Saturday, August 23, 2014

White Like Me


For the past few days, the Bay Ridge and Bay Ridge Parents Facebook groups, usually home to posts about what time summer stroll starts and where to buy a potty chair, have erupted with a stream of vitriolic dialogue in reference to Al Sharpton and the protestors who boarded buses in the neighborhood on their way to their peaceful protest in Staten Island. It has been painful to read the conversations, and impossible to figure out a way to respond to them in the confined space of a comment box on Facebook, and many have since been deleted. Following is my response.


Being white, I did not learn how to grow up with a shield against racism the way my husband has. I do not have at hand the arsenal of defenses that he has developed over the years: Be nicer, more polite, and smarter than they expect you to be. Never talk or fight back, always walk away first if you can. Keep your friends close and your frenemies closer.

I’m tired of being cordial. I’m a mom, I have a career, and I certainly have enough to fill my plate. I don’t need to impress anyone and I don’t really care who I alienate. You can cross the street when you see me, just like you would if you saw my husband coming—oh wait, you don’t do that because you know he’s one of the “good” ones.

For the record, let me say once and for all that if you grew up white in America, unless your name is John Howard Griffin, please stop making comments about anything that has to do with dealing with racism. You don’t know, you never will, and neither will I. The more you talk about being color-blind, the more you are showing your true whitewashed colors.

And if you think that it is just a poverty issue, or a criminal issue, or a neighborhood issue, or an anti-police issue*, the following is an abbreviated list of some things that I’m guessing my white friends with white husbands and white children who grew up in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, have never had to deal with, but which my middle-class, law-abiding, educated black husband and children (and myself, via them) who grew up in the same neighborhood have:

  • Having garbage thrown at us while we were looking to buy a home in the neighborhood we both grew up in.
  • Getting pulled over for random traffic stops (without any apparent violation) in our neighborhood and being warned to “get home quickly.”
  • Getting taken into the police station as a suspect for a major crime in which there were eyewitnesses whose descriptions did not match you at all, except for being “young black male.”
  • Getting pulled out of work by detectives continuing with the investigation of then boyfriend/now husband.
  • Never being informed that you are no longer a suspect in the aforementioned investigation, and still waiting to hear more than 20 years later.
  • Having anonymous letters sent to my parents stating that they would burn down their house if I continued to bring my then boyfriend/now husband to their summer home.
  • Having my children (and nieces/nephews) be called a slave, Oreo, penguin, n***** in and out of school, all before they’ve graduated elementary school.
  • Having the same children be told by classmates that they couldn’t have gotten that good grade, or be in the g&t class, or be Latino/Italian/Irish, because of the color of their skin.
  • Seeming to be the only one to notice that the essay posted in the hallway at that elementary school during open school week which started “If I could live in any place in the U.S. during the 1700s, it would be the south so I could have slaves,” might be offensive to some children and parents.
  • Consoling my husband when he’s upset after a woman jumped away from him, thinking he was about to mug her when he got out of his car outside of our home, and knowing how much anger he has had to swallow his whole life from countless similar incidents, and wondering how that has affected his health and well-being.
  • Listening to my husband tell our sons not to wear their swim-team caps under their wool hats when it’s winter and cold outside, because someone might think they’re thugs, and wanting to say that he’s being ridiculous, but knowing that he’s right.
  • Listening to my husband tell our sons that they are not allowed to get a flat-top, corn rows, or design shaved into their heads, because of the way he knows they will be judged accordingly.
  • Having to worry that someone will think that my honor-student teenage son’s pants are falling down because he is a thug instead of the real reason, because he is so skinny that even super-skinny jeans with a belt fall below his underwear.
  • Having to tell my sons not to put their sweatshirt hoods up at night.
  • Having to tell my sons that they even if they don’t ever break the law, they have to be prepared to be questioned and possibly detained by police, and how to act in a way that is not only respectful of authority, but that will not ever put their lives in danger.
  • Being repeatedly hurt by the posts of the people that you have known and loved all your lives.
  • Having to smile and politely answer ignorant questions and comments such as:

Are they your kids?
Is that baby your husband’s? He’s so much lighter than your first son.
Why would you care if there are no other black kids at a school? I don’t think of your kids as black.
Does your husband wash his hair?
Your husband isn’t really black, he’s white inside/he acts white.
He’s so cool (nice/normal/smart/insert adjective) for a black guy.

  • Feeling sometimes that truly, your family is alone on a little island and that when the chips fall, the people who have surrounded you most of your life may not be around to stand by your side.  

Please understand that this is all because of a little extra melanin. My husband and I were both raised in this neighborhood, both grew up Catholic and went to Catholic school here. The difference in the amount of that chemical in our skin should be negligible compared to all our similarities. It’s not. I will not even begin to touch on all the racism that his family encountered when they first moved to our neighborhood in the 70s.

Just know that when your skin is a darker color, there is no way to avoid being seen as “other,” no matter where your family lives, no matter where you go to school, no matter how law-abiding you are, no matter how many teams you coach, no matter how intelligent you are, no matter how much you dress and speak and act like everyone in the majority group. You cannot just teach your children that everyone is equal, because everyone is not treated equally in our society, and white children need to know that, too. To pretend that relentless different and biased treatment wouldn’t affect the very being of someone’s soul is to be completely blinded by white privilege. So own it. I do.




* I promised my husband that before I published this I would make known that I did not write this as an attack on any police officer, or any police department. We have friends and family on the force, and he has a cousin who was a NYPD detective shot in the line of duty. This is a response to people who have no experience or understanding of systemic oppression speaking or commenting as if they do, and who made me feel like I had time traveled back to 1989 and still had to apologize for my end of Brooklyn.

55 comments:

  1. I don't normally leave comments, but since no one else has said it I will: Thank you for this.

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  2. This is horrifying. Thank you so much for writing it. I've shared it.

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  3. As for me - giving up jogging in the park at an early age when I realized the other joggers were running away from me. The gutsy ones would stop and face me with mean looks and wait til I passed. No fun at all. I came here from Cuba when I was 10. My dad, who had been here for two years and knew better, gave me his first advice - "do not hang out with Spanish-speaking kids." Since I spoke no English, that was a tall order, but one I followed until sooner than expected I became a standard issue American. My personality - looks, dress, speech, even my name - was lost. It's taken me nearly sixty years to face my total alienation. "Ozzie" did well, was liked, but "Osvaldo" has suffered for a total lack of attention. We are all strangers in exile. When we wake up all we can do is cry. Osvaldo "Ozzie" Alfonso Alfonso Calvo Rodriguez Guzman

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    1. Osvaldo, I am giving you a great, big virtual hug right now. <3

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    2. Thank you. I needed that. In my enthusiasm about how I fit into your story I neglected to thank you for telling it so well and so very effectively. Thank you!! ¡Gracias!

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  4. Fabulous, visceral piece of writing which brings your family's experiences to a broad audience (with a little help from Michael Moore). I'm glad that you are angry. You channel your anger beautifully in your blunt listing of incidents which your husband, in particular, has had to endure because of his skin colour. Best wishes to you and your family from Scotland.

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    1. Thank you, Brian. My grandmother grew up in Uddingston and moved to across the pond when she was 16 so the wishes are especially appreciated.

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    2. Hey, love from Uddingston here! Powerful piece, shame it has to be said. Here's hoping social attitudes change quicker than seems possible at present. Aw ra best

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    3. Love back to you from Brooklyn. <3 I hope to one day (soon) get back to my roots, I've recently connected with some family there on Facebook who are digging down into them, it's fascinating. My great great grandfather was killed in the Blantyre pit disaster. It is indeed a small world.

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  5. So the moral of this story is white people have no right to complain about racism right?

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    1. Seriously, that's what you got from this?

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    2. Russ, are you kidding me? You read the whole thing, and you can't see that the color of a white person's skin doesn't raise the same problems as the color of a black person's skin?

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    3. Amy I'm assuming you haven't read all the replies to this and missed what else I say about it below?

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  6. I also appreciate this article. I am white but was raised in Hawaii where I was the minority so I have some experience on the receiving end of racism. You are correct people have NO idea what it's like. Its sad that we as a society are so judgemental of others.

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  7. This is awesome. Thank you for your harsh words. Sometimes we all need a kick in the ass, even when we are not racist. There are still the prejudices of the saggy pants and the hoodies. Thanks again. I will definitely share.

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  8. I don't know what it's like to experience it everyday. But I will say that I have been called "faggot white boy" by a drunk Native American, my roommate called "honky bitch" as she walked home from the bus stop. I have had rocks thrown at me by a little Mexican girl no older than 6. I was ridiculed as a "brainiac" white boy who "thinks he's so smart" because I was reading a book at the train station.

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  9. Your story makes me glad to live in Delaware County, PA. My daughter is married to a biracial man and we have had none of these experiences.

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  10. I am very sorry for any racism that your family has faced in their lives, however, being one of the individuals that participated in the groups you spoke of you should also explain to people how some of us were attacked as well for our opinions. I, for one was thrown off the parenting group after showing my support in my neighborhood for the NYPD. Both my father and husband were members of the NYPD and the comments that came my way were along the lines of, "Many people become cops because there's nothing else they can do with their lives." and "Being a cop isn't rocket science..." and "If you need a cop in Bay Ridge go to the 7-11," After defending them I was called a racist and thrown out of the group, which believe me, I am happy I am no longer a part of. I have seen hate first hand directed towards both my father and husband for doing their jobs and trying to protect people. I as a child growing up in the late 80s and early 90s saw people spit in my father's face because he was wearing an NYPD uniform. I have witnessed dirty diapers being thrown from windows at my husband for wearing the same uniform, They had to just walk away. So, just as you have witnessed hate and racism, so have I. I think we all want the same thing in this world and city where we are raising our children, Peace and Justice, but shouldn't the first step towards peace and justice be to not break the law? I am very sorry that those 2 black men were killed by the police recently, no one deserves to die. That being said, they were breaking the law and when a law enforcement agent tried to stop them from BREAKING THE LAW, they resisted and fought back. What exactly is a police officer supossed to do in that exact situation? Walk away? Come back tomorrow when maybe he feels like getting arrested?? Those men challenged police after breaking the law....They challenged them trying to do their job. In that moment a police officer is put into a position where he must fight for his life and if he loses....game over. I do acknowledge that their are police officers with bad intentions. I hate them for the reputation that they have given other police officers. I think maybe it's time for, in this case Black people to start hating the individuals who gave them the reputation that they feel they unfortunately have to bear too.

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    1. As an outsider looking in, the above comment seems crass on a number of levels. While I'm sure being a policeman can be a hard lot at times, to compare the predicament of a uniform one can take off, to skin pigmentation that is your family's for generations past and generations to come is misguided. That is the nicest critique I can come up with. Given the blogger's restraint I will refrain from a more candid assessment of the myopic view the comment calls for.

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    2. I agree about that comment. I don't think that person even made it to the end of this blog before posting this reactionary response.

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    3. Shannon, I understand that you were hurt by comments, there were many hurtful words posted yesterday. Thank you for sharing your family members' experiences. I'm sure it must be as painful for you to recount them as it is for me to recount those of the ones I love. But I didn't write that list because I want anyone to feel sorry for me or my family.

      We are blessed. We love Bay Ridge. It is our home, we are raising our children on the streets that we grew up on, where they can play Manhunt and wiffle ball with all their friends in the street just like we did. We are surrounded by neighbors that we love like family, and we know that they love us back just the same.

      I wrote this because it was painful to read those comments, because to feel like the place you call home is also full of people who have little understanding of your experience is a very sad thing. I wrote that list because to quote one of my favorite books, "You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."

      I felt like some posters were not taking the time to consider the situation from another's point of view. So I will try to use an analogy to explain it. (And I apologize for falling back on the trite priest motif, but it is late and my brain is tired.)

      I am a Catholic, I went to Catholic elementary and high school, I taught at a Catholic school, and I teach CCD at St. Patrick's. I support my church and the clergy there, and the sacrifices they have made for our community.

      Let's imagine that one day, there are allegations that a priest in another parish molested a child. And let's also say that the case is in no way clear cut, but some people are upset because they feel that it has been hindered by the church authorities. So there are busloads of people meeting at St. Pat's to go to the diocesan office, parents who are upset at the way they feel their children have been mistreated. Let's also say that on that very day, when they pull up, my friends and I are standing in front of St. Pat's with a sign that says, "I support the Catholic Church." Can you not see that it would be hurtful to those parents? That it would be a sign that I don't really care about what happened? That I am discounting their concerns at face value.

      I would ask that we leave Ferguson out of this discussion. I am not nearly well-versed to speak on it, and the Facebook posts were in reference to Eric Garner's death. I believe that on that day, he was stopped for selling loose cigarettes. Can we be real? Every other white smoker I know orders illegal cigarettes online and I don't see any NYPD stopping them. Or we can say it was a different kind of cigarette. Federal data has shown black Americans are arrested on marijuana possession charges nearly four times the rate of white Americans, even though the two groups use the drug at similar rates. It is naive to think that the justice system is without inequities, and it is unconscionable to think that we can understand what is like to live under those systemic inequities. I was pointing out the times that my law-abiding husband has been stopped, and investigated, for that reason, not because I want anyone to feel sorry for him, but because none of my white friends' husbands are being stopped or investigated; it is an inequity.

      And truth be told, there was a group of people who were getting on a train, walking a couple of blocks through our neighborhood, and getting on some buses to go over a bridge. Doesn't matter if they were coming from Harlem, or Hollis, or Brooklyn Heights, doesn't matter how much melanin they have in their skin, they are human beings, just like us, with families that they love, with problems and bills to pay, and I saw words like "animals, mob, thugs, garbage of society" flying all over Facebook.

      And that is why I wrote this. I will leave you with the phrase my husband uses, "Peace n be safe."

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    4. I thank you and your family for your service with the NYPD. That being said, you must be able to recognize that, however painful those experiences were, at the end of the day, these officers can take off their uniforms and nobody who hates cops will know they are cops. While Sheila's sons and husband can't take off their skin. Does that make sense?

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  11. Such a powerful and transparent testimony to us all. Your husband is a man of integrity with an amazing wife standing alongside him. God bless you and your family! & for many that are going thru similar situations, (My son in law is African American), we thank you for being brave enough and being a "voice" for so many that have remained silent for too long!

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  12. Thanks for sharing your experiences both here and on BRP. I am sorry some readers are still missing the point you made so eloquently here. Love to your family.

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  13. I am also a part of your neighborhood and the parents board this all went down I and you definitely expressed your feeling better than would have. I am Irish/German and my husband is Puerto Rican/Haitian and we have experienced some similar situations such as trying to rent an apartment and being told it's your until they see that names on the lease. Suddenly it's "not going to be a good fit" When I list my husbands name on school documents and get asked if he will need a translator or they hear his name after actually speaking to him and are taken aback by how well he speaks English. Or being stopped by police on his way home from his night shift at least 3 times a week, for no reason other than walking while Latino.
    Kudos for this blog and I hope to someday run into you and your husband in the neighborhood. Our kids would get along great.

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  14. Know your History, so History may not repeat itself again.
    Love, Love, Love to You, your Husband, your Family & Everyone beginning to truly understand this...is all i have to say.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FMNFvKEy4c

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  15. Amazing writing of your life's account. So sad to see people in society (media, politicians, and just society as a whole) want to act as if racism was left behind many decades ago.

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  16. Well said. It's time for straight talk to expose this thing called racism. Also, please verify news media facts before assuming they are correct in the depiction of these shootings. This article was not about the shootings but someone always brings them up so get the facts straight. Read several news media accounts of the events, then comment.

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  17. I am very glad to have seen this. As a member of that group, someone who loves this neighborhood and a NYC high school teacher, I was disgusted by the comments and will probably leave Bay Parents altogether. Sometimes I forget how conservative this neighborhood is, but I never imagined the outright ignorance and (implied/disguised) racism that could erupt so easily. I've been looking at everyone differently as I walk down the street. It took all of my energy not to get sucked into that thread but it could not have upset me more. Thank you for posting this. You have done all of us a service by articulating the personal effects systematic racism can have on a family, even in a city who's mayor is part of a mixes race family. I've heard these stories from my students for the past 15 years and it breaks my heart every time a teenager has to be wise beyond his or her years because of their race while other students get to live in blissful ignorance. Again, thank you. This was brave.

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    1. Don't leave Bay Parents. Your presence there is part of the solution.

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    2. Yes, what Amy said. I also wanted to runaway from the group and am grateful that another mom really forced me to confront how cowardly that would have been. Please, stay.

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  18. As a white guy from NH with nothing to complain about, I can only admire your eloquence and courage. I got bullied enough in grade school to know I didn't like it; I can't really even begin to imagine what your husband and kids have to put up with. All I can say is, I teach and I will be sharing this. We are all, at the moment, so utterly fearful about each other to such a degree that we cannot see what we have in common. Tolerance is part of my curriculum, but so is engaging with a kid who says "that's not my problem" or "yeah, but he's ______" or any of the other rationalizations that kids find to justify mistreating each other, or simply being mean because it feels better than getting picked on yourself. Your writing, and many of the other similar posts over the last couple weeks, give me so much deeper an argument to make with the kids who don't get it. Thank you, and I hope you and yours stay safe.

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  19. The overall tone from this is one that suggests those in 'privileged' society groups (often white people) have little or no right to complain when perceiving themselves to be victims of crimes that they (or others/forefathers of their privileged group) have created.

    Whilst it is likely true those of non-fair skin have experienced more racism in their lives and therefore important to have this highlighted, the above approach will only serve to increase the perception of "Only white people are racist" and diminishes the seriousness of racial crimes being committed against them.

    Racism is racism regardless of the skin colour of the perpetrator/victim.

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    1. True, but the author was talking about society as a whole, rather than racism on a case by case basis. I have been in situations where I was the only white person and I was never made to feel unwelcome, bad about who I was or that I didn't belong. Unfortunately, I can't say that for my non white friends. And that's a fact. So while a white person can and should be angry about being a victim of racism, we really need to be honest with ourselves and admit that its a lot easier for a white person to live in this country - which is what this post was about.

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    2. Not really, I think she was talking about America. Their society is a bit different.

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    3. I was also talking about america

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    4. Actually, I originally was addressing a very specific group of people in response to group of parents in my neighborhood. I am copying some of my response to one of the commenters there because it seems applicable: I don't know anyone who has not faced prejudice at some point in their lives…because they are female, or because they have a disability, or because they have an accent, or because they don't have as much money as someone else. It is never easy to be the "other" in any group, and you can be considered "other" for limitless reasons. As my husband says, "as long as my eyes are brown and yours are blue, there will be prejudice in the world." But it's also important to know that prejudice is different than racism. Prejudice can happen to—and hurt—any individual person. Racism is systemic. It is never-ending, and it affects every iota of your being from the day you were born until the day you die. There is a difference.

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    5. Russ. Listen. It's not a contest.

      Let's take it out of the race arena for a minute. Let's put it in the health arena instead. And I'm asking you, please keep an open mind here. You're obviously an intelligent person who can understand arguments, so give mine a chance before you shut me down.

      In this hypothetical situation, you have stage 4 breast cancer (god forbid!) and I have a melanoma that was caught early and scraped off in a doctor's office.

      And you post on facebook "I am struggling with cancer. It's so scary. Every day I have to face mortality, the chemo sucks what life I have left out of me, and I feel sick and afraid."

      And I pop up and say "I am also struggling with cancer! Why don't I get to complain about cancer? My cancer is important too!!"

      Sure. Yeah. My cancer is important too. But in terms of who has the greater struggle, and who might need more understanding and care and empathy, you would be the clear winner.

      So sure. Yeah. White people can be caught in situations where their skin color is a liability. But in terms of who has the greater struggle, and who might need more understanding and empathy... do you see what I'm saying here??

      Please say you do. Look into your heart.

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    6. Amy I'm sure it was unlikely but there was such a patronising tone to your post that I'm going to overlook it for now. I addressed your point in the post I responded to. In your hypothetical situation I would ensure my sympathy for both people would be appropriately divided in such a way that did not say "Melanoma person, you have a cheek to comment on your cancer considering you are part of the group that caused the tumour in breast cancer sufferers".

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    7. ok so you DO see that whites contribute to racism?? did I just see a glimmer of understanding? fingers crossed!

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    8. I'm sorry to see that you skimmed over the part I posted earlier saying...."Whilst it is likely true those of non-fair skin have experienced more racism in their lives and therefore important to have this highlighted,"....

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    9. Hi Russ one of my recent thoughts that may be relevant in this discussion is the Cliven Bundy situation. The man has been breaking the law for years and the government goes to collect back payment (his cows) so he invites militia members to come and defend the herd. All armed to the teeth threatening the government. The police show up and leave not one shit fired and no one arrested. Can you imagine the people in Ferguson or any other mostly black community having the same outcome if they had tried the same tactics?

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    10. I appreciate your reply Rhonda but you seem to be answering a point that I didn't actually make.

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    11. I guess I don't understand your point then.

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    12. I'd be inclined to agree with that. What was the point you originally thought I was making?

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  20. Wonderful piece. I read it aloud to my family!

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  21. Thank you for writing this. It took a lot of guts, knowing what kind of responses you were likely to get.

    As a former teacher, I was so struck by the essay you mentioned in your kids' school. I cannot even imagine how anyone thought it was a good idea to hang that up in the hallway of the school.

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  22. Thank you for articulating so gracefully what many people think doesn't exist. No matter how well my son is educated, no matter how well behaved is, by some he will always be seen as a menace. Sad but true all I do is to teach him to be better than the best and to pray fervently that people begin to judge everyone as an individual and not just on the basis of some preconceived notion based on his skin color.

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  23. Sheila, thank you for posting. Sadly, although written in response to neighborhood posts, unfortunately, I suspect your family's experiences are common many places.

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  24. Prejudice: preconceived opinion that is not based on reason or actual experience.

    Racism is actually a form of prejudice, they aren't different things. Saying prejudice affects all individuals and racism is systemic is a distinction without a difference. Something that is "systemic" means all over, thus it would affect all individuals.

    Prejudice is the grandfather of all things such as racism, classism, discrimination based on physical ability, and religious discrimination.

    Author: I hope you you realize that by claiming you have a greater struggle because of and ONLY because of your skin color, you are actually participating in the very thing you are attempting to rally against: racism. Logic dictates that if you say that black people have a greater struggle, then you are also saying that other races have less of a struggle. Putting one race above others for anything, be it an accolade or a liability, still means you are favoring that race over another, and that, my friend, is racism.

    Your point would be better supported if you simply stated your case and explained your plight without making a case that your race's struggle is worse than others.

    That being said, I have experienced discrimination myself, being disabled. It's caustic and it engenders a horrific feeling of helplessness. Unfortunately, all we can do is affect change in our social circle as best we can.

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  25. Thank you for writing this. It is speople like you who have to speak up. White people won't hear us: the mothers the fathers,the daughters, the sisters, the brothers, the friends of the victims and potential victims. They don't hear our fear or maybe they just don't care. It is gong to be up to white people to change this and many of them will not speak out throughcowardice apathy or indifference. I firmly believe that 100 years from now, when the history of these times is written a lot of their descendants will be thoroughly ashamed of them for being on the wrong side of history. Thank you again for speaking out.

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  26. @ Shannon, I beg of you to please remain silent. You post was like comparing oranges and apples, you'll never get it. FYI..my ex and my son's half brothers are cops, so, don't start playing your violin for the cops again. There's always a few bad apples that will ruin the bunch. The cops mentioned above a great cops and black men,but guess what, whem the uniforms come off and they aren't recongnized by some other cops, they get profiled too. Let the marinate some...

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  27. Typo,
    Your,
    Are,
    When..you get the gist.

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