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Archive for the tag “race”

Race: a work-in-progress

DSC00865Race, as a concept, is hardly a work-in-progress in the construction sense of the phrase. On the contrary: the concept of race is in what you might call a state of rapid DE-construction. Debunking, Demythification, De-pseudo-science-ification. What I’m working on is copping to how little I understand, how little I have ever understood, about white privilege and the way it has shaped my life.

If you missed the Pacific Science Center’s recent exhibition called RACE: Are We So Different?, make sure to visit the exhibition’s provocative website. A project of the American Anthropological Association, RACE: Are We So Different? has traveled, or will travel, to more than 30 venues in the United States. That adds up to a lot of conversations about a subject none of us are very good at talking about.

If, like me, you’re white and over 50, or even 40, you probably didn’t grow up talking about white privilege. It was just there, so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives as to be invisible. To us.

If you are not white, you might have had “aha!” moments of a very different kind as you walked through the show. Maybe you nodded your head in recognition, anger, sadness. Maybe you looked around at all the white visitors and thought: at least they’re learning a little about my reality.

Here’s my easy example of how white privilege works: so easy it embarrasses me. When I travel, I’m always on a budget, but I have perfected the art of strolling into a five-star hotel anywhere in the world and finding and using the bathroom. I have actually taught this travel “trick” to my children. You just walk in, look confident and keep going until you see the discreetly placed sign. Would this work if I was not white? Not everywhere, it wouldn’t. And at some level I’ve always known this. But I still do it.

I thought of the 5-star bathroom stunt when I read an anecdote at the RACE exhibition. It was written by a non-white woman married to a white man, who learned one day that the corner store in their neighborhood always took his checks, even though it wouldn’t take hers.

I thought of it as I read about the history of racism, the shameful, long-discredited yet persistently believed “science” of racial categorization, the naked fear behind all of it; the policies this “science” supported, from apartheid in South Africa to real estate red-lining in our own city. On the “here in Seattle” wall was a quote from the original Broadmoor neighborhood covenant, explicity forbidding African American, Asian, Jewish and Southern European residents, unless they were employees, from living in this gated community that borders the Washington Park Arboretum. But it wasn’t just enclaves like Broadmoor (where my grandparents lived for more than 30 years and my father and stepmother for ten) that had these kinds of rules. Queen Anne, Greenwood, Capitol Hill and many other Seattle neighborhoods used racially restrictive covenants to keep out non-white residents.

The neighborhood I now live in is about as different from Broadmoor as it can be. Many of my neighbors come from east Africa. And yet the divide persists. Most white families in our neighborhood own their homes. Most non-white families do not.

The list of benefits of being white in America is long. So many are so ingrained, so obvious, we can’t even see them. What the RACE exhibit asks us to do—some of us for the first time in our lives—is to question, rather than accept, what is obvious about race in America.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:45 a.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.


Becoming Obama

Barack Obama was 33 years old when he published his memoir, a fact often noted with the kind of wink that says, “Clearly, the man knew he was destined for greatness.”  But that’s not at all how the book reads. Dreams from my Father is written with humor and humility.  Graceful, fluent writing abounds, but so do the frankly self-conscious moments of a young writer who knows he’s still got a long way to go towards wisdom.

Dreams from my Father is subtitled “A Story of Race and Inheritance,” and it is, but intimately so.  When Obama describes arriving in Indonesia as a little boy, he resists the scholarly urge to set the scene and instead reveals the country as it was revealed to him, from the back seat of a taxi, recalling the “brown and green uninterrupted, villages falling back into forest, the smell of diesel oil and wood smoke.”

It is in Indonesia, a country where almost no one is black or white, that Obama has his first realization of the deep racism of America when he comes across an article in Life magazine about black people who have tried to dye their skin white.

Back in Hawaii, an adolescent at the fancy Punahou prep school, Obama quickly understands that in America, he is and will always be black.  Through his high school and college years, he self-consciously plays the part he knows everyone in his life expects him to play, excelling as the young black man making it in the world of white privilege.  But he begins to feel more and more unsatisfied with his hothouse identity. And so he makes what was, in the Greed-is-Good Eighties and in his Ivy League universe, an utterly counter-cultural move: to the far south side of Chicago.

When I read the book in the first weeks of Obama’s presidency, it was the Chicago chapters that moved me most of all. I lived in Chicago for two years, reporting crime stories and other local news all over the city, so I can picture the sagging bungalows and public housing apartments that were his turf.  When he talks about how he changed during those years, he calls it “the sort of change that’s important not because it alters your concrete circumstances in some way—wealth, security, fame—but because it hints at what might be possible and therefore spurs you on.” In a line like that, I hear the future president. I also hear how good it feels, when you’re young, to let go of the cynicism you feel you have to cultivate just in case you never get to do anything truly meaningful.

Dreams from my Father is a young man’s story of yearning for just that, meaning: for the why of his namesake father who left and then died; for the place in America that would call out to him: You belong here. The book is a claiming, a stitching together of all the threads of his complicated identity: African, white American and the African-American that he became.

I can’t help but believe that the act of writing Dreams from my Father helped prepare Obama to be president, because it enabled him to plunge ahead into his most ambitious years with a full understanding of where he had come from and why he was who he was.  Writing helped him to make sense of his experiences.

I’m glad I waited to read Dreams from my Father, which was written in 1995.  It was such a pleasure to read it after the election. But now’s a good time, too: to take a break from polls, pundits and debates and sit down with the story of how Obama became Obama.

Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area.  Podcasts available.

Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.

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