Makeup Beauty Doll and Other Problems with White Privilege

Reposting, again. It’s been two years since I last posted this and many years since I wrote it. It’s still relevant.

Pamela Helberg

Many years ago, flummoxed by the joys and perils of raising two non-white children in our predominantly white culture, I wrote an essay expressing my doubts and fears, and (surprising to me now) my certainties (you will recognize them when you see them). Some of what I wrote makes sense and some of it clearly needs rethinking. Yesterday on the day we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., my eldest daughter, now 23, texted me (this is how we communicate these days). She was wondering if I thought it odd that the company for which she now works didn’t celebrate the national holiday. I do find it odd, odd that only governments and banks shut down on this Monday when the world grinds to a halt, more or less, for other national holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Memorial Day, the 4th of July.

My initial response to her was yes, MLK day…

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Michael Brown, Ferguson, MO, and WTH Country is This?

I’ve been thinking long and hard about writing this blog—frankly, the idea exhausts me. I don’t know if I can find the words to express the feelings I have about what is happening in Ferguson, what I feel about our country and our president and our law enforcement, how I feel as the mother of two African American children, how I feel as I watched protesters and journalists tear gassed and confronted by militarized police officers. Just the thought of putting my feelings into words makes me want to go to bed and pull the covers over my head. I am tired. But my feelings and emotions are nothing compared to those of Michael Brown’s parents, to those of the citizens of Ferguson, to the citizens of Chicago and Florida and Texas and Los Angeles and New York City and everywhere else in this country where the lives of black men have no value except as firearm fodder.

Don’t argue with me—the statistics are out there, the video is out there, the reality is that young black men don’t have a chance in hell against our culture. Even if they do everything right, even if their parents stay married, raise them in the suburbs, send them to the best schools, shelter them away at night, even then their chances of being stopped by police, mistaken for criminals, shot in the back, put in a choke hold, arrested for minor offenses no white person would ever be arrested for are astronomically high relative to their population. At every turn they are discriminated against—they have been portrayed in the media as simple child-like creatures and as frightening monsters, vilified at every turn.

Oh, I hear you thinking—they just need to behave better, stick around to raise their kids, stop acting like gangsters, and stop looting. But that’s the media telling you lies. I’m not here to prove it to you—I’m here to rant about it and let you do your own goddamned research. For starters read Ronald Takaki’s amazing book A Different Mirror, then read this article: and then this one, and then watch Marlon Rigg’s video Ethnic Notions.

Then, I challenge you to raise two kids of color and watch how they are treated differently. Consider being stopped and searched every time you cross the border back from Canada into your own fucking country. Every time. Think about being owned. Lynched. Flogged. Assumed guilty/stupid/inferior because you have brown skin. Then think about living in a systemic state of oppression and discrimination for the past 300 years. Imagine living in a country where all men are decreed equal but not being able to vote, get a loan, buy a house, get into college, or even walk down the street without being harassed. Imagine your every accomplishment and achievement being questioned, being assumed that your success is due only to affirmative action or cheating. Imagine assuming that your children have more of a chance of going to prison than of going to college.

Imagine that every time your children leave home, you may not see them alive again. Imagine them lying dead in the street, shot by the police who have vowed to protect this country’s citizens, shot not because they did anything wrong, but because they are Black. Imagine that you have no redress, that the cops won’t be held accountable. That the president of the United States has been silent (until today) on the matter–we’ve sent troops to foreign countries for lesser acts of aggression. He needs to stop being so fucking conciliatory and send in the feds (and hope they do a better job).

NOW tell me that you will sit quietly in your living room and wait for justice, that you won’t protest in the streets, that you won’t demand something be done so this doesn’t happen again.


R is for Racism

Last Tuesday in my Multicultural Perspectives class, we watched Ethnic Notions, (please watch this clip before continuing to read) a disturbing 1986 documentary by Marlon Riggs that chronicles the history of the depiction of African-Americans in popular culture in the 100 or so years just leading up to and following Emancipation.

A large part of what made watching this film so unsettling was that I remember many of these caricatures and have spent a lifetime trying to forget them: Little Black Sambo, Aunt Jemima, The Cream of Wheat guy, the cartoons. The mammy, the pickaninny, the coon, the Sambo, as Riggs points out. I used to sit on my grandpa’s knee while he read Little Black Sambo to me. I remember lawn jockeys, cookie jars, and other knickknacks that exaggerated and distorted African-American features in the name of entertainment.

These memories stirred deep within me as we viewed the film, as Riggs systematically demonstrated the intention behind each caricature, the impact each has had on the ways whites currently view Black Americans. With such pervasive and insidious images in our consciousness, it’s not surprising (completely unacceptable, but not surprising, really) when someone like Paul Ryan blames inner city poverty on lazy “inner city” men. And we know what he means by “inner city.”

Images like those in Ethnic Notions serve as shorthand to remind us that African-Americans can only be either simple, shuffling Uncle Toms or scary, monstrous savages. These are the images that have lodged in our minds. These are the images George Zimmerman had to have conjured up before he shot Trayvon Martin, the notions that Michael Dunn had before he opened fire on a truckload of Black teens who were playing their music too loud.

For only by dehumanizing African-Americans can we justify our treatment of them over the course of our country’s history. Only by dehumanizing an entire race can we continue to insist that they are all the things we say they are, only by dehumanizing them, can we maintain our ideas about white superiority and cling to white privilege.

Last night I watched 12 Years a Slave, and I think I must have felt the way my grandparents did when they watched Roots all those years ago—appalled by my ignorance, angered by Solomon Northup’s story, certainly. Aghast at the pervasiveness of evil, not just at how Northup came to be captured, but that there was even a system into which he could be sold. And ashamed that in spite of the intervening 100+ years, so much remains unchanged.