July 4, 2013: Combined Destinies Encourages Conversations about Racism

diversebookshelf: Combined Destinies Encourages Conversations about Racism

By: Angela P. Dodson

Published in: Diverse: Issues in Higher Education

Date: July 4, 2013

In the film, The Help, a little White girl sobs inconsolably as Viola Davis in the role of Aibileen Clark leaves her employer’s house after being falsely accused of theft and dismissed from her job as a maid and nanny.

The scene is iconic, as many African-Americans probably have nodded in silence or rolled their eyes at least once as some White person regaled them with the story of how badly he or she missed the nanny/maid/mammy who used to work for his or her family. Most likely, the listener does not really feel the other person’s pain and finds the moment awkward at best.

In the book, Combined Destinies: Whites Sharing Grief about Racism by Ann Todd Jealous and Caroline T. Haskell (Potomac Books Inc., 2013), White people tell similar stories of separation from caregivers and friends that compel the reader to listen and to feel their sorrow, confusion and often anger at the parent responsible for driving away the beloved companion. The stories are part of a larger picture as this book examines how racism and unearned privilege have harmed White people individually and as a race. The book helps the reader to understand racism, not as individual acts against another person, but as a “self-perpetuating system of advantage based on race … power plus prejudice.” That systemic force affects all of us and benefits the privileged class with no opt-out provisions for “good White people.”

The authors invited White individuals to give first-person accounts of ways in which racism against others has affected their lives, and the book presents these accounts in themed chapters, including separation, sameness, guilt, shame, silence and resistance.

These essays are addictive. Each one makes you want to read another and another, as they open a window on feelings that White people might never share with each other, much less with people of color.
One man writes, for instance, about his conflicted feelings toward his father, who had a “crisis of conscience” and ultimately a nervous breakdown, over his incongruous roles as minister of the gospel and a member of the Ku Klux Klan. The son grew up to join the Civil Rights Movement and specialize in civil-rights history.

“The shame I felt as a White Southerner, however, that my people had systematically injured and beaten down a whole other people was exponentially worse and of greater magnitude than small shames,” writes the contributor identified as “Bob.”

Several other stories deal with children’s embarrassment and confusion about hearing their parents make disparaging remarks about Blacks or Mexicans, openly discriminate against someone or participate in “White night.” Other contributors write about pain they felt when an adult forbid them to play with friends of another race/ethnicity, of having inflicted hurt on someone by using a racial epithet or simply growing up with little or no contact with people of other races. One woman recalls being outraged that her family kept secret for decades that a great-grandmother was an American Indian. Some people write only a few paragraphs, while others pour out their hearts in pages of reflections.

Why is it important for White people to dig deep to tell these emotional stories, and why is it important for people of color to really listen? So that healing can begin, argue the authors, who are counselors with experience mediating conversations about race.

Haskell, a White woman Jealous invited to help her compile the anthology, admits that most White people would prefer to avoid talking about race and generally have the luxury to do so. “Discomfort, fear, dread, and a huge desire to get away from the conversation are common reactions,” Haskell writes in her introduction. “Racism is a deeply emotional topic, producing feelings of shame, guilt, embarrassment, and grief. One of the ways in which White people have been impacted by racism is the conditioning against wanting to look at or address these feelings that we are uncomfortable with.”

Haskell is a licensed clinical social worker, long involved in what she calls “anti-oppression work.” She is the founding director of Health and Wellness Services at California State University/Monterey Bay, and the campus affiliate director for the National Coalition Building Institute in Washington, D.C.

Jealous is a former marriage and family therapist. Her son, Benjamin Todd Jealous, is the president and chief executive officer of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She said she was inspired to do the book after a White former classmate told her at their 50-year class reunion how Jealous’ response to a racial remark the White girl made had haunted her and changed her life for the better. As a Black teenager who was among the first to integrate the school, back then Jealous simply said, “It’s okay. I am used to it.” The White woman credited those words with leading her into the ministry and working for racial harmony.

This book can inspire similar dialogue. If we can talk about racism, we can begin to eradicate it. The book would be useful in a variety of settings — in ministry, in counseling, in courses on race and in workshops on diversity and inclusion. “It is our hope that the reading of this book will contribute to conversations that will bring people together, that it will inspire readers to tell their own stories, that the storytelling will encourage self-examination and compassion, help to heal our hearts, and increase motivation to save our humanity and our souls,” the authors write in concluding the book.

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