Tag Archives: race

Our Stories Make America Truly Great

 

If you voted for Donald Trump, we have our differences. I did not support your candidate; you did not support mine. But I do not hate you. I cannot hate you, because I don’t know your story. I’d be lying if I denied I was judging you, but my judgment is rooted in my own life’s narrative.

By the same token, if you judge me by my gender, by my speech—unmistakably Northeastern, liberal, educated—or by the brown of my skin, your judgment comes from within you. Any assumptions you make about me stem from the fact that you do not know my story, the story of my parents, the stories of my grandparents, any better than I know yours.

As a psychotherapist, as a writer, as a parent, I believe stories are the most important element of the human condition. We each come with our own and that is the magic of being human. Sharing our stories—trusting one another, listening with our whole hearts—this is also the key to reconciliation.

An acquaintance of my mother’s, who—like my mother herself—is white and Jewish, had a childhood marked by loss, struggle and misery. She and her sisters lost their parents early and grew up in an orphanage. Through enormous sacrifice, work, as well as the grace of strangers, neighbors and government programs, she and her sisters were able to get their education, including advanced degrees, find meaningful work, and in her case, a marriage that lifted her out of the middle class into affluence. Now in her late seventies, this woman owns her own Manhattan apartment, loaded with beloved books—stories, which include her own European and American history.

Several years ago, my mother shared with this woman a story—just one—about my father, whom she had already outlived.

Dad was an artist from early childhood. As a high school student, unable to make his mark as an athlete, as the other four black students in his otherwise white high school had done, my father gained fame among his peers as chief cartoonist for the school newspaper. He went on to receive an MFA from the Chicago Art Institute, studied at the Brooklyn Museum Art School and ultimately, was offered a job at a large, “Mad Men” style advertising agency in Manhattan. The date was 1964—smack in the middle of the famed television show’s timeline.

As I said, my father was offered a job at this agency. Dad was highly qualified in terms of education, experience and talent. He was also stylish, a trend-setter, who would probably have fit in well with Roger Sterling, Don Draper and their set. He was offered the job on a Wednesday, to start the following Monday.

There was a problem, however. The CEO—the big cheese, the head honcho—of this firm had been away on a business trip while the offer was being made. The subordinates had, of course, discussed my father’s candidacy with their boss over the phone, gone over Dad’s resume, raved about his qualities and exacted the director’s enthusiastic OK before offering Dad the job. The only thing they neglected to share with their boss was my father’s race. That was a detail the subordinates knew would be disqualifying, so they figured they wouldn’t mention it until Monday, when my father shook the hand of his new boss, who was, they thought, too much of a gentleman to reject him face to face. My father’s work would then speak for himself.

If you ever watched Mad Men, as I did religiously, you will remember the premiere episode of season five, where Sterling Cooper—an exclusively white agency—put out a mock ad seeking to hire blacks. While the waiting room filled with people of color, partners Roger, Don and Burt cowered inside, trying to figure out how they were going to get around this hurdle, without compromising the Old-Boy-scotch-at-ten am-sex-with-a-secretary-at-three  culture of theirs. In the end, they hired a single African American woman, Dawn, who became Don’s secretary.

And what of my father and his shot at Mad-manhood? Someone—no one knows who—squealed. Whoever it was got a message to the CEO in the lounge where he was schmoozing potential clients.

So, boss. The cracker-jack new art director you can’t wait to meet on Monday? He’s a negro.

Which, no doubt, led to the CEO sputtering on his martini, spitting the olive clear across the room.

A what?

You heard right.

That Friday evening, my father received the call. He would not be integrating the ranks of the agency after all. The man they hired, though he lacked my father’s experience and credentials, possessed one qualification my father could never aspire to. Can you guess what that was?

The epilogue to the story is bittersweet. Shortly after losing this opportunity, my father was snapped up as art director for a major publishing house. It was a wonderful fit for him, a job that introduced him to authors such as Saul Bellow, Nadine Gordimer and even Don Freeman (best known for Corduroy). His first assignment was designing the cover for Bellow’s bestseller, Herzog. My father worked at the publishing house for most of my childhood. He resigned in the 1980’s when I was entering college, due to his failing eyesight.

Dad was replaced by a younger man who was his friend and mentee, though nowhere near as qualified. Dad vouched for this man—who was white, by the way—and trained him in the practical work as well as advising him on publishing house etiquette.  Soon after relinquishing his position, my father learned that the young man’s salary would be on par with other executives at the publishing house: four times what my father had been paid.

When I learned about this, I was already an adult and it shocked me. My father had asked for raises every year, but was denied point blank. The publishing house knew Dad wouldn’t leave. Even if he could find another house to hire him, that one wouldn’t pay him any more. My dad was highly skilled, cheap labor.

When my mother told this story to her then-friend, the woman grew indignant, but not in defense of my father.

“Why didn’t he stand up for himself?” she demanded. Her personal story had taught her that no failure was insurmountable as long as one applied sufficient elbow grease. The moral she took from my mother’s tale was that my father had been weak or lazy.

What this woman failed to understand, or did not care to learn, was the story of being black in twentieth-century America. When my mother told me about this interaction, I thought about the woman’s ‘up-by-the-bootstraps’ story and the glow it cast on my father.

If I could have spoken to this woman, heard her tale first-hand, here’s how I would have responded to her:

“Try that life again—the parental loss, the orphanage, the cruel streets, the poverty—all of it. Try it again, only this time, do it while black.”

She probably wouldn’t have agreed with me that the outcome would have been different, but the discussion might have given her pause. Maybe she would have considered that going through life with black skin is quite different from ‘living while white.’ But the woman’s judgment came from her story. With all the pain she’d grown up with, she couldn’t conceive of a life harder than her own. What she lacked was curiosity about other worldviews.

One of my main criticisms of the Donald Trump Campaign was the rationale behind his slogan, Make America Great Again. Who was it great for? And when was this “great” time to which we want to return? The Jim-Crow era? The 1940’s? The era of Japanese American Internment Camps?  The late 30’s? When America turned away 900 asylum-seeking Jews aboard the SS St. Louis? I could list countless stages in our country’s past when things were less than great for many.

Trump supporters talk about opportunities that were once readily available in exchange for hard work and determination.  ‘If you applied yourself in the good old days,’ that story goes, ‘you could get ahead.’ What I question—and I am far from alone in this is—is the identity of the “you” in that statement. My father worked hard, was determined and applied himself. But blackness was a huge barrier to his success. The truth is, during the Good Old Days you could count on whiteness—the state of not being non-white—as a leg up, a handout. On the other hand, if ‘you’ were not white, you were out of luck. Pull all you like, your bootstraps would not cut the mustard.

Let’s not forget the role unions once played. Unions protected their members, increased job security and insured a living wage. Yet historically blacks were—and in some cases still are—excluded from unions.

Some things have changed in our nation. For better or for worse, the class you were born into limits your opportunities as much, in some cases more than your race. Race no longer corresponds directly to class, though frequently it does.

In any case, our multiple experiences, our pluralistic narratives—these are what will make America truly great for all of us. A first step is to listen to one another, to be eternally curious, and to challenge ourselves to exchange judgment for understanding wherever we can.

At this critical juncture in American History, we need nothing so much as an appreciation of one another’s full American stories.

lunch-counter

 

The Would-be Master of Compromise

Sometimes I wish I were Obama’s therapist.  Not that I think he suffers from any kind of mental illness, on the contrary, he may be the sanest man in Washington.  It’s just that I think anyone with a stressful life deserves someone to talk to, to help them manage daily frustrations without taking them out on loved ones, developing an ulcer, or worse.   I don’t know what the president’s out-of-network mental health benefits are—if any—but I’d take him on pro-bono, viewing it as my patriotic duty.

I’d start with the unraveling of his well-intended plan to be a “bridge builder” between left and right, to heal this country as a Master of Compromise.  Boy did he walk into a firestorm with that one.  But I understand all too well where he was coming from.    My hypothesis?  On some level at least, it’s a biracial thing.

There’s a sort of naïve, benevolent, yet hubristic thing you do as a mixed person.  You believe you can go anywhere, talk to anyone, say anything about any issue and be heard in a way you wouldn’t be if you couldn’t claim membership in so many groups.  You’re pliable, agile, adaptable, with loads of finesse (stored up from fitting in with relatives of both colors who might not have gotten you or trusted you at first, but who you now have wrapped around your finger).  You believe you can fit anywhere, join any group—even ones you weren’t born to.  You have black friends, white friends, East Asian, South Asian and Latino friends.  You get along with them all and believe, in some small part of your brain, that you have what it takes to make them all get along with one another.  You believe if you’re careful, if you’re nice, if you’re smart, if you speak the right way; you can pull anything off.

Being mixed is different for all of us, we all have different experiences, different attitudes, different alliances, different world views.  Even within a family, siblings have different lives.  The variables include family constellation, birth order, gender, age, education level, socioeconomic status, as well as physical things like hair texture, skin color, facial features.  Yes, the degree to which you “look black” affects your experience of being biracial.  For example, if you appear white—to whites and others—you may go through life feeling angry and misunderstood, even as you unwittingly reap certain privileges.  You might go out of your way to prove your blackness to others, becoming more Afro-centric than you might otherwise be.   I’ve seen this in colleagues, friends and psychotherapy clients alike.   If you appear black—to whites, to other blacks—if your mixed-ness is invisible, you might feel defensive about your dual heritage being constantly overlooked.  You might bend over backwards to avoid having black stereotypes pinned on you.  I’ve seen this contribute to eating disorders in young women (myself included), as well as anxiety and depression in young, professional men.

As a family therapist, I’ve worked with lots of interracial families and couples, as well as biracial individuals.  (Once word got out that there was a biracial family therapist in my very diverse town, I began getting almost weekly referrals from clients answering to those descriptions.)

On several occasions, I got intake calls from young men, hoping to make appointments—either for their families, with spouses or for themselves alone.  The voice on the other end would be soft, yet clear and chatty—total absence of accent, flawless diction.  The tone would be deferential: Doctor Rosenberg, they’d call me, though as a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, I am no such thing.

Gentle voices, polite patience, clipped consonants—fastidiousness about taking down the hours I was available and agreeing to my full fee without the slightest hesitation.

“That guy’s biracial,” I’d say to myself.  And four out of five times he was.  (The fifth time he was white and gay, but that’s another story.)

These guys presented as the polar opposite of the stereotypical angry, black man.  Some of them had gone through phases where they’d had to prove themselves to “the brothers,” acting “blacker” during high school, but then “whiter” during college, where success depended on not matching anyone’s stereotype.  By the time they got to me, these guys were mostly settled in being themselves, with flexible identities, stores of bicultural competence, a few different selves to wear depending on the occasion.  I didn’t consider this dishonest; they were just gauging the situation and coming prepared.  (During the intake calls, I’d been treated to their professional telephone voices.)

These men still had trouble expressing anger however.  They were the appeasers in their families, leaving wrathful outbursts to “whiter-looking” siblings; they were the quiet ones in their marriages, sighing wordlessly as their wives (who were a range of races) hurled accusations and went on tirades.

And yet, the exhausting task of controlling how they were seen, how they were judged, how they did or did not defy expectations, meant that the guys were often full of unexpressed rage.  One man—who had been bullied by employer after employer—said to me:

I can’t let myself get as angry as I feel; if I do, I’ll choke on it—or choke someone else.  Then I’ll have given them what they expect.

He settled that day for tears, which streamed down his face.  What, I wondered, would it have been like for him to stand up for himself in a healthy way?  How would he have been seen and how would he see himself?

I know anger can be destructive.  It can stand in the way of accomplishing great things.  When you are yelling, it is impossible for others to listen to your words.  But anger, channeled properly, can lead to action, to addressing injustice, to change.  Which brings me back to the president.

What would it have been like, Mr. Obama, to challenge your haters as soon as you took office?  When you learned how committed our Republican Congress was—not to working with you to save the economy, create jobs, invest in education and infrastructure—but to making you a one-term president?  I’m not in Washington, I’m not even in politics and sometimes I miss the news because I’m so preoccupied writing books about ballerinas and getting my kids to tennis on time.  Still, I noticed it, how long the list was, how it was growing, even as you took your oath on that blustery January day in 2009: the list of people devoted to purging you from the White House.  They’d stop at nothing.  Even when evidence pointed to your stimulus package’s effectiveness in preventing another 1929 style Depression, they blocked your continued efforts to boost the economy. They signed the Norquist Pledge, tying their own hands, even as they knew—they had to know—that all cuts, no taxes would only dig us into a deeper, more divided hole.  They knew that if they worked with you, if things improved, you would look good and their one-term dreams would go up in smoke.  It was more important to make you look bad than to help save the country.  You got that, but you got that too late, only after the hand you reached across the aisle got bitten a slew of times.  You believed too long in your own power to make a pie-in-the-sky dream of compromise come true.

But then again, I guess I share that with you, Mr. Obama, as I shared it with those young men I saw for therapy: this idea—often but not always misguided—that we are uniquely suited to build bridges wherever we go.  How very biracial of us.

Some ’70s Style Racial Candor from the Drunk on the Bus

(I dedicate this post to my dad, Mel Williamson, who would have celebrated his 89th birthday today.)

The Jeffersons,
1970s "Multiracial" TV

Yesterday, I was honored to be interviewed by Carol Morello, journalist for the Washington Post for an article entitled Number of Biracial Babies Soars Over Past Decade.  Naturally, I spoke to Ms. Morello on the phone, during the after school hours while the usual mayhem was transpiring in my home–the little girls down the block ringing the doorbell looking for playmates, my own kids’ particular homework snafus.  I had to interrupt the interview no less than three times: once to give my daughter my cell phone so she could call a BFF for the homework; once to drop said daughter off at a Girl Scouts and once because my son–who had proudly informed his 3rd grade teacher that he understood long division and could therefore skip the lesson–discovered that he did not in fact have the foggiest grasp of long division and needed me to teach it to him so he could do his homework.  (Not that I remember how to do long division myself.)

In any case, I was a little distracted during the interview and rambled just a bit, though Ms. Morello was very patient.  There was one question, however, that I wish I’d had more time to mull over, which was how my children’s awareness of race differed from my own growing up.  (Remember, I grew up biracial in the 1970s; my children are “second-generation” biracial, growing up now.)  My answer to Ms. Morello was fine, but I spoke more about the differences between the Upper West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s vs. Montclair, New Jersey right now.  I stated that, in terms of the number of interracial families and the acceptance of such by the community, the difference is surprisingly minimal.  But having had some time to think about it, I have to say that I was much more aware of race than my children are for a number of reasons.

1) I had a fully black parent (Dad), who had grown up on the South Side of Chicago during the 1930s, at a time where things were not so comfortable racially.  Dad felt the need to arm me with information about race relations, so I would be prepared for racism when it found me (notwithstanding the fact that I took his warnings with a grain of salt, that his predictions never quite came to pass).

2) On second thought, our town and our time are actually quite different from the city and era in which I was raised.   In Montclair, diversity–integrated diversity–is everywhere.  In their public school, my children each have three or four fellow biracial classmates.  My husband and I have never been to a restaurant in town where we were the only interracial couple.  Everywhere you look are not only interracial families, but also adoptive families, families headed by same-sex parents, as well as transracially-adoptive families headed by same-sex parents.   So, anyone inclined to stare at the family who stands out would be out of luck here in Montclair.   Families who might stand out elsewhere blend right in.  Since most everyone is different, there is less pressure to discuss race with young children, except in the interest of embracing one’s identity.  When my kids were little, we talked about brown skin and kinky hair in relationship to our African Ancestry; we looked at photographs of great grandparents who arrived from Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century.

Now we talk more about race; I answer their questions about black, white, Asian and being biracial; they talk about what they see and hear at school and in the newspaper.   But I am careful not to make my children anxious about race, not to make them fear that being black, or mixed will be held against them.   (I address this in a talk I’ve done called Speaking of Color.   See My Talks.)

3) The last the difference between my understanding of race then and my children’s now, has to do with our current culture’s increased tendency to protect children from hard topics.  I consider my own childhood pretty sheltered compared to some, but still I watched the news every night with my parents.  (They couldn’t get it on-line in those days as I do.)  I also watched adult sit-coms produced by Normal Lear, as did many of my friends.

All in the Family, Maude, The Jeffersons and Good Times put race and racism out there with no apology.  In one episode of The Jeffersons, the word “honkey,” meaning white person, comes up about fifty times.  And talk about stereotypes; roughly half of what every black person says on these shows rhymes.  And it wasn’t just race that the Lear line-up was candid about.  Sexual innuendoes and booze were front and center too.  I think there was an entire episode of All-in-the Family, where Archie is locked in the basement getting soused.  Ned The Wino was my favorite character on Good Times.  Drunk was funny.  So was JJ, the most stereotypical African American character since Stepin Fetchit.  So was Archie Bunker, the reigning bigot of 1970s prime time.

Come to think of it, growing up in New York City in the post-deinstitutionalization, post-summer-of-love, Vietnam war era, the images from the Lear shows didn’t seem all that far-fetched.  (Except for Black people rhyming.)  By fifth grade–my daughter’s age–I took the city bus home from school.  There was always, always a drunk on the bus.  Sometimes it was a white drunk, sometimes a black drunk, sometimes a woman who yelled and screamed and scolded everyone who got on, sometimes a man who sat quietly, smelled and snored.  I traveled with friends, but most of them got off the bus before I did, so there was frequently a period each afternoon where I was alone on the bus with the driver, a handful of adult strangers and a drunk person.  (In those days, the concepts of mental illness and self-medication, substance abuse, and hallucinations were not on my radar.)  In person, I was afraid of drunk people because they were out of control, but they were always worth listening to for a laugh.

One in particular provided me with an early lesson on race.   He was tall, lean and black, of indeterminate age, though he had a wild tangle of yellow/grey hair.  When my friends and I got on the bus–showed our passes and found seats–he took a break from his monologue–or self-dialogue, to be accurate–to greet us:

“Helloooo, li’l ones!”  and began talking about how lazy kids were today, what smart mouths we all had, how different from his day when he would have gotten whupped for saying the kind of things we said.  Then he went off on graffiti, then he went off on dogs, and then we stopped trying to follow what he had to say.

By the time my friends had gotten off, the man had begun petitioning the bus driver to let him drive a while.

“I can really cut them corners!”  I thought this amusing, but a well-dressed woman apparently did not.  She muttered something under her breath as she exited the bus at her stop.

Insulted, the drunken man turned to me.

“You hear that? Lady call me a bum!  Humph!”  He straightened up, flipped the collar of what–in better days–might have been described as a trench coat.  “I ain’t no bum,” he directed this at the woman’s retreating image.  “Everybody know: bums is whiteWinos is black.  I am a W-I-N-O.  Wino.”

Having cleared up the confusion, the man nodded self-approvingly and promptly dropped off to sleep.