A grandmother's wisdom seems boundless to a 5-year-old. I treasured the time I spent sitting on the footrest of my grandmother's pleather recliner, having my hair braided. There, I learned the secrets to flaky biscuits and blooming houseplants--life's finer pleasures, she said. During long games of gin rummy and tonk, she taught me the difference between a good hand and a good bluff--either of which might net me a bag of penny candy.
But while I clung to most of my grandmother's knowledge, one day she told me something that didn't--I couldn't let it--ring true.
"You would have been pretty if it weren't for your nose," she pronounced while tying ribbons onto my waist-long ponytails. "I told your mother to put a clothespin on it while you were a baby, but she didn't listen." Sighing plaintively, my grandmother went on to talk about other things--exactly what I don't remember. I was too busying telling myself, "She's wrong, she's wrong."
Years later, I came to understand that like many generations of working-class African Americans long stigmatized by race, my grandmother believed that having light skin, straight hair and "good" features made one's way in the world easier. To her way of thinking, my broad nose--as opposed to my thin lips, straight hair, and freckled light skin--would impede my chances of, say, going from office cleaner to office clerk or finding the "right" (read: middle-class) man.
Luckily, my grandmother's remark came during a time when elders, regardless of race, were being pooh-poohed as sponsors of the generation gap. "She just doesn't know any better," an older cousin said, having ignored our grandmother's warnings that his huge afro and psychedelic clothes spelled certain doom. It was the 1960s in Detroit, and our psyches were rooted in the Motown sound and Black Power movement. My soul wasn't just black, it was--still is--pitch black.
While I've never been able to connect the dots between a clothespin and success, as an adult I've come to understand my grandmother's underlying concern: that as a black woman, navigating mainstream society--finding my "place" if you will--wouldn't be easy. Little did she know that I'd wind up becoming a journalist (south of the Mason-Dixon no less) who writes about controversial issues like racism for a culturally diverse readership.
But just because I developed a healthy self-image at an early age doesn't mean I don't still get tested.
My mind was whirling like the blustery wind as I reached RDU International Airport one autumn weekday morning. I was excited about my trip to the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in Florida that attracts some of the most successful media professionals in the nation. Competition to get into their seminars is fierce, especially when you're vying for space alongside Pulitzer Prize winners. Nervously, I submitted my application with the requisite writing samples.
"The sun always shines in Florida," said a warm welcome letter with a brief outline of the workshop topic: "Telling the Untold Stories." I was eager for the sunshine, and the challenge of learning how to do more authentic reporting within communities rather than just writing about them. Among other things, that meant learning how to deal with differences among people--something that required "objective" journalists like me to examine our own ingrained biases.
Aside from a militant streak that makes me sympathetic toward socially oppressed groups and distrustful of government, I didn't think I had any biases. When confronted with issues of race, I don't become defensive. Instead, I go on the offense, a mechanism that--call it a holistic quirk--comes off as self-affirmation.
"In order to know my untold story, you'd have to know about Detroit in the '60s," I told the group of 20 journalists, including instructors, during an introductory exercise at dinner that first night. "You'd have to know about the riots and music and what it felt like to have 'Black Power' role models."
Despite a few glasses of wine, my trained eyes were clear enough to observe reactions around the room. Appreciative nods came from several other African Americans; others in the racially mixed group registered little, if any, response. It wasn't that I'd necessarily turned anybody off; it had to do with those "differences" among people that we all intended to learn how to bridge. For my part, that meant stifling a dismissive yawn when some seminar participants described traditional family dinners at what sounded like Ozzie and Harriet's house, or their "adventures" at Ivy League schools.
Despite what was on each of our minds, we'd soon have to speak them--if, that is, we were going to accomplish what we'd set out to do at the seminar. We were all accustomed to asking others to "tell all" when on the job, and now it was time to flip the script, to put ourselves in the proverbial subject's shoes.
"I'm not here for therapy," said one West Coast journalist who balked at being asked to confront--then write about--her own life, including racial biases.
"I'm just not comfortable around strong, aggressive blacks," said a reporter from the Midwest, "and I don't think I'll ever be."
"Well, damn," I recall thinking, "so much for truly objective reporting." These people, like me, were the ones who help shape public opinion in this country. And while we were all professionals, colleagues of a sort, in that room I was "black," inspiring resistance in one person and apparent resignation in another.
Suddenly, only halfway off my high horse, I began thinking about all my own characterizations of whites. "Liberal" meant this, "conservative" meant that, and racist? God knows I had that down pat. But I was there to have such assumptions challenged--and, presumably, so were the other participants. While mulling that over during a break, I wound up having just the conversation I needed.
"I know all this stuff already and I'm tired of hearing about it," a veteran television reporter from the South confided to me over coffee. "It makes me angry and then I feel guilty for being angry," she lamented while highlighting her liberal upbringing and history of civil rights activism.
"Look here," I replied straightforwardly, "if you're angry about dealing with racial issues, just let that be part of the discussion. I think it'll be OK." Still hesitant to "go there," the reporter thanked me for listening. As we headed back to the class, I whispered, "If you decide to bring it up, just look my way. I'll back you up."
In some settings, the remark would have cost me my "sister card." But somehow I knew that if I'd reacted in anger or disgust at the woman's angst, I would have blown a perfectly good chance at bridging differences. What's more, something inside me felt bigger, blacker and totally assured by inviting her to talk about her feelings. It wasn't that she was "wrong" like my grandmother, but more like she'd gotten it wrong.
To my way of thinking, racism's continued existence revolves around systemic and institutional forces. Individually, she wasn't responsible, and there wasn't anything wrong with her saying so. Besides, she hadn't directed her anger at me or the other African-American participants. It was more like she'd grown tired of defending herself--a contention that ain't exactly foreign to blacks.
It took a couple more days, but when the group came back around to discussing racism in media, my Southern colleague finally made her move. "I'm tired of this issue," she said, catching my eye from across the table. A self-assured media pro, the woman glanced around the table nervously, as if thinking the talks might turn rabid. I winked at her, thinking how I might respond when she finished.
But I never got the chance. Like runners reaching for water after a marathon, the participants rushed to respond to her comments, giving her props for owning up to something lots of people--including journalists--feel but don't openly say.
After the session, the woman stopped me as I was leaving. "Thank you," she whispered, and offered me a hug. I knew that she'd appreciated my ability to be strong in my identity without becoming angry or berating her for speaking her truth. I felt good, not because I'd broken any major racial barriers or advanced world peace, but because I'd learned something from the experience. It lay in the memory of a strong-willed child muttering, "She's wrong, she's wrong," and the life of an adult who's still discovering why.