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But I’m not racist….

“I treat people equally. I oppose racism. I’m not racist.”

I’ve thought that. between-the-world-and-me_cover

But lately I’ve been reading some thought-provoking writing that shifted my perspective. One is the 2015 book Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, which Toni Morrison says is “required reading.”

Ask yourself: Do you believe in the reality of “race”? Do you think there are really bone-deep features of some people? Choosing to categorize people as different is one way that slave owners justified mistreating other human beings. Why are we still seeing people as “other” today?

Or consider how you label yourself. Do you believe yourself to be white? The author uses that phrase, “people who believe themselves white,” which got me thinking. I would check “white” on a form that asks race, without thinking twice. But definitions of race change over time and vary by country. There may be things that some people have in common with each other, but you also could say that race is made up.

“…race, while it has some relationship to biology, is not mainly a biological matter. Race is primarily a sociopolitical construct. The sorting of people into this race or that in the modern era has generally been done by powerful groups for the purposes of maintaining and extending their own power.”

“…For purposes of the laws of nine southern and border states in the early part of [the 19th] century, a ‘Negro’ was defined as someone with a single Negro great-grandparent; in three other southern states, a Negro great-great-grandparent would suffice. That is, a person with 15 White ancestors four generations back and a single Negro ancestor at the same remove was reckoned a Negro in the eyes of the law.”

“…What is a person of mixed race? Biologically speaking, we are all mixed. That is, we all have genetic material from a variety of populations, and we all exhibit physical characteristics that testify to mixed ancestry. Biologically speaking, there never have been any pure races – all populations are mixed.

— Paul R. Spickard, Ph.D., “The Illogic of American Racial Categories,” PBS Frontline.

If some people in power, such as some police officers, have abused and even killed people, who’s responsible? It’s too easy to say it’s only the individual who choked or shot the victim. What cultural norms/expectations made that possible? Who pays that individual’s salary? (Hint: We, the taxpayers, do.)

Or consider: How have you benefited from being white? Or from presenting yourself as white? Access to a good public school, perhaps, because decades of housing policies — funded by our tax dollars — segregate people and schools. Perhaps connections to a job or to a college. Or just the luxury of expecting, as you walk down the street or into a store in the middle of the day, that you’ll be welcomed and treated kindly. My parents never had to have “the talk” about how to act so that I won’t be treated as a possible criminal.

Society is set up by people. What can we, as individuals, do to change it?


Great reading or watching:

I, Racist essay by John Metta.

Video: White bias in color film, and then in face recognition software.

Twitter: #RacismEndedWhen

USA Today story about my hometown, Rochester NY: Three boys apparently arrested for standing while black (waiting for the school bus).

Would you be as quick to hire Lakisha as to hire Emily? Racial Bias in Hiring 2003

A related New York Times article 2015: Racial Bias, Even When We Have Good Intentions

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Rochester & Syracuse connections to Oz

Did you know that L. Frank Baum, author of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, was likely influenced by the women’s suffrage movement? When he was writing his fantasy novel in 1900, it was unusual to have strong female characters such as Dorothy and Glinda. His mother-in-law was a feminist who collaborated with Rochester’s Susan B. Anthony.

Baum grew up in Syracuse and Chittenango, a suburb, which celebrates him with a yearly festival called Oz-Stravaganza.

For more about these connections to Oz, and about an exhibit based on the “Wizard of  Oz” movie that opens in Rochester Jan. 21, check out my stories in today’s “Democrat and Chronicle”:

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Dedicated school volunteers

Right after being laid-off, I signed up to volunteer at a new summer reading camp created by a volunteer from First Unitarian Church and held at School 22. Friends were doing it and I suddenly had the time to join them, two mornings a week, for six weeks.

The children, ages 3 to 6, were fun to work with. There were also some challenges. I jumped in and tackled needs that I noticed. I created name tags for each child using cardboard and string (because that’s what I had available). I tracked which volunteer read with which child, to encourage continuity from session to session. I kept track of time and moved the children from reading time to craft time to game/snack time.

Very soon, I was recruited to fill a part-time job coordinating the church’s school-year volunteer program at two city elementary schools: School 22 and Children’s School of Rochester #15. I’m filling in for someone on medical leave.

At first I didn’t think I should do the job. I’m a journalist, and I assumed I would focus all of my attention on work that uses my writing and reporting skills.

But after more thought, I saw multiple reasons why coordinating a tutoring program could be a good fit for me. I’m a city school graduate and I’ve been a city school volunteer off and on for 18 years. I want city students to be successful, and I think added attention, encouragement and tutoring from caring adults can help. So I’m a big fan of the program’s goal. And of work that matters. In turn, I benefit from seeing students faces light up when they see me. And it’s great to see students grasp new things — and to help them do so.

I so appreciate the remarkable number of people — more than 70 so far (doubling the size of the program) — who’ve come forward to volunteer.

(And yes, we could still use more volunteers, to reach more students.)

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