for release Friday March 21, 2003
by Melodie Davis
Racism: Stories of Pain and Hope
Reader responses from my Another Way article in February on "Racism and Backlash" were numerous, upsetting, heartening, and instructional. So here is a "backlash" to the backlash: valuable opinions, insights and personal experiences with racism that we can all learn from. A 40-year-old woman wrote about herself when she was a child, and about her daughter who is now 18. "When I was in the fifth grade, there was a test given for Gifted and Talented Language Arts. I took the test and passed with flying colors. I was so excited because I would be in a class where my intelligence would be challenged. Where it would be okay to be smart. There were only 10 slots. On the day of the test, there was one girl who was absent. Yes, she was a white girl. Upon her return to school they realized they had too many kids for the number of available slots. I was called into the guidance counselor's office and told that unfortunately there weren't enough slots and that I would not be able to attend this English class. To say I was disappointed is an understatement ...
"Fast forward to this past December. My 18-year-old daughter works part time at an ice cream shop. One night as she and her co-workers were closing, one said, 'Look at your skin and look at mine. You should be my slave; I'm not yours.' My daughter was devastated that someone could look at her and see only a 'slave' in the year 2002. The difference in the two episodes is that I was accustomed to being treated that way. I grew up in an era where I couldn't try on shoes in the shoe store. My mother had to draw the outline of my foot, cut it out, and take it to the shoe store to get the right size for me." One person asked, "How do you suggest we even the playing field of education? How do we get past personal beliefs and feelings that permit a person to pick a less qualified individual for employment because that individual is more like them and overlook someone who is qualified 'but just doesn't seem to have the likable qualities?'" Other writers wished I would have placed more emphasis on the fact that we are all the same, underneath. Someone pointed out that efforts at affirmative action can have the effect of actually limiting the number of qualified minorities who are hired. If 50 percent of applicants are qualified, and the quota only calls for 40 percent, then that's all that are hired. One woman wrote, "I truly understand all that you wrote. I am an African American woman, and I have experienced both sides of the racial issue. I have, at times, received favor from the powers that be in American society, because of the 'kill two birds with one stone' mentality that has existed [when hiring both a woman and a person of color]. I have also been doubly discriminated against because I have 'two strikes' against me. Neither of these stances is good. I am a very intelligent, hard working person. Period." A man with American Indian, African, and European heritage said that growing up in southern Louisiana was very difficult as he was neither "white nor "black." He was subjected to hatred from people of various colors. He pointed out that to be racist, "One must not only have prejudice-a prejudgment and belief concerning another race; more importantly that race must have the [legal] power or means to enforce it. While I agree that African American people in this country have exhibited and acted with great prejudice and hatred toward other races, they do not have the institutional power to enforce their will as the majority race does."
A woman pointed out that even though I was talking about prejudices, I had committed a prejudgment of my own, saying "welcome to the South" when I referred to someone's racial slur I heard in Alabama. As this reader said, "Just because some people who live in the south behave badly, doesn't mean all people of the south do." Touché.
One woman shared a story of hope, from when she was living in the 1970's in a hostel in London. There she made friends with a "black girl called Esther and a white South African called Ruth. I asked Mum if I could bring Ruth and Esther home. My grandmother lived next door; Mum was delighted to have them but warned me that Granny was racist, because of the way she had been brought up. I warned Esther of this and asked her how she felt; she just said, 'Leave your grandmother to me.' Granny met Esther, invited her into her home (I think because she trusted my judgment) and within 10 minutes, Esther had Granny eating out of her hand. It was wonderful to see. Granny talked about her quite a lot afterwards too, and how her prejudice died with that meeting."
For more on race or to enter your own comments, go to <http://www.thirdway.com/aw/conversation.asp>
Melodie M Davis
Write to: Melodie Davis, Another Way c/o Name\Address of YOUR newspaper; or e-mail: Melodie@mennomedia.org.
You can also visit Another Way on the Web at www.thirdway.com.
Melodie Davis is the author of seven books and has written her column since 1987. She taught feature writing and has won awards from the National Federation of Press Women, Virginia Press Women and the American Advertising Association. She and her husband have three daughters.
NOTES TO EDITORS: text = 854 words; end material = 105 words
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