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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Tongue-Tied in the Suburbs

When we decided to move to the Detroit Metropolitan Area, one of the most segregated communities in America, we chose a suburb with an excellent high school for our fourteen year old daughter, where her grandparents lived. But our friends were astonished. How could we, who had always fought for civil rights, move to suburb so racist that every house deed still forbade Blacks and Jews to live there?

“Maybe we can do some good,” I answered. “People might listen to us since we’re white like them.”

It wasn’t long before I was put to the test. One day after our tennis game we were talking over coffee in the Racquet Club lounge.

“I have to move out of Lathrup Village,” announced Betty angrily. “It’s changing —you know what I mean. And the housing values are going down.”

What I wanted to do was tell her she was ought to know better than to engage in white flight. But Betty had a temper. I couldn’t think of any other way to put it, so I kept quiet.

That silence haunted me for weeks. If I didn’t say anything, I was condoning Betty’s racism. But what could I have said?

I called a friend in Lathrup Village.

“Tell her,” said my friend, “that I have lived here for fifteen years and think that the diversity enhances the neighborhood. Also, the housing values have gone up 15% in the last two years.”

I didn’t want to get into a tiff with Betty. I have noticed that when people are angry, they stop thinking; the surge of emotion seems to blow a fuse in their brains.

I called another friend who gives workshops on racial healing.

“Yes, you should interrupt oppressive speech,” said Mary. “That’s what we call being a white ally. Here’s what you need to do. Know your facts. Be sure that you stick to ‘I’ statements. Don’t point your finger at Betty or get into blame by using ‘you’ phrases like ‘you shouldn’t say that.’”

That was a poser. I practiced a bit. “I,” “I,” Let’s see: "I would enjoy living in a more diverse community myself. And I have a friend in Lathrup Village whose property values have gone up recently.”

Eager to do the right thing, I went back to the tennis court, but Betty didn’t bring up moving. Instead, one day, someone mentioned affirmative action.

“My grandparents came from Poland,” said Betty in a petulant voice. “They worked hard and they made it. I don’t see why Black people can’t do what we did.”

“Facts,”I muttered frantically to myself; “’I’ statements, no ‘you’ statements, and no blaming.”

“I think many of those European immigrants planned their journeys in advance,” I said. “They saved up money for their passage, and had relatives in America to help them. It must have been much harder for African Americans who were kidnapped and enslaved, had no money or friends, and were deliberately separated from their language and tribal groups when they were sold.”

Betty seemed startled, but she didn’t argue. My other friends looked interested, not at all antagonistic. As for me, I felt elated. I had found a way to stand up for my moral values when racist or anti-Semitic or sexist remarks went flying around. I just needed to read up on some more facts, work on my temper, and practice making“I” remarks in front of my mirror until I could get a genuinely non-blaming expression onto my face.

Want to give it a go? Here are some scenarios. Can you think of what to say?

· You have just been to lunch in a hotel dining room with a white business acquaintance. As you walk back to your car, she realizes she has left her pocketbook at the table, by her chair. You go back to look, but it isn’t there. She declares:

“It would be right where I left it if they hadn’t hired so many black waitresses.”

· Your daughter likes to sit with African American students in her school cafeteria. Her friends say “We don’t see why you bother to hang out with Black students. They don’t want to be friends with us; why else would they always choose separate tables?”

  • You are at a cocktail party, standing in a group of five people. One of them is a very tall African American. A white man asks him what his sport was in college, and adds “I bet you played basketball.”

Send me some of your ideas and we can figure out what will work.

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