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Saturday, June 6, 2009

You don't really know me, either.

Anyone who knows me knows I am a huge fan of the editorial stylings of Leonard Pitts Jr of The Miami Herald. He says what I think so much better than I do I usually just refer to his column to get my point across.
His latest OpEd is in regards to racial stereotypes in reference to the Bonnie Sweeten story- you know, the mom who claimed she and her daughter had been kidnapped by black men but really she went to Walt Disney World? ("Bonnie Sweeten you've just been assaulted whatever will you do now?" "I'm going to Disney World!")When I first heard her story reported there was no mention that she had identified her 'assailants' as black but deep in my mind I thought "I'll bet she said they were black". I also doubted her story from the minute I heard it. I'm a cynic like that, or perhaps just a realist. I thought of all the white women who have pulled similar, or more heinous, stunts and blamed the ubiquitous "black man". Susan Smith came to mind as well as Ashley Todd the McCain campaign worker who carved up her own face last fall and blamed a 'black man'.
So it was no surprise to find references to these incidents, and others, in Pitts' latest OpEd You Don't Really Know Me where he decries the use of racial stereotypes by white people to cover their own crimes. A very valid opinion and i agree with him wholeheartedly.
Yes, I actually have a but....
But, I want to take the conversation he started and go deeper. Everyone keeps talking bout this 'authentic conversation about race' we are NOT having in this country and I want to have it. Leonard Pitts has opened the door and I want to walk in, sit down with my cup of tea and talk about this.
So Leonard, let's talk....
First of all, I'm a huge fan and thanks for your work.
Now, I don't want what I am about to tell you to seem like I am making excuses for the Bonnie Sweetens or the Susan Smiths of the world. They are obviously disturbed people that have issues far beyond racist leanings. In fact, I prefer to see their racist actions as part and parcel of their mental illness. I mean, I'm sure you know that most mentally stable white women don't walk around thinking black men are gonna carjack or kidnap them.
Here's where I'm coming from- I'm a white woman who was lucky enough to have the life experience to grow up in a racially integrated environment. Ok, I was the white kid who lived in 'the black neighborhood' in my town, Lansing Michigan and things were pretty racially blended in school. Yes, I can honestly say with no irony, some of my best friends were black. All of my neighbors were and many of my teachers were. So, there is my brief history.
Here's where I'm going with this- when I grew up and left Lansing I slowly came to realize that the rest of the world was not as racially integrated as I felt Lansing was. I was suddenly made quite aware of my 'whiteness' and the reaction it caused in some blacks I encountered. A few examples-
When I busted shoplifters at the Musicland I worked at in Pontiac I heard, without fail, "It's because I'm black!" when the perpetrator was black. I didn't understand that at first and I would think 'race didn't factor into why I busted you, but rather, the ripped open cassingle dangling from your pocket'. The I realized the thief didn't care who I was, just that I was white, and if he could play on my (nonexistent) 'white guilt' I might let him go. Freedom through intimidation and playing the race card. Yeah, it never worked.
When I visited a white girl friend who had moved to Hyde Park in Chicago to attend grad school we went out for drinks like all college girls do. Walking home at 3 a.m. we were pretty drunk and laughing and having a good time. We were suddenly approached by a black boy of about 16 who ran up to us and screamed "Boogity Boo!" in our faces, obviously waiting for us to run screaming in fear. You should have seen the look on his face when we just burst into laughter. It was obvious he thought his blackness was enough to scare a couple of white girls who had a few drinks in them and were walking through a predominately black neighborhood at 3 a.m.
But he didn't know who he was dealing with. He couldn't see beyond our whiteness like we could see that beyond his blackness, he was just a kid and not scary at all.

Mr. Pitts, with these two stories, and there are many more where these come from, I am trying to impress on you that while, yes, there are white people who perpetuate the negative stereotypes of blacks there are also black people who encourage these negative stereotypes by playing on the perceived fear whites have of blacks. It's a vicious cycle played out by certain members of both races. Now, I know you have addressed this issue to some degree- your writings on Kwame Kilpatrick come to mind.
So when you say
Because I'm your scapegoat, your boogeyman. Cadillac drivin', pimp-walkin', white woman-lustin', me.

I say, I've been YOUR scape goat too. I've been your boogeyman too. Uptight, racially ignorant, black-man fearing, white-girl me.

And when you say
Remember when you denied me a job, then called me a thief? Remember when you blew up my school then called me ignorant? Remember when you killed my father, then complained I was filled with rage?

I say, remember when you were caught stealing and then called me a racist when I pulled the evidence out of your pocket? Remember when I hired you and then when you completely broke all the rules of the job and eventually got fired, you called me a racist? Remember when I decided I wasn't afraid to walk through your neighborhood and you went out of your way to scare me away?

And when you say
There's no point in digging deeper, no purpose served in wondering why, when she wanted to put a face to a crime, she chose mine.

I say, yes, let's dig deeper and figure out exactly why when she wanted to put a face on her crime she chose yours.
Perhaps Bonnie Sweeten has had experiences like mine- being called a racist for the mere fact of being white, being the target of a 'Let's scare the white girl" game, having her white guilt, if she has any, manipulated during the commission of a crime. Perhaps these experiences were compounded by racially homogeneous existence.
Add all of this to her compromised mental health- let's face it, who fakes a kidnapping and goes to Disney World?- and it's not hard to see why she would pick your face.
Of course I know nothing of Bonnie Sweeten, how she was raised or her personal experiences. But my point is this- if we want to discover the roots of what causes negative racial stereotyping we all need to take a hard and critical look at how members of our own race contribute to the perpetuation of those stereotypes and start there. I can't ever explain to that black boy in Hyde Park how his actions may have reinforced a negative racial stereotype in someone who didn't know better. And I have the feeling your deep anger about the actions of the Sweetens and the Smiths of the world would be completely lost on them.
But the boy and Hyde Park would probably listen to you.
And maybe I could have an impact on Sweeten by explaining how her actions make white women like me look bad.
So maybe, in order to have that 'real' dialogue on race we all say we want, and need, in this country we need to focus as much on how we contribute to the problem- either by perpetrating wrongs or ignoring the when we see them- as we do on those who do wrong against us.
Maybe that will finally get us over that hump, maybe it won't. It can't hurt.