Thursday, February 19, 2009

Just Following Orders

I agree with Ta-Nehisi Coates; that was one boring-ass speech. But I obeyed AG Eric Holder's mandate to have a meaningful and frank conversation about race today with someone of another race.

My roommate at Casa Zimbabwe in Berkeley was black. (She still is, the last time I saw her at a conference in Boston.) What drew us together was that we both sewed our own clothes (and stash fabric), and we were both female science majors (Chem and BioChem). What drove us apart was different tolerances for clutter.

She did teach me a great deal about race relations, even in a supposedly liberal town like Berkeley. When we went shopping together, store security would immediately tail us like we were there to steal, not buy. That never happened when I shopped alone. When we paid, salesclerks would hand me my change by putting it in my hand. They would put her change on the counter, like she was contagious or something.

She complained that, when she went to office hours, professors would often ignore her and answer everyone else's question first. Once, she got tired of waiting and burst into the conversation. She said that the professor looked directly at her for the first time and said, "You are not from around here, are you?" (The cute answer would be no, her father teaches economics at our arch-rival, Stanford.) But what the professor noticed was her African accent. For some reason, that professor never hesitated to call on her again.

I've heard that our self-image is often a reflection of those around us. I forget racial differences among people I know and say things that more polite people wouldn't. When our group secretary dropped off some balloons in my office for Iris this afternoon, I asked her where she got them. She replied that they were decorations from today's banquet in celebration of African American History month.

"Oh, that's right. Like Spike Lee says, they gave you February because it's the shortest month."

1 comment:

  1. Yeah, I think unless you've gone through it yourself, this type of thing is difficult to understand. While Asians are discriminated against in different ways than African Americans, we are discriminated against. And my husband, who is white, and from a country that has been largely immigrant free until recently, just doesn't understand when I get super-sensitive (he says) about things.

    I was born in TX in the 70s and on my birth certificate, my parents' race is listed as yellow...

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