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race relations

October 15, 2011

[[10.15.2011, 7 p.m. Edited to add: A friend kindly pointed out the deeply problematic nature of some of the things I say below. I actually thought I had avoided objectifying and/or exoticizing people of color. I’m deeply sorry I was offensive, and I will be reading a lot more by people of color before I put my foot in my mouth again.]]

I’m now wondering if my fascination with black people and African-American culture began with my mother telling me about the n-word. Before that, I don’t remember noticing skin color. I don’t remember any black families in our neighborhood in Glen Ellyn, where we lived until I was 10. In Naperville, I know there was at least one black family in our neighborhood, and at least one in an adjacent neighborhood, because I babysat for both when I was a teenager. I definitely noticed their skin color then — because I thought it was much prettier than my own.  White people had a greater variety of eye and hair colors, but hardly any range in skin tones. I think I was around 20 or so when cosmetics formulated for brown skin started becoming widely available, and I couldn’t help but notice that brown women could wear much deeper tones, which made them look dramatic and impressive and statuesque, like queens or Amazons or works of art come to life. I was intimidated by how gorgeous they could be, when I saw myself as too angular and kind of weird looking.

I remember being in middle school, and thinking about boys I might date when I was old enough. I couldn’t decide between Native Americans, Koreans, and black boys, even though I didn’t know anyone my own age of those backgrounds. But I’d seen pictures, and they were all so beautiful.

I didn’t actually date that much before I got married, but all of my boyfriends were white. I’ve never had a friend who was a person of color. But then again, I haven’t had a lot of friends in my life.

I know people who were told by their parents: if you date a person of color, they won’t be welcome in our house. I find that truly incomprehensible.

I want to be an ally, so I’ve been reading a lot of books about the civil rights era, and what I’ve tagged as “the African-American experience”. I’ve also found myself reading memoirs about musicians, and I can’t help but notice how different the fortunes of white musicians tend to be from black musicians.

Everywhere I turn to learn about American culture, I see people of color making the greatest contributions, but often getting very little notice or credit. I’d like to think that the way that America brings together people from all sorts of disparate backgrounds is crucial to how creative our culture can be. And it would be nice if I could think of white people as being a legitimate part of that mix, because I’m white and American. But I don’t understand the impulse behind trying to insist that every great thing that’s American (or Western) was developed solely by white people. It’s obviously not true, for one thing. And aren’t centuries of European civilization enough? Although I guess “centuries of European civilization” are part of the problem, since they brought into the world such innovations as – imperialism, colonialism, slavery, “ethnic cleansing”, feudalism, world wars.

How can the evolution of culture be a zero-sum game? And when has “purity” ever produced anything amazing that changed the world?

Isn’t it when we come together and swap ideas, and try out bits and pieces of each other’s traditions, and create hybrids, that magic really happens? That certainly seems to be the case in music — a bunch of people all jamming together, and gradually something new is born.


Whenever I’m driving, I listen to a Spanish-language radio station out of DC. What I remember of my high school Spanish is only enough to help me pick out a phrase here and there. But I like the music. And when I’ve heard a song enough times to recognize it (even though I don’t know what it’s about, and who the artist is), I feel as happy as I do listening to songs in English. Happier, in at least one case. That song is a duet between a woman and a man, I think it’s a love song, and as soon as I recognize it, I feel tears welling up, and I cry with joy as I sing along with the four words I know of the lyrics. I have no idea why this particular song affects me this way, since I don’t know what they’re singing, and since I almost never feel similarly with songs I do understand. So it seems my reaction must be an affinity to or resonance with Latin@ musical forms?

I initially mentioned the Spanish-language station, though, because one of the songs I really like is a cultural fusion (and if I knew the name of the song or the artist, I could find the mp3, and play it even when I’m not in the car). It starts out with Bollywood-sounding music, but then a guy starts rapping in Spanish. I’m not a big fan of rap or hip-hop, but I love this song because it embodies what I like best about living in the USA — not just the diversity, but the creativity.

How can we create a place where we appreciate everyone’s background and experiences? Where everyone’s voice is welcomed? Where our kinship brings us together to create a better world for all?

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