Category Archives: Race 2012 Blogging Project

So at Dinner With the President Last Night …

No, that title wasn’t just to get your attention.  Well, okay, it sort of was.  But the truth is that I did have dinner with the President last night.  With Barack Obama–that President.*  And Mitt and Anne Romney were there too.  And Cardinal Timothy Dolan, the Archbishop of New York, and Ed Koch, David Dinkins, Henry Kissinger, Katie Curic and a gazillion other luminaries.

It’s true: Last night my husband Jon and I attended the annual Alfred E. Smith Memorial Dinner in the Grand Ballroom at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City last night, a fundraising event which supports a slew of Catholic charities all over the region.  We were guests of the board chair of Jon’s new charter school organization, who had purchased two prime tables for his family, friends and associates.  (I promise you, I would not make it to such an event otherwise.  I cannot even begin to guess how much it cost per plate.)

All attendees were instructed to arrive at the Waldorf at 5:30 to be processed by security (which turned out to be far less invasive than a TSA check).  Since we hadn’t paid to be in the receiving line, we moved fairly quickly and were enjoying cocktails by six.  The cocktail period was an interesting cultural experience for both Jon and me.  We’re both schmoozers; we like a crowd; we like to small talk (and big talk and any kind of talk), accustomed to running into people we know everywhere.  In my case, even on those occasions where I attend a gathering and know no one, I can usually find a way to strike up a conversation with a stranger and pretty quickly find common ground.  I think that’s an only-child survival thing.   You grow up craving company; you make anyone nearby into instant company.   As an adult it’s the same.  If you’re at a playground with your kids, you ask another mother how old her kid is and boom: you’ve got someone to talk to.  At a party, compliment another woman’s boots or earrings, (like ’em or not); she’ll compliment yours back  (like ’em or not) and again: conversation buddy.   This works better with women than men, of course.  I think it’s the female version of, “So how about those Celtics?”

At this event, however, where I’m sure my dress was the only dress  that cost anything south of $1,000, I couldn’t use my usual tactic.  When Jon slipped off to the men’s room, leaving me momentarily solo, I stood under a chandelier the size of Rhode Island, daintily sipped my champagne, and gazed at the magnificent display of fashion.  It was too much fun for me to feel lonely or self-conscious.  Of course, I couldn’t possibly approach anyone out of the blue to say I admired her earrings or shoes.  Not here, where I might be taken for an upscale panhandler.

I’m lucky, though: as a former corps member of old-style ballet companies, I’ve played a court lady more times than I care to count.  I therefore know how to stand and walk in a gown.  Which led to my first bit of stranger chit-chat.  A woman my age in a full, floor-length red skirt was struggling with the stairs, nearly pulling herself under the tide of her dress.  I was standing by (waiting for Jon to return from checking my coat).

“Help me!” She said righting herself with the aid of the banister.  Her accent was slightly, sweetly Southern.  “How are you supposed to walk upstairs in these things?”

It was a rhetorical question.  Still I had an answer.   When I’d done Romeo and Juliet with the Pennsylvania Ballet, the dresses for the women in the Capulet’s ball scene were way too long.   They’d come on loan from New York City Ballet–where the average corps de ballet woman was three inches taller than Pennsylvania’s.  But our costumer was informed she must not hem the dresses, possibly because we were lesser ballet company.  In any case, the costumes had heavy, satin-and-velvet skirts with long, drape-y sleeves.  Though we were swimming in them, I have to admit they were a blast to have on.  Add to that a Nephertiti-height headpiece and the effect was quite dramatic.

But we were supposed to walk up onto a platform, heads thrown back and turned toward the audience so we couldn’t look where we were going.   This unfortunate combination  of choreography and wardrobe resulted in an eight-girl pile-up during dress rehearsal as, one by one, each of us tripped on the extra material and went down like dominos.    The solution was to hold the front of your dress out in front of you, literally grab two big folds of skirt and hoist them as you walked up the stairs, arms outstretched and parallel to the floor.  Otherwise down you’d go, like my friend at the Waldorf last night.

“Take hold,” I told her, demonstrating with my own skirt.  “like this.”

She asked me how I’d figured this out.  I explained.  Boom: conversation buddy.

By the end of cocktail hour, I’d lost her, found Jon and contentedly gabbed with my husband about how strange it was not to know anyone else.  We’ve been to fundraisers before, but generally the crowd is more diverse–ethnically and religiously–as well as being more politically liberal.  Here people were largely Catholic, overwhelmingly white, of Irish descent, mostly with deep pockets, mostly conservative.

My husband and I are used to being two of a dozen Rosenbergs at a given time, sandwiched between the Perlemans and Silvermans.  Here we seemed to be the only Jews in the place.  (We weren’t.)  And between the biracial president and myself, there was just one black person.  Kidding.  Though, not counting secret service, I noticed no more than seven people of color, myself and Obama included.  (The first Lady was sadly not in attendance.  And I’d had such high hopes of running into her in the ladies’ room and chatting!)

I wasn’t concerned about being in the minority racially, religiously or class-wise.  My only misgivings were from what I’d read that morning in the New York Times about conservatives who’d boycotted the whole event just because Obama was coming.   This did not have to do with the president’s race, however.  Their issues instead were Obama’s views on gay marriage and abortion, which contrast with those of the Catholic Church.  Still, plenty were in attendance, including nuns, priests and other religious Catholics with the vision and compassion to bridge differences for a night to raise money for good works.

The food and wine were fantastic, the mise en scene impeccable; it was hard not to be in a good mood.  At my table (Table Six, right up close to the dais with an unobstructed view of the president and his rival), besides my husband and a few of his colleagues, were a cluster of bright-eyed young people, from West Point, Yale and private schools in the New York area: the daughters, niece and nephews of our host.  Though they’d all grown up privileged, they were politically liberal, interested either in community organization or education reform.  All were staunch Obama supporters (as were about half the guests there).  The man next to me, a cousin of the host, had joined the peace corps after college, adopted an orphaned child in Africa (I forget from which country) and raised him in the States.  Everyone’s story was interesting, individual and impossible to guess from appearances alone.

The view from Table 6. If my Blackberry hadn’t somehow lost its zooming powers, you’d be able to tell that the guy in the center is President Obama. Really, it is.

What was most striking about the evening was the way people of different political persuasions came seamlessly together, especially the two duelling presidential candidates.  Where they’d exchanged harsh words in Tuesday’s debate, last night Obama and Romney traded humorous barbs, laughing at themselves, at one another and at both their absent running mates.

What was amazing wasn’t just that they were both funny, but that they were so gracious with one another, with the Archbishop and with everyone up there on the dais with them.  I kept thinking how hard it must be for both men, for whom each handshake, each hug, each exchange of niceties matters.  If they hold on to a hand too long, or release it too soon, if they skip a hand, or fail to mention God, there are consequences.  Even looking as relaxed and natural as both Obama and Romney did last night, there must be so much stress. Still, for a night there was a beautiful standstill, a reprieve from the rancor of this tense and trying campaign season.  I was honored and a tiny bit in awe just to be there.

*This isn’t an official Race 2012 post, though I’ve categoized it that way because it mentions both race and the election.

**Last night the Alfred E. Smith Foundation raised a total of $5,000,000 dollars for twelve different charities.

Race 2012 Post #2: “A Like-Me Presidential Candidate”

The following is my second (technically third) post for the blogging project affiliated with Race 2012: A Conversation about Race in America, the PBS Documentary that airs tonight, right after the presidential debate, and will be rebroadcast on October 19th.  Check your local listings; the air times are approximate and different everywhere.  Read more details about the blogging project on my friend Monica Medina‘s website.  Tune in!

“A Like-Me Presidential Candidate”

You are on the subway, on your way to work, the train hurtling through the tunnels, when suddenly it screeches to a halt.
“We are experiencing delays,” the conductor announces over the aged, whistling speaker system. “There is a sick passenger on the train directly ahead of us.  We expect to be moving shortly.”  Maybe he expects to be moving shortly because he’s new in town.  You, however, have been riding the subways for 20 years.  You know that “a sick passenger” on the train ahead equals roughly a 45 minute wait.  So you settle in.  You sigh, you look around the train car for a kindred spirit with whom to make eye contact, share a sigh and a headshake.  You’re a woman in your thirties.  Chances are the one with whom you make eye contact is also a woman, also in her thirties, or else forties, or twenties.

Or maybe you’re not heading to work; you’re going to the zoo and have your child in a stroller.  Your child fusses with the sudden motionlessness of the train, the noise of the speaker.  Some riders glare at you as the baby gets louder: maybe it’s not your fault we’ve stopped, but it is your child making the wait less pleasant.  But now a woman, clearly a mother herself, smiles at you.  It helps because you guess that she’s been in your shoes.  Another woman offers a baggie of crackers she usually saves for her child in situations like these.  She asks how old your baby is and tells you a story of her child at that age.  And just because of who you are and what you represent: a mother with a child, you have a community.

Your child is calm now, munching away on crackers.  You look up to notice that two elderly black men who did not get on the train together, who were not sitting near one another, seem to have introduced themselves and struck up a conversation.  Now they are laughing, warmly, with the acknowledgement of some shared experience.  They are too far away for you to hear what they’re saying but you can feel it between them: community.

And those college age girls, both dressed in black, eyes outlined in thick kohl—now they’ve exchanged the eye roll, the headshake.  Community.  You’re like me; I’m like you.  We’ll be here for a while.  But at least we’re a we sharing this nightmare.  And that we-ness, belonging to a group defined as much by who we are as who we’re not, really helps you get by sometimes.

Sometimes the we-ness comes from age, gender, being a parent or not a parent, sometimes from religion, class or marital status and sometimes from race.

Ah, race.  I see it as just one of many aspects of the person, but it’s often the one you see first, the one that’s most loaded, hardest to talk about and therefore the one I’ve been asked to discuss in the context of this current election.

How much does racial solidarity impact how we vote?  How important is it to have a “Like-me” president?   And when a candidate reflects our race, are we more likely to approve of him?  Are we more likely to find fault with a candidate of a different race?

In some ways, this election, like the last, is all about identity.  The issues that matter to a voter depend on his or her personal history,  socioeconomic status, education level and yes, in some cases, race.  Each of us wants our president to suit who we see ourselves as being.

Last time around each ticket had its own flavor.   We had the dynamic, black community-organizer-attorney and the older white guy with down home appeal.  On the other side was the aging, white war hero and the plain-spoken hockey mom who said things like “you betcha”?  Which ticket felt like YOU?  Were you one of Sarah Palin’s Mama Grizzlies?  Or were you an Obama Mama?  Were you a member of the chai-drinking, tree-hugging liberal elite?  Or were you a gun-loving bible thumper?  Wherever you stood, whatever the candidates’ styles and values, right there in all our faces was this brand new development that meant something in history and to most everyone in the country as well.  The next president might be a black man.  A big deal, no matter how you felt about it.

Before 2008, only white, straight, Christian men had the option of picking a “like-me” candidate.  But with the last election, for the first time in history, it seemed that people of other descriptions might get that choice in the near future.  Those who supported a “liberal agenda” (and I mean liberal in a good way, going by the dictionary definition which is something like “applauding progress”) came in all persuasions, all races, orientations and religions.  Many saw themselves in Obama.

For affluent, educated blacks, Obama was more than a black candidate, he was a stereotype buster.  He made very public the image of a black man that we identified with and wanted the country to see.  Educated, well-spoken, passionate and above all, a family man through and through.  That the number one criticism of Obama, as he campaigned through the grain belt and the rust belt, was that he was too elite, too aloof, didn’t understand the concerns of the “working man” (remember Joe the plumber?).  For all of us who’d been living in the shadow of the angry-lazy-violent black stereotype, this was vindicating.  So you guys don’t want him because he’s too smart to be president?

Jump ahead four years.  It’s 2012 and we’ve been living with a biracial president for four years.  The fact of his race is no longer a novelty, but  there are those who still see the president first and formost as a black man.  He has been accused of hating white people, and at the same time, due to his mixed heritage, of not being black enough.

In any case race still matters in this country.  I know this when I Google words like African American, or black women, or interracial families.  I come up with blogs where strong opinions are voiced on everything race-related.  Some of it’s intense: white-separatist, Afro-centric, and everything in between.

Alas, we are not a post-racial society—as some jumped the gun in declaring, back in 2008, popping open the champagne bottles, tossing the confetti, cheering not just the election of the first African American president, but also the end of the Age of Race as we know it.   I think it was foolish to believe that electing a black president might somehow make racism a moot issue.  The higher any minority rises, the more of a threat he is to bigoted haters, the more vocal those haters will become.  All over the blogosphere are so called “patriots” who “love” the country and are heartbroken to that anyone with roots in the African continent should be running it.  They openly admit to hating Obama because of his race.  They call him horrible names, and the caricatures—don’t get me started.  But I believe those so called “patriots” (who flaunt their rabid disrespect for the president of our country) are on the fringe.

For the many of us who want him around for another four years, I think it’s less about Obama’s race these days than what he stands for. This time, it’s about the president’s policies.  How do you think he handled the mess he was handed?  Do you believe Obama truly saved us from another Depression?  And what about his approach abroad?  Do we want to keep him at the helm going forward?   Regardless of race, I do.

I won’t vote for Mitt Romney—not because he is white or Mormon or rich.  I won’t vote for Romney because I have no idea who he really is.  I don’t believe a word he says; I don’t trust him.  And maybe I think it’s cool that the president is biracial like me, but it’s not why I’m voting for him.  I’m voting for him because his worldview—not his skintone—matches mine.

Race 2012: A Conversation about Race and Politics in America. Post #1: The Colored Drug Store

I am honored to be participating in a blogging project for the upcoming PBS documentary Race 2012: A Conversation About Race & Politics in America, airing Tuesday, October 16 (check local listings). The program takes a provocative look at race amidst the 2012 election and beyond.
(Click on the link above to “Like” the program on Facebook and follow it on Twitter.) Many thanks to my friend and fellow blogger, Monica Medina for inviting me!


Though I did an earlier post about President Obama, The Would-be-Master-of Compromise, which is now included on the Race 2012 site, the following is my first official contribution to this conversation.  I will be doing three posts, examining the idea of racial solidarity, how members of historically oppressed groups champion one another, how we feel when barriers start coming down, and this sentiment’s impact on the presidential election. The post below, entitled “The Colored Drugstore” begins with the grandmother I never met, and ends with the event of my voting for Barack Obama in 2008.  

“You be sure and go to the colored drug store, now,” my grandmother said, watching her boys head out the door, referring to the only drugstore in town run by a fellow African American.

Walgreens was close by and bigger, with more of a selection.  Still, my father and his brothers did as they were told.  Whatever their mother needed, no matter how urgently, it wouldn’t have mattered if the colored drug store was in the next county.   You patronized your own.  If a black man opened a business, that was where you took your business.  It was all about solidarity and survival.

The year was 1935.  The Great Depression was in full swing and you could bet there were plenty of white men down on their luck who’d have some choice words for a black man running his own business.  They might even have had some choice eggs to throw, if food hadn’t been so scarce.  As it was, there were threats, there were thugs with bats.  It took a brave black man to open a store.  Which was why, as far as my grandmother Albertina was concerned, it was the duty of every black consumer around to support him.  To shop at Walgreens was a slap in the face to your entire race.

There were no Jim Crow laws in Chicago like they had in the south.  My father attended an integrated public elementary school.  Later he was one of a handful of black students at a predominantly white high school, where no one especially objected to his presence, though all the black students had to have a niche, a way to stand out and prove themselves of value to the student body.  Dad was too small to make a name for himself on one of the sports teams as some of his friends did, but wound up using his wit and artistic talent as the chief cartoonist of the school paper.  Dad and the other black students looked out for one another, just as my grandmother looked out for the owner of the colored drugstore.

Though my father knew blacks who had been chased and beaten for “showing their color” in the wrong part of town—though my father had been chased more than once himself—he did not grow up separate from, hating, or even mistrusting whites in general.  But he had internalized the notion that your black brothers and sisters would have your back. You should have theirs too.  Just in case.

My father married my mother, a Jewish woman who shared his views, also a member of a culture where oppression had strengthened tribal bonds.  An anecdote:  sometime in the 1940s, my mother’s cousin came running into the house with a joke to tell his mother.

“Guess what?” He said, “A boy down the street just got run over by a steamroller, and they folded up his body and slid it under the door!”

His mother, my mother’s aunt, looked up from the stove, concerned about one thing: “Was he Jewish?”

The punch line was of course spoiled, but it hadn’t mattered to my great aunt.  What mattered was that no Jewish boy had been injured.

Group solidarity—members of an oppressed group supporting and championing one another—was not, is not, limited to blacks and Jews.  Women have it too.  We cheer when one of our number breaks through the glass ceiling, or otherwise gains acceptance into turf previously reserved for men.  My Latina friends cheered for Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment to the Supreme Court (well, I did too).  Every group has this sentiment to one degree or another.  People have a tendency to stand up for those like them, even if there are fundamental differences of opinion within the group.

For blacks, however, it is more complicated.  Attitudes toward blacks and blackness: black speech, black features, black culture, are often charged with a combination of fear, admiration and repulsion.  The stereotypes of black Americans as violent, dumb and lazy—perpetuated on television and film (though I believe this is improving)—are some of the most insidious around.   For most blacks, these stereotypes are fictions with no bearing on their lives.  Most blacks I know are proud of who they are, their group identification compatible with their sense of individuality.  But there are some young people who internalize the stereotypes in order to feel accepted, claiming that successful blacks are “acting white.”  So that when a black person succeeds, she risks claims that she has left her people behind.  This came up with the president in 2008; there were questions circling as to whether  Obama was ‘Black Enough.’ This is why many believe that it is important for successful blacks to remain connected to the community, to be a role model, and to acknowledge: I am one of you and one of you has made it to where I am. (More on this in a later post.)

“Breaking the color barrier” was a phrase I heard a lot while I was growing up, from my parents and their friends.  Jesse OwensJackie Robinson, Marian Anderson, Hattie McDanielPaul RobesonThurgood Marshall, Arthur Ashe.  Blacks who went where no black man or woman had gone before, adding color to their field, breaking ground for others.  Both my parents rooted for these black pioneers, hailing their presence on the world stage as game-changing.

My father, who died in 1995, never imagined that there would be a black president.

Once a year, on my father’s birthday, I have this ritual.  Late at night, by the light of a candle, I take out his picture, play his favorite music and I give him an update.  I tell him about my life, my family, but also the world.  I give him current events he’d be interested in.  I tell him things he’d get a huge kick out of.  Like his grandchildren.  Like the Williams Sisters (he played tennis himself).  Films and books he would have loved.  The fact that two of his friends—unlikely compadres because of their different backgrounds—met and became bosom buddies at Dad’s own shiva.  I talk about the adventures my mother has had since he’s been gone; the trips she’s taken, the friends she’s made. I tell him about the internet, all the things it allows us to do: from Google searches to blogging.  These things would amaze and amuse him if he were here to see them all.

On his birthday in 2008, I told him about Obama.  I said, there’s a black man running for president, Dad.  And I think he might win.  I got teary saying it aloud, imagining what Dad  would think if he could really hear me.

On election day itself, I waited to vote until both my kids were out of school so that I could bring them with me into the booth.  I wanted them to see me help make history.  And, as I pressed the red button (those big cranks were already a thing of the past), registering my vote for Obama, I thought of my dad and began to cry.  This made my children laugh; they still can’t understand the concept of crying when you are emotional and happy, not sad.  Finally, my son—then five—sobered up.

“I know why you’re crying,” he said.  “Because Barack Obama is brown like Grandpa Mel.”

I hugged him, hugged them both. “Well, something like that,” I said.

On Dad’s next birthday, in 2009, I said, Guess what Dad?  The president of the United States is a black man.

My father’s sense of solidarity would not have spared the President from Dad’s sharp political scrutiny, any more than my father’s pride in the accomplishments of black artists and musicians spared them his occasionally harsh artistic judgments.  But while Dad might have frowned in disagreement at some of the President’s choices, nodded in approval at others, the fact that Obama had broken the ultimate color barrier—well, that would have just made my father grin.