Fifty Years Later: If Not Now, When?
Sykes Luncheon Talk
June 3, 2016
Ellen Hofheimer Bettmann
Class of 1966
I am honored to be here. And more than a little daunted.
All of the people in this room have a story to tell, and 50 years of experience under our (sometimes elastic) belts, so I feel that, in many ways, I have been invited to speak for all of us today, although through my particular lens. I hope I will do us justice.We, the women of the class of 66, came into adulthood at a tricky time. Maybe all people feel that the time when they come to maturity is complicated. In our case, when we set out for college we were going off to attend an "allgirls school." Shortly after our graduation we were "girls" no more, even if our first paid employment required a typing test.We saw major societal shifts on the horizon, and we had sufficient perspective to satirize the changes we saw coming in that fabulous off, off, off Broadway classic The Feminine Mistake. [A revival of the kick line has been tentatively scheduled to take place on the green immediately following lunch.]
At my high school if you were interested in student government leadership you could be the secretary. The president, vice president and treasurer were always boys. When I look around this room I see many women who, like me, were encouraged and nurtured to assume leadership responsibilities. We learned here to live by democratic principles that prepared us to become strong voices in our adult lives. We had opportunities to practice self-governance, and we also learned first hand about the urgency of political protest, as when we marched to President Shain's house in pajamas to demand the return of milk and cookies during exam week. If my memory serves me, there was more anxiety about that outcome than there was during the Cuban missile crisis.
At the time of our graduation I thought I knew a lot about racism. I had worked for two summers as a counselor in William Meredith's Summer Program in the Humanities, an idealistic and hugely optimistic program of its era in which eight of us from CC served as counselors to 40 urban, mostly black, high school girls. We were teachers and role models and also advocates to encourage these girls to think that college might be in their future. [Phillipa Carrington and Liza Chase] Not only did I think I knew about racism, I believed with amazing conviction that I could play a role in eradicating it, which is what led me to become an English teacher at JHS 125 in the South Bronx in September of 1966. Oh, the expansive sense of possibility in the 60's! Here's what I learned working in the NYC public schools that I did not know before: racism can look benign, like business as usual, like the status quo. Despite many efforts, it was nearly impossible for me to make changes in the well-established system in which Gifted and Talented programs, remedial and special education programs, honors and AP classes, discipline referrals, in and out of school suspensions, and graduation rates, not to mention the elephant in the room, the racial achievement gap, were all coded by race.
I am sad to say that many urban schools today reflect the same systemic biases I first encountered at JHS 125. One outcome from the Black Lives Matter movement is a growing awareness of the reality that people of color are more likely to be targeted by police and arrested, are disproportionately poorer, (black unemployment rate is currently about twice the white unemployment rate, at every level of educational attainment,) and more likely to attend poor or failing schools. Although much of the protesting since Ferguson has focused on police brutality, the issue of our failing system of public education, a virtual school-to-prison pipeline for many black youth, has drawn much-needed attention.
I want to share with you today some of what I have learned during the past five decades of working in the anti-bias arena. I am going to focus my remarks primarily specifically on race, however much of what follows about personal and institutional oppression is true for other forms of prejudice and discrimination, even though there are distinct differences in the manifestations of biases.
- No one is born prejudiced. Our biases are learned and as such they can be unlearned. Well, mostly they can, but it's a little like that old joke about how many psychiatrists it takes to change a light bulb and the answer is: one, but the light bulb has to want to change. I like to begin workshops by asking people to think of a message they learned when they were growing up. Even in very "liberal" families like the one I grew up in, there are messages. When I ask participants to say the source of the messages, the following reality is always revealed: we learn all kinds of negative messages from a wide variety of sources: our parents, other family members [think grandparents], teachers, schools, neighborhoods, houses of worship, newspapers, magazines, television, social media: the list is extensive. When we look closely we notice that some of these messages were never spoken. One of the problems related to unlearning prejudice starts here. Most of us want to distance ourselves from racism, and the denial that racism exists is one thing that allows it to continue. I am now going to give you my girdle theory, and I am pretty sure that even if you remember nothing else from this talk, you will perhaps remember this. When I was a little girl I can remember seeing my grandmother getting dressed, and I watched with wonder as she pulled up, with great effort, her girdle. [When I use this metaphor with younger people I have to start by defining terms about what a girdle is.] In seconds her stomach was flat and I can remember thinking as I saw the displacement of what had been her stomach: what is that? When we deny the existence of racism in ourselves and others, we can push it in one place but it's going to come out someplace else, and we all know what it looks and sounds like.
- Color blindness, that tarnished goal from the early civil rights era, as tempting as it sounds, is a trap. To begin with, it's not true: we do see color. In workshops I conduct for teachers one of the first things I often hear is: "I don't see color. I just see children. They could be purple, or green with polka dots." It's funny that almost every time a teacher tells me she can't see color, she mentions colors that don't really exist in humans. Noticing color is not the problem. The problem is what meaning we make of color. Another problem with color blindness is that it denies people their full identity. I know from my childhood the turmoil created for me when someone said to me: "I don't even think of you as Jewish." Even as a young girl I knew that was meant as a compliment. Comments like that reveal the following dynamic: I have an idea in my head about Jewish, and it isn't good, but I like you, and I want to be your friend, so I'm going to resolve that conflict by not seeing you as Jewish. The fixed idea about Jewishness, essentially a negative stereotype, can remain intact and unchallenged as long as a mental accommodation can be made to handle the disequilibrium of having two opposing ideas.
In workshops I ask people to challenge their assumptions, and I have to do the same. On one occasion in Beaumont, Texas, in an introduction to himself at the start of the day, an African American man, exactly my age, started explaining to the group how and why he became a teacher. He said: "When I started school black people were not allowed to go to the public schools for white kids, and I went to a rural school with very few books or other resources. All of my teachers were black. And then when I was in the fourth grade with the Supreme Court decision in Brown vs the Board of Education I started going to the big school with all white teachers who did their best to convince me that I was stupid. But it was too late; I already knew I was smart and could learn. I don't know where I would be today if I had not started school where I did." I almost fell off my chair. In my head the Brown decision was one of the best things to happen in the early civil rights era. What does it mean when a strongly held belief turns out to be something other than what we initially thought? If that one thing is not what I thought, what else should I be questioning?
- Expanding our world view: Advantage is often invisible. If you are right-handed you probably never noticed that classroom desks with cutout arms work well for you. If you are left handed you know that in order to write using that cut out arm you have to twist your body around and writing is not very comfortable. If you are not a wheelchair user it is likely you might not notice when curb cuts are too steep or too bumpy, but you definitely notice when you do need the pavement to be passable for wheels. If you attend a public school and you'd like to be a recipient of the perfect school attendance award you won't have a problem if you're Christian because the public schools are closed on all your major religious holidays. And if you're white in the U.S. the exponential advantages are everywhere, and frequently invisible and unacknowledged.
We all want to think well of ourselves which means we are often disinclined to acknowledge anything that might lower our self-esteem. With regard to racism, this dynamic often manifests itself in the following way with white people: For starters: I want to see myself as a good person and specifically, I am not racist. Next: I understand very well that in the U.S. people of color have been treated badly and they have been unfairly disadvantaged in a variety of ways. Next: The corollary to that statement about disadvantage of people of color is this: if some people have been unfairly disadvantaged, it has to be true that some other people have been unfairly advantaged. Oh my…this is not a comfortable place to be. This is the point in workshops when I hear: I can't be in that advantaged group I'm [blank]….fill in the blank here: Jewish, gay, poor, a woman, the first person in my family to go to college, transgender, I have a physical disability. You name it. Everyone wants a get out of the racist-designation jail free card. To be sure, there are many ways to be disadvantaged in life, and there are many intersections of advantage and disadvantage. But the bottom line here is: if I as a white person do not do something to try to change a society from which I, and others who look like me, receive unfair advantage, I am going to have a hard time getting back to that first statement in this list which was: I am a good person, and not racist. This is racism described by a colleague of mine as "racism among the well intentioned." Many white parents were ignorant until recently about "the talk" that parents have with their black sons. The entity of being targeted while black is well documented and very real, and so is its corollary, sometimes called criming while white, in which white people are given a break for things for which people of color are charged.
Exhibit A from my own family: One night my younger son Rob, 13 at the time, was out stealing street signs with his friend Josh. They carried with them a small bag of tools like pliers so they could detach the signs from the posts, and they also had a Rambo hunting knife that Josh had just received as a Bar Mitzvah present. When the boys were stopped by the Newton police they were scolded, told to go home right away, and instructed to show up at the police station with their dads. About fifteen minutes later my husband and I received a telephone call from the police saying: we suspect we have two of your sons down here at the station. The taller one keeps saying to the other one, "You've been a very bad boy, son." Rob had decided that his older brother Will who was 17 and had already had a growth spurt might pass as his father, and that seemed like a better idea, a least worth a try, than the alternative that had been suggested by the police officer. Try to picture this scenario with a boy who did not look like our son. We all have seen too many of these; tape outlining a body.
Regarding our self-esteem: if we acknowledge that we have been unfairly advantaged, are we then less deserving of our successes? What if American meritocracy is a myth? All of us have many identities. In one area we can be on the receiving end of advantage and in another aspect of our identity we may be in a subordinate, discriminated-against group. I am not interested in wallowing in advantaged-party guilt; it's not useful. I also think that vying for victim status by creating a hierarchy of oppressions, a practice seen on many college campuses, is not productive. I think there are many ways we all can leverage the power of our advantages to help create more equitable opportunities for all.
- Assumptions and Mistakes: We, all of us, are going to make mistakes. We have been miseducated in many ways, about many things, including race, and now it is our job to figure out how to communicate across all of the various chasms that exist. We can't let the fear of saying the wrong thing keep us from engaging in these conversations. We have to be willing to say relatively simple things like: "I'm sorry I offended you. I didn't mean to do that," rather than responding defensively: "you're taking this too personally," or "you're being too sensitive," or: "you're playing the race card." The fear of making a mistake or admitting to error is what makes many of us mute. I think this fear is why demeaning and trivializing the concept of Political Correctness is so appealing. I hear things that offend me all the time. It is easy to give someone the finger, stalk out of a room, slam a door, shout obscenities, at least it is for me. I have to keep challenging myself to respond by saying: "I don't see this the way you do. Please tell me more." Even when I think I already know what the other person is going to say. Especially when I think I know. There is a difference between intent and impact, and it can feel confusing to learn that our words or actions have offended someone when offending was not at all our intention. We have to remember; intentions are irrelevant if the impact is discriminatory.
I have been confronted many times with the occupational hazard of working in the anti-bias world, and the need to keep holding myself accountable. One time in Flint, Michigan where I had gone to meet with educators to assist them in establishing A World of Difference programming in their schools I was reminded, yet again, of my own fallibility. I flew into Flint the night before the meeting, and as I often did before meeting with a new group I got up early to read the local paper so that I could understand something about what was happening in that community. I was skimming the paper quickly and saw a headline that said: Caring for Whites. Disgustedly, I tossed the paper on the floor thinking, isn't that always the way, it's always about caring for whites! Before I left the motel room I picked up the scattered newspapers and noticed that Caring for Whites was a column about how to wash and iron summer clothes. While I did not experience exactly the delight expressed by comedian Steve Martin who said while he was making balloon animals, "I can't believe they pay me to do this!" I did love my job. I loved it, even with the ongoing home-work balance conflict I always felt, something highlighted for me by my son's description of me to a friend, in which he referenced the name of the ADL program: "my mom makes a world of difference; she used to make dinner."
I want to close with this thought. Despite the difficulty of leaving the campsite cleaner than when we found it, wisdom from my Girl Scout leader mother, I believe that progress is possible. Do you remember when we were growing up we threw litter everywhere? We tossed coke bottles out of car windows. Then along came a litter campaign with a cartoon owl mascot and a slogan: give a hoot don't pollute. And suddenly littering wasn't ok and it was everyone's responsibility to see that the world wasn't littered. And smoking: we can all remember smoking everywhere: on airplanes, in hospitals, in restaurants: basically wherever we smokers wanted to light up. And little by little as we became aware of the harmful effects of even secondary smoke, we created smoke free zones. So I know that if we as a society really believed in the harmful impact of prejudice and discrimination we would take action to eliminate discrimination everywhere: in our homes, in our schools, in our neighborhoods, in a workplaces and in our country. We have seen the passage of major civil rights legislation, but we still have a long way to go in this country to achieve equitable and fair treatment for all. When I look around this room, I see women exploring our next challenges, uniquely placed to help bring about this more perfect union.
Thank you for inviting me to share with you some of what I have learned in the decades that followed our years together. I feel very lucky about many things in my life, (I want to acknowledge my husband Michael who ate a lot of anti-bias rhetoric for dinner when he might have preferred food) and also hovering near the top of my good fortune list is having begun my journey into adulthood at Connecticut College with you, the spectacular women of the class of 1966.
Ellen Hofheimer Bettmann © 2016