Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Dream Deferred

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom -- as it was technically called -- and Martin Luther King, Jr.'s riveting "I Have a Dream" speech. I wasn't alive in 1963, but I still got chills when I heard the recording of King's voice on NPR this morning.

I have been thinking about race today, however, for a smaller, more personal reason.

The Gate Door

Yesterday morning I read a note on our community list-serv about a predator trying to snatch a six-year-old girl near a Montessori school in the neighborhood adjacent to mine. I try not to fall prey to fear mongering, but I admit it shook me up a bit.

My son, as you might know, is a runner. And usually not in my direction. I try to give him space, but the big playground in my neighborhood is badly set up. There is a gate-less ramp to a second level, and a big bathroom facility that blocks my view of one of the main entrances. It makes me nervous when Henry runs up the ramp and behind the building where I can't see him.

There is a third "big kid" section of the playground, but the big kids -- and a lot of their parents -- don't remember to keep the door to the "little kid" section closed, which is a huge pet peeve of mine, not the least of which because it is bad manners. And because Henry can zero in on an open gate from 200 feet away, using his little sonar bat senses.

My general fatigue at keeping up with the little man(iac) yesterday, coupled with the shred of unsubstantiated fear (to which I am sadly prone) planted by the community note, made me choose to take Henry to a smaller -- but more enclosed -- playground a little further away, where I could see him from all angles, and where there were two small gates with doors that led only to a larger park instead of the street.

I sat down on a bench across the playground from the gate, with the hot, setting sun to my back. I thought wistfully how the sun's trajectory was already changing at this late August date. There were two nannies sitting on the bench to my left with a gaggle of children chattering around them.

Henry headed toward the swings. All of a sudden, one of the nannies started yelling, "Loose baby! Loose baby! Whose baby?!"

At first I didn't react. I wasn't worried; I thought the gate was closed, since I had moments earlier closed it myself. But then I saw the little towhead to whom she was referring. My little runner was, of course, toddler-bolting straight for the now-open gate door. I ran over to grab him right before he made it out.

I began to shut the door with one hand while dragging Henry, who had gone limp in protest, with the other. I realized suddenly that a man standing there was talking to me.

"I'm sorry?" I asked.

"I'm going out," he said, looking annoyed. But I was also annoyed -- about the open gate door -- and since there was no one else around, I assumed he had been the one to leave it ajar.

Never one to keep my mouth shut, I asked him -- not angrily, but admittedly with a tired sort of edge to my voice -- "Are you the one who left it open?"

"No," he said, quickly and defensively.

"Okay," I said, shrugging.

"Why would you ask me that?" he said, decidedly confrontational in voice and stance.

I have been known to talk back to strangers, believe me. But this wasn't the time -- I hadn't, after all, seen him open the gate -- nor the place -- I was at the playground with my toddler -- to rise to a public argument.

I said I didn't know and walked away still dragging Henry. The man exited the park and closed the door behind him, but not before adding, "I've been here before anyone else. I didn't leave the park door open." He needed the last word, and he had gotten it, so fine. I watched him stand outside the gate door to wait for his wife and son to leave the playground.

"What did he say about the gate?" one of the nannies, who had witnessed the conversation, asked me when I returned to the bench.

"He said it wasn't him," I responded.

"You were the bigger person," the other nanny said, kind of loudly.

I laughed. "Well, he didn't seem too pleased with me, and I didn't want to get into a fight."

"That's right. You did the right thing," the loud nanny said.

And then I thought it was over. Henry went to climb the ladder in front of me, and I pulled out my phone for a modicum of anticipated peace.

Moments later, the man returned and sat down on the bench with the nannies, leaning in towards me.

"I want to know why you asked me that question," he said, with an edge to his voice that was neither pleasant nor commensurate with the scene that had taken place.

"What question?"

"Why did you ask me if I left the door open? I am an educated, black man, and I want to know why you asked me that."

Oh, great. Now this stranger was calling me a racist because I had asked him if he had left a gate open. Me. The one who purposely moved to our current neighborhood instead of Whitey McWhiteville Park Slope in part so my child would grow up experiencing the rainbow of colors I find so compelling about New York.

"Because you were the only one standing there," I responded, which was so blatantly the truth that the man paused and blinked.

Again, I thought it was over. But it wasn't!

"Well, then, why did you come over here and talk about it to them," he continued, his voice increasingly agitated, gesturing to the nannies.

"They asked me!" I protested, beginning to become agitated myself, but my words were drowned out by the thunderous response of the two nannies, who were also, incidentally, black.

"Who you calling 'them'?" the loud one cried. They both started in on him about his harassing the "nice young lady" (me).

"If you so educated," the other nanny asked him, "why you so rude?"

Jesus Christ. I wanted to disappear.

The man stood up and fired back at the nannies. I said nothing, averting my gaze as the argument escalated, the loud nanny and the man each trying desperately to shout the other down. Everyone on the playground was looking at us.

Then, to add fuel to the fire, the man's wife came over with her son and started trash-talking the two nannies.

"Who are you?" she yelled at them. "You ain't nothing but a babysitter. Why don't you get a real job."

The argument spun dangerously close to out of control until the loud nanny literally said, "You better watch yourself, honey, or there's gonna be red all over that tight white dress you wearin'."

A white woman standing on the playground structure with her child told everyone to calm down. "Let's remember where we are, on a playground with children."

Something about the admonishment annoyed me, too. It seemed patronizing. I wanted to tell her to mind her own business, but it didn't matter. The group flat-out ignored her.

At this point I thought about getting up and leaving but was worried I would draw more attention to myself that way. I kept my mouth shut for a change and tried to concentrate on Henry, who seemed blissfully unaware, climbing and crawling on the playground structure.

The man had either grown tired of the conversation -- perhaps he thought he had sufficiently made his point -- or was genuinely worried his wife was going to get in a physical brawl on the playground.

"Okay, honey," he said. "Let's go." He guided her away by the arm, but not before looking at me and saying, "You have a good day, ma'am, and God bless."

I couldn't tell if he was being serious or sarcastic. I just nodded and looked away as they left the playground, his wife and the loud nanny still screaming at one another until the couple was out of earshot.

The less outspoken nanny looked at me and said something in a kindred spirit. I don't remember what, though, because the tingling lump under my breastbone summarily rose up uninvited and spilled hot tears out of my eyes.

I tried to regain control of my face as the nannies yammered on to me and anyone else who would listen -- "Who he callin' 'them'?" "Educated black man, my butt," "That man not used to being talked back to" -- but it was too late. I didn't know why I was crying. Embarrassment at being the center of such negative attention? Anger at being unfairly accused?

The white woman on the playground structure and a white man with her gaped at my contorted face but said nothing. When I glanced up, they looked away.

"Oh, now I feel so bad!" said the loud nanny, noticing my tears. "Don't you worry about him." Et cetera.

I didn't want to seem ungrateful to the nannies who had risen to my defense (or to their own?), but I wanted them to stop talking to me, stop telling everyone about it, stop drawing attention.

Just then, Henry walked over smiling. Did he see that I was upset? Did he understand and want to make me feel better? That would have been sweet, but mostly, I hope not. I hope he was just happily playing and it was time to see Mama. I busied myself stroking his sweaty hair and giving him a snack until I composed myself. I kissed his red cheek and his blonde head and sent him back out to play.

The (also black) nanny seated on the bench to my right asked me quietly if the man had actually accused me of questioning him about the gate because he was black.

"No," I responded, "he didn't say that until he came over here."

"Why do people have to make everything about racism?"

"I don't know," I said. "He doesn't know fucking shit about me," I added, immediately regretting the unnecessary expletive that belied my own education.

The lump in my chest settled down to a moderate humming -- not interfering nor completely subsiding. I wanted to leave, but Henry needed to run around. I called out to him every now and then in Italian so no one else would strike up a conversation.

As I was standing up to leave an hour later, two white men in their early forties came over and excused themselves as they used my bench as a stepping stone to the top of the metal fence, which they then used to launch themselves to ground on the other side.

"But," I started to say lamely, "the door is right...." I trailed off before I could finish the sentence, "over there." They were already gone. I glanced across the way and saw that the gate was open again.

The nannies and I looked at one another and burst out laughing.

"What on earth is going on today?" the loud nanny said.

"Is it a full moon?" I responded.

I finished packing everything up and mercifully left the playground. "Well, it's been real," I said to the nannies with a smile as I left.

"You have a great evening," the loud one said. "We'll see you around here."

The Lump

I breathed a sigh of relief when I finally clicked the deadbolt to our apartment door. We had some dinner; Henry took a bath. I read him a lot of stories and kissed his cheeks over and over. Somehow he knew not to make a fuss as he went down for the night at 7:30 pm.

I sat at the desk and stared at the three computer monitors my husband set up for working at home. One screen showed the crib monitor, with Henry arranging his water bottle, llama-red-pajama doll and blanket so he could go to sleep, butt up, ankles crossed. Bliss.

I stopped to consider the lump in my chest, the humming, tingling, buzzing nuisance that no longer permitted me to cry despite my waiting for the moment when I could. What had upset me so much about the playground encounter? Had I, in fact, made an implicit assumption based on race, like George Zimmerman, sans chutzpah and gun?

Would I have asked the same question to a white man, a black woman, a white woman, a black adolescent, a white adolescent? I could safely answer that, yes, I would have asked the question to anyone, even a teen, fed up as I was with the open-gate-door situation in my neighborhood.

But would I have had the same edge to my voice when asking those other people? I had to admit that I wasn't sure. Perhaps not.

The man clearly had a crater on his shoulder the size of the Grand Canyon. Did he have a right to assume I was racist? It offended me, but maybe he did. Did he have a right to be so confrontational, so antagonistic? At first glance probably not, but maybe he was the one tired of being wrongly accused. Maybe I was the last straw. Maybe I was the last straw that day. Or maybe he was just a jerk.

The Law of Unconscious Bias

There is a good deal of literature that supports the idea that, like it or not, we are all unconscious, if not out-and-out, racists. A recent post from NPR's Code Switch blog sums it up nicely:
In the popular imagination and in conventional discourse — especially in the context of highly charged news events such as the shooting of Trayvon Martin — prejudice is all about hatred and animosity.
Scientists agree there's little doubt that hate-filled racism is real, but a growing body of social science research suggests that racial disparities and other biased outcomes in the criminal justice system, in medicine and in professional settings can be explained by unconscious attitudes and stereotypes. (emphasis is mine)
Researchers out of the University of Virginia recently did some work on what exactly helped people decrease the amount of unconscious bias they held. Surprisingly, "[t]eaching people about the injustice of discrimination or asking them to be empathetic toward others was ineffective." Instead, people needed "counter-stereotypical" images (for example, a woman in a construction hard hat and outfit breastfeeding a child) to counteract their automatic assumptions.

Cynthia Lee, a research professor of law from George Washington University published an article about "implicit racial bias" following the Trayvon Martin case stating,
The effects of implicit racial bias are particularly likely to operate under the radar screen in a society like ours that views itself as post-racial.
[I]ndividuals are more likely to overcome their implicit biases if race is made salient than if race is simply a background factor—known but not highlighted. Making race salient or calling attention to the relevance of race in a given situation encourages individuals to suppress what would otherwise be automatic, stereotypic congruent responses in favor of acting in a more egalitarian manner. (emphasis is mine)

Am I Racist?

In my search for information on unconscious racial bias to add to this essay, I came across a Harvard University tool called Project Implicit, which claims to have a test that "measures attitudes and beliefs that people may be unwilling or unable to report" and "shows that you have an implicit attitude that you did not know about."

A 2009 meta-analysis research study of 122 published and unpublished reports of 184 different research studies in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology showed that the tool had
validity in predicting behavior and, in particular, that it has significantly greater validity than self-reports in the socially sensitive topics of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation and age. (emphasis is mine)
In other words, even if you honestly think you are not racist or sexist, you could still be so.

I decided to take the test about Race ("Black - White"). The test began with a questionnaire about racial views. I am not so arrogant as to assume none of the cultural associations in which I have been bathed my entire life have rubbed off on me. I self-reported that I had a "slight" preference for European Americans compared to African Americans, even though I would like to believe I have none.

Then I took the test. Unsurprisingly, I was one of the 70% of test takers who indeed had a preference for European Americans compared to African Americans. 

What I was not ready for was this: "Your data suggest a strong automatic preference for European American compared to African American."

I was in the top category. One of 27% of test takers with a "strong" automatic preference. Another 27% had a "moderate" preference, 16% had a "slight" preference, 17% had "little to no" preference. The remainder had a slight, moderate or strong preference for African Americans over European Americans.

The test tried to soften the blow: "Most respondents find it easier to associate African American with Bad and European American with Good compared to the reverse." But I was crushed. Really? A "strong" preference? I voted for Obama twice. I did pro bono consulting in West Africa. I am a liberal, for Pete's sake.

I decided to take another Race test called "Light Skin - Dark Skin." This time I understood the test and knew what I was trying to avoid. To no avail. My result: "Your data suggest a moderate automatic preference for Light Skin compared to Dark Skin."

Moderate. My stomach sank. I read further.
The interpretation is described as 'automatic preference for Light Skin' if you responded faster when Light Skin faces and Good words were classified with the same key than when Dark Skin faces and Good words were classified with the same key. Depending on the magnitude of your result, your automatic preference may be described as 'slight', 'moderate', 'strong', or 'little to no preference'. 
The test measured reaction time. Even when I tried to fool it, it still registered my instincts. Perhaps the "effort" on the second test bumped me down on the unconscious racial bias scale. Perhaps "light skin" versus "dark skin" is closer to my personal continuum of acceptability than "European American" versus "African American." Who knows. Consider me chastened. Very.

What if I cried yesterday because I realized the man might have had a point, and I was mad at him for exposing it? Regardless, I am still not sure what he expected me to do in that scenario. Apologize on the spot for being a white, yuppie, gentrifying racist? Launch into a passionate defense of my record on race to a complete stranger?

Maybe he was hoping I would simply think about it. I doubt many people would have analyzed the interaction as much as I did. Would he believe that I did? Would I want to tell him? Admit that in his abrasive, antagonistic way, he might have been right?

And how will this apparent "automatic preference" affect my child's upbringing? I have written about how I want my child to understand and act on his immense privilege in the world. Is making the issue "salient" for me, as the GWU study suggests, enough to alter my assumptions? Or will Mommy always be a little bit of a hypocrite?

What Happens to a Dream Deferred?

Four years before the poet Langston Hughes died, Dr. King, in the most famous speech of his career and of the civil rights movement, gave a nod to one of Hughes' most well known poems.

Courtesy of Poetry Foundation

Even in a world in which a brilliant, mixed-race man is president of the United States, I fear the dream of a post-racial society is not yet upon us. I am not sure we will ever get there, given our species' penchant for categorizing, labeling and defining "us" versus "them," whoever "we" and "they" happen to be.

Sometimes, a dream deferred explodes a little inside the gate of a Brooklyn playground. I said the man didn't know fucking shit about me. Turns out, maybe he did.


Dear Interwebs, This was really difficult for me to write, let alone publish. Please be civil in your discourse below. Thanks.

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono /