Radio Lab

This isn’t perfect, but I’m throwing it out there because I think it’s interesting.

If you’ve never listened to Radio Lab on PRI or NPR or whoever does it, you should listen.  It’s interesting, smart, adult radio about science.  It requires a bit of an attention span to follow the subject through to the end, but usually it will reward you with a slow dawning of knowledge that makes you feel like the time was well spent.

Recently they did a piece on race though, and I was disappointed.  It had some good info, like about how bogus it is that Bidil got approval as a drug specifically for African Americans having heart trouble.  The truth about that drug is that was just a cocktail of already existing drugs that happened to work great together, that the patents for the drugs in the cocktail were about to expire, and that it works really well for for people of any shade.  They did a good job of explaining that, although they never really explained how the drug companies benefited from being able to re-patent already existing drugs.  If you’re interested, Scientific American did a great Article a few months back.

Then Radio Lab did a piece on genetic testing, the kind that will take cells from your cheeks and analyze them for your ancestors’ geographic origin.  They told the story of an Africa American guy, a professor, I think.  He did his own cheek swab and had it analyzed.  The results said he had zero Arican ancestry.  Dude’s family history has had him and his mom and her mom back generations calling themselves black. The testing says they are of Native American, Asian and Eruopean extraction.  After the testing, the show never followed up and answered how it is that a family could have thought, and their nieghbors could have thought something that was completely wrong for generations?  What mad them think they had ancestors in Africa?

They never said, things like: these tests don’t count anything north of the Sahara as African, or that Australian aborigines would show up as Asian (These are 2 possible explanations, I have no idea if they’re the right one for this situation).  The guy and the show sort of shrugged their shoulders and said, “Huh. I guess everything we think about race is total bunk.”  I am very bothered by science shows bending their shows away from controversy in order to accomodate either the left or the right.  I think it takes credibility from them.

Finally they did a segment about the disproportionate numbers of Africans and African-extracted athletes in certain sports.  They did an interview with Malcom Gladwell.  He was once an Olympic caliber runner in Canada, he’s also a great and interesting writer about various social and psychological phenomena.  Great and interesting, but not exactly scientific.  His explanation of why there were so many Jamaican runners among the Canadian sprinters was no more than this: the Jamaican kids had fewer oportunities in their lives, so they wanted victory more.  That little bit of desire was what kept them in front of their non-African-ancestry competition.

It would be easy enough to check this out, right?  Break up competitors economically instead of ethnically.  It should jump out that the most disadvantaged competitors in any group are the most likely to be at the top.  If that were the case I wouldn’t have been totally convinced, but it would at least be an interesting finding.  A finding.  Instead, a science show asked one guy, a writer, what he thought.  He gave his opinion, then backed it up with an anecdotal example.  Come on.

If scientists and science shows aren’t up-front and honest with us about race, it makes it seem like they have something to hide.  By brushing off the legitimate question of why Africans tend to dominate certain sporting events, they lost an oportunity to openly discuss some of the really interesting bio-geographical differences among people. (skeleton, lung capacity, ability to see in bright light, for example).    If you don’t admit that Australian aborigines have, on average, much bigger teeth than other people, or that most people of African descent are lactose intolerant, or that dark-skinned people in northern latitudes need more vitamin D supplements than light-skinned people, if you don’t admit that, it makes it look like science is afraid to look at the truth about what we call race.  That mainstream science is hiding something… That’s bad.

Here’s what I think, for what it’s worth.  People are different.  Some groups of people are different from other groups, although interbreeding has always complicated things.  Many of the differences between groups have to do with geographical variation, culling of the poplulation by diseases, sexual selection and random chance, among other things.  There is nothing to be afraid of if we look at it and ask why, marvel how, or simply admire the array of ways people can be.  It’s cool, and it tells us as much about ourselves as it does about other people.

To Our Newest Guest


I should probably just have a disclaimer in the guest room of whatever person is staying with us. I love having them (most of them), don’t get me wrong. But in addition to making you the expert on everything de Minnesota, allowing you to be generous and kind, and allowing you to show off everything you’re proud of, it really shines a brutal beam on those things you’d just as soon not share. Or things you just never thought of as weird until you had to explain them to someone else.

I’d put something like this.

  • In general Americans don’t iron. Go ahead and do it if you want. Knock yourself out, but it sure ain’t part of the standard American host-mom laundry package.
  • There are lots of clothes here that can’t be washed. Serious. That great new warm jacket you got. The puffy one? Can’t wash it. Dry clean it if you really want to, but it can’t be washed.

This one was hard sell to the guy living here from Colombia. I’m not sure he even believes me now. The funny thing was that the hardest part of the story to get him to believe was that there were feathers inside the jacket. You should have seen his face while he tried to figure out the joke. He just kept holding the jacket out and saying, “FEATHERS? INside the jacket?”, like I was an insane person.

  • As far as laundry, because of a shortage of fresh water due to glaciation, we are very conservative with water. Only the homeowner can run the washing machine, and only then when there is a full load. A full load is almost always enough to cover the bottom of the machine.
  • We don’t dance in this part of the country. We want to. We’d love to, but we can’t. We’ve never been taught to dance. This is especially true for white people. We’ve had our ethnic self esteem battered by the Latinos and the Black Americans, who say we’ve got no rhythm. Now we’re afraid to dance unless we’ve been drinking. This leaves the society with only drunk white dancers, giving further credibility to the theory that white people can’t dance. We leave it to the professionals and the minority groups.
  • At the Morgan home, our laundry system is very sophisticated, involving phases of the moon and critical mass of clean socks, underwear and jeans and towels. Everything else flows from those items. Laundry is done at least once a week, usually 5 times or so. But the system can’t be imparted easily to a newcomer. Just leave your dirty clothes in the basket, they will reappear clean, dry and wrinkly.
  • Don’t touch someone else’s car radio. It isn’t done. I don’t know about your country, but here it is the law that only the driver may touch the radio. Unless the driver is a teenager, and the mom is in the passenger seat. Then mom is in charge.
  • We rarely sit around the table to eat dinner. This isn’t because we don’t find that valuable, it’s because we can’t always find the table. Please feel free to eat at the kitchen counter with the rest of us.
  • We don’t watch TV most days. At all. Occasionally we watch a show on PBS or put in a movie. As unfair as it may seem, this means you won’t watch TV most days. The problem is that in this house, if you turn on the TV, we all become immobilized until the power goes out or the phone or doorbell rings. This is not typical American behavior, just Morgan behavior at this house.
  • I’m truly embarrassed at the state of my garage. It is not typical American. It’s an issue. In Colombia I’m sure people don’t have issues. But here they are attached to your birth certificate.
  • Some phrases you almost certainly didn’t know, probably didn’t care about, but will have mastered by the time you leave here are as follows:
  1. “Did you flush and wash?”
  2. “Did you really?”
  3. “Go back and flush”
  4. “Did you wash with soap?”
  5. “Go back and wash with soap”
  6. “Hey, get back in here and flush!”
  7. “Do you have socks on?”
  8. “Do you know where my keys are?”
  9. “Lights out.”
  10. “Kitties don’t belong on the counter.”
  11. “Did you brush your teeth?”
  12. “You did not. Go back and brush your teeth.”
  13. “Did you use toothpaste?”
  14. “Did you brush your tongue?”
  15. “Did you really?.”
  16. “Go back and do it.”
  17. “Kitties don’t belong in the garage.”
  18. “You have to un-ball your socks before I wash them.”
  19. “Get off the computer and go outside.”
  20. “Can you chew with your mouth closed, please?”
  21. “Can you catch that phone?”
  22. “kitties don’t belong in the toilet.”
  23. “If you don’t like it, you can have a peanut butter sandwich.”
  • Typical American dinners range from pancakes to tacos to pizza to baked chicken and noodles. We try to eat vegetables with every meal. The evening meal is served anywhere from about 6pm to about 9pm. If you miss it, see number 23 above.
  • We make noises here. Especially the men and kids. They do things in meetings and say, “Excuse me.” and expect the meeting to continue. And it does! Things that would only occur as a prelude to a medical emergency in your country. It can be uncomfortable to be around, but honey, you should see what they do when they’re alone. Get down on your knees and thank god they’re on good behavior when you’re around.
  • We obey traffic laws. Even when there’s no one around, we stop at the stop signs. We’re not quite as obedient as the Germans, but way more than the South Americans.

Race Part 5

Boy oh boy, today was a day full of contact with black people. That’s life in the city. And I’d love to hear credible, sincere advice from white or black people who have found a comfortable way to deal with these dicey issues. If you want to convince me that it isn’t race that’s the issue, that it’s class or something else, don’t think I haven’t investigated that possibility and decided that race is the salient issue in this part of the world. Not because I say it is. On the contrary, it is all the more the issue because we don’t talk about it.

First, I had to go show my rental house, which is 5 blocks North and 5 blocks West of my own home. But it’s a completely different ‘hood, which is somethingI can’t decide if I like about St. Paul or not. The color gradient darkens decidedly when you get North of Summit Avenue. It’s quite segregated, which many black people seem to take great pride in. It’s hard for me to argue against black people having a sense of their own community, on the one hand. On the other, I do think neighborhoods like mine (right on the twilight area where there is still somewhat of a mix) is healthier and better for everybody.

I’ve taken to placing ads on craig’s list, because it’s free and the people who surf the internet tend not to leave poop on the walls, broken windows and big ruts in the back yard when they go.

And while that has the effect of whitening my group of potential tenants (not completely), I believe that qualitative difference to be a matter of class, not race. All my previous tenants were on Section 8 housing assistance, and they were all black. People who use the internet and don’t rely on Section 8 seem much more invested in their home.

So I had Heather and Amber and Ashley and Micah and Abbie and Lakesha and Annie and Megan and Laura and Shanequa walk through the house. I got there a little early. Annie and Megan were already there. I was early, hoping to turn on the lights and make sure the toilets were flushed and stuff.

Oh… And also to make sure the apartment parking lot next door wasn’t awash with boom-boom cars, wads of cash, Newports and Colt 45s (the malt liquor, I mean). The partiers were all various shades of black. When we’ve called the cops or the management company, things calm down for weeks, but it’s hard to get renters to care that much.
So the girls walk in, looking a little uncomfy about the boom-boom conversion van and lawn chairs in the parking lot across the alley from their new potential pad. It isn’t looking good to them, or for me. I excused myself and leaned over the fence and hollered across the alley, “Could you-all turn the music down just a little? I’m going to be showing the house from 7 to 8, and it just doesn’t market well with loud music next door.”

The music went down, one guy elbowed another whose back was to me and nodded him in my direction. Every person gathered around the open van, malt liquor in hand, sat up straight and nodded. Most of them smiled and said, “Sure!” “No problem. Thanks for asking. We really appreciate your saying something.” I was a little befuddled but I got goose-bumps, and asked, “Better than calling the cops, huh?” “Waaay better. Thanks.”

The music died immediately and the crowd began to disperse. While I was talking about the washer and dryer, the doorbell rang. I was expecting quite a few potential renters, so this wasn’t a surprise. But it was one of the boom-boom guys,young, tall and dark, sideways baseball hat, gold tooth, saggy shorts and all. “Y’all showin’ the place. I might as well walk through!I be rentin this place any day.” He pimp-walked in and started talking smack. The kind of jaw flapping that doesn’t come naturally to people who are free of drugs or alcohol.

He was making me uncomfortable, and my potential renters, too. I stopped him in the living room and said, “You know what, get out of my house. Come back when you’re sober.” He was insulted. “I am sober. Woman, whatchyou…”

“You’re acting goofy and fucked up. I don’t like it. I ‘ve got a lot of people wanting to look at this place, and you’re not making it look good. Come back later. ” He was trying to be indignant, but he was too fucked up to really pull it off. I directed him bodily to the door while he sputtered about being able to pay the rent, pulling rolls of 20 dollar bills out of his pockets.

I was in it now. I didn’t think I could really back down. I put my hand on his chest and pushed him gently out the door and onto the porch, saying, “I don’t even want to hear about your cash, get outta here. I’m serious. Go.” My tone was a little conspiratorial, like it was him and me sort of having a little spat and keeping it down for the white girls in the other room.

He left in full form, shaking his head and jabbing his arms around. But when I looked out the window 3 minurtes later, all the cars and all the partyers including my gold-toothed friend were gone. Gone, gone gone.

Now this incident has many angles to it that are troubling to me. Not the least of which is my tendency to assume if I approach people (even black people, even young black men who make their money selling drugs) honestly, they will respect me and I won’t get shot. It isn’t always a safe assumption, and I don’t seem to be able to stop doing it. People do get shot doing this kind of thing. But I think more often, they reach a sort of truce.

I think the reports of some uppity neighborhood woman getting her comeuppance are exceptionally rare, but they scare us into not treating black people (or young people, or Latinos or some combination thereof) like people. We treat them like hand grenades or something else we’re really afraid of. And they notice. It isn’t good for black people and it isn’t good for white people.

It is what causes black kids and black women with kids on their hips to walk out into the middle of traffic, against the light, and dare you to honk your horn, or even make eye-contact. And it spirals right into badness.

Don’t think it escapes my notice that by me asking them to turn the music down while I have renters walking through, I am asking them to (temporarily) eliminate the ghetto appearance. Like when they sweep out the beggars before the pope comes in. The thing about that is, that the renters could do the same thing after they move in. It seems so much more healthy to have people move in and deal with the reality then, than to have them blanch and decide they’d really rather live in the suburbs or Highland Park.

I’m glad I spoke to the group of people playing the boom-boom music. Glad I pushed the tall black guy out of my rental house. But I wish I could shake the feeling that speaking to people who misbehave directly will maybe get me shot. That’s the racism I fight. I try to behave like I don’t care, like I haven’t heard the stories. But I have. What to do?

I did my showing and came back home. Before bedtime I decided to do a little DDR (Dance Dance Revolution, the only video game I have ever loved). At 10pm the doorbell rings. As I went to the door, I said to myself, “If it’s someone I don’t know, I’m, not answering it.” But it was. And I did. It was a black guy my age (maybe 35 or so). Clean shaven, roundfaced and attractive. And drunk.

He had a story about getting my name from the neighbors (thanks a lot neighbors) and that he needed 9 dollars. His daughter had a reaction to her insulin and she was down at regions. She had a bad kidney and he was just coming back from his job at the Toro plant in (I don’t know where) putting together snow-blowers and lawn-mowers. He showed me his slippers as evidence of I don’t know what.

I can honestly say that i didn’t have 9 dollars. “Maybe your husband…” he motioned to Andy who was lurking, like a good guardian, in the dark behind me. As Andy searched his pockets and came up with 8 dollars and 12 cents I asked the guy what good 9 dollars was going to do him for his daughter. He wasn’t going anywhere until he got the 9 bucks, by the way, so Andy went to gather change.

“Well I got to pay the co-pay. It’s nine dollars. Actually, it cost 148 dollars, but I just got to pay the 9. She got all sorts a problems, my daughter does. I come back tomorrow morning before 10 and I get you your nine dollars back.” I told him to just stick it in the mailbox. Why I said that I don’t know, because I’d bet nine dollars that he won’t be coming back with the cash.

He got a little huffy at the idea that I didn’t want him to ring the doorbell and hand me the cash directly. But when he got the rest of the 9 dollars he was profuse with his thanks. “Oh thanks, mister and miss, thank you. My son thanks you.”

Wait a minute. Did you notice that?

Dude never came back. I hope his hermaphrodite child made it through the night.

Race part 3

Step 2

Came to believe a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.

Well, my power greater than myself is ah, the blog. See I confess, process and profess all this stuff on the blog. Damn. In all the 12 step programs I’ve tried, this step and step three always seem like ths stupidest ones. I don’t believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. I’m not sure anything can, but I’m trying every day.

Step Three

Made a decision to turn our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.

And I haven’t made a decision to turn my will and my life over to the care of god as I understand god. Because I don’t understand god at all. I am an unbeliever. But that will have to wait for another day because right now we are talking about race; and if I don’t stick to the topic, god-as-I-understand-god only knows when we’ll get back to it.

Step 4

Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves

Racist, classist whatever is my failing, I do try hard to be good. That’s what I want on my grave: She Was Good. Or she tried to be good. Nah, put “she was good” the people who know better will smile, and the people who don’t will think I was good. But I am weak. And I fail sometimes. I say this by way of explanation for why I still (even after the arguments from smart people who know me well) think I’m a racist.

I feel racist because of my reaction to the fact that my little rental house isn’t looking good on the market, not to white folks. I have attributed this to the fact that the house is in a majority black neighborhood. When people ask me how the neighborhood is, I feel dishonest if I don’t tell them it’s mostly black (but I don’t). But I think that’s what they’re looking for. Maybe they are and maybe they’re not. But you know they are. Even if they don’t admit it to themselves.

When the white college kids came to walk through, I was gung-ho. They were gung-ho, I thought. But when the skinny black lady across the street came out to chat with me on the way in, I cringed inside and wished she had stayed in her house. That’s a racist thought. I didn’t act on it. But I felt it. And the college kids never did return my calls after they came to the house, saw the neighborhood. They were better than the heavy-set white woman with kids, who wrinkled her nose out in the front yard, looked around and said, “Mmm, I don’t think so.”

When we were trying to sell this same house, I honestly thought about planting white people around the block to make all those chicken-shit white people think it was whiter than it is. Let me break this down: It isn’t my own racism I’m reacting to when I want to “stage” the neighborhood. It’s my perception that buyers who are white (and most of St. Paul is white, so it’s an important market segment) are afraid to buy on a street they think is mostly black.

So what’s worse? Wanting to trick them because I want the sale? Wanting to trick them because I think it sucks that this city is so segregated? Relegating the actual (black) neighbors to the status of detriment in the neighborhood? Elevatint white people to an asset? But I’m doing all those things. And they are totally racist. I’m not judging myself here, just acknowledging it.

These are only thoughts I’ve had. I haven’t done anything to act them out. But I did think of it as a viable option. What does that mean?

Can it mean anything worse than the fact that the black guy at the apartment next door and the black guy across the street both asked me to try not to rent to any more black people? And what do you say to a black person who says, “Try not to rent to no more black folks. Find you a nice Hmong family. They nice and quiet.”? What do you say to that?

I’m not a bad person because I’m a racist. By saying it, I just acknowledge my own vulnerability and work on it every day. I’m a struggling racist. Struggling every day with my own racist thoughts and with what the truth is about race in this part of the world. Admitting I’m a racist is my way of telling people it’s OK to admit you are weak. It’s even OK for white people to talk about race.

If we make people afraid to talk openly about what they KNOW is true, they will go to the other side (the side of people who had made friends with their inner racist) because they think it ‘s the only place they can possibly belong, and while they’re there, they will be thinking,accurately, that we are lying about what is going on in the real world. They’ll be right. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Some people are stagnated racists. They admit it, they don’t fight it and they blame which ever group they don’t like. Those people are more common than we’d like, but they’re a small percentage of the population.

There are people out there (my dear mother-in-law, for instance) who claim not to notice race. I have to believe them, but I can’t even comprehend how someone might not notice another person’s race. They are a rare breed, people who don’t even notice. I don’t mean people who ignore race, but the ones who really don’t notice. Here’s the kind of notice I’m talking about.

Have you ever had a zit or an extra roll of fat that you wished would go away, because people you talked to kept looking at it when they talked to you? Ever had that happen? If I recall correctly, a normal person can tell when the gaze of someone they’re talking to wanders even a quarter inch away from their eyes. So when someone can’t stop looking at that welt on your face or they notice your cottage cheesy thighs, you know they saw. And it takes something away from the conversation. You know even if they’re trying to listen to you, they are really not attending to you the way they would if you had a clear complexion.

Or a white complexion. Black people know. And it isn’t fair to them or me that I have that static in my mind. But I do. I think most people do. I also think most people are so embarrassed about how much they think about it that they actually deny that it has an im pact on their behavior. I was taught not to put the race of the person into a story unless it was pertinent to the story. It’s almost always pertinent in this culture. Everything to do with race is so loaded that for a white person to pretend she didn’t notice that someone was black is usually disingenuous.

Here’s the crux of what I’m getting at here, three things: Credibility double bind. If you can’t admit you noticed that guy who took your billfold was black, you’re lying. If you do admit it, you’re a racist. If you tell your kids not to take the Selby Avenue route home, you’re being racist. Selby is predominantly black in this part of town, and if you don’t admit that’s what you’re worried about, you are lying. If you don’t tell them to walk somewhere else, you’re stupid. Get it?

And when you start lying about things it’s because you’re afraid of the truth. Remember,admitting the truth can’t hurt you. The truth is there whether you admit it or not. It itself can hurt you. But it’s worse if it sneaks up on you.

Race part 4

Step 9

Made direct ammends to such people whenever possible except when to do so would be harmful to them or others.

Next problem, the double bind of making ammends. If you go to a seminar on racial sensitivity, they make it clear to you what a great disadvantage people of color are, and it isn’t hard to demonstrate. Look at arrest and conviction rates of whites versus blacks, with identical records. The black guy is 15 times more likely to be arrested for a low level offense as a white guy. It’s true. Line people up on a continuum from pale to dark and ask now many people have been pulled over by a cop in the last 6 months. Black people are at a huge disadvantage in all sorts of ways. If you deny that, you’re ignorant or you’re lying.

So they tell you, what you all need to do, white and black, is invite someone of another race or ethnicity to some of your gatherings. Invite them to coffee. Get to know each other. It will make things better.

That’s a double bind, isn’t it? Do you invite someone down the street to coffee just because they’re black? Seems kinda like a race-based behavior to me. But chalk it up to affirmative action. OK. Let’s say you invite them. Do you tell them honestly why you invited them? Because if you don’t, you’ve already erected a barrier between yourself and them, but if you do…how good of a start is that to your new salt-and-pepper friendship? Think it will go over well?

Here are two different situations I found myself and my forever spinning mind engaged in. Two different responses.

First, about a year after we moved into this neighborhood, a boy started hanging out in our yard, at the park, and sort of generally lurking around. He was more than a couple years older than my boy, so I watched a little more carefully than I otherwise might have.

He was (and is ) a heavy-set, sweaty white child with rosey cheeks and a sweet but not all there smile. A smile that said he thought he was pulling one over on you, but be couldn’t possibly really do that because his smile gave him away. His intellect was obviously below the normal range. But close enough that younger kids (like mine) would play with him. I’m not ashamed to say I found him a little creepy, but in a way he couldn’t help. So I was nice to him.

Little did I know just how creepy he could get when he started sprouting acne, a mustache and erections.

I kept hearing him talk about “Black People”. It’s usually a red flag for me. And when I heard him over the course of a few days talk about seeing a “black guy” in the park or the alley or the street with either a gun, some drugs or the intent to steal something from my back yard. I started to think maybe someone had been feeding him a diet of not-so-nice ideas about black folks. And he was feeding it to my son, who was dutifully feeding it back to me.

Our neighborhood is mixed enough, and I was crabby enough, and crazy enough that I got an idea one day. He came up to me talking about seeing a black guy trying to sell drugs in the park (I must add that there were no drug deals going down, just services letting out from the majority black church up the street). I had had it. I brought him and my son over to a group of black people standing around an open car at the curb, chatting over a beer and cigarette after church. Here is what I said:

“I’m sorry to bother you folks after church and all. But I have this problem and I don’t know what to do about it. I thought you might be able to help me. You see, one of these boys is pathologically afraid of black people. I wanted him to be able to meet some real people and maybe see that they aren’t so scary.”

What the hell was I thinking?

The woman closest to me was very nice and she laughed. Then she got serious and said, “Hey boys. We just here talkin’. Ain’t nothing scary goin on here. And that girl over there? She mixed, she black and white, and we hangin’ wit’ her. We cool. You don’t hafta be ascared. Come here honey, I shake yo hand. It ain’t nothin. You go play and don’t be scared. Black folks just folks.” A couple guys pulled up their shirts and showed, “See, no guns.”

I swear to god, it happened. I was terrified, but I did it. And it was OK in the end, I think. But god only knows what they said about that crazy white lady who came over after church.

Secondly, over the 4th of july holiday this year I had a different experience. I was trying to do what all the multicultural sensitivity training classes tell you to do. I invited myneigbor, Darnell (who is black, not incidentally) to come to our get-together barbecue. He’s the black neighbor I chat with the most. I had various white neighborhood friends over as well.

Darnell was, shall we say, well lubricated. He was drunk. He always introduces himself as an alcoholic, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. But then he drank lots of my beer, too. And monopolized the conversation and sang patriotic songs. The were all obnoxious and embarrassing. And I’m here to tell you, no matter what people say, they can’t all sing.

So did I do a good thing? I invited him at least half because he was black. And I don’t think I did much for fostering intercultural bonding. All my white neighbors were uncomfortable.

Most people really are just struggling racists. But if we don’t take the shame out of being a person struggling with race, we relegate them to either closet racist status (pretending they don’t actually notice race) or public bigot status (the stagnated, obnoxious racist). Neither of those is a good option in the long run. The bigot for obvious reasons, and the closet racist because it’s so easy to catch them in a lie. Catching them in a lie is a bad thing because it takes away credibility and confuses well intentioned people into making bad decisions.

So what do you do with this info? do you stop or start identifying people by race? do you invite or not invite?

Race, part 2

The Preamble

I’ve ah, I’ve had a little trouble with this latest post. Here’s the deal. Sometimes I think devices are a great idea until I start to try to make them work. That’s what happened with the race and 12 step thing. I could have made it work, but it would have felt really phony. So I sort of stumbled around and have decided that I need to abandon the 12 step race deal. I’m posting the process here because I think it’s interesting. I’m a work in progress.

Race, Step One

Step One

Admitted we were powerless over X and that our lives had become unmanageable.

(what did I mean by using “X”, there?)

I’m a liberal. I mean REALLY a liberal. A Wellstone liberal. All the more reason I think it’s important I admit something. Because if you don’t hear about it from me, you might hear about it from the conservatives. Because if I don’t admit it and talk about the truth, the other side might. Or people who feel like me might assume they must really be conservatives and then vote that way by mistake.

I’m a racist. And I need your help. There are situations where I really, really don’t know what is right. But I know pretending race isn’t the issue isn’t a good option.

I have to think about race every single day. I think lots of white folks do. I know lots of black folks do. And for right now I’m only going to discuss black and white, for simplicity’s sake (as opposed to discussing zebras, which combine black and white in a sophisticated, attractive stripey pattern). But I can only speak for the white folks. Actually I can only speak for me. There. Settled on that? I am speaking for myself (my white self, because as usual, my black self is having to play second fiddle) today. Right now. But secretly, I’m hoping I’m not alone.

And right now I am a racist in a one-day-at-a-time recovery program. I’m working on it. But I have found that the first step in my recovery makes a lot of people really uncomfortable. I am admitting I am powerless over the issue of race and that my life has become unmanageable. I am a racist. People keep telling me I’m not and stop saying it. But they’re not inside my head.

When I lived a mile and half south of here, I could go days without seeing a black person walking around in my neighborhood. There was one Mexican couple next door, but no black people (and the relationship between the blacks and the Latinos will just have to wait for another day, but Dios Mio! They have some dysfunction to deal with, too). Now in my newly adopted neighborhood which I love and never want to leave, I have to think about my problem on a daily, sometimes hourly basis.

Here are some of the situations that have led me to conclude that I have no control of my thoughts and ideas about race, and that I need to start to work on it. Better yet, let me just share with you what being a racist means to me. It doesn’t mean that I don’t like black people. It certainly doesn’t mean I am cruel to them or would deny them housing or a job. I don’t find them inferior to me in any way. But I do find them terribly and distractingly…black.

Being a racist means that when I am around black people, it takes a really long time for me to get to a place where there isn’t a monologue in my head about the fact that they are black. Maybe this is an obsessive compulsive behavior, which I have a slight tendency towards, but that’s another story. Here’s what goes on in my head when my teller in the bank is a young black man.

A nice looking young guy, dressed like a bank teller, but not too slick (did I say that just because he’s black?). Just a guy. Who is black. Keep in mind that I am carrying on the niceties of banking while my mind is causing all this static.

“Oh good I get the black guy he looks nice black black black ooh look how his undershirt shows through against his black skin with that white dress shirt maybe black guys really need brown undershirts he is black I am white should I tell him I am sorry because I am and he is still black I wonder if he will get to go to college maybe he’s in college he’s black I’m white you’re black buddy you do nice bank tellering but does it annoy you all this static when white people talk to you are you having the same kind of stuff in your head about me being white? I don’t mind that you’re black. I notice but I like you do you hate me? I won’t yell at you or call you boy…. “Thanks, you too.”

Maybe I have the same kinds of monologue about large breasted women at the grocery store and I just don’t notice it or feel bad about it. I’ll have to pay attention to that.

Wow fabulous and cavernous cleavage I think that bra could be a cup size bigger and we’d both be more comfortable with it I am not staring at your breasts but they are impressive and thanks for sharing them with me… “Can I borrow your pen?”

I have a rental property. All my tenants have been black. It seems almost racist for me to have noticed, doesn’t it? But I did. And seriously racist to have participated in the white-landlord-black-sharecropper-or-renter legacy of our country, don’t you think? Who cares that I thought I was participating in rebuilding a neighborhood torn apart by the systemic racism that killed Rondo (a St. Paul black neighborhood that was gutted by the construction of I94). I thought I could to help. Like a whole cadre of paternalistic white liberals before me (sorry).

The neighborhood is largely black. Not African (they live closer to University Avenue). My tenants have been black. All of my applicants (save one who was African, and one mixed race couple) have been black. Not all the people who have expressed interest have been black. Not all the people who have visited the house have been black. Only the people who were interested, saw the house and the neighbors and still returned my calls. Got it?

So I am admitting today that I am powerless over race (and breasts). Can’t get over it, can’t go under it, must go through it.


Darnell is interesting. He happens almost every day. Darnell has been waiting to be our neighbor in a substantial way. I think now that his home is about to go up for sale he’s feeling like he needs to reach out.

Here’s Darnell and my impressions of him. Darnell is a regular sized guy, in good shape, not heavy, but not lean either. He’s a dark complected black man with a trim haircut, he is usually wearing shades and either a baseball cap or a fedora. He’s always dressed sharp, but not flashy. He’s 53, he told me. He has more swagger than a white guy, but nothing outrageous.

He is a boarder in the house down the street. The house down the street was owned by an older guy who rented out rooms. This older guy (Andy) died last year. His relatives are planning to sell the house and I think it’s a safe bet that Darnell will not be in their target market. I base this on a few things. First, Darnell seems to be unemployed. Second, he’s been renting a room for the whole time I’ve been here. A room. Third, most people who’ve been living here for more than a few years couldn’t afford to buy into this neighborhood today.

When Darnell first introduced himself officially to us, after walking by and tipping his hat for more than a year, he didn’t mince words. “My name’s Darnell and I’m an alcoholic.” He was on his way to the liquor store. You gotta make room in your heart for someone so friendly with his own demons.

So we greeted him by name and shook his hands when we were in the yard or the park and he walked by. We know his route and we know what’s in the bag that looks suspiciously like a bottle that he’s carrying back home. He doesn’t drink in public, isn’t a belligerent drunk or a sad-sack drunk. He’s just a well-lubricated Darnell.

Darnell has some things on his mind, though. Some of them strike more of a chord with me than others. First, he’s thinking about the Bird Flu and what advantages a neighborhood like ours has, what with all the churches and schools (infirmary and check-points). We’ve talked about it more than once. He gets pretty worked up, nostrils flaring and sweat starting to drip down the side of his face (usually he’s got a kerchief ready). I’m not so worried about the Bird Flu, so I just try to let him know I’m glad he’s making plans. And I am.

Second, Darnell is thinking a lot about race. And I’m so relieved to have a black guy around who is up front with that issue. It took him many years, but now that he’s started, he needs to let off some steam. The last three times we’ve stopped to chat, he’s brought it up. We greeted him on our way down the street one day, and asked how he was.

He stumbled, swayed just a bit and said, “Well, I wasn’t expectin t’see no white folks today.”

Another day, we saw him on his way back from Grand Avenue, just before the annual Grand Old Day parade was about to start. We asked why he was heading away from the parade. “They let black folks up there on Grand? With all those white folks?” I told him I was pretty sure they did, but if he wanted he could go with me, I’d pull some white-people strings and get him in. “Me up there with a white woman? Y’all sure they ain’t gonna be non lynchin’ up there? I don’t know… Nah, I’m just playin’.”

Lastly, I suspect Darnell cannot really read or write. He’s brought it up a couple of times and then slapped his thigh and said, “Nah, I’m just playin’ witcha.” But I don’t think he is, any more than he’s playin wit’ me about race. Today he asked me to please lend him a paper and pen. I went to get them and invited him in. When I did, he put his hand on my arm and said, “Another favor, I’m gonna ask you to write it fuh me.” And I did, and he signed it.

Darnell can’t last long here, not after that big old Victorian we’ve all been drooling over since forever goes on the market and is sold to yet another literate white family with money. Do you want to invite him in to rent an extra bedroom? I do. But then again, I want to adopt every stray human and animal, and a person just can’t. And maybe what I see of him walking down the street every day is about as much as I can really take. I’m starting to miss him already.

Caperucita Roja

There are two low moments that come to me when I think about our trip to Ecuador. There were others, and there were great moments, too, but they’re just not all that interesting. The lowest of the low moments had more to do with being trapped with my immediate family for almost 3 weeks and being unable to just walk out on them.

But the beggar girl who shamed me stands out as a moment I still can’t shake and can’t quite figure out.

Beggars, mendigos, huerfanos, gente de la calle. Without exception they were indigenas, the descendants of Atahualpa and his brother. Inca people. Dark skinned, dark eyed and very short, they have barrel chests, flat backs and beautiful hooked noses. They have black, straight hair and strong hands. Most of the indigenas wear wool skirts or pants and oddly enough, many of them wear fedoras, both the men and the women. Don’t get me wrong, not all of the indigenas were street people. Most were going about their workaday lives with babies tied to their backs or at their breast. But all of the street people were indigenas or mestizos (mixed with the descendents of Spanish slaves from Africa).

The wool skirts and pants in the street beggars were filthy. The faces of the children and the adults were sunburned, maybe wind burned, but clearly too long exposed to the elements. Their faces were smudged, the creases in their hands, traced by the settled in grime. Sometimes they had deformities of the hands of feet, and maybe just token teeth, especially the older ones.

Children in the street. My god, every block had two or three children begging, selling candy or shining shoes. Or just sitting against a building, maybe with a younger brother or sister in their lap. Young children, sleeping in doorways with their arms over their eyes. And it didn’t even break my heart. I shut down after the first two days. Those first two days, I wanted to explain to each one why I couldn’t give them anything when I happened to be out of change. I apologized to them, begged forgiveness and felt bad for each one.

It can only really fully enter your brain for a couple of days, I think. If you are raw enough to see it for how horrible it really is, unable to shut it out, you might never be right again. Or maybe you are the superhuman blessed with both empathy and strength. I am not. I could feel my own brain deciding to not think about this if I was going to be available for my family. Sometimes it got through. But I surprised myself with how much I could ignore.

They’re such beautiful children, with their white teeth and beautiful skin. Filthy in an almost Dickensian way, but still cherubic and lovely. And sad, and tired and hungry for real food. If they have any food it is either a 3 liter bottle of pop or a box of candy they are selling. Wise in ways children shouldn’t have to be wise. Able to pick out a sucker from a mile away. But you have to see them, to walk among them, or rather, to wade through them for a couple days to understand even the little bit I understood.

I wanted to be able to share this part of the country with the people back home. But I read in The Book (the Rough Guide to Ecuador) that it is rude to take pictures without asking permission (claro que si). And that usually if you offer a small amount of money, locals will gladly consent to being photographed. While we were eating lunch in some restaurant, a little girl came in and started to work the crowd before the staff drove her away. She looked like she was maybe 8 or maybe 10 years old. With a filthy wool skirt and a red felt shawl clutched around her shoulders. She looked like a caricature of a little street urchin. Almost too perfect. I wanted to take her picture, but she was shooed away by the staff at the restaurant.

So when the orphan girl came into the ice cream shop with her cup of pennies the next day, and started to beg in the typical whiney voice that is like a parody of someone begging; when she met my eye, I walked over to her. Thinking back, she probably wasn’t an orphan and it might not have even been the same girl. Whatever, I offered her 50 cents to let me take her picture. She looked down at her feet, and back at me and shook her head no. She looked sad, but resolute. No. She never spoke after I asked her for a picture, just kept shaking her head.

I squatted down beside her. I looked her in the eyes, and tried to sweet-talk her. She looked at me back and stood her ground. She stared at me. I had this notion of hypnotizing her with my blue eyes, and she did have the look of a person worried they were being charmed. Fascinated, but worried. Blue eyed, silver-tongued devils like me are exceptionally rare in Ecuador.

Maybe someone warned her away from gringo perverts who want to take your picture. I told her we’d stay right there and I’d let her see the picture when it was done. Nope. I have to say that after you offer a kid money to take her picture and she says no, the more you cajole, the worse you feel. I started to feel like a pervert. No longer was I trying to expose the plight of these kids. She wasn’t a beautiful little child of god anymore. I was turning into a perverted carnival barker who wanted to exploit this little ragamuffin for all she was worth. And 50 cents, for god’s sake! What was wrong with me?

I blushed, took my ice-cream cone and left her with the 50 cents. She was beautiful, you’ll just have to trust me.