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Sandy Banks

Proud to be of Color, Yet Trying to be Color Blind

January 27, 2002|Sandy Banks

I was rummaging frantically through my purse, searching for the pass that would secure my admission to the parking lot at USC, where I was scheduled--and running late--to speak. I came up empty, but breathed a sigh of relief as I pulled up to the parking kiosk. "Thank goodness," I said out loud, to myself. "The guard is black."

From the backseat, a protest erupted. "Why does it matter?" my 10-year-old asked, her voice tinged with irritation. "What difference does it make that the parking-lot guy is black?"

I shushed her as I pulled up to his window, smiled and launched my explanation: "No, I don't have the parking sticker they sent me. I had it, but I lost it and ... well, I'm in a hurry. Maybe I'm on a list or something?" I was not, but he scribbled a pass, taped it to my windshield and waved me through. I smiled smugly at my daughter. "That's why it matters," I said. "When I saw he was black, I figured he would be nicer to me, more understanding than someone else might." I was struggling to explain why that wasn't prejudice and didn't make me racist as we hustled into the auditorium. The panel discussion I was to lead--on affirmative action in college admissions--was about to begin.

I hustled my daughter off to the side and tried to banish her questions from my mind, and I announced my topic to the crowd: "Should Race Matter? How Much and Why?"

We are fresh off a round of celebrations honoring the late Martin Luther King Jr. and his "content of their character" vision. And we are heading into Black History Month, with its focus on the color of our skin as a central cultural connection. It is a paradox as rich and tangled as this country's history of race relations.

Can we judge one another without regard to color? Does ethnic pride trump equality? Can we be both color blind and race proud? Have we lost our zeal for integration in our zest to promote group identity?

Some would say we clearly have, that we've hyphenated ourselves into a collection of tribal families; allowed our emphasis on multiculturalism and diversity to overshadow our cultural kinship, even threaten our national harmony.

"Whatever the benefits of the new separatism in promoting pride and self-esteem, the overlay of anger and alienation that comes with it is poisoning our lives," writes race scholar Tamara Jacoby in her book "Someone Else's House: America's Unfinished Struggle for Integration" (Free Press, 1998)

But anger and alienation are not just the domain of those troubled by our focus on ethnic pride. For too long, those of us poisoned by ignorance of our culture carried our own burdens of pain and shame.

Maybe it is different for children these days. They have black astronauts and scientists and presidential advisors. Their history books are filled with references to African Americans we never heard of when I was growing up and stories we were never told. They need look no further for inspiration than the nightly news, at the success of Colin Powell, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Jordan.

But I can remember, as a child, sitting shamefaced among my white classmates, as our American history lessons reduced my ancestors' stories to footnotes, my would-be heroes to caricatures. The sociologists can pooh-pooh self-esteem and race pride, but I still recall how much it hurt to believe that I had come from a race of people too simple and timid to stand up for themselves.

And I remember when those shackles came off. Black History, 12th grade. I had stumbled into the class, looking for a way out of another semester of history that revolved around wars and dates. Much of it was territory we had been through before. But this time, we learned that Africa was more than a string of backward tribes, saved from savagery by Europeans. And slaves were not the shuffling puppets we'd been taught to imagine, but had fought for their freedom long before the Civil War.

Our history was not just Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver, but thousands of years of ingenuity and bravery and strength. It seems so simple now, but the revelation sent my classmates and me brimming with confidence and a sense of power into a still-hostile world.

And our history was not all we learned that semester, because the unlikely instrument of our salvation was a blond woman wearing Earth shoes and love beads, who moved through the class banging on our desks, grabbing us by the shoulders, shouting when she thought we were falling asleep.

Before "Roots," before "Black is Beautiful" even, she preached that knowledge is power, and self-knowledge makes you unconquerable. She taught us about self-reliance and self-respect, using stories of trials our ancestors faced. And she taught us about respecting others, just as she respected us.

And if I could learn from a white lady to honor my black history, then just maybe my daughter and I were both right. Maybe race matters plenty, and not at all. And maybe I could have gotten into that parking lot even if a black man hadn't been at the gate.

*

Sandy Banks' column is published on Sundays and Tuesdays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@ latimes.com.

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