“If the Good People Can Win…”

"election“Juvenile Delinquence is awful. Icky. I feel sorry for them.  I think Nixon will run. I’ve heard maybe:
     Rockeffeller (maybe he said “no”)
I want to read Eight Cousins.”
— Diary entry, January 9, 1960 [age 11]

Election night, November 8, 1960. It’s late and I’m in the living room with my father, glued to the television as the returns come in – Kennedy vs. Nixon, in the closest presidential race in decades. In 6th grade, I had begun to take interest in larger social and political issues. This didn’t come in a vacuum. Every morning Dad read the paper and every night he watched Walter Cronkite deliver the news.

JFK at Burlington Airport, 1960

JFK at Burlington Airport, 1960,
Courtesy WJOY

My father had been one of ten thousand Vermonters who came out on the spur of the moment to greet JFK when he landed for a brief stop at Burlington Airport the day before the election. In the surging crowd, Dad was lucky to get close up. Being tall, he reached across the tops of others’ heads to shake the candidate’s hand. Dad’s glove slipped off. Kennedy smiled right at him as he handed it back. Dad was thrilled, and so were we hearing this story.

Now the TV buzzes with excitement and we buzz too, tired but too excited to turn it off. A little after midnight, Nixon comes on the screen to say if the trends continue, it appears Kennedy will be the next president. The next day Nixon concedes. We are happy, and I am a believer that this is democracy, that voting is important, and that this is how we change the world. If the good guys can win, everything will be all right.

But the world was not all right. At age 12, I was not only becoming aware of social issues beyond my white middle class life, but I was beginning to feel them. In my diary, I wrote that juvenile delinquency was “awful” and “icky.” Tracking down into those young feelings as I write today, I find underneath the revulsion and pity lies fear. Fear I didn’t want to feel. Fear that the grownups really don’t have everything in control. They don’t have the answers. And if they don’t, who does? Fear. Kids – and grownups – can be mean and violent for no apparent reason. The world is not safe. Sadness. Grief that people can turn so thoroughly away from love and kindness and belonging. The things that make me feel safe. And there is no way to fix it, make it all better. As an adult now in this moment, I sit weeping for that little girl. I wish I could hold her and say, “Oh, baby, yes, this world really is a heartbreaking place.” As a young girl, I could only push that pain away. “I feel sorry for them.” It’s them. It’s them. Not me. Not my life.

So it’s 2020 now. Sixty years have passed. The world was not all right back then and it’s not all right now. Today is the day of another close election — one that feels monumental in its consequences. It’s been 3 years since the last post on this blog — right after the Charlottesville rally and protests that brought white supremacy smack into the into the public eye with vivid force. Since then, so much more has happened and continues to happen. We are in a world unimaginable to that little girl back in 1960. Almost unimaginable to the person I am today. We are living in shock — from a global pandemic that has affected every aspect of our lives and a response to it that threatens not only our health but the social fabric of our communities and country. Our emotions are played upon daily — hope and fear, lies and truth — making it hard to separate out what matters and what doesn’t. Polls offer us hopeful possibilities. Past experience tells us they may mean nothing.

We have seen the power of lies told over and over, loudly and with force, and the insidiousness of misinformation spread more subtly through social media. The meta-campaign at this moment is not Trump vs. Biden, Republicans vs. Democrats, but the campaign to sow doubt about the election process itself — will everyone’s vote be counted? Can we trust the results?

I’ve recently been reading My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem, about personal and collective trauma and how it lives in our bodies and is passed down through generations. Practicing one of his contemplations, I realized that the 2016 election had an impact on me I hadn’t recognized before. For the first time it looked like we would have, really could have, a woman President of the United States. A smart, experienced, uniquely qualified woman. For the young girl who still lives in me and the grown woman I have become, that was a special dream come true. Three million more people voted for Hillary Clinton than voted for Donald Trump. Three million! But we know what happened. Heartbreaking. Now dare I hope for a woman vice president — a smart, experienced, uniquely qualified woman? Yes, I do. And if Kamala Harris does not become vice president, I know that strong, influential women in public office are not going away. And, totally within my power, I can be — am — a strong, influential woman who is not going away.

So many different parts of me are swirling around. Thoughts and emotions. Hope and fear. Bits and pieces of “realities” that arise and fall and arise again. Some headlines from this week:

Police Pepper Spray Men, Women, and Children Marching To the Polls in North Carolina

Don Jr told Trump supporters to ‘have some fun’ before Biden vehicles ‘rammed by armed group’

The Push To Allow Guns At Polling Places Is Straightforward Voter Intimidation

As a child I couldn’t understand how “kids – and grownups – can be mean and violent for no apparent reason.” Now I know much more about the reasons, the psychological complexities, the social and economic contexts, but there is still a young voice inside, full of outrage, fear and helplessness. It’s crazy-making that the very people who are fomenting this distrust are the same ones who are undermining measures to ensure that people are able to vote. Accuse your opponents of the very thing you are doing. The young part of me wants to scream, “It’s not fair! It’s not fair!” No, it’s not.

I hate feeling helpless. A couple of months ago, after waking up day after day with anxiety about the election, I decided I had to do something, however small it might be. So, I connected with Vote Forward and began writing letters to Democratic-leaning voters in Iowa who had not voted in recent elections. Not telling them who to vote for, but telling them why I always vote and urging them to vote too. It turns out many of my friends and family are doing the same thing — reaching out person to person, making a human connection through writing postcards, letters and phone calls.

Have voter suppression tactics worked? Are people afraid to vote? It seems the opposite, actually. People have been voting and are voting in greater numbers than ever before. Determination. Persistence. Doing whatever it takes. I voted by mail for the first time. Early. Put the ballot in a U.S. mailbox. Verified online that it was received. That was easy compared to standing in line for hours and hours in rain or heat, just to cast my ballot. People are doing that at this very moment.

Art for Democracy, Oakland, CA Photo credit: Louise Chegwidden

Voting may not change the world in the way I believed as a child, but it really can matter who wins, as we have seen for the last 4 years. Leaders shape what is possible, create a foundation to build on, offer a vision that magnetizes people in one direction or another. What do you care about? What kind of society do you want to cultivate? Here and now. I could say I want a society that values and includes everyone as worthy human beings.

I found out recently that someone I know in my meditation community is a Trump supporter. Wow! It’s so easy to demonize people in the abstract! This person is a devoted practitioner, a generous student of the dharma. Buddhism teaches awareness, compassion and skillful action. How can he believe that what’s happening is okay? How?? I don’t understand what it’s like to be him. He is still the same person he was before I knew this about him. Nothing has changed really, but now there is a label in my mind. How much I attach to that is up to me.

One of my close teachers and mentors said to me just yesterday, “What I’m working on is how to hold both the winners and the losers — whoever they are — in love. Because whatever happens, a lot of people will be feeling pain. Can I feel for the losers and celebrate with the winners?” This reminds me of MLK saying, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.”

I’m not there yet. A friend of mine declared recently, “Amy Coney Barrett’s faith is not the only kind of faith. I want to reclaim faith for myself.” Yes! In the midst of this roller coaster of intensity, I realize I do have faith. Not in a particular God that’s on my side, or a particular outcome, not that the electoral process will be fair or that justice will be served. I want to reclaim faith as a universal force, an unshakable conviction in the human heart, in Spirit as a resource we all have access to, that we are part of nature and belong to each other. Faith in the basic goodness of ourselves as human beings — beyond the “good” and “bad” winners or losers. I have faith that personal and deep connection with ourselves and each other is the way toward healing what separates us. This faith is active. It has to be renewed over and over. Practiced. Remembered.

As I wrote those letters to people in Iowa, I imagined them reading my handwriting and knowing another person cared enough to write those words, asking them to care enough to vote. What did I say? I told them about sitting up late at night watching election returns with my dad and how that taught me about how democracy works and that voting matters.

Power to the people!

Art for Democracy street mural, Oakland, CA Oct 2020 Photo credit: Jane Tyska/Bay Area NewsGroup

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How could the grown-ups let this happen?



Naomi and me eating  candy, 1960

“Hatred has a weight to it. It’s a force, has a target. I was the recipient, the human bull’s eye, even though it was not aimed personally.”
Journal entry, Sept 25, 2004

“I went over to Naomi’s house. We had a play and made up funny outfits with the costumes. I stayed for supper. It was Shabbus so she couldn’t write. We couldn’t play Clue until Shabbus was over.”
—Diary entry, March 21, 1959

It was Big Judy, our favorite babysitter, who first told us kids about Nazis. Big Judy liked to scare us with stories like The Bad Seed, about a little girl who everybody thinks is good, but who kills people she doesn’t like or who have something she wants. But Nazis were not just a made-up story. They were real.

I remember walking home from school along North Prospect Street, turning over in my mind this idea that some people — grownups, even — hated Jewish people, really hated them, enough to kill them, just because they were Jewish. And that meant, yes — it had to mean — they would hate Naomi, a little girl just like me, for a reason that felt like…no reason. How could this be? Why didn’t anyone stop them?  A potent combination of fear, dread, and helplessness swirled inside me — so strong I gave it a name: “The Feeling.”

The Feeling would go away and then come back over and over again in my life. It arose this summer, as I watched images from the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.  The torches.  Swastika banners. Confederate flags. People, mostly young white men, chanting, “You will not replace us.”  “Jews will not replace us.”


Ad in Hampton Chronicle, 1926 Courtesy of Franklin County Historical Society

When I saw the circle of torches, I flashed on images from nearly 100 years ago, when the KKK message of white nationalism came into the mainstream. Klan members were elected to political office, controlled school boards, held mass marches and open community rallies like the one in 1926 in Hampton, Iowa, my father’s hometown. My fear tells me a story that this mindset will overtake our country, like the Invasion of the Body Snatchers, like my old, recurring nightmares where evil beings have taken over everyone’s minds, and no one knows but me and I am desperately trying to save my family, my friends, not knowing who I can trust. But in reality, the first challenge is to not let fear overtake me, to not let fear solidify into a mono-dimensional story of Us and Them.  To take time to attend to The Feeling. This is a continual process, not a one-time thing — but it feels urgent now.  I am a grown up. How do I not let “this” happen?

In 2004, I experienced first-hand the vitriol of overt white supremacy. I was managing the UNtraining website at the time. We were planning a public event to introduce our approach to working with “white liberal racism” — the mostly unconscious white social conditioning we all receive growing up in this country. One morning I went to check the UNtraining emails, expecting the usual curiosity and excitement about the work we were doing. Instead I discovered that a white supremacist group had found our website, had copied and posted parts of it on their own site for their readers to comment on. We were flooded with emails — racist and homophobic slurs about our founders, and scathing comments about the stupidity of liberals. One guy was so incensed he said he was ready to buy a baseball bat and start smashing heads. I read all this in a growing state of shock. Hot, cold, breathless, hurt, sickened, outraged. A whirlpool of fear, dread, helplessness.

Finally I got up and began moving around the house. Who should I call? What if some of these people came to our event? Were we in danger? Then a jolt of realization hit me — this was just one moment, one instance, of what people of color potentially face every day. Besides pervasive indirect and unconscious racism, this is what is out there and most often directed at them.  I was just getting a taste, puncturing the buffer my white middle class privilege provides.

I called Jim, one of our event coordinators who had studied extremist groups and had been reaching out to dialogue with people who had white supremacist views. He helped assess the threats and concluded that they would not likely translate into action.  Nevertheless, the day of our event we made sure the security guard was near the entrance and stayed in the room with us.  No raging bat-wielding neo-Nazis came.  However, one polite, mild-mannered proponent of “white civil rights” did.  His name was Lou.

As soon as Lou walked in, I knew he was different from the other 85 attendees of our program. In his 70’s, he was formally dressed, with a red, white and blue silk handkerchief in the breast pocket of his well-tailored dark suit jacket. I can’t remember the name of the group he was with, but Lou was one of the people Jim had been reaching out to. When we opened the floor for a few people to say why they had come, Lou said he felt European- Americans were being discriminated against and he was concerned about that. In the moment of silence that ensued, UNtraining cofounder Rita Shimmin deftly responded, “This is a public workshop and many different viewpoints that are out in the world are here too.”

Jim sat next to Lou and engaged with him until it was time to do an exercise in dyads, sharing an early experience we had had around race. Jim introduced me to Lou and suggested we pair up. I took a deep breath and prepared to listen. Lou told me about growing up poor in Brooklyn, with Italians, Jews, Germans, and Irish people in their neighborhood. His family was Italian. He talked about being in college and joining the NAACP. He had a lot of disagreements with them when he realized they were “just looking out for their own people.”  So he quit. Now, he said,  he is looking out for his own people.  Lou got a little emotional telling a story from when he was on the police force.  There was a black officer who did his job well and whom everyone liked. He was appointed to a higher position but he just couldn’t pass the exam to become a lieutenant. The black man felt badly and this was painful to Lou. This story ran into one about a San Francisco 49er coming to a “Cops for Christ” meeting.  (“Cops for Christ” is an international evangelical / apocalyptic organization, geared specifically to policemen.) Lou was talking fast and I couldn’t always follow him, but it felt like he was doing his best to share some of the experiences with people of color that shaped him.  They were complex and not what I might have expected.

At the end of the workshop, when people shared parting thoughts, Lou said he hadn’t known what he would find here, but he was treated better than he expected. Reflecting back now, I realize I didn’t have The Feeling when I talked with Lou. I was cautious, yes, and chose a story to share that was not super-charged for me. His ideas were set, he wasn’t really open to our multidimensional viewpoint, but he was in the room, jumping in to the activities, not sitting out in judgment. His stories were not political rhetoric. They were real, personal and human. In a different situation I might have argued with his basic assumptions, but I was there to listen.

The events in Charlottesville have resulted in a plethora of “I am not a racist” or “He is not a racist” statements from public officials.  The narrative that a person is either a good white person or a bad racist is dangerously simplistic.  It keeps us from being aware of what is actually happening, who is standing in front of us in any given moment, and who is standing with us. Because of the history of white dominance in this country and the legacy we all carry, consciously or unconsciously,  we are ALL on a spectrum of white supremacy conditioning. Let’s not lose the nuanced understanding of this.

The point for me, the hard work of it, is to become aware of how “whiteness” affects me, how being white shapes my views, my reactions, my deepest fears.  For example, in a recent TIME magazine article, “What White America Must Do Next,” Eddie S. Glaude, Jr., chair of African-American Studies at Princeton, says:

“What is required of white Americans now is something much more than a sentimental condemnation of [racism]. Ask yourselves: Can you truly give up the idea that this is a white nation? Can you imagine this country as a truly multiracial democracy?”

2010 Census pie chart

2010 U.S. Census

So, can I? My first and conscious response is yes.  In line with my heartfelt values, I say yes, that would be wonderful.  But if I keep looking, I also find some disconcerting conditioning embedded in my mind. For example, images implanted of who Americans are —  they look mostly like me, with a few people of other races added so it feels like equality.  What if the people in power in this country actually reflected the overall demographics?  There would be a lot more people of color in top and managerial positions in government, business, education, justice, law enforcement — all of our institutions.  If I feel into this part of my white conditioning, I find unease, discomfort, fear of loss. Some treasured piece of my identity threatened. We (white people) can share power as long as we still are in the majority, in charge, choosing when to open the door and when to close it.  I hate seeing this in myself. I hate admitting it. But if I can’t feel my own human vulnerability at the root of it, I will dehumanize others who actively express extreme forms of white supremacy beliefs.  Fear of being replaced. Something precious being taken away. Our children’s future. Our dignity. Our land. Our rights. Our values. Our identity.  Sound familiar?


Me, age 9

“Why didn’t anyone stop them?  How could the grown-ups let this happen? “

I am a grown-up now.  So how will I stop “them”? First, I do not let “them” take over my mind and heart. I pay attention to my tendency to panic and solidify reality into a bad dream. Action that comes out of fear and aggression  just adds more fear and aggression to the world — or numbness and avoidance of any feeling. So attend to The Feeling. Give that scared part some love. Do I really believe in the basic goodness of humanity? Of society? How do I bring that about right now in this moment?

I remember that I am not alone. Besides the great number of friends, allies and people actively writing, protesting, working in all their different spheres of influence, it helps to  remember that the vast majority of people in this country are not neo-Nazis or KKK members. I was struck by a comment quoted in the recent issue of  Teaching Tolerance from a conservative Christian high school student, who wrote in The American Conservative magazine, “[The alt-right] has swallowed up most of the guys in the senior class at my school. Every discussion devolves into things like which girls are ‘feminazis,’ celebrities dating outside their ethnicity being ‘white genocide,’ and so on…I’m genuinely scared that it’s going to spread to the point where I won’t have anyone I can talk to like a normal human being.”

How do we cultivate a multidimensional viewpoint: to stay connected as human beings and still say NO — and at the same time, to say YES, here’s what we want.

People who voted for Trump or who support him are not evil people to be written off as all the same. Polarizing into hard lines of Us and Them is not going to bring out the best in this struggle for our country’s future.  In fact it will bring out the worst.

We are all living on planet earth in a critical moment.  There have been other critical moments, but this one is ours. So, Janet, don’t walk around in a cocoon. There are other human beings in your world every day — the clerk at the corner store, the people at the library, the guy buying gas at the pump next to yours.  Every interaction is a potential moment of connection. A choice to be numb or a choice to feel human together for a split second.

People everywhere are coming out to show support — to express themselves in protests and rallies. There are community meetings, interfaith gatherings, lawsuits, campaigns, articles, interviews, conversations. How did Nazism gain such power before World War II?  Yes, they used political and military power, but they were also masters of media, spreading messages of fear and divisiveness. This allowed for intimidation at the personal and local level, demanding local police make lists of “undesirable” people in their communities. Pitting neighbor against neighbor. Ultimately forcing people to make terrible choices — to protect their families or have their lives destroyed.  They also played on a very human capacity — to ignore threatening information. To not want to know, because then one would have to act, to change, to give up the illusion of safety we hold — the buffer of privilege between ourselves and pain, suffering and death.  As the buffer dissolves, we struggle against a whirlpool of fear, dread, helplessness.

Instead of The Feeling, can I simply feel? Simply act in the ways open to me? Expand my view of what spheres of my life I can influence — and go for it?  Participate in supportive circles so when I lose heart or stamina for meeting the madness, others can be there with me, and I can do the same for them?  To these, I say YES.


Some interesting resources:
– Robin Chancer: “When you love someone who loves Trump
– Gregory Mengel: White Conservatives and Black Lives: Why White Conservatives Don’t Get Black Lives Matter and How to Shift the Conversation
– SMART, a progressive alternative to the politics of division

Writing this post was a challenge. Many thanks to Judy, Bob, Naomi, Rhonda, Robert and Lisa for support on this one!

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It Happens All the Time

Photo by Robert Horton“Democracy cannot breathe, and will die, if those enjoined to protect and uphold the law snuff it out unjustly and without consequence. Justice cannot breathe when Black men and boys and women and girls are routinely profiled, abused, arrested, and killed with impunity by police officers.”
— Marion Wright Edelman

My car alarm went off one day recently. It happens all the time. I have a funky old 1994 Toyota Tercel with windows you have to crank up and down by hand and an alarm with a broken remote button. The only way to turn off the alarm is to put the key in the ignition.  If I’m not fast enough, the blaring starts. It’s really annoying. But this time it could have been life-threatening.

My brother–in-law and nephew were visiting – the end point of a wonderful father-son road trip down the Oregon and California Coast Highway. Bob is a retired math educator who now takes incredible photos of wild birds. Wes is a songwriter and musician, just starting grad school. That Saturday afternoon we had stopped at home on our way from one place to another and I went in the house for something. Wes came in also, while Bob waited in the car. The keys were in my pocket.

Wes went back out ahead of me and a few seconds later I heard the car alarm go off when he opened the door. Oh, NO! My first thought was what a bummer to be sitting in a car helpless to turn off the alarm. Then came a fleeting image of Bob and Wes — two black men, unfamiliar to my neighbors — in my familiar car with the alarm going off. I raced out the door and across the street, jumped into the driver’s seat and switched off the alarm.

Sudden silence. Bob said quietly, “It’s not good to be black men in a car with an alarm going off.”  At that point, a number of things could have happened. I could have fallen all over myself apologizing, inviting them to reassure me it wasn’t my fault. Or I could have protested, oh, there’s no danger here. This is a “good” middle class, pretty liberal neighborhood. Why, the neighbor whose house we’re parked in front of is a person of color – a Chinese woman – and next to her lives an African-American couple. I could have dismissed their fear as unfounded. Some years ago, I might have done just that — or at least had the impulse to. White people do it all the time. But the full impact of Bob’s words hit me in the heart. The fear was real. And the danger was real. I said simply, “I know.”

Since Michael Brown’s murder by police in Ferguson, Missouri in August 2014, there has been story after story of situations where an unarmed black person, whether breaking a law or not, ended up dead in a matter of seconds. This has been happening for years, of course, but now the pattern has become more visible, partly because so many people have cameras in their phones and the internet allows images to be communicated far and wide. I remember the shock, back in 2009, of watching the grainy, chaotic video of BART officer Johannes Mehserle pulling out his gun and shooting Oscar Grant in the back. Then the shock of learning that Oscar Grant had worked at Farmer Joe’s meat counter, where I shop a couple of times a month. He could have been the smiling guy who cut up chicken for me or wrapped a couple of pork chops in butcher paper, asking, “Anything else for you today?” Then there was the further shock (to my still idealistic self who believes justice is possible, especially when there’s an actual video of the crime), but not really a shock (to my more realistic self who knows that justice is rarely served in these situations), that Mehserle would only serve 11 months of a mere two year prison sentence.

There followed Trayvon Martin,  Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Sitting here, feeling these lives lost, the words of Bob Dylan’s song come into my mind – “How many deaths will it take til we know that too many people have died?” But we do know that. Too many people of color have been pulled from cars, beaten up, thrown to the ground, shot in the back, killed while unarmed, died in custody, died alone without their family or friends. This is not news to the black community. But for me as a white person, how do I hold this news not as a series of single tragic events or travesties of justice? How do I let the impact sink in to body, heart and spirit?

Tamir Rice was killed one year ago, on November 22, 2014. As each of these stories hits the media, we hear about it over a period of time – days, weeks, maybe — and the momentum of our lives makes it easy to forget, or not really register the impact in a personal way. Especially if we are white. I remember hearing a news story about the police killing Tamir who was playing in a park and had a toy gun. My immediate reaction was outrage, disgust, helplessness. Then the news moved on. My life moved on. But Tamir’s life had not moved on. The impact on people who loved him will never really move on.

marian-wright-edelman-150This summer I heard read aloud the powerful column, Ten Rules to Help Black Boys Survive by Marian Wright Edelman. She opens by saying, “Democracy cannot breathe, and will die, if those enjoined to protect and uphold the law snuff it out unjustly and without consequence.” She vividly recounts how Tamir lay bleeding on the ground, how the police not only did not administer any first aid but actually restrained his sister and his mother from going to help or comfort him as he lay dying. Edelman repeatedly asks, “Who was there to protect Tamir?” Hearing this story stunned me, put me right there at the scene. Especially, I could imagine being Tamir’s sister or mother, distraught, helpless — and then the further outrage of being treated as criminals themselves. Where was the humanity of those police officers?

Like many others, Tamir’s death was also caught on video — it took only two seconds for the police car to pull up and start shooting.  There was no assessment whatsoever of the situation, even though the caller who reported someone in the park with a gun had said that it might be a toy and the the person might be a teenager.  In June an Ohio judge ruled that the police officers should face murder charges. So has justice been served? One year after Tamir’s death, prosecutor Tim McGinty has not filed criminal charges against the Cleveland police officers who killed Tamir and has released “expert” testimony that leans towards exonerating the officers. The grand jury hearing is underway at this moment. Want to do something? Right now? A movement led by Tamir’s mother and sponsored by Color of Change is underway to call for McGinty to step down and a special prosecutor be assigned. You can join me in signing the petition here.  You can watch or listen for news of how this trial unfolds. Watch and listen to your own thoughts, where and how your attention moves. How you are touched or not. What you might be moved to do. That’s what I’m planning to do. Not let this one get lost in the momentum of life.

I had almost forgotten what happened in the car with Bob and Wes. Because from one point of view, “nothing really happened.” No one called the cops, as had happened to Bob in a similar situation before. No random police car drove by and stopped to investigate “suspicious” individuals, as has happened countless times in other moments and places. But what did happen was a stark moment of truth — of the contrast between the world Bob and Wes walk in and the one I walk in every day.  And how easily they could have become the next tragic news story.

As we drove off in my dinged-up old Tercel, Wes commented wryly, “Well at least it’s not the first car on the block anyone would think of stealing!” We laughed and turned our minds to the trip ahead to Amoeba Music to find vintage Jimi Hendrix albums.

Someone just gave us a “Black Lives Matter” poster and today I put it up. There are not many of these posters visible in our neighborhood. It’s just a small act, a small statement in the big scheme of things. But it will help me remember and pay attention. Sometimes small gestures, like small moments, can make a difference. It happens all the time.


Awesome video: “Get Home Safely: 10 Rules of Survival If Stopped by the Police” Between the World and Me by Ta Nehisi Coates (The Atlantic article & book)
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption
by Bryan Stevenson
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

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On Michael Brown

The following piece is by a guest writer, my friend and UNtraining colleague Mollie Crittenden. Mollie is the Director of Community Engagement at San Francisco University High School. She read this as a part of UHS’s PERSPECTIVE series at an All School Meeting in September 2014.

It’s 3:53 a.m. on Friday morning and I cannot sleep.  Images of Michael Brown and the indescribable sadness in his mother’s eyes will not leave me.  I lie awake, feeling heaviness in my heart and fear in my soul that I cannot shake.

Lesley McSpadden and Louis Head, the mother and stepfather of Michael Brown, on August 9th.

Lesley McSpadden and Louis Head, the mother and stepfather of Michael Brown, on August 9th.

I realize that the pulling physical sensation I feel in my heart and the subsequent pain in my throat are familiar to me.  I realize I am actually experiencing heartbreak.

This time, my heart is breaking not from the pain of experiencing the betrayal of a lover, or the fear of what my life will be like absent of this person’s love, but because, once again, our society has betrayed the life of a young, black male, and I am fearing the possibility of life without my sons, who face the reality of being betrayed in this same way.

I am the mother of two black boys.

Amani and AsanteThey are biracial, and already undoubtedly receive a certain amount of privilege based on the fact that they have a middle class, white mother and are lighter skinned than some. Created out of the love between their dark-skinned African American father and me, they are blessed and cursed with the beautiful brown skin that instantly slates them into the “non-white,” “person of color,” “Black”  or “other” category the moment anyone sees them.

My boys both came to a realization on their own at the age of 3, when they each told me at different times, “I’m brown like Dada, not white like you, Mama.”  Already understanding that although they equally came from both of us, other people would see and treat them as a person of color, and never perceive them as being white.  This realization was followed by more heartbreaking statements from my three year olds such as, “I want to take my skin off,” “I wish I had white skin,” and “she’s bad because she has brown skin like mine.”  Amani  and Asante

These direct quotes, which I carry with me always, began after innocent and unknowing white children right here in the Bay Area openly vocalized their racial socialization by asking my sons with disdain in their voice why their skin is burnt, laughing at or wanting to touch the unfamiliar corn rows in their hair, consistently casting them in the  “bad guy” role in their games of cops and robbers, or telling them I couldn’t be their mommy because I am white and they are brown.  However unintentionally harmful these statements were, my boys learned very early on, that they are somehow “other” and “not normal” according to people around them.

My boys, Amani, who is 8 and Asante, who is 5, live the meanings of their names, peace and gratitude, every day in small and profound ways.








They do this through the hugs and kisses they give to one another when they’re hurt, enthusiastically thanking their Grammy for teaching them how to knit while extending their arms around her, or giving all the money in their piggy bank away to the person asking for money on the street.  I could go on and on, but the point is that both of my boys are precious.  They have a light and spirit that is both unique to them and shared in common with all of us.

I give you these details about my sons not to bore you with the stories of a doting mother, but instead to make the point that these same stories would be told if they could, by every mother of black boys and young men whose lives have been taken in the betrayal of our society.

Michael Brown as a child

Michael Brown as a child

These are the same types of stories your parents would tell about you to convey how precious your life is.  Unfortunately, Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Michael Brown, did not recognize the connection in the humanity between them.  If he did, he wouldn’t have killed Mike Brown, an unarmed teenager with his hands up.  It is our collective disconnection from these realities of others, regardless of how different we may seem, and the many fears that are rooted in our individualism, materialism and greed that enable us as a society to continuously betray the lives of some while systematically benefiting those of others.

Ferguson is not new.  Countless lives have been taken by law enforcement, as people of Black Lives Mattercolor and in low income communities face the reality of police officers who threaten the freedom and very existence of people in their communities every day, rather than acting to protect and serve them.

Unfortunately, police brutality and assassination are just two of the many reasons black and brown people are responding to Michael Brown’s killing by displaying signs that “Black lives matter.”

Eerily, these signs are reminiscent of protesters in the Civil Rights Movement who carried signs that read, “I am a man.”

MC_i am a man w gunsOur society repeatedly communicates that black and brown lives don’t matter when children experience substandard education in facilities that look similar to or worse than prisons and do not enable them to fulfill their dreams, when disproportionately, people of color don’t have access to health care, are exposed to life threatening environmental toxins and pollutants in their neighborhoods, and are arrested, prosecuted, and incarcerated at rates multiple times those of their white counterparts.  Our society betrays all of us when mainstream news portrays criminalizing images of people in black and brown communities rather than the strength, resiliency and connection that exists there, and when our government responds to people exercising their first amendment right to protest with militarized police force; the list goes on and on.

MC_riot policeMC_hands up






I am here, before you, as a mother who lives with the knowledge and the fear that my son’s lives will be betrayed in subtle and life threatening ways throughout their lifetimes, just as their father continues to face this reality right here in San Francisco when he is harassed and arrested while walking down the street, and held in jail for over a week for fitting the description of a black man who allegedly committed a crime he had absolutely no knowledge of, when he needs to alter his hair, clothes, and speech to not seem “too black” when trying to get access to a job, scholarship, loan, or other resources we all need to succeed, or when he receives negative, patronizing, suspicious, unwelcoming, or blatantly racist  behavior and comments from waiters, store employees, police officers, colleagues, teachers, bank officials, doctors, and my own family members.

This is all happening here and now, and is a widespread experience.  It’s not just happening far a way in some other less progressive area, because of a fluke or a few “bad apples” that are completely unlike ourselves.  It is being enacted all the time by people, like ourselves, who don’t consider themselves to be racist, and are simultaneously, mostly unconsciously, acting in ways that result in both subtle and overt systemic, individual and life threatening racial discrimination.

I am here as an educator, who also has hope for what we can become as people, and more importantly, the belief in the tremendous positive power and potential you all have, if you choose to use it, to make positive change in the world we live in.   Someday, you may be in positions to make major decisions to influence foreign or public policy, criminal justice, our educational or health care systems and so on.  My not so secret hope is that you will be in these positions and use your brilliance for the benefit of all lives in the future.  Please don’t think you have to wait until that “someday” in order to make a difference.  What I want to ask of you is that you start now with things you do have control over.  Even though it may not feel like it sometimes as a teenager, we all have power and can act today.

The first thing I want to ask you to do today is to FEEL.  One of our avoidance mechanisms when we are exposed to sad injustices that keep us paralyzed and disconnected from acting in accordance with the authentic goodness that is within all of us, is to numb out.  We turn the channel when Ferguson comes on because it’s too much of a downer, we distract ourselves with countless other trivial activities, we over-intellectualize the less significant details of what’s happened in order to avoid feeling the reality of this and many other tragedies that occur.  Please resist those tendencies to stay in the comfort zone of self-centeredness that we all reside in, myself included, and begin by simply pausing and FEELING.

MC_love demonstration

It is only when we take the time and energy to stop and take in the sadness in Mike Brown’s mother’s eyes, or the pictures of him as an innocent boy like mine are now, and sit with that emotion, that heavy heart, that discomfort, that we will find the motivation and courage to reach out to others and move beyond a place of guilt, disillusionment, anger, or complacency.

Lesley McSpadden and Louis Head, the mother and stepfather of Michael Brown, on August 9th.Michael Brown as a child

It is from this place of feeling that we connect with our own humanity, and perhaps more importantly, to leave the realm of this subtle or in some cases profound sense of emptiness and disconnection that resides deep within many of us in our quiet moments regardless of the contented exterior we show others, and into the hope and peace that comes from within when we connect to and act from our true, compassionate, selves, and begin to take actions that communicate to the world that everyone’s lives do matter.

MC_is his life worth more


At the conclusion of this presentation to a largely white, economically privileged audience, Mollie received a standing ovation. Her piece also appears in POCIS Visible Voices, the online newsletter for People of Color in Independent Schools of Northern California. Thank you, Mollie, for sharing your heart with us.

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Taking a Break – Comments Continue!

Hello readers,

I have decided to take an official break (as opposed to just a long gap!) from new posts on the blog, so I can finish the Good Little White Girl book by July. The last 3-4 chapters have been sitting in the back of my mind for too long!

Meanwhile, I hope new readers continue to check out what’s here and sign up to follow. Participants in the UNtraining and others have shared personal and powerful reflections here. Thank you! Please continue to add your stories and I will continue to reply.  The following posts have particularly rich comments:

Speaking of Whiteness

The Family of Man

Two Little Kids in the Land of the Free

We’re “Good White People” — Aren’t We?

Thank you all for your support!



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The Unitarian Angel


“Tonight I had angel pageant practice and Jeff Lewis of all people is one of the shepherds! I wear a real keen outfit except that tonight it was ten times too long. If I stand up straight I have more of a figure. The dress is real low.”
—Janet’s journal entry, December 11, 1962

It was an honor to be the Angel in the Christmas pageant. In 1962 when I was 14, I was the chosen one. There were not many rituals in the Unitarian Church when I was growing up, but the annual pageant was one of them. And I loved it — the church winter-dark, hushed but full of people, the pulpit removed to make room for the simple scene — the manger below and the star shining at the top of the arch high above. All waiting for the magical story to unfold. Despite my teenage preoccupation with boys and my fairly non-existent “figure,” being the Angel would touch me unexpectedly.

When my family moved to Burlington, Vermont, we finally found a church community that suited my parents’ liberal religious views. In Sunday school, according to my diary of 1959, we talked about “What is a good friend?” and “paying compliments, thinking, listening and hearing.” I remember one day Mrs. Lohman, the Sunday school teacher, asked us to raise our hands if we loved ourselves. Disconcerted, I looked around. Was it good to love yourself? Wasn’t that selfish? I did kind of like myself, I realized, somewhat guiltily. After all, what other “me” was there? Almost no one raised their hands. I can’t remember if I got mine all the way up before Mrs. Lohman said that loving ourselves was important. It was okay!

Rita Shimmin, co-founder of the UNtraining and one of my most profound mentors, challenges each of us to “love yourself so much that this love changes the world.” The basis for anti-oppression work is our basic goodness as human beings. Not a moral good/bad, but the natural goodness of being alive, having heart, being able to feel our world, whether in suffering or joy.

I call this blog (and my book) “Good Little White Girl.” Why? Partly it’s a play on the idea of “Good White Person” — an identity many of us white liberal and progressive people hold about ourselves. (Another version is “Good Anti-racist Ally.”)  There is a difference between this and the openness and unconditioned quality of our basic human goodness. We have something at stake. We want people of color to realize that we are not like those Bad Racist people. We act super-friendly when we are introduced to them. We find ourselves smiling until our faces hurt. We laugh, even when things aren’t particularly humorous. Or perhaps we get withdrawn and stiff to make sure we don’t say anything harmful or ignorant. Or we say something that lets them know we Get It about white privilege, institutionalized racism, and the history of oppression. We might feel just a tiny bit smug about how cool we are to have friends of color.

I’ve done all these things, and I’ve come to realize they don’t fool anybody, really. They arise out of a clash, a cognitive dissonance between conscious, heartfelt intentions and beliefs and the unconscious social conditioning of growing up in a white-dominated world. Like my teenage self wrestling with internalized images about who I had to be for boys to like me, all of us inherit race-based images of who we and others are supposed to be. Unitarians have their own  flavor of being Good White People. But then there is the other kind of “goodness,” the kind that touches us, surprises us, moves us when we least expect it.  So, returning to the Angel story:

The church is full of people. I stand in the back, the white filmy costume adjusted now to fit me. I’m not wearing my glasses, so everything feels a bit fuzzy around the edges. Ahead of me the star casts its light on the empty tableau, like another world. I slowly walk toward it, a bit self-conscious at first, but then carried along by the haunting a cappella melody of “From Heaven High, O Angels, Come” (“Susani, susani, susani”). Climbing the steps to the platform above the manger, I take the Angel’s place under the star. From the shadows, Mary and Joseph emerge with the baby. I raise my arms in welcome as they take their places. Looking up and out, I suddenly feel the huge darkness beyond the circle of light, the mystery.

The shepherds come forward. They are no longer just people I know, but, yes, Shepherds who watched over their flocks by night, who saw a star and followed it. As I reach out to welcome them, my heart seems to expand, the gesture infused with gentleness and power. My body feels strangely empty and full at the same time. The Three Wise Men, one by one in stately splendor step into the light, offering their gifts. The Angel’s blessing flows out of me as if of its own accord into the big space. The tableau is complete.

Young candle-lighters come up the aisles, tipping long brass tapers to small white candles each person in the congregation holds. Light spreads through the room. Then the organ sounds deep opening chords. That’s the signal. Everyone raises their candles and “Joy to the World!” bursts forth.  The Angel opens her arms up and out like wings, silent and still, radiating peace.

The experience of the pageant disappeared from my conscious mind. My journal entries in the days following were filled with reports of which boys said hi to me and how lonely I felt at my grandparents’ house at Christmas.  Many years later, a friend of my mother’s who was in the choir with her, said, “I remember when you were the Angel in the Christmas Pageant. You looked so  beautiful, serene, I don’t know….like the Mona Lisa.” It came back to me then. That moment of grace, of simplicity. Of goodness beyond the story of Me.  Perhaps a taste of love that changes the world.

May you all be touched by that deep place where light and darkness meet and dance in the mystery of solstice.

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How I Didn’t Go to the 1963 March on Washington

March on Washington, 1963

March on Washington, 1963 (National Archives)

“More than 200,000 Americans, most of them black, but many of them white, demonstrated here today for a full and speedy program of civil rights and equal job opportunities. It was the greatest assembly for a redress of grievances that the capitol has ever seen.”
—Front page story, New York Times, Thursday August 29, 1963

I could have been there. I could have stood in the crowd of thousands facing the Lincoln Memorial on a bright day in August 1963, hearing the unforgettable voice of Reverend Martin Luther King, rising and falling— “I have a dream…..”

Fifty years later, I look back on the moment that opportunity came and went – and the forever mystery of how nonverbal signals and unspoken feelings communicate powerful messages contrary to spoken beliefs. And how, as Ruth Frankenberg says, “The working of memory is complex, political, and idiosyncratic.”

I had just turned 15 in the summer of 1963. Growing up in Vermont with liberal parents, I knew what was going on in the bigger world—the lunch counter sit-ins, the marches and boycotts that were in the news. I had read Black Like Me earlier that spring and written a report for school on the movie of A Raisin in the Sun when I was 13. And I was for civil rights, believed that people should be treated fairly and everyone should have a chance.

About a week before the march, my mother came into the bedroom on the third floor where I had created my own little world, away from the noisy downstairs, my five younger brothers and sisters, the pounding feet. It was late at night. I was sitting on my bed, writing in my journal. Standing in the doorway, half in and half out of the room, Mom told me some friends of hers and Dad’s were going to the March on Washington and asked if I wanted to go with them.

Here’s how I came to remember what happened next:

I took in her words—an invitation to go away—not with the family or to summer camp, but to do something very different, with strangers. What would it be like? My imagination flew into the unknown. A long bus ride—in the dark—to a place where a lot of people would be—more than I could imagine all gathered in one place—because of what they believed in, which I also believed in. (I wonder now, was some part of me aware that a lot of them would be “Negroes”? Did that affect my feelings? In memory, it is more a generalized “unknown.”)

My mother’s question stopped my mind, there in my safe room with my record player and my favorite books. She waited silently for my answer.  Did she think I should go? Why weren’t she and Dad going? Would I be going for them? Should I really want to go? Did I want to? And, the most important question, is it okay to be afraid? But I didn’t ask her any of that. Instead, I searched in myself for the answer. What would it take to make the leap? An image jumped into my mind – a woman shouting, leaping, storming the barricades in the French Revolution, willing to risk her life for what she believed. Was that me?

“No, I don’t think so….” I said finally, feeling somehow defeated. “I don’t think I’m passionate enough.” She asked no questions. Made no comments. “Okay,” she said, and left.

But here is what I wrote in my journal immediately after this conversation:

Janet, circa 1963

Janet, circa 1963

“Oh Life—I had a chance to go on the peace march for integration on Washington but I don’t feel dedicated enough. It would be so exciting but Mom says if that’s the only reason I’d go I shouldn’t. It is not the only reason, but one of them. It would feel good to express my feelings about unequal rights – civil rights—but I can’t put this feeling into words.”
(August 20, 1963)

Ok. So what happened? Clearly, I had expressed a desire to go. But my mother did not encourage me in any way, or invite further conversation. Instead she faulted the reason I expressed – excitement. What was wrong with excitement? What if she had invited conversation by asking, “What is it that excites you?” or said, “Yes, it is exciting. This is one of the most important issues of our time. People of conviction stand up for what they believe and this is a chance to do that, to express how you feel.”

What was going on for my mother who was usually warm and curious about what I was thinking and feeling?  Did it seem too risky to let her daughter go into such an unknown experience? After all, at that point peaceful protesters had been beaten, sprayed with firehoses, taken to jail. Did she ask because she thought it was the right thing, but didn’t really know how she felt about it? Was it Dad’s idea rather than hers? If he had asked me, would it have been different? He and I talked more about politics and what was going on in the world. These questions cannot be answered. My parents are not alive to explore them with me.

As an adult, I did ask my mother what she remembered of the conversation. Her version was simple. She asked if I wanted to go and I said “I don’t feel passionate enough.” And, contrary to what we had experienced, that had become the truth for both of us.

Although I didn’t go — maybe even because I didn’t go — the power of the March on Washington ran deep in my mind. My journal entry for August 28, 1963, borrowing language from the media:

The Race Equality Demonstration is over and leaves a lasting impression on the world. ‘A coalition of consciences’ people who came not to fight for the Negro but ‘to stand with the Negro in his fight for equality of all races—all human beings.’ Some of the narrowminded senators in congress. One said, “the Negroes have more freedom here than anywhere. Why they have more cars and refrigerators, etc. etc.” Oh! The judgment of freedom!!! I wish the whole damn problem would be solved.

A year later, I would write about civil rights, “I wish I could do something. If they had another March, I would go.” I still have the Life Magazine coverage, saved at the time so I could read it over, look at the pictures, and imagine what it would have been like to be there. “They come marching up conscience road” says the headline. “Negroes stir up nation in mighty Washington march.” There were photos of the huge crowds, the speakers at the podium, the celebrities—Jackie Robinson, Mahalia Jackson, James Baldwin and Marlon Brando. But the image I came back to again and again was one of the marchers, black and white, men and women, sitting along the edge of the fountain, cooling their feet in the water.

The conversation with my mother is an example of how white liberal conditioning is transmitted through ambivalence and what is not said. We white people rarely know how to talk about race without self-consciousness, discomfort, or free-floating guilt. We often resort to platitudes or rhetoric for lack of connection to our own feelings.  But mostly we are silent. As a “good white person,” my mother made the offer. But because we had no way to explore the underlying feelings and fears—either hers or mine—the young girl who was excited by an opportunity to “do something” for civil rights, ended up feeling ashamed for not caring enough.

I was filled with longing as I pored over the pictures of the march, but I had no recourse other than to “wish the whole damn problem would be solved.” Magically. By someone else, somehow, someday.

Martin Luther King, March on Washington, 1963 (photo

Martin Luther King delivering “I Have a Dream” speech (National Archives)

I chose not to go to the March on Washington. But I realize now that not going changed my life, too. Like a depth charge, it took years for me to discover my own way to get beyond that buried sense of shame and “do something” about racism. Reminders of the March continued to affect me.  At a speech-writing seminar at my corporate job, I was suddenly moved to tears, my diligent note-taking interrupted by the voice of Martin Luther King filling the room, and a piercing sensation that I was only now hearing him for the first time.  One night on the way to visit a friend, I happened to turn on NPR. Moments later, I sat weeping in the front seat of the car listening to a replay of New York radio commentator Jean Shepherd describing the joy and excitement of people on the streets as they welcomed the buses rolling into Washington, DC for the March. I still have the Life Magazine article with pictures of the March. There is Martin Luther King smiling, his hand reaching out over the crowd. There are the people sitting on the edge of the reflecting pool, cooling their feet in the water. It is still my favorite.

Ironically, I didn’t have to go on a long trip somewhere else to find my way. I started with myself. The journey of coming to see my own conditioning as a white person and how that has shaped my life, has led to writing this today. I invite conversations about race and racism on this blog and in my life. I teach workshops for white people, so they can make the kind of difference they want to make in the world. I continue to find my own ways of making a difference, by arriving here in this moment, and being ready to take the next step.

More to think about:
Ten Things To Know about the March on Washington and Teaching the Movement Beyond Four Famous Words
TIME Special Issue: One Dream
Where we are today: From Rinku Sen in Colorlines Commentary “Building a New Racial Justice Movement

“We cannot solve a problem that no one is willing to name, and the biggest obstacle facing Americans today is that, in the main, we don’t want to talk about race, much less about racism. Our societal silence makes room for inventive new forms of discrimination, while it blocks our efforts to change rules that disadvantage people of color. Unless we say what we mean, we cannot redefine how racism works or drive the debate toward equity.”


Has anything about the March on Washington affected your life personally? If so, how?
Did you learn about it in school? What were you taught?
How did your family respond to social justice issues when you were growing up? Do you remember any events in particular and how you were encouraged or not encouraged to take action?

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Who “Belongs” in America?

Billboard, c 1919 (Library of Congress)

Billboard, circa 1919 (Library of Congress)

U.S. Naturalization Act of 1790
“All free white persons who have, or shall migrate into the United States, and shall give satisfactory proof… that they intend to reside therein, and shall take an oath of allegiance, and shall have resided in the United States for one whole year, shall be entitled to the rights of citizenship.”

As a little girl, it never occurred to me that being born white had meaning in and of itself. I would have felt insulted at the idea that I had advantages simply because I was white. The idea of white privilege went against everything I had learned about who I was. After all, my father worked very hard. I wore hand-me-downs to school and ice cream was a rare treat. I firmly believed that anybody who tried hard enough could succeed in life, and that in America everyone had the same chances. White was just something I happened to be. Nonetheless, white privilege had shaped my life long before I was born.

As an adult, I  learned that ancestors on both sides of my family arrived in North America in the 1600s. Puritans and Quakers from England, they landed in the colonies of Massachusetts and Pennsylvania more than one hundred years before the United States was formed. My genealogy reflects the story of America, from one point of view – that of early white colonists, pioneers, and homesteaders. Digging deeper, I realized my ancestors were in the early wave of immigrants who drove out or killed the Wampanoags, the Pequots, the Abenaki, and other indigenous people living in the Northeast. They were among the white people who saw the abandoned native villages and fields of the “new world” not as a tragic result of European diseases that had decimated 90% of the population, but as a “wonderfull Plague” sent by God as a sign that they were meant to take over this land. I didn’t know any of this as a child, but that doesn’t matter.  I inherited the privilege that came with my ancestry and its bloody history, along with my red hair and freckles.

What I did know was that my ancestors were English, French, Scotch-Irish and “Pennsylvania Dutch,” which it turns out means German. And I had no doubt that I was an American, that I belonged. My whiteness was an invisible factor in that identity. The 1790 Naturalization Act was a long time ago. Because my ancestors were predominantly white Anglo-Saxon Protestants,  I was not aware that an evolving definition of who “gets to be white” had affected immigrants’ social status and their rights to citizenship.  In particular, Catholics from Ireland and the Mediterranean, Jewish people, and others from Eastern Europe.

Some years ago, a young white friend was talking about how hard it was for her to get any information about her heritage from her Portuguese and Czechoslovakian grandparents, who had emigrated in the early 20th century. They would tell her nothing of their life or customs before becoming “American.” Feeling the sadness in her voice, I suddenly realized with a chill, that my WASP ancestors were among those who had the power to define who was accepted as white and, therefore, American.  The conditions of belonging: sacrifice Statue of Libertyyour past, your family lore, language, costumes, and celebrations. In other words, become like “us.”

So, my image of immigrants when I was growing up did not include my own ancestors. No. Immigrants were those “poor, tired” people coming here from Europe in the late 1800s and early 1900s, welcomed by the Statue of Liberty with open arms – or raised torch.  Part of me identified more with the Statue of Liberty than the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

I also knew that Chinese workers had come to the West to help build the railroads and that Mexican “migrants” worked in orchards and farms in California. But living in Vermont in the 1950s and early 1960s, I didn’t have contact with many people newly arrived in the U.S. or whose ancestry was very different from mine.  When I learned about citizenship in school, the emphasis was on rights, responsibilities, and being a “good citizen,” with nothing about historical or current issues of who gets to be a U.S. citizen and who has the power to decide that.

In the powerful diversity film, The Color of Fear, the men of color discuss whether or not they identify as Americans. Not one of them has an unambiguous relationship with the phrase “I am an American.” Because, they all agree, the image of “American” is “white.” There are good reasons for this. Despite the fact that people of African descent were legally given the rights of citizenship in 1870, efforts to keep them from voting have persisted right up to the present day. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred Chinese workers from  entering the country and denied citizenship to those already here. The Immigration Act of 1924 targeted Japanese and other people as not eligible for citizenship because they were not “Caucasian.” This did not change until the Immigration Act of 1965, which abolished national-origins quotas and finally eliminated race as a legal barrier to citizenship. Again, more information that I didn’t learn until I sought it out as an adult.

What unconscious messages do children growing up in the U.S. today get about what it means to be an American, and what immigrants look like? After Vietnam, it was “boat people.” More recently, dehumanizing terminology like “illegal aliens” or simply “illegals” has been used to describe undocumented workers from Mexico, many of whom have been living here for years.  U.S. citizens originally from Muslim countries are subject to extra scrutiny at airports and seen as “terrorists.” There is fear of engineers from Asian countries taking “our” high tech jobs. Being a melting pot was okay as long as most of the people looked like us white folks.

In the current discussion of immigration reform, I frequently hear white people say “all of our ancestors were immigrants” as a way to counter the idea that immigrants are Other. Sometimes the caveat is added, “with the exception of Native Americans.” (However, people brought here as slaves were not really immigrants either.) I’ve said those words myself a few times, but they feel too simplistic. That idea may shift the conversation a little bit, but it can also become another way to ignore the complex history that got us here, including our own privilege.  And to avoid feeling the painful fact that there are people who have been in the U.S. for decades, and even centuries, who still are not treated as the “real Americans” they are or deserve to be.

Learn more:
Whiteness of a Different Color: European Immigrants and the Alchemy of Race by Matthew Frye Jacobson
Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans by Ronald Takaki

What was your experience as a child of your family’s roots?
Do you know when and how your ancestors came to the U.S.? Anything about their struggles and successes?
What images did you have of immigrants? Who were they? How were they described?
How have you learned about “the immigrant experience” and how did it impact you?

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Color Me White


“White people are neither literally nor symbolically white. We are not the colour of snow or bleached linen, nor are we uniquely virtuous and pure. Yet images of white people are recognizable by virtue of colour.”
Richard Dyer, White, 1997

As a child, I loved colors—from my first set of Crayolas, eight fat sticks of red-orange-yellow-green-blue-purple-brown-black—to the delicious array of 48 shades and hues in the big boxed set, with names like Burnt Sienna and Midnight Blue. These colors included “Flesh,” a pinkish cream very convenient for coloring faces. It didn’t occur to me until I was working in the art room of an elementary school in the late 1960s, that there might be some children for whom the color “Flesh” did not work. (In fact, Binney-Clark, the maker of Crayolas, changed the “Flesh” crayon to “Peach” in 1962.) It was also fascinating to learn about color in science class—the spectrum of the rainbow, the luminosity of a prism. How black and white were not in the rainbow because black was “no color”—the absence of color—and white was “all colors”—but strangely appeared to be no color.

I also learned the colors of the four races of people: red, yellow, white, and black. Each group was from a different part of the world originally—red from America, yellow from Asia, white from Europe and black from Africa—and together they made up the whole of the human race. I pictured these colors in my mind as a circle divided into four, each quadrant an equal part of the whole. It was a very satisfying image.

I was quite young when I first saw a black person in real life (a “Negro” as they were called then). I was surprised that he wasn’t really black, but dark brown. American Indians, I discovered, weren’t red, they also were brown. “Oriental” people, who were supposed to be yellow, were not at all. Some of my friends were very tan. Pointing to my densely freckled, sunburned arm, I joked that I wasn’t white, I was pink with brown spots. The whole idea of races being colors was only symbolic, I realized. Still, I believed the categories were real and meant something.

But what did they mean? In the 1950s, growing up in Vermont in a white liberal family, the concept was pretty abstract and not associated with people I knew. Race seemed to be some combination of biological and geographic factors. People were born as a particular race and most people in certain parts of the world were of a particular race. I knew I was White or that weird word—“Caucasian.”

There were also other associations with color, particularly black and white. The white knight was the good knight, the black knight was the bad one. The Lone Ranger, Roy Rogers, and Gene Autry wore white hats while the bad guys they bested wore black hats. White was pure and good, black was evil, although the devil was red. There was black magic practiced by wicked witches who wore black robes and pointed hats, and white magic practiced by good witches like Glinda in the Wizard of Oz, who really looked more like a fairy princess. The good witches didn’t seem all that interesting to me, but I always tried to be good in real life. I certainly wasn’t going to be the “black sheep” in the family, although I always felt sympathy for those characters in books.

I don’t remember what I read in school specifically about racial categories. But there is a lineage of what had been taught to my parents and my parents’ parents—the public school curriculum. A nineteenth century schoolbook, discovered in my family archives, lays out a grade school curriculum for teachers.

From Elementary Course in Geography, by William Swinton, 1875

In Section IV, “Man on the Earth,” the number of “races of men” is given as five. The teacher explains “that these various races do not all live in the same manner, and are not equally intelligent or powerful. When races differ in regard to their way of living and their intelligence, we say that they differ in civilization.” There follows an almost catechism-like series of questions and answers, with illustrations of each race:

Races_white “What can you say of the White Race?”
The White Race, also called the Caucasian, is the most powerful, and includes the greatest number of people. NOTE: The United States and Europe are peopled chiefly by this race. They are the most highly civilized race. Most of the nations belonging to this race believe in the Christian religion.
What can you say of the Yellow Race?
The Yellow or Mongolian Race ranks in numbers next to the White Race. NOTE: The home of this race is principally in Asia. The Chinese and Japanese belong to it. The people belonging to this race are semi-civilized nations. They have written languages and have manufactures and commerce, but are not as well educated or so improved as the White Race. They are not Christians
What can you say of the Black Race?
The Black or Negro Race is found chiefly in Africa. NOTE: Most of the tribes belonging to this race are savages, thought some of them are much more advanced than others. They are generally superstitious, and worship idols; hence they are called savages. In the United States are many Colored People who are Christians and are civilized.
What can you say of the Brown Race?
The Brown People or Malays, have their homes principally on the islands of the Pacific Ocean. NOTE: The Malays are few in number, compared with the White, Yellow, or Black races. They are not much civilized. Some are savages, but other have been converted to Christianity by missionaries from our country and England.
What can you say of the Red Race?
The Indians, or Red People, live in some parts of North America and of South America. NOTE: The Indians of North America are the descendents of the aborigines who were found there on its discovery. As white people settled the colonies and States, the Indians were little by little driven westward, till now they are almost entirely confined to the region of the Far West. They are few in number and are mostly savages and pagans. The Indians of South America number several millions, and many of them are partly civilized.

While this overtly racist text would never be taught in schools today, I can see and feel how the attitudes are still alive under the surface, in our collective conditioning, in myself. Today, we know that the concept of race is not based in genetics, but is a social construct. The character attributes of different races were assigned. By whom? By white people, “scientists” who viewed the world from within their own social context. Who viewed themselves as “the most highly civilized race” and therefore qualified to define other races.  The repercussions of this pervade our institutions, our relationships with each other, and our unconscious minds. Historically, white people have decided who gets to be white, and that has changed over time. The “attributes” also change—for example, the stereotype of Muslims (or anyone wearing a turban) as terrorists since 9/11.

There is so much to say about this 1875 text! How being Christian is a mark of being “civilized.” Which peoples are included here and which ones are not.  How the historical context in which it was written (Civil War Reconstruction, “manifest destiny” in settling the American West, publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species, etc.) shaped its views.

But to bring it into the present, how do we teach children about race, ethnicity and what color means today? We know children notice differences at age three or four, and skin color is one marker they perceive.  In a way, it’s easier to talk about skin color—see The Colors of Us, recommended by friends raising two white children—than about the much more complex subject of race and what it means. Even more challenging is talking about white as an identity. Because white on the spectrum is considered a neutral color, when applied to race, whiteness easily signifies a social group that sees itself as “normal” or simply “human.” Visible to others, invisible to ourselves. As long as whiteness remains invisible, we will not be aware that we are looking through a lens that colors everything we see.

What do you remember learning about the “races of man” and where you fit into the picture?
How do you talk about race and ethnicity with children in your life, either as a parent, a teacher or friend?

Where in mainstream culture do you see imagery of the “white = good, black = bad” dichotomy and how it is applied to people?
What resources do you know about that can help others talk about this topic?

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The Land Where Thanksgiving Was Invented

Thanksgiving card illustration, 2012

“Today is a time of celebrating for you…but it is not a time of celebrating for me. It is with heavy heart that I look upon what happened to my People…The Pilgrims had hardly explored the shores of Cape Cod before they had robbed the graves of my ancestors, and stolen their corn, wheat, and beans…Massasoit, the great leader of the Wampanoag, knew these facts, yet he and his People welcomed and befriended the settlers…little knowing that…before 50 years were to pass, the Wampanoags and other Indians living near the settlers would be killed by their guns or dead from diseases that we caught from them.
—Frank James, Thanksgiving speech censored by Massachusetts Department of Commerce on 350th anniversary of the Mayflower landing, 1970

It’s Thanksgiving today and once again I’m stymied about what to write about what was once my favorite holiday. Growing up in New England where the first Thanksgiving happened, literally traveling “over the river and through the woods” of Vermont to get to Grandma’s house, partaking of a wondrous traditional feast surrounded by my family — what could be better?

But since those grade school days when I first heard the story of the “Pilgrim fathers” landing on a wild and rocky shore in a “howling wilderness,” braving their first terrible winter with the help of “friendly Indians,” I’ve learned a few things that make it hard to take this holiday as a simple celebration of gratitude based in a happy historical tradition.

So where to start?

Is it with the mythic quality of the story itself, which James Lowen points out in Lies My Teacher Taught Me, is touted as the “origin myth” of the U.S., ignoring much of the real history? For example, rather than a total wilderness, the Pilgrims landed near Pawtuxet, an empty village with cleared land for crops, the Wampanoag inhabitants having been wiped out by plague (probably smallpox) brought by previous Europeans. As a child I had imagined the Indians silently showing the Pilgrims how to plant corn, because they had no common language. As an adult I discovered the Pilgrims had help from Squanto, a Native man who spoke English! And how he came to speak English is an adventure tale in itself, involving kidnapping by the English, being enslaved in Spain, his escape and finally, his return home to find everyone in his village had died.

Scholastic News booklet, 2007

My sister Judy, a grade school teacher, sent me a copy of Scholastic News (Nov/Dec 2007) for second graders which features a section on “Squanto and the Pilgrims.” In its favor is the depiction of Squanto as a person in his own right, who “saw that [the Pilgrims] needed his help” and “became a generous teacher.”  As a child, I would have liked knowing the names and stories of the people who helped the Pilgrims. But I would still have been learning about Squanto and the sachem Massasoit as singular “good Indians” who helped “us” survive—an echo of the words of Plymouth Colony’s governor William Bradford who wrote that Squanto was “a special instrument sent of God” to further “our” larger purpose.

Then there’s the belief in an unbroken tradition from the First Thanksgiving in 1621 to the present day. In actuality, the national holiday in late November was proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln in 1863, during the Civil War. And the proclamation makes no mention whatsoever of Pilgrims. It talks about “the gracious gifts of the most high God” in the midst of a “civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity” and calls on all citizens at home and abroad to “set apart and observe a day of Thanksgiving and Praise.” The Plymouth story was added later.

In 1869, after the ratification of the 15th Amendment granting the right to vote regardless of race, political cartoonist Thomas Nast published “Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner“–depicting Americans of many ethnicities and national origins seated together. The hopefulness depicted here was soon dashed with Jim Crow and other laws that made it hard for many to exercise that right.

In actuality, that first feast at Plimoth Plantation celebrating the harvest was a European tradition that coincided with the local native tradition of harvest celebrations. There are lots of resources online for those curious to know more. And it is good to know more. We can take it upon ourselves to be myth-busters, to not pass on a simplistic story of togetherness that makes white Americans feel good, when the legacy of what came afterwards is still felt in the continued injustices of today .

In 1961, I wrote in my diary about Thanksgivings at Grandpa and Grandma’s house:

“Every year I wait for that one special grace simply because I love the feeling it gives me. To be around with people I love. To have good food. To be happy.”

Yes, last night I made a pumpkin pie. Today, I’m cooking a turkey. And my heart is full of gratitude for all the wonderful people in my life and for the good fortune I have. But it’s not enough for me.

In recent years, I’ve added another tradition. On Black Friday, the big shopping day after Thanksgiving, the Ohlone and other indigenous people here in the San Francisco Bay Area gather with friends and allies at the memorial Shellmound in Emeryville. They are protesting the building of the Bay Street Mall on the graves of thousands of their ancestors and the desecration of other sacred sites.  They urge shoppers to “Buy Nothing.” Tomorrow, I will join them.

What did you learn about the first Thanksgiving when you were in school?
If you are a teacher, what do you teach your students today?
If you are a parent, do you talk to your children about Thanksgiving? If so, what do you tell them?
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