Friday, July 11, 2008

Kathleen On the R Word

Good morning, all! Pardon me, folks. I'm coming down off a high. Turned in a book. As many of you know, there is a unique euphoria that lasts for several days after the WIP is done and in. It's real and it's groovy, man. So I've got that I-can-do-anything feeling, and I'm going to throw out a topic that might not fly, but here goes.

As you can see, I'm a vanilla, white bread kind of a gal. But I'm married (37 years and counting) to a man "of color." We have three grown children, so I'm the white mother of three American Indian kids. I am thrilled that we have a bi-racial person running for president.

Don't run away! I'm not going to talk about politics. I'm going to talk about bridges. Win or lose, Barack Obama has come to the fore in the life of this country as a very public social and cultural bridge. And I'm here to say that it's a beautiful thing. It's not easy, and many things will be said that sound--particularly when put through the media parsing machine--off-putting at first. But when we get over ourselves a little bit, we're going to experience some of that euphoria I mentioned earlier.

Take for instance the "I could no more disown him than I could my white grandmother" statement Barack made a while back. While I was celebrating the honesty of that remark, some of the pundits said that Grandma had been thrown under the bus. Far from it. This was a recognition of the fact that these two people--different races, different cultures--were equally human, as someone in Barack's position understands better than most people do. He is both. He comes from both. He loves both. When he said that his grandmother was a "typical white person" some people considered it an insulting remark. I knew what he meant. His grandmother is of my mother's generation.

My mother objected to my marriage, but those bridge children change everything. Barack's grandmother helped to raise him. My mother would have done the same if circumstances had called for it. My mother was a Southern lady--ever polite and gracious--but she grew up with some racial prejudices about race that she tried very hard not to pass on to me. I guess I took it further than she intended. My parents drew the line at marriage, but that question doesn't come up until it's too late. The girl is grown, and she's in love. Then comes marriage and Kathleen pushing the baby carriage. My cousin--Mama's sister's daughter, who grew up in the same little Tidewater (Virginia) town--married the son of a Chinese woman and white American man. And mamas become grandmas, and they either cross the bridge or they miss out. My mama and my aunt crossed right over.

Yes, I'm a "typical" white woman. We don't think alike, mind you, but we've walked in white skin all our lives, and that means something different from walking in black or brown skin--skin "of color." But I think the mother of a bi-racial child comes as close as is humanly possible for a person of one race to walk in the skin of another. Yes, I have stories, and bits of them are woven into my books. But I really think, as the song goes, "the times, they are a-changin'."

I honor Barack's grandmother today. Like her grandson, she's a bridge. Maybe we could share some thoughts, maybe some anecdotes on women's and mothers' perspective of race and barriers and bridges. Hey, dads, too! I'll save some anecdotes for the comments section. As I said, maybe this won't fly, and that's okay. But I thought I'd run the topic up the flagpole today. It's that euphoria thing. Hope is a thing with feathers.


Debra Dixon said...

Yeah, that "my book is done" euphoria can be powerful "why can we just all love each other" stuff.

I'm from Memphis. You know, the city in which Martin Luther King was killed and which erupted in the aftermath? My father was one of the first policemen on the scene because he happened to be around the corner.

I remember my mother quietly crying because Daddy was out there and any one in uniform was in the line of fire as they tried to keep the city from tearing itself apart. No one knew when we'd be safe, any of us, not just whites.

She never once gave vent to racial slurs or hatred. The situation was bad. It was dangerous. It was all over the news. Her husband was in more danger than he'd ever been, and yet she didn't take the opportunity to pass along any generational prejudice. The evil was violence, not people.

I consider that a bridging event.

Playground Monitor said...

I remember the neighbors who had a black maid named Mary. She also kept an eye on their kids -- and every other kid in the neighborhood. She was like another mother, and this was in a small textile town in North Carolina. We knew we better behave or Mary would tan our hides.

My aunt and uncle had a black woman who did in-home child care for them. Ruth was part of the family and when her son graduated from medical school, my aunt and uncle were right there cheering for him.

In a same-but-different vein, my husband and I had talked at one point early in our marriage about what we'd do if we couldn't have biological children. We never said anything to any family members about it, and we did end up having biological children. But I'd have been hard-pressed to bring adopted children into a family where my mother-in-law boldly stated that her sister's children shouldn't inherit her estate because they were adopted and weren't her "real" children. In her mind, blood ties trumped adoption when family antiques were involved.

I live in Alabama, home of the Selma marches and Rosa Parks's refusal to give up her seat on the bus. But the state has made great strides. The town I live in is hugely multi-cultural because of the universities, the Army base and NASA. My #1 son's freshman high school class had 23 different nationalities represented. After 9/11, when the rest of the world was ready to lynch anybody who appeared middle eastern, our town had few problems. The Muslims here are our co-workers and neighbors. I've had plenty of Muslim kids at my kitchen table. #1 son's best friend in 1st grade was the black janitor's son. My other son attended middle school with a boy whose family had smuggled him out of Iran so he could have a better life.

I'll crawl off my soapbox. What a great topic, Kathleen.


Betina Krahn said...

Kathy, this is a brave and beautiful post. . . a bridge in itself.

Interestingly, I learned of my parents' prejudice late in their lives. They were always careful to be loving and inclusive and respectful in front of us kids. But my dad was in WWII and in the South Pacific. He apparently built up some really bad feelings about the Japanese during that time.. . but he never spoke ill of anybody until he was almost 80! Then he developed a great antipathy for Japanese-made cars and some of his resentments and prejudices showed. In my thirties, I heard my mom say that she'd much rather one of her daughters marry an American black or hispanic or Native American man than a Japanese/oriental man. I guess she had prejudices she kept to herself, too.

And I have to thank my parents for not burdening me with their prejudices. That doesn't mean I'm entirely free of them, but at least I'm aware of them and working on them.

And yes, Kathy, I think Obama's run for the presidency is shaking up a lot of thinking. . . all over the country, in every race, religion, and pocket of society. It's fascinating, hopeful, and scary all at the same time. Because for the first time in a long while, the future seems less scripted and pre-ordained.

Change in in the winds. I hope we're up to the challenge!

Christie Ridgway said...

Kathy, it's families like yours that are the bridge to a new day. My cousin is married to a Chinese woman. My mother-in-law is married to a man who is half-Black, half Native American (and who has green eyes, go figure). I believe my kids see all the blurred lines and blended colors in our family and in the families of those around them as completely normal. I know they are surprised when people look at them funny when my blond, blue-eyed kids introduce their grandfather.

Kathleen Eagle said...

I've come to appreciate my parents' generation in recent years for their contribution to the changes. Back when I was a radical flower child I thought my parents were SO conservative. Like you, Betina, I didn't realize the extent of some of their biases, and it's to their everlasting credit that they didn't pass them on. I didn't learn until I was an adult that my great aunt (my grandmother's youngest sister in a family of 10 kids, so great-aunt's son was close to my age) was married to a Klan leader. I knew he was a bigot, but the big holiday dinners were often held at their farm, so we were told to ignore most of what he said when it came to race. "That's just the way he is." I guess it helped me to understand how prejudice works. It's insidious, and without my parents monitoring their own feelings, making their adjustments and giving me a chance to think and feel for myself growing up, I would have been a different person. I could not have understood any of this when I was 18 or 21 and knew it all. But they did me more of a service than I knew back then, and I honor them now. It's never too late.

Oh, Deb, your story about the MLK assassination and your parents is amazing. I think about where I was that and imagine being in your shoes, and wow. Thanks for letting us walk a mile in your shoes. This is cool.

lois greiman said...

Thanks Kathy. We can always count on you to make us think. As you know I'm from North Dakota. We don't have folks 'of color' there. Well, okay, yes, you found a wonderful one didn't you? But where I was raised, we didn't think about it much. Now, however, my eldest is dating a girl who was born in Cameroon and spent most of her life in France. She's gorgeous and sweet and very very black. My mother and DH's mother were speechless when they met her. It's harder to accept changes as we get older I guess, but they soldiered through the introductions, and it's never too late to grow, right?

Barack's candidacy is just another opportunity for us to grow. And seriously, it's about time!!

Anna And Sean said...

This topic hits close to home for me because my niece and 2 nephews have a mixed heritage- 2 different dads but same background. Both their dad's families (parents and grandparents) are originally from Iraq. They fled to the United States years ago under extreme circumstances. The dads were both born here. Each family has a distinctly different train of thought concerning American culture and politics. One works hard to teach the real heritage that the children are entitled to- family history, religion and customs. They believe as I do- that this country is called the United States for a reason and all people, regardless of race, deserve a chance at freedom. The other family has race issues and treats my family with hostility because we are too white. When my nephew was baptized, according to their customs, we could not attend because we were too American and too white. They were embarrassed that their son had a relationship with a white girl. Two children later, 6 years later and we still have those same issues. My family tries very hard to brush off the slurs, for the sake of the children, but sometimes I would like to scream. I was not raised in a biased household and it makes me sad to think that the boys will grow up conflicted because they are made to feel disloyal and insecure.
After 9/11 I really had these cultural differences brought to my door: My husband deployed and while he was in the Middle east I asked him to bring gifts for the kids(niece and nephews) that would represent their heritage. He brought them prayer rugs, money, and pictures of some now destroyed buildings. One set of grandparents were grateful for the photos because they had childhood memories of these demolished neighborhoods, while the other set accused us of trying to profit from war. Then my niece went to school with her gifts and was treated terribly by the other kids because up until then they had not realized that she was half Middle Eastern. I guess kids hear more than we realize and these rude little kids started repeating what they heard their parents say at home. I don't even think anyone understood how wrong it was. I just feel very saddened that in this day and age some people can't figure it out. It makes me sad that people can't let kids be kids- my niece should be playing dolls and riding bikes, not worrying about if her skin is the wrong color! Maybe this generation, with the help of Barack Obama, will be the group that helps rid our country of racism.

PJ said...

Thank you, Kathleen, for putting yourself "out there" with this very timely blog. I'm a white woman who grew up in a small, all-white midwest town during the 50's and 60's. My paternal grandfather was an uneducated farmer who was extremely prejudiced. He had no use for foreigners or people of color and disowned his youngest son for marrying a Catholic. I loved him dearly and spent a lot of my growing up years with my grandparents. I was always aware of his feelings but he never tried to impose his prejudices onto me. He did, however, pass many of those prejudices on to my mother. I remember meeting a Black girl from a town about 20 miles away one summer at Girl Scout camp. We clicked immediately, were inseparable for the entire two weeks at camp and after I got home I asked my mom if I could invite Robin to our house for the weekend. It never occurred to me that this would cause a problem because, to me, she was "Robin", not "Black Robin". My mom finally agreed but with the stipulation that we spend the entire weekend doing things in the house. She didn't want the neighbors to know that a Black girl was staying at our house. That was my first face to face exposure to racial prejudice. I might have "grown into" my mom's prejudices over time but, fortunately, for me, my mom's desire for social status was more important than her prejudices which resulted in her unknowingly helping to build that bridge. She sent me to Mexico as an exchange student the summer before I turned 14, not to build any cultural bridges but, rather, to keep up with the Joneses. Though I was a girl from a foreign country with different customs, a different religion and who barely spoke their language, my Mexican exchange family welcomed me into their home and their lives with completely open arms and no pre-conceived prejudices. The cultural bridge that was begun during that summer was strong and enduring and I returned home forever changed. Throughout my high school and college years I continued to travel to other countries, embracing new cultures and welcoming people of a multitude of colors and nationalities into my life. Surprisingly, my experiences helped me build a bridge back to my grandpa and, while not prejudice free, by the time he passed on, his views had undergone a dramatic shift.

I don't think I'll see it in my lifetime but I pray for the day when we really will be a color-blind society who values people for their individual actions rather than judging them on the color of their skin. We just need to continue taking those steps, one by one.

catslady said...

Wonderful post. Tolerance. When will people learn that we're our own worst enemy. You wouldn't find a black dog saying I don't want anything to do with that white dog! I truly don't understand why people are so afraid of people/things that are different instead of embracing all the wonderful differences.

Ellen said...

My story is not as drastic as some of the others but.....My parents grew up in Laredo, Texas and if you know nothing about the is a border town on the US/Mexico border. I never knew there were races until we moved from Texas to Mississippi in the late 1950s. We had lived many places before then and my grandparents (both sets) lived in Laredo and had friends who were from Mexico and in later years had a woman from Mexico who took care of them and was treated like family. What an awaking it was when we arrived in Mississippi and we were warned about the black people -- they were dangerous and we were not suppose to associate with them, if we were in town and saw one we were to cross the street and avoid the. This came from our neighbors and not my parents. When mother had to have surgery and spend several weeks in the hospital and many more days in bed at home my parents hired a "maid" to care for me and my brothers I was told by the neighbors not to talk to her or play with her young son and my parents were critized for letting her bring her young son to out house. Fortunately my parents were able to keep us kids from being indoctrinated into that belief.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Wow! Fascinating stories, guys!

Lois, your handsome son's girlfriend is darling, and what a lovely couple they make. He's tall and gorgeous; she's petite and gorgeous. They will get stares. Second looks. The occasional rubber-necking. I know this from long experience. I didn't notice so much, but Clyde did. I'd remind him that we were a great looking couple. Granted, it was easy for me to say. I didn't grow up getting stared at, so I didn't really notice. He did get used to it, and you don't get the kind of stares in the Twin Cities that you get off the reservation in the Dakotas. And it's getting better. White people venture into Indian Country for the casinos these days--another bridge. When I first moved to the Dakotas, I taught summer school in a "white town" on Standing Rock. White residence lived their whole lives right there without ever visiting the Indian communities. It boggled my mind. Never went to a powwow or a ball game or anything. That summer was a learning experience. I was fresh out of college and engaged--Clyde had been drafted--and everyone knew it. My summer of the rude awakening. We were married that fall, and I taught in the agency town--Fort Yates.

And as far as I'm concerned, we still attract attention because we're a damn good-looking couple.

PJ said...

Kathleen, what a wonderful example of love and acceptance you and your husband are, not only to your children and grandchildren but to anyone fortunate enough to make your acquaintance. I wish you many more years of love and happiness together and though I've never seen a picture of your husband I'm sure you are, as you said, one damn good-looking couple!

Kathleen Eagle said...

We moved to Massachusetts in late 1958. Daddy was in the Air Force, and we'd been on Guam for 2 years--lived off base for a year renting from a native family. Parents bought a house off base in MA. I well remember the first visit from neighbors--3 couples--because I was one of those kids who sat and listened to the adults. After the cookines and the orientation and all that, my parents were told that there were other AF families on the block, and while it was understood that the base was integrated (did they use that word?) the people in the neighborhood didn't appreciate black (Negro at that time) guests being invited over. Interesting thing was that there were lots of euphemisms and implications, but I understood well enough, and I was only 10 or 11. I asked my parents as soon as the committee left what was meant by all that, and I remember Mama saying that it was a warning. In the ensuing years I learned the meaning of de facto segregation. And this in the very liberal state of Massachusetts. Schools were integrated, but mainly in cities or AF towns. We were one town over--a college town--and the first kids to integrate my high school were an Afican exchange student and the daughter of an AF officer and a college professor.

The point being that white people often tell themselves and each other that there are no barriers, that we have friends, etc. It can be such an unconscious thing. (I love Colbert's mantra along those lines: "I don't see color. People tell me I'm white, and I believe them..." Beautiful!)

It takes time and conscious effort, and I do think each generation in my family has made progress. Not every person in the family, mind you, but we're building awareness. Time and the river flowing. Gotta keep that river flowing.

PJ said...

Kathleen, I just found the pictures at your website so now I can say I have seen Clyde and yes, I totally agree. You two are one damn fine looking couple!

PJ said...

"Time and keep the river flowing"...

I really like that and I hope we will all continue to flow in the right direction. I can see how far the river has flowed in my own family by looking at the differences in the generations. My grandfather, as I said in my other post, disowned my uncle for marrying a Catholic. My mother tried to break up me and my high school boyfriend because he was Catholic. Today, however, my niece's longtime boyfriend is Japanese (an international student from Japan) and my brother and sis-in-law have embraced him, along with his culture and religion, with open arms. They would be thrilled to welcome him to our family if the two decide one day to marry. Let's keep that river flowing.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Thanks, pj! I remember when the Protestant vs Catholic difference was a big hangup for marriage, but you don't hear about it so much anymore. Our daughter got married in her husband's Catholic church at his request, but they had an Episcopal priest as well (a woman!). As well, our Auntie Hazel, the Eagle family elder, delivered the prayer for the people, which she wrote, in English and then in Lakota. It was lovely.

Kathleen Eagle said...

Speaking of Auntie Hazel, she spent a couple of weeks with us not too long ago, and I always learn so much from her. She was the first one to open up to me about some of Clyde's older relatives doubts about me early on. No surprise that there would be doubts, nor was it the first time anyone had said, "We didn't think you'd stick around too long," but not from family. But this was a heart-to-heart, a look back at the early impressions the older Eagles had of me. Remember, my parents didn't approve and didn't attend, so the Eagle family hosted our wedding reception at the community center in Wakpala, SD. But I hadn't really thought about doubts they may have had about me. Funny, huh?

Fiona said...


Very timely topic. I think other politicians and public figures blazed the way for Mr. Obama. I know that racism is still out there, but at least it's not the default position of most of the country.

I am the mother of Asian-American sons. The oldest is a teenager and girls/dating are in our loves now. He seems to attract the tallest, blondest girls around, LOL. I'm so happy that race isn't an issue with his friends, even though the rest of the world hasn't caught up with our mid-western suburbia.

As a family, we still get looks when we travel, mainly when we visit family in the south.

I grew up with grandparents who routinely used racial slurs, and parents who would have blistered my bottom if I said anything like that.

I remember hearing the "n" word on TV, along with other racist and sexist language. Fortunately, it is not acceptable now.

We are in an exciting time in our country, where tolerance and inclusion is happening.