---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Sun, 27 Jan 2002 21:48:10 -0800
From: radtimes <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Proud to be of Color, Yet Trying to be Color Blind
January 27 2002
Proud to be of Color, Yet Trying to be Color Blind
by Sandy Banks
I was rummaging frantically through my purse, searching for the pass that
would secure my admission to the parking lot at USC, where I was
scheduled--and running late--to speak. I came up empty, but breathed a
sigh of relief as I pulled up to the parking kiosk. "Thank goodness," I
said out loud, to myself. "The guard is black."
From the backseat, a protest erupted. "Why does it matter?" my
10-year-old asked, her voice tinged with irritation. "What difference
does it make that the parking-lot guy is black?"
I shushed her as I pulled up to his window, smiled and launched my
explanation: "No, I don't have the parking sticker they sent me. I had
it, but I lost it and ... well, I'm in a hurry. Maybe I'm on a list or
something?" I was not, but he scribbled a pass, taped it to my windshield
and waved me through. I smiled smugly at my daughter. "That's why it
matters," I said. "When I saw he was black, I figured he would be nicer
to me, more understanding than someone else might." I was struggling to
explain why that wasn't prejudice and didn't make me racist as we hustled
into the auditorium. The panel discussion I was to lead--on affirmative
action in college admissions--was about to begin. I hustled my daughter
off to the side and tried to banish her questions from my mind, and I
announced my topic to the crowd: "Should Race Matter? How Much and Why?"
We are fresh off a round of celebrations honoring the late Martin Luther
King Jr. and his "content of their character" vision. And we are heading
into Black History Month, with its focus on the color of our skin as a
central cultural connection. It is a paradox as rich and tangled as this
country's history of race relations.
Can we judge one another without regard to color? Does ethnic pride trump
equality? Can we be both color blind and race proud? Have we lost our
zeal for integration in our zest to promote group identity?
Some would say we clearly have, that we've hyphenated ourselves into a
collection of tribal families; allowed our emphasis on multiculturalism
and diversity to overshadow our cultural kinship, even threaten our
"Whatever the benefits of the new separatism in promoting pride and
self-esteem, the overlay of anger and alienation that comes with it is
poisoning our lives," writes race scholar Tamara Jacoby in her book
"Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration"
(Free Press, 1998)
But anger and alienation are not just the domain of those troubled by our
focus on ethnic pride. For too long, those of us poisoned by ignorance of
our culture carried our own burdens of pain and shame.
Maybe it is different for children these days. They have black astronauts
and scientists and presidential advisors. Their history books are filled
with references to African Americans we never heard of when I was growing
up and stories we were never told. They need look no further for
inspiration than the nightly news, at the success of Colin Powell, Oprah
Winfrey, Michael Jordan.
But I can remember, as a child, sitting shamefaced among my white
classmates, as our American history lessons reduced my ancestors' stories
to footnotes, my would-be heroes to caricatures. The sociologists can
pooh-pooh self-esteem and race pride, but I still recall how much it hurt
to believe that I had come from a race of people too simple and timid to
stand up for themselves.
And I remember when those shackles came off. Black History, 12th grade. I
had stumbled into the class, looking for a way out of another semester of
history that revolved around wars and dates. Much of it was territory we
had been through before. But this time, we learned that Africa was more
than a string of backward tribes, saved from savagery by Europeans. And
slaves were not the shuffling puppets we'd been taught to imagine, but
had fought for their freedom long before the Civil War.
Our history was not just Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver, but
thousands of years of ingenuity and bravery and strength. It seems so
simple now, but the revelation sent my classmates and me brimming with
confidence and a sense of power into a still-hostile world.
And our history was not all we learned that semester, because the
unlikely instrument of our salvation was a blond woman wearing Earth
shoes and love beads, who moved through the class banging on our desks,
grabbing us by the shoulders, shouting when she thought we were falling
Before "Roots," before "Black is Beautiful" even, she preached that
knowledge is power, and self-knowledge makes you unconquerable. She
taught us about self-reliance and self-respect, using stories of trials
our ancestors faced. And she taught us about respecting others, just as
she respected us.
And if I could learn from a white lady to honor my black history, then
just maybe my daughter and I were both right. Maybe race matters plenty,
and not at all. And maybe I could have gotten into that parking lot even
if a black man hadn't been at the gate.
Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail
address is sandy.banks@ latimes.com.
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