were escorted by U.S. Marshals through that infamous and hate-crazed mob to get to school.
“I have always been proud of my mother for making this decision,” Yolanda tells Jealous. “She is an example of a person of modest means… who had the courage to do what her higher consciousness told her to do. My mother was, and is, a good woman who strove to do the right thing.”
It’s those little acts – letting kids learn and play together despite differences, following conscience against injustice, becoming educated, just talking – that cumulatively change societies.
In July 2011, Greg, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, was arrested with 83 others in a demonstration against anti-immigration laws in Arizona. He learned about how the diverting of the Colorado River destroyed farmland in Mexico, how migration from South and Central America had been happening before there was a United States.
“Next week,” he writes, “I will be asked to plead and I’ve decided to plead not guilty.”
“What I’m hoping for, in my lifetime,” Jealous says, “is that we recognize as a country the way we debilitate ourselves by not being supportive of everybody’s development. We lose so much potential in that way.”
The stories here still struggle with the complexities of racism.
Susan, whose family is racially mixed, writes, “My husband and I taught our children not to see racism at the base of every insult or problem… that the misperception of racism can be as limiting as racism.”
Bettina, a professor of feminist studies and history at U.C. Santa Cruz, grew up in a politically active home visited by prominent intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, Shirley Graham, Alice Childress, William L. Patterson. In rallying to the aid of Angela Davis, who was facing murder charges, she encountered a “pernicious form of liberal racism… to support civil rights while also wanting white people to lead.”
The book has powerful allies versed in the struggle.
Jealous’ son, Ben, is one. Growing up, he says Pacific Grove was a haven but not an escape from racism, citing the history of ousted ethnic people from his hometown and the “awkwardness” of the homogeneity of the Feast of Lanterns and Good Old Days.
But his family, and privileged education (York School, then university at Columbia and Oxford), reinforced ideals and courage that have propelled him onto the national stage of the NAACP.
“As long as people are discriminated against,” he says, “because of their sexual orientation, race, country of origin, our country is less than it could be, should be, than it says it is. And so are we.”
He cites the Pledge of Allegiance, insisting that our responsibility is to make those words true for the kids reciting them. And he’s taken that oath, especially the part about “with liberty and justice for all,” into battles the NAACP has previously not engaged in, like marriage equality and reproductive rights.
“We put out the fire on my house, on your house, on all our houses,” he says. “What gives me hope about the book is that the country is ready for it. We have the most diverse generation and the most inclusive generation of Americans we’ve known. And the least possessed by the ghosts of our former selves.”
Author, civil rights activist and former state representative from Georgia, Julian Bond, who narrated seminal Civil Rights documentary Eyes on the Prize, agrees that the book’s mental health angle is a new vein in the enormous ore of civil rights literature.
“I have not seen this approach before,” he says. “If you’re thinking someone different is negative, you can’t be a healthy person and believe that.”
The book’s gotten positive and influential endorsements. Morris Dees, founder of the Southern Poverty Law Center, writes, “Racism pained me despite my white privilege. Combined Destinies puts that frustration into better focus.” Cecile Richards, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America; Van Jones, former Special Advisor to the Obama White House; Rea Carey, executive director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force – all chimed in with praise.
Deb Busman, a writer, activist and professor at CSUMB, agrees. “Unfortunately,” she adds. “It should have been done a long time ago. There’s a profound code of silence. I don’t think folks want to feel that pain. I hear [white] folks all the time who say ‘I don’t see race; you could be black, purple, green.’ Well I do. I see the way white privilege benefits me every day.”
She talks about an incident at Target in which she set off the alarm while exiting the store. She was approached with regretful “ma’ams” and apologies, she reasons because she is white and middle aged, while a young black man walking in was rushed by “rent-a-cops.”
She has two contributions to Combined Destinies. One is an essay called “You Gotta Be Ready for Some Serious Truth to Be Spoken” that she wrote for a 2008 book she co-edited with Frances Payne Adler and Diana Garcia (also of CSUMB) called Fire and Ink: An Anthology of Social Action Writing. Another is a new piece called “When the Killers Are White: White Violence, White Silence.”
“I think there’s things I say, maybe crudely or overtly, that have a force,” she says of her lone inclusion of a pre-published piece.
Like when she was a teenager in L.A., working the night shift at a Winchell’s Donut Shop where she overheard gatherings of police officers bragging about beatings they delivered and sexual favors they coerced, reveling in “black-on-brown” gang violence. Or her observation of the preponderance of white people at the helm of the media. Or violence against anyone.
“Women are getting hurt, raped and are suffering,” she says. “Under sexism, men don’t have access to their full humanity. I want to affirm everyone’s full humanity.”
Another of the book’s allies against discrimination and racism is Larry Cohen, president of the 700,000-member union Communication Workers of America. In the 1970s, he and others battled in his hometown of Philadelphia with the virulently racist mayor Frank Rizzo, and he remembers lessons from it.
“The divisions that exist in our country are often exploited by those who don’t want to see any progressive change,” says the longtime civil rights and social justice activist.
He feels Ben Jealous represents a powerful force to affect that: “He has pushed the imagination of everyone. He makes relationships possible. He pushes the NAACP into marriage equality. He’s totally amazing. I think in large part because of his parents. We can build together.”
That list of the book’s supporters who provided the positive blurbs reads like a modern Rainbow Coalition that portends less fractiousness and more inclusiveness in the future. Though Bond, who has worked in the struggle for a long time, is carefully hopeful.
“We found an increase in racial animus since Obama’s been elected,” he says. “Rather than the figures going down, they’ve gone up.”
He thinks that trend is partly an increase in racist attitudes, and partly an unveiling of dormant ones. His philosophy, which he’ll deliver in Monterey on March 23 as keynote for the local NAACP’s annual banquet, will reflect his long view.
“It doesn’t mean we haven’t made progress. It just means we haven’t solved all our problems. We’re more advanced now and making progress as we go along. Keep on pushing.”
“The timing is great,” Jealous says. “The Bible says there’s a season for everything. It’s the right time. If you look at the reality of Obama’s election, the success of The Help book and movie, the increase in interracial friendships, marriages and adoptions, all these things are happening at the same time that hate groups are increasing, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. This is a very interesting time. I think it’s the right time for people to acknowledge their pain for this system that none of us were responsible for, were born into, that started hundreds of years ago.”
The remedies can seem humble, but they carry power, just like the book.
“Begin to say what’s true,” Jealous says. “Be unafraid to make mistakes. There’s a lot of conditioning that people are supposed to know what’s right. Once we become educated we’re still going to make a lot of mistakes.”
COMBINED DESTINIES: WHITES SHARING GRIEF ABOUT RACISM will be released Feb. 28 by Potomac Books, $27.50, at PotomacBooksInc.com, Amazon.com and BarnesAndNoble.com. The 41st annual Life Membership Banquet of the Monterey chapter of the NAACP with keynote speaker Julian Bond takes place March 23 at the Hyatt Regency, 1 Old Golf Course Road, Monterey. $75. Contact [email protected], 277-4760, 394-3727.