Boston and the Bitter Truth

During the follow-up discussion at my Meet Me Halfway reading at the Mattapan branch of the Boston Public Library yesterday, one of the audience members suggested that we take the Please Talk With Me About Race sign to Boston Common. It was a beautiful afternoon to sit in downtown Boston’s central park and the location would offer a mix of locals, students, legislative staff from the nearby state house, tourists, and business people.

We set up on a path lined with benches on both sides, with the sign facing into the flow of traffic from the center of the park. About 15 minutes in, a man came up and asked “Any takers?” No, we told him. Turns out the man was former Milwaukeean James Burnett. We remembered each other from the days when I was a school board member and he was a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentin

Talking with Amira about being a light-skinned African immigrant raised in America.

Talking with Amira about being a light-skinned African immigrant raised in America.

el. Ex-Milwaukeeans are everywhere.

James didn’t have time to talk, but our first real co-conversants showed up a few minutes later. I heard them before they came over, two young men speaking Arabic. This should be interesting, I thought, college-aged Middle Eastern men in the post-Boston Marathon bombing era. Sattam and Majed are both students from Saudi Arabia. Sattam just arrived about four months ago and his English was limited so Majed often translated for all of us.

I asked them what it was like for them in Boston. Majed told us that he stayed home from school for a week after the bombing, afraid of being harassed or worse. Sattam told us about the time soon after his arrival when he was looking for the address of his home-stay family. He approached a police officer for help. The officer asked where he was from. When Sattam said “Saudi” the officer turned his back and wouldn’t respond. Still, he feels very welcomed by his host family, a childless couple who refer to him as their “baby.”

Majed and Sattam had questions for us about race relations in America. This is one of the trends we’re seeing across cities, foreign-born people wanting to check their impressions of the race situation against our native-born assessment. Toward the end of the conversation, Sattam suggested that maybe it’s best to keep your identity hidden as much as possible, to avoid attacks. I should have taught him the word “passing,” but I didn’t; I was thinking too hard about what he said, that after only a few months in the U.S., he has deduced that it’s best to hide one’s difference.

Amira, a young Algerian-born Arab woman, was shocked at first to learn that Boston one was one of the most segregated cities in the country. She was raised in East Boston, a mostly working-class neighborhood near Logan Airport where many recent immigrants live, especially Latinos. I could see how being raised there might make you think the city’s neighborhoods were diverse.

“Yeah, you wouldn’t think so, watching this mix of people on the Common right now. But at night, if you look at where people go home to sleep, it’s really divided.”

“Oh no, you’re right,” she said finally. “I never really thought about it, but it’s true.”

Amira is a fairly light-skinned person. I asked her how the Algerians she knows in the U.S. identify racially. “Are they white?”

“No, African. African American. Arab.”

I pointed out that most Americans hearing someone is “African American” would imagine someone descended from ancestors from sub-Saharan Africa, not northern Africa like Algeria. She agreed and then told of her experiences when shopping. “If I go into H&M, I don’t get followed, but my black friend would.” Finally, she said, “I didn’t realize how angry this makes me.”

Mike, an older Jewish transplant from New York, told us about his surprise at the racism in Boston when he first moved here during the 1970s battles over school integration. When he moved to Boston a second time about seven years ago, he was “desensitized” to the racism. “‘It’s just the water,’ says the fish,” he said.

Mike had introduced himself with “an interesting race fact”: When W.E.B. DuBois attended a “race conference” in about 1903, 70 “races” were being discussed. “Swedish could be a race. Jewish was a race.” It wasn’t just about skin color.

While we were talking to Mike, Zag and Yoshi zoomed up on their skate boards.

“What do you mean by ‘race’?” Zag wanted to know, his face flush with skating and his eagerness to talk. “Do you mean skin color or do you mean like running a race?” (I thought again of the man in Brooklyn who had joked, “I’ll race you!”)

“Skin color.”

He told me he thought the very basic phrasing of our sign was “genius” because it leaves things open so many interpretations and therefore to a range of conversations. Zag launched unprompted then into his beliefs about race. Difference in skin tone is just a biological variation. “But race,” he said, “was created by people because of insecurities.”

Soon Zag and Mike were in conversation about W.E.B. DuBois and that story about the 70 races. Zag was shocked to hear that at one point “race” meant “ethnic background” as well as “skin color” and was working that into his understanding of difference as he stood before us. Yoshi added a little something here and there but ultimately pulled the plug. “Dude, we gotta skeedad!”

It had clouded over while we were talking; Keren and I were getting cold. We were just about to pack up when Greg came to sit next to us. A white-haired Italian American man, Greg looked like he had just stepped off his yacht, with his soft leather loafers, shorts, and cap. He asked whether I thought what happened in Ferguson was racially motivated. I told him I thought it was, reminding him that Darren Wilson’s testimony revealed that he thought of Mike Brown as a “demon,” dehumanizing the victim. Greg asked if I thought Wilson would have shot a white man who was reaching for his gun. I said I didn’t think that the “Brown grabbed Wilson’s gun” argument had been established as fact, that witnesses reported a range of impressions of the event.

Greg told us he had been watching us for a while before coming to talk. “There’s a couple of libs,” he said he was thinking. “But I don’t think you are, or maybe you are, but you’re willing to talk.”

I’ll admit, I had been concerned that those initial inquiries about my thoughts on Ferguson were “gotcha” questions. I’ve experienced that before, where white people push back against discussion of race by trying to trap me in some rhetorical corner, usually dealing with the need for “facts” specific to one isolated event, facts that neither of us could possibly produce. It’s an easy way to avoid discussion of systemic discrimination and institutionalized racism. But maybe Greg was just testing us out, to find out our tone and motives.

He told us about how he used to work with a black man in one of the office buildings that encircle the Common. Greg’s fellow employee told him about how his father felt the need to sleep with a gun for safety and about crosses being planted in their front yard.

“And I’m thinking, ‘What is this? The 1800s?!’ It was the first time I realized what a black man goes through.”

Still, Greg said, “If I saw a black guy right here at night” — he gestured to the path in front of us — “I would cross to the other side. I try to be different, but then I think, ‘I have to protect myself.'”

Keren asked him where that decision to move away from the black man on the path comes from.

“From what you hear on the news, from other people’s stories,” he said.

Greg wished us well on our journey and we finally packed up the sign and our notes. We stopped at an arepa cart and bought two of the hot corn cakes to warm our hands and bellies.

Leaving the Common, I thought about a line from the work of Yiddish poet Anna Margolin that Mike had just taught us: “Drunk from the bitter truth, I refuse all other wine.” Seems appropriate for the race-facing work Keren and I are doing. We’re drinking a lot of bitter truth, but there isn’t any other tonic, really, if America wants to truly heal.

May 1, 2015 Blog Posts