Friday, July 6, 2012


I have race prejudice. I tried to exorcize it when I wrote "Somebody, Woman of the Century," expressing my own feelings through the heroine of the book, Cordelia.

From age twenty till the end of the book, Cordelia's best friend, who becomes her "sister," is Rayella, a black nanny and maid.

Cordelia is in her seventies, when Kate, her estranged daughter, whom she hasn't seen for six years, appears unexpectedly. There's an awkward silent moment at the door then this:

Kate said, "I dropped in today to help the cause -- the Women's lib movement. Maybe get an article in the Elliot newspapers about MS. Magazine, or get an ad in the papers for free. You could help."


"You're the executive editor. You could tell the Elliots to make a news page for women. And get feature stories about the first female FBI agent, or the first woman Rabbi -- the progress we've made—girls in the Little League, girls training at NASA, a female's at the summit of Mt. Everest! You could write an editorial. You could be a spokesperson, Mom, and a leader for us!"

. . . Mom . . . not for a long time had Kate called her Mom with reverence . . . It took a moment before Cordelia said, "Kate, the movement is progress and important, but I'm a congresswoman. I have other priorities."

"Mom, women have been downtrodden for years!"

"So have the blacks." . . . what could she say, yammer about civil rights laws that weren't working, bombard Kate with facts showing that equality for women wasn't as important as all men are created equal . . .

"You're not black, Mom! You're a woman!"

"That's your feeling. Not mine, Kate."

Kate muttered through her teeth, furiously. "What a cop-out!

(The mother-daughter conflict continues, as part of the plot for the rest of this novel.)

Back in my grade school days in Winnetka, Illinois, there was a black boy in my class.. My classmates and I were shocked when we saw him at a desk in the front row, but he was smart. He certainly seemed to deserve to be there. Soon he started lunching with one of the girls. We sixth graders gasped, and whispered about it being wrong. Soon other issues diverted us, and they both disappeared -- she moved to another town and he stopped coming to class.

I didn't think much about prejudice till I got to New York City and was trying to be a dancer. Junior Ann Henry, a black girl, and I became a dance duo. Duke Ellington liked us, so did Louis Jordan. (You can read about the year I tried hard to be "black" in AIN'T NOBODY HERE BUT US CHICKENS.)

I didn't want to dance like any of the white dancers I knew -- they didn't thrill me. But Talley Beatty did -- he was a black dancer who had magic in his bones. So did Janet Collins, and Alvin Ailey -- he had it and so did Carmen de Lavallade. I wanted that magic in my own bones. It just wasn't there. I wondered if it was because I was white.

I had a head-on collision with another kind of prejudice when it came to gays -- the good-looking male dancers I hired for my Dance Drama Company. Again and again, I found these guys unreliable. I found them imitating what I didn't like about women --. exaggerated helplessness, that sibilant tone of voice that was excessively female, and those broken wrists, their ridiculous concern with a perfect hairdo, perfect outfits.

It didn't occur to me that I was prejudiced, that it was wrong to think the thoughts I "thunk." But when we had a flat tire, the men who could have, should have helped, sat cozily in the warm car, while we girls went out in the snow, to do the work.

Slam-bam! I was told by a friend who's in a lesbian relationship, that whenever I talked or wrote about gay guys or gals, I expressed old-fashioned race-prejudiced ideas. It got me thinking about remarks I made about various well-known creators in show biz. "Oh he's gay!" I would murmur, letting "gay" explain why so-and-so was successful, Was it because birds of a feather flock together -- the gays hire gays? Was it jealousy? Was it because I'm not gay, and not a top flight name in dance?

Apparently, grade school experiences, magic bones, gays. success in theater, and all that I heard and observed over the years -- all that prejudice stuff that's part of American culture -- is in me.

Touré, (he uses one name only), black American essayist, music journalist, cultural critic, and television personality, author of four books, including "Who's Afraid of Post Blackness," which the NY Times called the "notable book for 2011," said in an article in Time recently, "Inside the racist mind, bias is the complex neural play between emotions and beliefs... It's learned quickly, often after a single presentation, of an unconditioned stimulus in a fear learning paradigm." Quoting surveys, psychologists, and research, Touré proves how prejudice is ingrained in us.

I wasn't surprised to learn that 15 percent of Americans believe that blacks pose a greater threat to public safety than any other groups, and realize that my prejudices about gays is built on words in the air, hand-me-down ideas of what's masculine, what's feminine.

Okay, Touré, you're right. I'm prejudiced. Prejudice is a pair of gloves in my drawer that's filled with gloves I've sort of collected over the years.

I don't wear them all the time, but I sometimes I put them on them without thinking -- it's the weather, they look nice, sort of enhance the outfit I'm wearing. Without thinking, just reacting, when I see plays, like "Streetcar Named Desire," with blacks playing the leads, it seems wrong. In Shakespeare In the Park last year, when a black actress played the lead in "Measure for Measure" I was very aware, distracted by one black nun in a group of whites nuns.

I can't change. It's a conditioned reflex. I see a black person and it registers -- he's black, she's black. I hear someone's accent and I might think "Latino." Also, it registers if a person is fat -- I am prejudiced against fat people. I am prejudiced against women who wear too much perfume. Hey, I am even prejudiced against old people inching along, crowding the sidewalk when I'm in a hurry, or homeless people, sleeping on my street.

I don't know how to eliminate prejudice.

But I can try to throw out the gloves.


Ameer S. Washington said...

We're all prejudiced in one way or another. I'm even prejudice to black people, and here I am black. But I think there is a way to be prejudice without being hurtful; keep it in your own mind, less it becomes racism. Do be prejudice, but be willing to be proven wrong; i.e., give opportunity where the merits of the individual warrant such action. These things are called tolerance and with it we allow ourselves to crow. We were born into a world of hatred and difference. Our job is to work not to perpetuate the wrongdoings. The first step as they say to all alcoholics is, first admit it, and then we can move forward.

Carola said...

I think the people who think they don't have any racism are the scary ones. They have no self-awareness or understanding of how deeply seated this is. We just need to be conscious of it, when it appears in our selves, try to quell it, and eliminate from our behavior.

Sudhin Choksey said...

EM, you have been so honest and that too in the public domain !! This honest confession itself shows that you do not have gloves in the drawer !!

We all have some kind of prejudices against fellow human beings; may be based on colour, class, caste or any other criteria. Likes and dislikes are part of the human mind which we all strive to overcome and become detached of such biases. May be this journey as human being is all about learning to become detached from such likes and dislikes for our soul. Not many of us succeed at such detachment. But then such endeavours are appreciated by the Almighty and soul travels with lesser guilt feelings.

I try to handle such feelings by sincere attempt to not get affected by the prejudices and biases. But I am sure many times we would be making such mistakes.

Anonymous said...

You and I are alike Em with our prejudices. We were brought up this way which to many seems old fashioned and out of date with the times. We cannot help ourselves, but as you say-throw out the gloves. I was a musician and singer years ago in a big city and had a following of about 50 women...didn't know they were gay-thought they just were a nice group of smart women for a long time....they loved me and my music. Life is funny sometimes! kam

Anonymous said...

We all have prejudices. It works both ways. People of all colours are prejudiced against people of all colours.
It's a natural survival mechanism with its roots in fear. 'Blorg died when that spider with the red hourglass on its back bit him. Therefore all spiders with red hourglasses on their backs are dangerous.'
We are bombarded with bad news and connect the name and appearance of the 'perp' with danger.
Newspapers and TV News often have their own agenda> to fan the flames of hate and fear to sell their story.
I think the problem with racial prejudice is more culture than race.
Culture is beliefs. One race or people believes it is OK to eat cats, dogs, and sharkfins, invade another country for their own good and kill people, kill one another for their religious beliefs, or interfere with the way a people treat their women or homosexuals.
People disagree on the above.
But we attribute these beliefs to races or categories of people.
Thus the prejudice against blacks, homosexuals, or the new one, Muslims.
But not all people of one race or culture are the same.
Every people has fanatical/extreme members, who can give them a bad name (with other cultures).
And when you percieve a person as having this unclean reputation, you'll be less apt to trust them, less apt to give them a second chance when/if they screw up. And who hasn't screwed up?
Star Trek had some black characters, but to me two stand out. Engineer Jordie, and Vulcan Tuvok.
When I watched Star Trek, I had absolute trust in these two characters. I knew they wouldn't hurt me. That they'd stand up for me without consideration for my sex, race, country, or the colour of my skin.
That's what got me to thinking about prejudice.
So that's why I say, prejudice is about fear.
If you know someone will stand up for you, fight along side you, and never purposely hurt you, you will not be prejudiced against them no matter what their ilk.
This is somewhat longer and less succinct than I would prefer, and I don't think I've written it very well, but it's the best I can do on a comment page.
Prejudice is something I address in my stories, but I write scifi and fantasy, so it may be hard to recognize.
Yet another intriguing, thought provoking question, Em. Thank you.
Louise Sorensen
@louise3anne twitter

Maureen Jacobs said...

I know the family of the first doctor in Daytona Beach who REFUSED to segregate his waiting room. I am proud of his forward thinking that caused him to lose some 'white' patients. He was a pioneer in a time that was still rooted in past mistakes.

Being from the north, I never really grasped racism as I had never known it. As a resident of the south now, I realize those scars are there and fresh.

As a parent, I embrace diversity and am striving to teach my boys the diversity in people with regards to religion, race, handicap, sexual preference, and others. I, for one, want this prejudice to end.

For us, education is the key.

Poet_Carl_Watts said...

Opinions based on factual data is not prejudice. Opinions based on rumor, imagined facts is prejudice. If a group is unreliable, then as a general rule, they will be unreliable.

Generalities are just that. Each person should be judged based on their actions. And who you associate with is an action. A person that associates with criminals is dangerous.

But a negative reaction because of the past is not sane. Be in present time and deal with the person in front of you. Communicate with them. Their true worth will appear soon enough. :-)

Peggy Bechko said...

I think we all have some prejudice or another due to upbringing, experiences in life, whatever. It's not exclusive to any group. It doesn't seem like the prejudice itself is the damning factor, but rather how one acknowledges and deals with it within oneself. If we could get more and more people (regardless of color, sex or sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, whatever) to try to understand the prejudices within themselves (where they come from and why) and work to eliminate them we'd be making giant strides.

Linda Phillips said...

I grew up in an all white neighborhood. When there was talk that a Chinese family might be buying a was a real big deal.

Luckily, I began private school, in a school where there were black children. I was actually drawn to them, lovely kids that I really liked. Later I went to Professional Children's School. There were well known people in my class and in other grades. Some were Black and Asian. Many were my friends.

My parents were not as educated. They had always lived in an all white world with the exception of cleaning people.

One time, a well known singer, who was black, came over with another friend for a visit. My parents were amazed at how lovely he was, but....he was also famous so I wonder if their reaction to him would have been different had he just been an ordinary kid.

As far as gays. I have had gay friends for as long as I can remember. I am also old enough to remember those who were "swishy". I think it was all an act to compensate for being "different".

To me gays are no different than straights. I have always had dear, close gay friends. That would include lesbians as well as gay men.

Am I prejudice? Sure. I am very uncomfortable here in CA with the Mexicans who are thugs or look low class. My cleaning lady is a lovely Mexican lady and certainly not a thug nor is she low class and I truly love her. When I lived in NYC, I felt the same about poor, low class Peurto Ricans.

I think we all have some prejudice in us, no matter what we say or how "liberal" we are. Its sad, but its true. Its not something that I like about myself, but its true.

Anonymous said...

I'm prejudiced against obnoxious people who talk loudly on cell phones in public places as if they have a right to impose their silly and inane conversations on other people.
I'm prejudiced against fat people who bulge over and take-up part of another person's seat on a plane and apparently believe that it is their inalienable right to do so. (Closest I've come to hitting another person in a long time)
I'm prejudiced against rude people, lazy people, people who smell bad...The list goes on and on.
Having grown up on a Georgia farm and spent a lifetime in the construction business, I have lived with and worked with black people all my life. I would have to say that my prejudices, for the most part, are color blind and oblivious to sexual orientation.

Nafisa Ford said...

I have to agree that we all have prejudice. It is very difficult in a world full of difference to always be comfortable in a room where we may feel alone because of our fears. Very profound group by the way. But we should try to remember that moment when we didn't feel different, because prejudice is not a birth defect, when we just played and enjoyed each other. When the sand box was full of kids of all kinds and we just wanted the Tonka truck that pushed the sand around. There were no differences then. I remember the last time someone surprised me and called me the "N" word. Silly enough I was stunned, lol, maybe it's the "Pollyana" in me as my friends say but I just enjoy our difference, full on lay out in the grass and look at the clouds with our differences. In the animal kingdom differences are an anomoly, in the human condition they are everywhere therefore they are a Blessing. Some happy, some sad but all building on the quilt that is our journey in life. Sharing lessons of life with each of us if we just open up and listen. Ok, I am long winded, but thank you Em for sharing.

Asha Nzingha Rahni said...

Prejudice is one thing racism and white hegemony are quite another. If the Spanish, French and English had stayed in Europe and said nasty things about the Indigenous peoples' of Africa, the Americas and Asia, I don't think the inhabitants of these continents would have cared much. But that is not what happened. The English and the Spanish became the worst perpetrators of genocide that the world has ever known. They murdered,raped and stole their way into positions of power that their descendents still enjoy. They projected their own violence,greed and treachery onto people of color.
White men in the American south raped and impregnated Black women from slavery until
the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's.(Rosa Parks was an advocate for Black women who had been raped by white men). During slavery, children inherited the condition of their mothers, meaning children of white rapist slave owners would remain in slavery. Five generations removed from slavery, African Americans are about 17% white.Our white ancestors are not white women. We carry the Y chromosomes of white men who raped Black women for generations with impunity. (Barack Obama identifies as African American because he knows that both he and descendents of slavery are the descendents of white slave owners.)
Whites, particularly in the south, were fearful that Black men, once emancipated, would take revenge. This never happened, but the so-called prejudice against Black men remains in existence to this day. This "prejudice" is rooted in southern white male pathology and sexist violence. It is projection.

White American prejudices are learned projections passed onto innocent children of each generation.
Native Americans were openly called savages until the 1970's. Yet they received the whites
onto this land with kindness and civility. It was only when they realized that the whites had come to murder and to steal their land that they began to resist. Who were the real savages?
One prejudice against Africans Americans is laziness. Black people performed most of the labor in this country for 300 years. The bodies of formerly enslaved Blacks were exhumed. It was found that their muscles were torn from their bones, which meant they were literally worked to death doing the work southern whites should have had the humanity and self-respect to do for themselves--in Europe on land that belonged to them.

Latinos are constantly accused of being violent and flagrantly crossing the"border".
As they often say,"We did not cross the border.The border crossed us." Who has been more violent than the American white men? Who has crossed more borders?

Em,I find you to be a bright and charming person and I enjoy reading your posts. However, discussions about prejudice cannot be divorced from issues of white supremacy, white hegemony(greed), white violence (genocide) for they are at the root of all that undermines racial and world harmony. Whites would do well to gain clarity about their collective historical interactions with people of color. Those who have the courage to do this work will be greatly rewarded, for the burdens of "prejudice" will be lifted. Compassion, humility and contrition will take its place. Of course, this work is heavy lifting, far more taxing than casting off a pair of gloves. God bless those with the fortitude to do it.
No doubt, my words will be perceived as brutal. But it is the history that is brutal and ugly. It must be confronted.