Monday, November 10, 2014

The Folly of Lawrence Otis Graham: So a Child of the Black 'One Percent' is Called a 'Nigger'...and Guess What Happens?

How much, and for how long, do you protect your child from life's harsh realities?

If you are the parent of a child who is the Other, what if any special obligations do you have to prepare them for the world as it is--as opposed to the world as you would like it to be?

Lawrence Otis Graham, author and public face of the black bourgeois, shared a very sad and honest story about how he failed to properly prepare his child for life in an America where racism and white supremacy remain powerful social forces.

I would think that the boule would be very embarrassed and upset by the following anecdote about how the black rich have discovered that money is not a shield against white racism.

While the observation may be impolitic to some, to me, the following scene is high comedy straight out of Chappelle's Show:
Not many months ago, my children and I sat in the sprawling living room of two black bankers in Rye, N.Y., who had brought together three dozen affluent African American parents and their children for a workshop on how to interact with law enforcement in their mostly white communities. Two police detectives and two criminal-court judges — all African American — provided practical suggestions on how to minimize the likelihood of the adolescents being profiled or mistakenly Tasered or shot by inexperienced security guards or police officers. Some of the parents and most of the kids sat smugly, passing around platters of vegetables and smoked salmon — while it helped to have the lessons reinforced by police officers, we had all heard it many times before.
Lawrence Otis Graham's son is broken by a direct encounter with white racism.

This is just sad and pathetic:
The boarding-school incident this summer was a turning point for us — particularly for my son and his younger siblings. Being called a nigger was, of course, a depressing moment for us all. But it was also a moment that helped bring our surroundings into clearer focus. The fact that it happened just days before the police shooting of Michael Brown increased its resonance for our family. Our teenage son no longer makes eye contact with pedestrians or drivers who pass on the street or sidewalk. He ceased visiting the school library this summer after sundown, and now refuses to visit the neighborhood library, just one block away, unless accompanied. He asks us to bear with him because, as he explains, he knows that the experience is unlikely to happen again, but he doesn’t like the uncertainty. He says he now feels both vulnerable and resentful whenever he is required to walk unaccompanied.

I understand Lawrence Otis Graham's temptation, that somehow money is insulation against life's travails. In most arenas of life, money and wealth insulate us from the consequences of our poor decision-making, provide life opportunities that are denied to others, and in a highly class segregated society the rich do in fact live in their own parallel and separate world.

Race is how class is lived in America. For the black and brown elite this rule holds true with an asterisk--they may see themselves as "our kind of people", an elite class who by training and habitus are not like "those people". However, white society still defaults to a racial frame that links all black people together in one undifferentiated mass of impenetrable, foreign Otherness and negritude.

I am a product and member of the black working class. As a child, my family did not have the resources to entertain the lie that money is insulation against white racism. My relatives who could be categorized as "upper class" or "new money" also did not entertain such foolishness--if anything they were even more race conscious and direct in their alertness to white supremacy and white racism than their less well-off kin.

My racial and class background have placed limitations on my life chances. They have also given me a certain amount of armor and common sense that have proven invaluable: for example, I am rarely if ever surprised by racism or other types of bigotry and poor behavior.

As such, when I have been called a nigger to my face by white children, white adults, white students, and even a former boss, I am taken aback--momentarily--by their capacity to risk their personal safety by making such an utterance. I am not surprised by the existence and fact of white supremacy.

The distinction is an important one.

Lawrence Otis Graham's story about he and his wife's decision to raise their children in a cocoon of naivete, one that is lethal to black and brown people, was more disturbing than his son's experience with a minor dose of white racism.

I am incapable of relating to Graham's son. Why? my father (and mother) would have hit me upside the head if I came home and told him that I was afraid of a white person who called me a nigger, was now going to avoid making eye contact with white people, and am traumatized to the point of being perpetually afraid and subservient to the White Gaze. His advice would have been simple: if you spend your life running, you will always be afraid and a coward.

Graham has failed to prepare his son for life as a black person in a racist society. He has compounded that error by failing to pass on one of the most important lessons of black manhood to his son.

Graham's son is not predestined to be a "race man".

He is however, a soon to be man, one whose racial identity will be central to his life.

For those of you who are members of the black and brown elite classes, or know folks who can claim such resources or birthright, how are they preparing their children for life in a society where the color line still matters? Is the notion that the black and brown rich are "leaders of the race" now antiquated and dead?

And more generally, am I being too harsh on Lawrence Otis Graham? How do you suggest that childhood innocence be balanced with the training necessary for life in the real world?


Learning Is Eternal said...

Nah, you dead on in your response to Otis. Before we/you/I ever addressed race head on, parents, relatives prepared you for that walk to the store, school, those pockets of time when you weren't with them.

From that uncle who'd roughhouse w/you, slap-box or taught you to box period and or the older brother who constantly put it on ya' mind "don't let nobody disrespect you, step on your toes or otherwise..." The women in my family told me not to come home till I saw victory or lose when you get home.

I know everyone don't come from that but think of it this way. I was called a nigger before understanding it's historical context. When that exchange happen as a kid, the language, verbal and body read disrespect. I let my hands fly.

They gave me basics on respect, myself and others so when 'this' presented itself... No problem. Now the talk as to what I did and why was a smooth setup for the convo on race, the world & me as a black man.

James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

I don't think you are being harsh. My background is Italian-American, tough neighborhood in Brooklyn. My dad taught me how to box (this is the 1950s and kids didn't have guns or knives) and that being called a 'wop' or 'dago' or some other words were offensive and to be stopped with fists. When my son was being bullied in England, I told him to defend himself. After he cold-cocked the kid, the principal and I had a talk. It was simple--somebody bullies my son, my son is going to defend himself. If somebody's parents do not want their sons ass whooped, teach him some manners. My son didn't get bullied ever again. And I wasn't called a 'wop' too many times.

grumpyrumblings said...

I think you're being too harsh. He made a mistake, but a mistake that he *should not have had to make*. White kids would not have been treated like his kid was, and white kids would have had that action with the car taken much more seriously by the school administration. I don't think we have to hold black parents to a higher standard than white parents when it comes to parenting.

I also don't think it's a mistake that he will make again.

And I also think that article was written more for white people than for blacks. My reaction was exactly what the author intended (as were those of the white women whose twitter feed pointed me to the original article). When I got to the disclaimer at the end about dramatization I wondered if perhaps some of the story about his child's reaction and his naivete was exaggerated in order to provoke exactly my reaction. Precisely because his thoughts and views and actions and his childrens' as portrayed in the article are what seem natural and normal to a middle or upper-middle class white parent.

But the contrast and juxtaposition of what's natural and normal for a white person with the reality of even an upper-class black person drives home the point of racism in America to those of us with white privilege. In that sense, the article was masterfully done, and I suspect the author knew exactly what he was doing.

It isn't fair. And racism still exists. And it hurts our kids, even the most innocent. And nobody is going to do anything about it unless we (privileged white people) speak up and signal boost. It's not just Ferguson or Florida. It is everywhere. That's the message that article sends.

Noswal said...

Lawrence Otis Graham need only remember what Andrew Young said after an incident at the United Nations ("No matter how high you rise, you're still nothing but another nigger.")

chauncey devega said...

Interesting point on audience. You are likely correct. But then that raises questions about the black super public and the end of black private spaces. His story about that child and his error in raising him some w. life survival skills is a better fit for the barbershop than the Wapo.

chauncey devega said...

The old Irish or Jewish or Italian kid had to know how to throw some fists back in the not too far long ago too. Your lessons--and my father's--on these matters would get us locked up and expelled from school today.

chauncey devega said...

Now I know where that quote comes from. He was doing some truth-telling there for sure.

chauncey devega said...

The lie of post racial American means that too many of our kids--black, brown, and other--are not getting the talk about how race still works. I see these students on occasion, broken, because they cannot reconcile white racism w. the lie of their programming that they are special little snowflakes.

Gable1111 said...

Ellis Cose put this to rest in his book, "Rage of a Privileged Class." Its not the money, but who's wielding it that matters.

Former NYC Mayor David Dinkins made it even more plain, when he said "a white man with a million dollars is a millionaire, and a black man with a million dollars is a nigger with a million dollars."

Graham and his ilk, they of the "brown paper bag" test roots, allow their money to let them forget who they are, and sometimes with tragic results. And they put their kids in danger by not explaining the facts of life in America when it comes to race.

The sad and simple fact is in America, race trumps all.

grumpyrumblings said...

I think that's also why there's that disclaimer at the end. The story isn't 100% real, and things have been obfuscated and changed. Perhaps he has given the real story in private spaces.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

Could that put the writing in the genre of anti-racist schadenfreude?

I'm still unclear on the use of this term.

Myshkin the Idiot said...

Graham was irresponsible in thinking his children wouldn't need to know about how the color of their skin will affect their lives in many ways.

I have a student who is from Burkina Faso and is married to a white man and has two children. I have wondered if she will prepare them for things like this as they get older.

Last week, we talked about segregation. She mentioned being the only black person in her neighborhood, upper middle class, and I asked if she felt comfortable. She said everybody is friendly and she doesn't feel uncomfortable.

She said her friend visited from Chicago and told her that white people around Chicago can be very mean to black people and that she doesn't like living there. That's when I mentioned Chicago is the 3rd most segregated city in America. She didn't know what segregation was, so we talked about that and lynchings. I wish I had spoken with her again after class, but we ran out of time.

I have an assistant in the class and she was shocked to hear the most segregated cities were Detroit, Milwaukee, and Chicago. So we talked about Sundown Towns and segregation in the North and how the Southern economy and culture of white supremacy made living as neighbors in the South somewhat easier.

People got to know this stuff, whether they're white or black.

T. Jones said...

Above all you have to give this brother credit. He has played the doe eyed, shocked by the world of white people schtick for decades and he's making paper. Black people who live in the real world read his byline, roll their eyes and keep stepping, middle class Black folks who think 350K is "rich" believe (in) him and actually buy his books and finally, race men and women smile, acknowledge his hustle- call him some names and then devote more words to his drivel than is necessary. I'm the latter and I don't believe a word he says.

He's a publicity ho who will say anything to draw attention to himself and perpetuate idea that his success makes him something that should be honored, celebrated and protected. He's the ultimate house negro currying favor with white folks by attempting to separate himself from what he considers standard issue Negroes- those without bearing and sophistication. It's an old act.

The sad thing is that now he's pimping his kid; bringing him into the big tent to entertain and amaze. Who on earth would believe that a 15 year old going to a boarding school with white male kids in the 21st century hadn't heard the word "nigger"? So what music are they bumping up there amongst the laurel and ivy- a steady diet of Taylor Swift and Maroon 5?

I feel sorry for his kid, got called nigger- caught the vapors and now he's wetting the bed and mumbling about "stealing away to de Nawf". Imagine what his classmates are saying about him now, since his Daddy outed him as a punk- one that cain't go outside or look dem good white people direckly in dey eyes. Please, I'm not buying a word of it.

Ding! That's my limit.

joe manning said...

The 60% of whites that voted Republican in midterm 2014 is a cautionary tale, as the GOP couldn't have been more up front about their white supremacy had they dawned white sheets. Blacks must warn their kids not the White, and its imperative that whites teach their kids not to be racists.

joe manning said...

Its probably not that advisable for parents of color to teach their kids to resort to fisticuffs when provoked, lest they invite double the punishment from authorities.

Shady Grady said...

I think any parent who's done well would like to ensure that his or her child doesn't have to experience everything that he or she did. But it's a mistake for any black parent or parent of a black child to not talk about racist whites and the danger they can pose. It's dangerous to be raising a child whose spirit can be so easily damaged (broken?) by such an encounter.

You have to be ready and willing to fight, stand up for yourself and never let anyone get you down. This fight could occasionally be physical. People will test you. It never stops, really.

Learning IS Eternal said...

Not having this discussion w/our future or preparing them for these episodes is disrespectful to every life lost since we arrived on these shores of Turtle Island. 'This' should be ingrained in our psyche by now and groomed for it like its part of our personal hygiene.

It's sad we have defensive techniques to use against one another but no evasive maneuvers against our biggest threat.
Systematic Racism/White Supremacy.

For those of us whom forget I serve reminders...

Currently watching Spies of Mississippi (2014) on Netflix.

kimbee said...

Bwahahahaaaa! Beautifully said! You had me rolling!