Once, while she was sitting in a chair in my living room, I reached out and touched a Black woman’s hair. At that moment and without thinking about it in any way, my hand was drawn to her hair, its airiness and resilience. I patted her hair a few times before what I was doing struck me and I pulled my hand back. She never turned her head to look at me but I felt her stiffen her shoulders. She would never scold me, though. My young friend looked up to me, respected me as an elder, and touching her hair could be interpreted as my trying to comfort her. She was, after all, going through a difficult situation.

I should have said, “I’m sorry I just touched your hair like that.” But I didn’t, hoping, I guess, that the moment would evaporate and she wouldn’t attach a bad meaning to my presumption that her hair was there for me to touch. But I knew that I’d overstepped. Obviously, because I remember it still five years later. I also know that if I apologized to her right now, she would wave it off even if it had really upset her, because she is accustomed to not making issues out of the missteps of White people. There isn’t enough time in the day, she would say.

I waver between wanting to believe I’m not racist because a Black friend once told me I was post-racial and knowing that the history of racism and slavery is as much part of my DNA as any White southerner. It is harder to deny my own racism when I have reflexes like touching my young Black friend’s hair. Because, you see, it’s reflexes where your DNA really steps up and tells you what’s what.

My ancestors came from England and settled in New York. They were early adopters, if you will, ahead of the immigration curve. Before America was a thing, my folks were here. The year they settled in New York has a 16 in it, if that tells you anything. Slavery was legal in New York until 1827, two hundred years later. That’s a lot of DNA to pile up, a lot of reflex to reproduce and settle in to a whole line of people. Maybe they owned slaves, maybe not. But my ancestors certainly lived in a slave-holding society for a long time.

So assuming I really am post-racial as I like to think I am, I know that, at best, my post-racialism is an intellectual response to my environment. It means that when I have time to think, assess, evaluate, I generally have reactions that are not racist. It means that I support policies that are anti-racist and associate with people who are like-minded, who are also not racist. But I’m not so sure my nerve endings, the unruly ganglia of reflex, have caught up to this post-racially evolved state. They may still be getting some of their signals from men wearing knee pants and carrying muskets.

My situation isn’t unusual, it’s just unspoken. White folks don’t go around talking about how they stupidly touched a Black woman’s hair. They don’t mention the imperceptible second look at the Black teen walking toward them or the tiny second’s worth of hesitation in sharing an elevator with a Black man. Those are secrets we upstanding citizens with enormously deep roots in America keep to ourselves, mostly because we don’t want to call it what it is. It’s racism.

It’s going to be a long struggle to end racism when it’s baked into genes we haven’t even discovered yet. We’ll get there, I believe that, but meanwhile, I’m keeping my hands to myself.

The Long Process of Making Amends

I think the trick to dealing with terrible stuff in your past is to own it.

Virginia Governor Northam wouldn’t be in the fix he’s in if he had Xeroxed the page from his yearbook, kept it in his wallet, and pulled it out every chance he had to talk about race, racism, white privilege, and arrogance.

He could have said, “I did this. At the time, I felt that it was okay to do it. It was only later that I figured it out and I’m here to talk about me then and me now.”

I would have listened.

I’ve never been in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) but I know people who have so I’m tuned in to the notion of making amends (Steps 8 and 9 in the 12-step program).

Governor Northam could have spent the entire time between his medical school yearbook’s publication and last week making amends for participating in a blackface/KKK event memorialized in a photo which he now disputes included him even though it’s sitting right next to his graduation picture in the yearbook. Quite an editing error, I’d say.

But he didn’t do that.

He pretended like what was in the yearbook didn’t matter. He ran for office, asked for support, got others to mobilize the substantial black vote in Virginia, and never once mentioned that he’d had this awful behavior in his past. Two explanations for this oversight: either he thought no one would ever find his yearbook or he thought it didn’t matter. In either contingency, he overestimated himself and underestimated others.

Think how differently this whole mess would have played out had the dear Governor decided long ago to make amends.

When a recovering alcoholic makes amends, he is really doing three things. First, he is owning his behavior. Even if he doesn’t remember it, even if he was blacked out at the time, even if he knows he wronged someone only from the dreams of his now-sober sleep, he is claiming his own deeds. That takes great honesty.

Second, by his apology and his efforts to make amends, a recovering alcoholic is validating the distress he caused others. The acknowledgement of the pain one has caused has great meaning to the people who were injured. “Thank you, it’s not nothing that you wrecked my car, punched out my brother, and retched all over my wedding gown.” It takes courage to acknowledge and apologize directly to the persons one has harmed. It’s humbling, maybe humiliating, and then it’s righteous.

And last, owning up to one’s past and making amends reminds everyone of this one essential truth in life: Redemption is possible. It has to be or we’re all sunk. There is nothing greater, nothing more impressive than someone who has seen the error of his ways and now spreads that word to folks hiding their own failings. It’s powerful.

It isn’t the photograph that has disqualified Governor Northam from holding office. It’s what he has done since the moment he opened his yearbook and saw the photograph sitting there next to his yearbook picture. He had a choice right then and again at every college reunion, every walk down memory lane, every time he pulled the yearbook off the shelf to show to his colleagues, to his children, to make amends and be an example of change and progress.

That wasn’t his choice, though. And so it’s right to expect him to resign. Now he will have the time he needs to understand the damage he caused and begin to make amends. I wish him well in that long process.

Questioning America

The first thing you notice at the National Museum of African American History and Culture is that everyone is trying to be so nice, especially the white people. ‘Excuse me’s’ flutter like confetti, an invisible murmuring of apology for standing in front of someone and for everything else that’s ever happened.  It’s unconscious, reflexive almost, and one wonders why the deference to history doesn’t play out in the rest of life. It’s as if we can only get it here in the lowest level of the museum studying the intricate drawings of how human cargo was arranged and stacked on slave ships.

There were different strategies, you know. Some slave ship captains packed people very tightly, figuring that even with high death rates they would still realize a profit. Others opted for a looser pack, thinking that fewer would die en route, thus ensuring a higher profit. I bet the debates were endless, fueled by big steins of beer and lit by fat candles burning down into pools of wax. Meanwhile, back at the ships, there were slave revolts on one out of ten crossings. Death, sickness, weeping, moaning, clean words for what it must have actually been like. One captain was quoted as wishing for the mournful singing to stop because it made him so terribly sad.

The museum’s exhibits are on three floors; you start at the bottom with the slave trade and ramp up to the present. So you are always walking forward in time. Depending on your age, you eventually get to the part of history that you lived through. I have seen White Only signs in the south – not in photographs, but at actual gas stations. I remember the sit-ins at the lunch counters, the murder of Medgar Evers, Bull Conner turning fire hoses on people, the Birmingham bombing, the march from Selma to Montgomery, all of this from the nightly news, Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, and Chet Huntley somberly describing the scene, woman and children pummeled up against store fronts by fire hoses while our dinner simmered in the kitchen. These things seemed to have happened in our living room. Everyone’s living room then. That’s how it was.

I saw Fannie Lou Hamer’s speech at the 1964 Democratic National Convention; I was an avid watcher of political conventions, watched wall to wall, and I remembered her speech today when I saw it projected on an enormous wall, the pain written so large and deep on her face in a way I couldn’t see on our tiny TV years ago, questioning America, the land of the free and the home of the brave. It was so long ago but it could have been last week. It’s like we’ve traveled so far but haven’t gone anywhere.

The last exhibit was about President Obama and Michelle Obama. I stood in front of it smiling like I’d run into beloved relatives I hadn’t seen in years. We were so blessed by this President, I thought, and now we are lost, just cut adrift from stability and intellect, common sense, and compassion. The museum needs to add more space here, they need more rooms, space to talk about what comes next, where we go from here.

Back at our hotel, I scrolled through my Facebook feed. There, an alderwoman from back home posted about how she’d spent the day discussing the issue of city contractors carrying guns on various street and construction projects. She then showed one of the emails she’d received that day from a citizen addressing the issue.

“You colored folks in government should just shut the fuck up. Whitey is starting to arm up because all your little n—– chillen are robbing and killing. You folks should have been shipped back from where you came when you were freed.”

So there has to be more to the story, our country’s story. We aren’t done yet. We aren’t there yet. Even if we don’t know where we’re going, we need to keep moving. The museum needs space to grow.

The Flip Side of “You People”

It was one of the first things I learned as a grown-up person in a multi-cultural world. The term “you people” was bad as in “You people always think everything bad that happens is because of racism.”

“You people.”

After the initial looks of intense scorn from black colleagues, I wondered to myself: what’s so wrong about saying “you people?” I had to piece it together over the next several years. Yes, that’s how long it took.

“You people” is, by its tone, accusatory. “You people” generalizes, assumes that everyone in the “people” group thinks and acts alike. “You people” is derogatory and marginalizing. “You people” is a separating device. There is “us” and then there is “you people.”

I don’t ever say “you people” anymore. And though it took a very long time, longer than I’d like to admit, I don’t even think “you people” anymore.

So it stings to get the “you people” treatment myself. And I’ve been getting a fair amount of it. One could say it’s my just desserts. Maybe one has to pay for stereotyping by getting stereotyped in return.

How many times a day do I see “white people” this, “white people” that. And it’s never a noble or informed thing that “white people” are doing. It’s an ignorant and racist thing they’re doing. White people don’t understand history. White people voted for Trump. White people condone police brutality and mass incarceration. White people are part of the perpetuation of racial injustice.

All things that are bitterly true. But they’re not true at the same time.

I’m not “you people.” But maybe I am. Maybe I have to sit here with all these racists and white nationalists, the Trump voters, and the Blue Lives Matter people until I’ve done enough penance to just go be my own self somewhere.

It’s an ugly thought. But probably fair. I don’t get a pass just because I think I deserve it. When I stop being part of “you people” is not up to me. It’s a judgment that is in other people’s heads. I should know that although I am impatient and sometimes my feelings are hurt.

I don’t want to be “you people.” I just want to be Jan.


Slumber Party

Red's Wrap

Racism pounces on you. You try to beat it back but it’s there. A story.

A long time ago, my daughter, who was then 12 years old, accepted a slumber party invitation from a classmate. My daughter was white, her classmate black. Several girls from their class, white and black, were invited. The address for the birthday girl’s party was an apartment on a busy street in Milwaukee central city. Every time I drive by this building, I think of this story. That’s how it’s stuck with me.

So I took my daughter to the apartment door and met the birthday girl and her mother. I said goodbye and walked back to my car. It was a neighborhood that we would call rough because we wouldn’t want to call it black because that would be racist.

I sat up in bed that night asking my husband if I had done…

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Cracks in the Brick Wall: Thoughts on White Fragility, Part Three

I am tempted to use my whiteness as a weapon.

Why? Because I know it would probably work. Why not? Because it’s contrary to my beliefs, undercuts people who aren’t white, and buys into and reinforces white privilege.

I could weaponize my white privilege in a current situation that actually is of great import to me. The powers that be don’t know I’m white but if they did, their responses would be different, more energetic, more conscious and accommodating. If I was in the room when they realized that I’m white, I’d see the shift on their faces. I guarantee it. Being white is worth a dozen lawyers.

Years ago, one of my teenage Nicaraguan sons was in a car accident on the freeway. He and his friends were safe but the owner of the other car, a white man, was pounding on the hood of my son’s car, screaming about how he’d cut him off and caused an accident. Sheriff’s deputies were there trying to sort things out. Everyone in my son’s car was brown or black. The other car had a single white man driving.

My son texted me. “You or Dad need to get down here.”

I asked where he was. On the shoulder of our city’s main freeway. I asked if anyone was hurt. No one was hurt.

“The guy is banging on the hood and the cops are just standing there.”

I called my husband. “You need to get down there,” I told him. He responded by telling me how hard it was to just pull up on the shoulder of the freeway in the middle of rush hour traffic. The cops were already there, they’d figure it all out. No one was hurt. No one was drinking. It was a lane change accident. No big deal.

“You need to go there and show them he has white parents.” I said that. I did.

I figured it would change everything if my white, distinguished-looking husband showed up in his suit and tie. This brown young man here, the one whose car you’re pounding on, well, he has people. He has white people. I can’t even fathom thinking this but I still think it.

The current situation, itself involving brown people, would change if we could interject our whiteness. But how is this a right thing to do? What it’s saying is that people in authority can minimize and marginalize a problem until the white folks show up and then they’d better sit up straight, pay attention, suddenly realize that, yes, there are probably solutions that haven’t been tried.

I don’t have to do anything with my whiteness. I just have to wear it.

It is such a strange thing to realize. My whiteness has automaticity, defined by as:

1. having the capability of starting, operating, moving, etc., independently;

2. physiology, occurring independently of volition, as certain muscular actions; involuntary;

3. done unconsciously or from force of habit; mechanical;

4. occurring spontaneously;

5. (of a firearm, pistol, etc.,) utilizing the recoil or part of the force of the explosive to eject the spent cartridge shell, introduce a new cartridge, cock the arm, and fire it repeatedly.

I can’t be part of that. I am part of that. I can’t be part of that. I am part of that.




We decided that Uncle Harry’s would be a great place to celebrate our daughter Rosa’s 27th birthday.  It’s a hideaway bar on the Milwaukee River with a big rustic patio. On summer nights, large, gleaming white yachts are tied up alongside Harry’s and smaller power boats sit in slips waiting for their owners to finish their beers. Now and then, a barge will come floating past. Sometimes, sailboats motor by on their way to the Milwaukee Harbor and then on to Lake Michigan.

We like Uncle Harry’s picnic tables, the napkins and menus stuffed in little metal pails, the burgers and fries in baskets. It suits our frequent mood of being homesick for the low-rent part of the Florida Keys where our family vacationed for years. It reminds us of being carefree and loose and so it seemed a sweet place to be with our girl on her birthday.

We picked up her brother, Ted, from his job at the Lake Michigan ferry. He still wore his second steward’s uniform, white shirt and black pants, with epaulets on his shoulders signifying his rank. Sometimes people think he is a captain, his outfit is that impressive.  We tease him about it a lot. He’s used to being teased – about being short, about having hair that looks like Elvis, and about being a Nicaraguan adopted into an Anglo family, a situation he shared with his sister. The two of them could have been twins but they weren’t.

Rosa was waiting for us in the parking lot. She wore a long, sleeveless, flowered dress with a white wrap around her shoulders and she was lovely. She was always lovely, with her black hair and dark eyes, red lipstick, and big silver hoop earrings. She had a way of shining, well, they both did. We had children who were more good looking that we probably deserved.

We all hugged in the parking lot and walked to the outdoor entrance of Uncle Harry’s where we waited in line while people in front of us were being seated. When it was our turn, the hostess pointed us to a picnic table right along the river. It couldn’t have been a better spot. We’d scored the perfect table for Rosa’s birthday. My husband led the way and I followed.

“Where do you think you’re going?” I turned around to see who had asked the question and of whom.

“With them,” Rosa answered, gesturing to her dad and me just a few yards away. In that second, her back stiffened and what was loose and happy became wound tight. She grabbed one end of her wrap, flicked it around her shoulder and walked after us. Her brother, held up by the same question, just quietly shook his head. We all sat down at the picnic table. Not trusting my own hearing, I asked her to tell me what the hostess had said. “She said, Mother, she said, WHERE DO YOU THINK YOU’RE GOING?” People at other tables turned to look.

It wasn’t the first time that someone failed to connect us as a family. It had happened from the beginning. We kept a big file of stories starting with women at a Florida beach loudly worrying that our brown toddlers had been left alone while we were sitting within a few yards of them to teachers at school assuming I was their social worker instead of their mother. We laughed about those things, people making honest mistakes that we felt came from their not seeing very many families like ours. We tried not to take offense or to teach our kids to be offended at every turn. There were a lot of turns in their growing up; they couldn’t all be greeted with outrage.

But this was different. I mulled it over. If she thought Ted and Rosa weren’t with us, why couldn’t the hostess have said, “Can I help you?” Or “I’ll find you a table right away.” Why did she have to spit out, “Where do you think you’re going?” like they were sloppy drunks in bathing suits crashing a black-tie wedding? I looked over at the hostess, sitting on a stool talking to Harry, the owner, the king of laid-back, our town’s Jimmy Buffett.

Looking at them both joking and laughing, I couldn’t imagine walking over to lodge a complaint. They’d stop and stare at me, the hostess would deny it, my daughter would come over to argue, my husband and son would roll their eyes. It would go nowhere good. And it occurred to me, conveniently, that it wasn’t my complaint to make. After all, my kids were adults, I told myself. If they wanted to take it up with management, he was sitting in clear view. “It’s fine, Mom. It happens all the time. I’m used to it,” Rosa said. Ted nodded. “I just let it roll off my back,” he waved his hand. “You can’t get upset about everything that happens like that. Most of the time, I just pretend I don’t hear it.”

“Everything that happens like that?” How many dozens or hundreds of times had this happened to him that he had developed this reaction? It wasn’t the mistaking us as separate, it was the hostility that followed when the hostess thought they were there on their own. Somehow, apparently with a lot practice, my son had learned to shrug off such things, or so he said.

When the waiter came to take our orders, I heard the sharp edge in Rosa’s voice. She questioned him about the menu, what came with what, frowning at each answer. Finally, she settled on her order, her manner like that of royalty forced to dine at a Kansas truck stop. She examined each French fry before breaking it apart and eating it in small pieces, almost as if any bite might poison her. It seemed that years of practice had had a different effect on her.

She didn’t brighten until the end of dinner, after she put on her new earrings and we posed for pictures on the boardwalk next to a sparkling yacht. Looking at the four of us, the sun setting behind us, the light glittering on the water, you’d never know we’d been roiled by this casual insult. Now when I look at the photograph, I don’t remember how warm the night was or how happy we were to be together on Rosa’s birthday. I remember what the hostess said and I wish I had complained. I wish I had let myself be offended, not on her behalf, but on my own.

Where did she think she was going? She was going with us. We were together.


Photo: Mike Giles