By Susana Rinderle and Melissa Hahn (learn more about my smart, talented, passionate co-author on her website and LinkedIn)

This second installment in a four-part series contains our year-long reactions, reflections, and our call to action following the July 13, 2013 “not guilty” trial verdict for George Zimmerman, accused of killing Trayvon Martin in early 2012. [Read Part I].

Melissa: …my teachers did make a big effort to promote multicultural studies generally; for example we did small units on China and Italy. But when it came to exploring on-the-ground realities of intergroup relations between people who are physically living in our society together, a step beyond cultural appreciation of far-away places, something got lost. There wasn’t any kind of rootedness to help our mostly White classroom understand that what had happened in Selma was our own legacy, too.

By contrast, the way we talked about the Civil Rights movement mirrored how we studied Prohibition: As if it were some bygone era in which “mistakes were made,” but from which the country had now collectively moved forward. It’s pretty striking to look back as an adult and realize that when I learned about Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1st grade, in 1988, it actually wasn’t that far removed from the era at all. Yet we were studying it as if it were ancient history, with no connection to us or our families.

Susana: Wow, that really puts things in perspective for me, I graduated from high school in 1988! I don’t think my experience is necessarily “typical” of White Gen Xers but I think it’s an important window into the times. I believe my brother and I were part of the public school busing program in the L.A. area in the 1970s, aimed to more racially integrate the schools by busing kids to different neighborhoods and mixing up our demographics. We attended school in a working class neighborhood of color a few miles from home. It was a high crime area – stuff went down in the apartment complex next door, and occasionally an inebriated man wandered onto campus. My classmates were mostly African American, Southeast Asian refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, Armenians, and Latinos of mostly Mexican origin. While my parents remember I usually became friends with the 1-2 other White girls in class, I also was good friends with a few Black girls, a Cambodian family, and a couple Latinas. In fact, my folks said when I was really little I’d come home from school talking about the “curly-haired kids” – apparently I paid more attention to African Americans’ hair texture than skin color!

Melissa: Your memories are so vivid that I can tell it had a lasting impact on you to be surrounded by so many different races, ethnicities, and economic classes within your childhood world. How did you process it? Was there a kind of awareness that you were part of a movement toward integration, and any kind of sense you had about the future? Because at the time, you would have been the kids – and therefore the future that everyone was trying to build, right?

Susana: Even though my father grew up working class in New Orleans in the early 50s, I don’t recall race ever being discussed or commented on at home when I was young. However, we also attended an affluent Lutheran church where just about everyone was White, blond and blue-eyed. My brother and I were friends with the one Korean family, the one African American family, and the one White kid with a fro who also went to school in the “ghetto” near us. The other White kids didn’t treat my brother and I very well. Maybe it was because of class differences, or because we were smart, but even at an early age I interpreted this as racial prejudice because we looked different. Anyway, demographics in California have shifted dramatically since then, such that Latinos are the majority of school-aged children and Whites are the minority.

I think there was a feeling back then, and many signs, that race was going to be less and less of an issue with time and increased contact between groups. But not only does the research not show that contact automatically creates empathy and harmony, my experience and situations like what happened to Trayvon are evidence that the dream of “can’t we all just get along” isn’t as easy as we’d like it to be.

Melissa: From what you’re saying, it seems we’re both disillusioned, but the disillusionment comes from different places: For you, reality was not what you were told it was going to be, while mine was not what I was told it already was. You felt you were part of a future that would emerge, and I was taught that the future was already here!

In the case of my generation, I think well-meaning (White) adults hoped that if they projected a worldview onto us in which these issues were already resolved, they just magically would be. For instance, my parents were among those who tried very hard to make sure that their kids didn’t see race, thinking that if they made us color-blind, we’d avoid the darkness of earlier generations. One of the earliest historical figures my parents introduced me to was Harriet Tubman, and when we kids were all under the age of 7, they drove us all the way to Atlanta, GA, where we visited Martin Luther King, Jr.’s childhood home. My mom still tells the story of how proud she was when my Kindergarten-aged brother was unable to understand her delicate question of whether there were any kids in his class that were of color; he just kept saying “we’re all just kids, Mom!” Deliberate about raising tolerant children, my parents were elated: Perhaps racism really had ended with the Baby Boomers!

Unfortunately, while this “everything bad happened in the past” version of race relations was more palatable for parents and teachers than talking about present-day inequalities, it perpetuated a gap between the mainstream public and the growing percentage of our population that has heritages other than European American. Cut off from the facts of our own collective legacy, Whites have been able to exist in a dream world where we’re unaware of the extent of suffering in the past, blind to the injustices in the present, and inept when it comes to seeing the link between the two, or the role we’ve played in it.

They obviously had good intentions, and in some ways I am grateful for their efforts. Certainly, I can think of worse things than a little White girl in the suburbs declaring that Harriet Tubman was her hero! But ultimately, this approach also set us up for disillusionment. Because “everything’s fine now” doesn’t explain why some parents have to worry if their kids go out to the convenience store, and others don’t. Or why some kids are painted by the media as thugs if they wear baggy pants and hoodies – something that I wore all through high school and college, by the way. Generation Y is blowing the narrative and understanding of our own country — that the problem was in the past and Blacks are just holding on to the past — I think in part because we have a new stake in the direction our country is heading. So many of us are of color, mixed race, immigrants and children of immigrants, or (like me) in relationships with people who move between these categories that it is no longer possible to say everything is okay. For those of us Whites who now see with the scales removed from our eyes, we’re coming to a new realization everyone else has already known, and it’s like arriving late to a conversation we’ve been dominating.

Susana: Yes! Not to mention the whole conversation is still often so focused on just black and white, while for you and I in the west and southwest, the conversation has long been about many other shades of brown, yellow, and red. Even the fact that Zimmerman is a biracial Latino came up and faded away — people either tried to paint him as a White man, while others insisted he was Latino. Both of those conversations are so loaded in terms of White-on-Black crime, Black-on-White crime, and Black-on-Brown or Brown-on-Black crime. People seemed to frame and reframe Zimmerman’s race based on what served their narrative about the case. Including me! Even though my identity is partially as a transcultural Latina, I saw Zimmerman as White because of what I was hearing about his behavior, what he was saying, and the incident and the trial played out on the public stage –a stage dominated by White people. But in reality it’s much, much more complicated than that.

Melissa: It is complicated! And I think it’s good to just take a deep breath and admit that. It is bigger than any of us, it is nearly impossible to sort out, and it is really difficult to somehow understand race in the U.S. from every angle without succumbing to exhaustion, guilt, or a sense of futility. Because like you said, it sometimes feels like things aren’t getting better. But staying put isn’t an option either. So I’m going to be brave and forge ahead, and I hope our readers will join us!

Continue reading Part III – more reflection!

4 Comments

  • Avatar Tama Seavey says:

    Interesting series, Susana. Melissa’s statement truly spoke to me: “It is complicated! And I think it’s good to just take a deep breath and admit that. It is bigger than any of us, it is nearly impossible to sort out, and it is really difficult to somehow understand race in the U.S. from every angle without succumbing to exhaustion, guilt, or a sense of futility. Because like you said, it sometimes feels like things aren’t getting better.” Considering this, the question needs to be asked, whether or not the strategies being used in the “forging ahead” are viable. The issues involved in the racial construct of the U.S. involve complex, labyrinth-like dynamics. For every individual there is a different twist, turn, corner, and sets of needs felt that seems to require addressing in order to realize progress. As I read the dialogue between you and Melissa the evidence of this is plain as day. Reaching one wall – turn left, then right, then left again. White, black, brown, yellow, tan, cream color and on and on. When we look back at the history of our country and see that its very formation, continued perpetuation and growth has been based on racial dynamics and constructs founded upon the subjugation of one population by another, as well as the benefits reaped/achieved. Like it or not – diversity has further engaged/entrenched our country in the exacerbation of the racial constructs that and is undeniably unproductive – to the point of “exhaustion, guilt and futility” for all in the maze. Still, we cannot extricate ourselves from the constructs – all the while saying (on whole) that we, as individuals believe that someone’s race or shade of skin does not matter. An undeniable personal and professional conflict of great proportion. Add culture to the framework of race and stand atop the labyrinth to look down at the inescapable maze of conflict that diversity has created and cannot repair and cannot find the exit door from. Then, add to this that diversity and inclusion strategies have not produced any significant, measurable mutual gains – for both sides of the table. As my mother used to say, “If you are banging your head against the wall and have not gotten what you need, why are you continuing to do it? Haven’t you figured out that your head is bleeding?” Forty years of diversity – forty years of banging one’s head against the wall. Forty years and the dialogues are still separate, distinct and from one group’s perspective or another group’s perspective to the point of futility – all parties involved in the conflict fighting for their needs without realization of benefit or gain. These circumstances should be telling us something about the effectiveness and viability of the diversity effort and shine a spotlight on the need for an alternative effective strategy. Has it not become evident that another approach is necessary? The discussion and framework for solutions exists. Every change, every innovation, every step of progress has a starting place.

    • Susana Rinderle Susana Rinderle says:

      Hi Tama — thanks for your passionate and incisive comments. As you can see from the pieces, I agree! I’m about having new conversations, and about having old conversations in new ways. I’m no longer interested in the old conversations the old ways. It’s curious how when something doesn’t work we humans try to do it harder or faster or longer, or with more budget. We must get serious, and start healing the systemic disease instead of treating symptoms by putting bandaids on festering wounds. Please stay tuned for Parts 3 and 4 when we get to ideas for solutions!

  • A reply in part because I saw Tama’s response (linkedin connection) and I respect her sincerity and desire for multiculturalism. Also, I love professionals who are seeking multiculturalism. As you ladies have already communicated, multiculturalism and equality are huge tasks and worthy of the battle. Recently, multiculturalism has struck me more deeply as I was chosen among a team of educators of diverse nationalities and backgrounds to be the main editor of a modern multicultural anthology entitled Between Two Worlds (that should be available soon).

    Here are some of the issues that I have seen throughout the years from my own perspective and my many friends of various nationalities and colors and cultures (whom I am privileged to call friends):

    1) Inequality and racism and prejudice (and fear and ignorance) is a worldwide problem, not a US problem. Country upon country has shown a dominant group that has mistreated or even killed or tortured other groups because of their color, tribe, religion, ancestral roots, etc.
    2) Society and activists and the media often decrease multiculturalism and increase prejudice and racism with inflammatory rhetoric. It is sad to me that some news reports actually edited the Zimmerman phone call to make it inflammatory. Also, Zimmerman was always referred to as a white man even though he is half Hispanic and has brown skin. Now, on the other side, it is worse than sad; it is tragic that Trayvon Martin was profiled and killed, especially for being a young man who was innocently taking a walk! This, too, makes me ponder the role of the media which often looks to find the most outrageous people or events to create a stereotype of a certain class of people and soon the popular masses begin to believe it as the media holds an extremely powerful influence on people’s perception of reality (whether this be television, the internet, school texts, etc.). Wouldn’t it be nice to see the media promote more multiculturalism (beyond the Disney channel) and have honest and respectful documentaries and dialogues without shouting matches and attempts to win an argument rather than explore issues, even when we disagree?
    3) As a prison volunteer with the Gideons, it is both fascinating to me and troubling that at Christian events in the prisons, the groups are multicultural. When we have secular events (non-religious) that are open, say sports or chess tournaments, people will mingle and laugh and talk together. Inmates of all colors and races and backgrounds treat me overall with great respect and seem comfortable with me. However, in all of the cells or the eating halls, inmates are divided first by color. Then, within Hispanics they are often divided between country of origin or gang affiliation. Many have told me personally they want to interact but “rules are rules” (meaning among the inmates) and if the broke them, their lives could be in danger. How sad is it that in prison a man may be killed if he is in a cell or sits with other men of different colors. The exception is religious activities or open activities, but beyond that “we must stay with our own.” That is a tough mentality to break and it makes me wonder, what is at the root of such beliefs? Years and years of historical hatred and lack of love and forgiveness to stop this vicious cycle.
    4) Finally, I think multiculturalism will only be achieved (well, it will never be achieved completely as we all are imperfect people and the world will always have people with different beliefs) when we truly live with each other. You ladies mentioned mix-marriages among friends. I am white and my wife is Hispanic. I myself lived in Mexico and Central America for three years. My sister married a Mexican-American with dark skin. Not everyone, of course, will marry someone of a different color or culture, but it does help understand that we are all people deserving respect and dignity. I think as a general principle, one that cannot be fully implemented, that governments and businesses that have people of various cultures (and literally people who are bi-racial or multi-racial) that speak different languages and have traveled definitely can offer a multicultural perspective. Otherwise, if we only live with people who are exactly like us, it is easy to believe stereotypes and inflammatory rhetoric. Principles of love and respect and humility must be in place to interact with each other and learn from each other. It is a cliché, but it is still true: “We all bleed red.”

    Best regards,
    James

    • Susana Rinderle Susana Rinderle says:

      James, thank you for reading and taking the time to comment — I believe I read some of your work in grad school. While I’m unsure what you mean by “multiculturalism”, which is not a term Melissa or I use, I’m going to assume based on your comments that you mean racial diversity and effective relationships between and among racial groups. With that as context, I agree with you on #1 and while you have a point in #2 I disagree that the media are the creators of the tension — the tension and unresolved historical trauma are already there, which are then exacerbated by a variety of messages which provoke our ancient brains into fight-flight, friend-foe. I too have experience in prisons and with marginalized groups in the US and Latin America and my take on #3 is that what you describe is a coping mechanism that takes place within the context of broader racial, ethnic, sexual and economic oppression, and is a tribal response based on evolutionary biology. Human beings didn’t evolve to communicate effectively across differences, we evolved to interact with about 150 other humans in our lifetimes, humans that were like us. Our brains haven’t yet adapted to the realities of our daily lives in encountering so many humans, and so much human diversity, and we revert to our ancient brains when stressed. Stay tuned for parts 3 and 4 of our series, but I can tell you that mixed marriages aren’t the solution. Here in New Mexico we have one of the highest rates of mixed marriages and also rampant systemic and deeply historical racism. The “contact hypothesis” was disproven some time ago — and anecdotally I’ve also seen this play out first hand — being exposed to, living around, or marrying different “others” does NOT breed respect, effective communication or positive relationships on its own. That only happens (see Surowiecki and Scott Page) when there is inclusiveness, effective communication skills and shared power. I agree that truly living together is part of the solution, but that can ONLY happen when there is equity — shared power — and justice. As long as we continue to tolerate inequities (which are growing by the year, and have been since the 1980s) we will not be able to truly live together in any sustainable, respectful way.

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