Racism Revisited – Alive and Well
I was recently asked by one of “my kids,” a sixteen-year-old high school student in Germany who had to do a term paper on Martin Luther King, to share my experience of that time with her. This is how I responded to her questions. I thought you might find it interesting.
Dear Annika –
I am on a plane taking off from Las Vegas. We have been out here meeting with a friend of mine whose cancer has returned and we are helping her and her “family” process what is important for her life before she enters her last process in her transition. It has been a very good and intense time and I have not had much time to do anything else.
I want to get this off to you as soon as possible as I am sure your deadline cannot be too far away.
First, I want to say a few things that set the scene.
Our country, unlike most other “Western” countries was built on the “ideal” of democracy – “all people are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And, “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
These principles were inherent in the native peoples of this land and were not inherent in any of the countries from which our “founders” came – England, Germany, France, Spain, Portugal and the other colonizing countries. All these countries were based on a belief of hierarchy and an assumption that some people were better than others and “should” have more rights.
Clearly, we have continuously fallen short of these ideals and it was the basis of the founding of these United States. The problems were that the founders came from countries which did not hold these ideals and even though they liked the ideals, they had no idea how to put these ideals into practice and we have been trying ever since. In essence, they had no models or experience for their “ideals” and, as humans have a tendency to do, instead of asking the peoples of this land for help, they fell back on old habits and we have been trying to find our way ever since.
Martin Luther King was one of those people who tried to help remind us what we were really meant to do and be as a nation and as a living ideal.
As a child, since I was Cherokee, I was raised to respect and honor all people regardless of their skin color, beliefs, or position. It was the way we Cherokee dealt with our world. My ancestors thought everyone knew these important facts and were appalled that the “newcomers” did not know.
As a small child living in the South long before Martin Luther King, we lived in a segregated society with judgments about people’s skin color.
My mother and grandmother always said that people who thought and acted with discrimination were “poor, ignorant people who did not know any better” and we should feel sorry for them and pray for them because they had not been taught how to act properly.
So, for me, when the Civil Rights Movement started, I thought, “It’s about time. It is the only thing that makes sense. Discrimination and segregation just don’t make sense. We don’t live that way.” I was always taught to treat my elders, whether they were white, black, Indian or some other color, with respect and address them as Miss or Mister.
For most of my childhood I assumed others did the same and those who didn’t had something wrong with them.
I was thrilled when Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus, when black folk drank out of the “white” drinking fountains or sat at “whites only” eating places and asked to be served – It was about time! MLK helped us come together and focus on these issues and I loved it. Something “right” was happening. I knew in my soul that it was good.
By the time the Movement got in full swing I had two small children and did not feel that I could leave them to go on the marches in the South and risk my life. I was appalled that my country – my beloved country – could be so violent. When the “freedom riders” were killed and their bodies were found, I was horrified and wept.
What was your role/what did you do during the civil rights movement?
I sent money. I helped set up and work with the group in Little Rock, Arkansas that supported the first few black students who dared to integrate the all-white High School in Little Rock when the National Guard had to be called out to protect them. I was doing a summer internship in Little Rock at the time (before children).
When I first arrived in Little Rock, I was invited to the home of the secretary of the psychology department (I was getting my doctorate in psychology) for dinner. Her husband was an intern and delivered babies at the medical school’s hospital in Little Rock. At dinner, he bragged about how he was not willing to wait for those “niggers” to deliver normally so he just used forceps on those “little black things” and “pulled them out of them.” I was furious. And even though I was a guest and had been taught to be polite, I went after him with a fury and told him exactly what I thought about his attitude and behavior. I was never invited back.
But let me regress a moment. While I was still in college in the mid-1950’s, I was invited to be a delegate to the World Centennial to the YMCA in Paris. A group of us was invited to travel for a month before the meeting in Paris and study the cultures and educational systems in England, Germany and France.
In our group was a big, tall, handsome and talented black fellow.
When we got to Germany, no matter what we did, groups of people always gathered around us to stare at us. We had never seen such behaviors as all of us had been taught “not to stare.” The focus was this handsome black man. In the 1950’s, it seemed many German people had not ever seen a black person. People would actually come up and wipe their hands on his skin and then look at their hands to see if the blackness came off.
Luckily, he spoke fluent German so it was always “interesting.”
We had discovered that as a group we were good “singers.” So, when these things happened, we would burst into a song and entertain them, with our black friend and I having the “solos.”
Now back to what I did during the Civil Rights Era. I gave speeches as a psychology graduate student at civil rights events on how most of the stereotypes about blacks and the physical, mental, emotional differences with white people just did not exist.
I was hired to get a team to help the teachers of an entire school system (around 5,000 students) to deal with integration. I was hired to help an entire university to “deal with its racism.” The National Training Group (NTL) that developed sensitivity training, during this time, had only one professional black “trainer” in the whole nation. I thought this was terrible so I volunteered two nights a week for six months to help train black trainees to be ready to meet the demand for mixed workshops focusing on the issues of racism (some of which I facilitated).
I was constantly working behind the scenes with individuals to help confront their own racism.
In this process, thanks to a couple of black fellows who cared about me enough not to let me get away with it, I had to confront my own racism.
I thought that since I had been raised in a different way, I wasn’t racist. I came to see that I wanted others to confront their racism and I didn’t want to see that I had any.
Mine was the worst kind of racism. I was a white liberal! (At that time I did not know I was Cherokee. My family had passed for white so I would not be taken off to a boarding school and brainwashed.)
After a painful year of my two black friends confronting me and not giving up on me, I began to “get it.” I was asking the wrong question. I had been asking, “Am I racist?” wanting to hear that I wasn’t. After a while I learned that the real question was, “How am I racist?” I needed their help to see that. I had passed for white, I had white perceptions, I had white privilege, I had a white-trained mind. For me to “get it,” I had to see that it was inevitable that I was “racist” and be willing to confront my unconscious racism. Things went better after that.
What was Martin Luther King to you?
MLK was the catalyst and the glue that held the Civil Rights Movement. What courage he had to face those mean, foaming-at-the-mouth vicious people. I felt fear for him and the freedom riders every day. When that black church was bombed and those little girls were killed, I felt fear, horror and shock that “my people” the human race was capable of such horrors especially after the horrors of the Second World War which I remembered from my childhood.
How could we do this?
Why would we – anyone – do this?
As I faced my own subtle racism assumptions and white privilege, I could feel in my body, mind and soul that I was a part of a species that needed a great deal of help. I needed help. We all needed help to face the unknowns in ourselves. MLK helped us see this.
What was thought of as MLK’s idea of non-violence in your surroundings?
We all knew about Gandhi and his teachings of non-violence – We Cherokee knew of non-violence. It was the role of the Cherokee women to teach, advise and help the men live non-violence.
Living non-violence (not thinking about an “ideal”) was real for me – – and possible even against terrible odds.
Somewhere, I believe, deep inside of us we all know the option of non-violence. We just need to “remember” it.
Was it a dangerous time and did you feel fear at times?
Yes, even though I was not “on the front lines” that much, it was dangerous at times. You never knew what ignorant/crazy people would do.
MLK gave us a model for standing up for what we knew was right. To me he was a much better model than being a soldier.
Do you think MLK’s dream is fulfilled?
No, his dream is not fulfilled. The world is full of racism (as is the US), sexism, ageism, nationalism – whatever. There is much left to do and all of us need to see how important it is that each person sticks her/his paddle in the river, tries to make the world a better place for the generations to come and is not satisfied just to slide through life.
MLK helped us see and feel how much one person who is willing to stand up and be heard can do.
Of course MLK’s dream is not fulfilled because great social changes like this are a process, not an event. For example, when a radio commentator a few years ago made a comment about a college basketball team’s girls and called the black girls “Nappy Headed Hoe’s” – a great furor arose and what I noticed was that they had trouble finding any black news commentators to comment on this behavior. Now, since we’ve elected a black president, we have a lot of black and Latino news commentators. I think even though Obama has had a very difficult time with some of the continued racism in this country, it is important that we elected a black president. It would be analogous to Germany’s having elected a Turkish Chancellor, or France electing an African President. In the United States, we have a commitment to make these changes even though we do them imperfectly and with a lot of kicking and screaming along the way. And, it is a process that, because of who we are as human beings, will take many years to fulfill the dream. The important thing is that we have the dream and we believe in it and know it is right.
What do you think would have to be done today to fulfill his dream?
All of us have to be willing to “clean out our insides” (like I have been doing all my life – in part thanks to MLK!) see and deal with our beliefs, assumptions, familial, social and national brainwashing so we can rise above the limitations we have been willing to indulge in as humans so that we not only can fulfill his dream – – we can fulfill our own for the grandeur we can be a part of as a race and a species.
Well, Annika, that’s it. Take what you want and leave the rest.
I did not just witness this time, I lived it to the fullest of my ability to do so. Thank you for helping me remember.
May I use your letter and my response to put on my blog?
Love to you all,
Anne Wilson Schaef, Ph.D.