Thursday, July 15, 2010

The World in My Eyes: Disagreeing On Racism in a White/Black Household

Kevin is reading Rebecca Skloot's excellent book "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks"- a book I finished a few weeks back and recommended he (and you) read. It's the tale of how Johns Hopkins medical staff, in the effort to replicate cell growth outside of the human body, took some cancer cells from a dying African American woman in the late 1950s. They didn't ask for permission--in fact there was not then nor is there now a requirement for medical professionals to do so-- and neither she nor her family received any compensation for them. But it turned out that Henrietta Lacks' cancer cells did what no other cells had ever done: they thrived outside of her body and became an indispensible medical tool that has led to vaccines for diseases like polio, improvements in cancer treatments and a multitude of drugs that ease and cure all kinds of diseases. While the doctors who originally took the cell cultures didn't profit-- nor has Johns Hopkins Hospital--there are private labs that sell the ever-replicating "HeLa" cells and make millions each year. Meanwhile, the surviving Lacks' family have lived the last 5 decades in poverty in rural Virginia and Baltimore. Barely educated and beset with all the problems that characterize the poor, Lacks' children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren haven't benefited a penny from their mother's contribution to science.

It's a fascinating read, and I highly recommend it. It's a compelling look at the tensions between scientific advance and personal privacy. It's also a primer on institutional racism, second-class citizenship and the shadow that de jure segregation still casts on black Americans today.

Or at least, that's how I saw the book. I could draw a straight line between Jim Crow laws that limited black opportunities to the Baltimore ghetto where many of Lacks' descendants live today. It's a straight white line, since it's whole purpose was to maintain two Americas: a black one and a white one. For some of us, the line has faded. But for others, for Henrietta Lacks' descendents, even though we now live in a society that no longer can legally and openly discriminate on the basis of race, little has changed. Besides, we can and do still discriminate based on ignorance and poverty which the Lacks' descendents inherited directly from their forebears. Henrietta Lacks had a grade school education (more was rarely available to rural blacks in the '30s) and lived in an economy that penalized her and her family doubly for blackness: in leaving them the worst jobs for the least pay, and assuring that they got less for their money in higher costs of living.

Kevin saw it completely differently because, while racism plays its role in the Lacks' family saga, so do individual choices that speak not to the harshness of Jim Crow or its lingering after effects in our present society, but to the darkness of the human heart. Child abuse, murder, incest, spousal abuse and infidelity play their roles in this family's story. And while some can draw a direct line between this conduct and racism, I hesitate to do so. Racism and the sense of hopelessness to defeat it, can certainly rob people of their humanity. But it doesn't have to. There is a choice invovled. One of my favorite lines from another, very excellent book, Randall Kennedy's "Interracial Intimacies," is this one:

"The obscure man who is relatively powerless in may situations can, in a blink, reveal himself to be rather powerful in relation to others whom he is a position to hurt. For at least a moment, every rapist is powerful in relation to his victim. It is simply untenable to claim then that blacks and other discriminated-against people of color have no power. And because blacks, like all responsible individuals have some power, their moral hygiene, like everyone else's, warrants close, careful attention." (emphasis in original)

Kevin's argument weighed heavily on this moral underpinning. He argued that individual decisions count greatly for their present dilemma. Racism isn't as relevant as their individual choices. It's a choice to treat children cruelly-- racism didn't beat the Lacks' children until they were bloody. It's a choice to sexually abuse the young girls in the family. It's a choice to have children young and out of wedlock, with little means of supporting them. It's a choice to drop out of school-- and allow your children to do so. It's choice to behave in predatory ways to the people nearest you.

I agreed- but only up to a point. Cruelty and abuse, I find indefensible, period. But at what point do we separate people from their circumstances? In matters like education and out of wedlock children--are the choices the same when everyone you know lives the same way, behaves the same way, chooses the same way? Is it really a choice when your mind has never been opened to the possibilities of the wider world? Is it a choice if you don't know the choice exists and the expectations of everyone around are so low that no one else can shed any light on the options? Did this family have the same options as poor white family-- or were their options more limited from the beginning because of their color? Indeed, were the options limited because of their color, the color of the parents, the color of their grandparents?

I argued "yes". I argued that institutional racism is real, that "racism without racists" is an ongoing phenomenon that continues to make the road out of povery immensely more difficult for some. He argued "no": that racism has less to do with the story than decision after decision that closed down opportunities and narrowed the avialable options.

We went round and round... and in the end, called it a draw, without reaching any agreement. This is just one of those places where our experiences and the way we analyze them cause us to the world differently.

I'm often asked whether in marrying Kevin I've "given up" or suppressed some aspect of my black identity. I don't think so. Kevin knew I was black the day we met. He knew I saw the world through the lenses of an African American woman... and that I would continue to see the world that way. Similarly, he certainly isn't any "blacker" because of me. We conduct our relationship through the expecation of differences. We often say we're on a "long term cultural exchange program" because we are. And like a cultural exchange program, the goal isn't to change cultures. It's to get an idea of what life is like for the people who live on the other side. I think we succeed at that.

There may be interracial couples who refuse to discuss racially sensitive topics because they might lead to disagreements like ours the other night. Perhaps, in some interracial couples, racial issues are tiptoed around like sleeping children, out of fear of waking a slumbering nightmare. But because Kev and I like to read, like to talk, and enjoy each other's differing points of view, we often find ourselves in conversation that reveal a clash of ideals. Neither of us backs down from those discussions when they occur; rather, I would say that we both embrace what we can learn from and about the other in the dialogue. I don't necessarily expect that I will persuade him to my point of view-- any more than I will be swayed to his--but the sharpening of wits with an equal is something we both appreciate. There is only one rule to our discussions: mutual respect. We disagree, yes. We discuss, yes. Name-calling? No. Yelling? Never.

It probably helps that neither of us is an idealogue, pushing a specific agenda to the exclusion of all others. Both of us have a healthy appreciation for the many shades of gray in the world. We both see that the era in which one lives, the crush of forces beyond individual control, and the pervailing attitudes of the times play a part in how lives are lived. And we both understand that the choices of the individual, even under extreme pressure, speak powerfully about character and often separate those who change their world from those who don't. Our disagreements then, are often over degree: how much choice does an individual have in his or her context? When-- if ever-- does racism give one a "pass" on personal responsibility? What is the obligation of society toward it's least powerful members?

It strikes me that these are conversations that should be had around the dinner tables of all households-- regardless of the races of their occupants--and that discussions about books, about inequality, about personal and social responsibility between parents is the ultimate example to raising engaged, interested, thoughtful children.

It's always a pleasure to discuss books, current events and the world with my husband... even if he's usually wrong. Of course, he'd say the same about me...and declare my conclusions equally incorrect. Fortunately, we're able to love and respect each other anyway--probably because the common ground we share is the appreciation for reading a great book and then having someone who shares your enthusiasm to talk to about it.


  1. Glad you both enjoyed the book! It definitely DOES bring up strong and potentially deep conversations like the one you and Kevin had.

  2. @Tanesha--Thanks so much for lending it to us! Kevin's almost done, but not quite. Will return it shortly. Has Tony read it? Got any other fascinating reads to share?

  3. I did hear about this story on a news program. I was shocked that it was the first time I was hearing about it. I would love to read the book. My husband and I do have those conversations around the children. Our are teens and young adults. We want them to hear the different sides and join in with their opinions. We are lucky that for the most part we do agree on most aspects. The kids have a completely different take on situations. They are naive and their world revolves around them. I believe you must have the conversations about race. I believe the studies that show that households they think that by not speaking about race at all, makes for a non-racist child , is wrong.