Discussing Race in Washington, DC

This post is my response to discussing race in Washington DC, specifically to a discussion on my neighborhood email list, takomadc@yahoogroups.com. There are those on the list who believe that not discussing race means something but what it means varies. No matter what they think it means race is always raised in terms of discrimination and oppression.

This is my response to the current discussion. Or my response of the day. If I were to spend another two hours rewriting it, I might replace “culture of victimization” for “culture of oppression.” Tomorrow I will probably be sorry I took the time to write this but so be it. Pass the Olives.

Obama’s Speech on Race in Philadelphia, 2008

To begin, I believe Obama’s 2008 speech given in Philadelphia during his campaign for election in response to his continued relationship with his controversial minister and the place of his church in his life will become a classic on the meaning and influence of culture on who we are. I believe the issue of race for all of us is more the culture we grew up in and the one we choose than our skin color. Discussing the cultural difference that our many races give each of us, whether it was chosen or forced upon us, will produce a richer discussion than focusing on oppression.

Obama’s speech is worth rereading in this context.

Perceptions of Race and Culture

I’ve been discussing the issue of cultural discrimination and racial discrimination with an African Jamaican British Canadian American neighbor who has considered jobs in foreign countries. As a European, I pointed out that these countries were populated by people of color and this would be a good experience for her daughter — immersion in a culture that is populated at all levels by people of color than in the US. She says that is not true because there are so many distinctions in Africa and the Middle East that have nothing to do with shared skin color. The discrimination is both huge and more subtle than she thinks, as a “white” person I could even perceive. She would still be excluded as different. “People would know.”

I have an African-American son and a European American daughter. At a gut level I perceive a difference in their place society. When as a teenager my daughter went out to a party on Saturday night, I worried about her being sexually compromised in some way. Raped or made to feel her own body was not hers. When my son when out, I worried about him being killed.

But growing up in a generation very different from my own, in an educated upstate New York suburb, they are unaffected by the cultural expectations that I grew up with. Now in their early 40s they lead very different lives, one a Manhattan Yuppie and the other a police officer in the town he grew up in. They both believe these are personal choices. They still deny that there were any events in their lives that had anything to do with their skin color or facial features. They share a common culture and speak a common language.

Culture Changes and is Changeable

During Black History Month my Dutch American granddaughters, with the reddest hair and the whitest skin, were learning and singing Civil Rights songs at Shepherd Elementary School, which has a veteran Civil Rights Movement protester for a music teacher. They corrected my singing because they learned all these songs with a touch of Gospel and lots of body language. When I sing that way, I feel that I’m crossing the boundary into a culture where I would be viewed as an interloper.

In the course of these discussions about singing, I discovered they had no idea who Rosa Parks was or why they were singing about her. She was just a famous African American like all the other famous Americans they study. They had no knowledge of the history of discrimination. The lessons they were learning didn’t have that deeper significance. They were “only” about being famous. About heroes. At ages 4 and 7 they had no beliefs that needed to be corrected or negative experiences that needed countering. Are there cultural differences amongst their friends that they notice and either reject or admire? Yes, but they are cultural, even if they are sometimes described as “black” or “African American.” They are not seen as inherently defining or attached to skin color or family history.

When I explained that Rosa Parks had defied the law by sitting in the front of the bus they gave me blank looks. When I explained that there used to be laws that said where “Whites” and “Negros” could eat or sit, and which drinking fountains they could use, or movie theaters they could attend, they didn’t believe me.  “That would discrimination,” they both objected, looking at each other for confirmation. To them, this could never be.

Moving Beyond the Culture of Oppression

In two generations, the cultural changes in relation to perceptions of race have been enormous. I believe that it is too easy to dismiss them. To carry forward the culture of oppression even when we could let it go. Accept the past as a reality, and even the present as a reality, and focus on that which is culturally rich and nurturing.

It was a shock to move to Washington DC in 2000 and experience not in the Federal enclave people refer to as Washington but in the general culture of the city that the culture of oppression is so dominant. I would never encourage my son to move to DC even though there may be more and higher paying jobs for police officers here. I don’t want him or my grandchildren to absorb that culture. The same way I don’t want my European American daughter with the Jewish father to absorb the culture of oppression that many Jews live in.

In two generations, cultural oppression isn’t no longer a determining reality in the lives of my family and I don’t want it to be. Understanding and recognizing the influences of our past is not the same as keeping the culture of oppression alive.

By Sharon Villines

Artist and Writer with too many interests living in Washington DC.

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