Friday, August 31, 2007

This is about institutionalized racism and how it affects people as a race rather than on an individual basis.

I worked in the mortgage department of a bank and lots of loan applications. They're sorted by race (for anti-discrimination purposes, but that's another issue). So, I was able to tell white applicants from black applicants. By and large the white applicants were able to list large gifts ranging from $2,000 - $10,000 in the form of cash and furniture from their parents. The black applicants rarely if ever had any of this type of gift listed. (Not to mention, the appraisal photos generally showed clear class differences between neighborhoods the white and black applicants were buying in.)

You might say that black people don't value buying property in the same way that white people do. However, I think it reflects a historical disparity that continues to affects black people as a whole.

African Americans have a legacy in the United States that goes back many hundreds of years. Families become wealthy by accumulating and inheriting money and property over time. Slavery prevented black people from the economic benefit of their labor for the first few hundred years that they worked and lived here. Slavery, and later, Jim Crow Laws, and then segregation policies prevented us from owning property, or buying land in locations where the property value would increase over time. This was true within my parents' lifetime.

If African Americans have been working here for the last 400 years, we should have accumulated 400 years of wealth, political power and educational success to show for it, rather than 40 years of voting, housing, and employment rights. (it's one tenth of the actual value).

Yes, affirmative action has made a way for me and my mother's generation. Yes, now we are on our way up. But that doesn't help the previous generations of black people who were denied educational and economic opportunities. My grandfather could have been a third generation Ph.D. instead of the son of a coal miner.

Institutional racism means that even though your parents and your parents' parents have lived and worked here for six or seven generations, they weren't able to pass on property or education (or heck, an oil company) to their grandkids. It means that you labor all of your life, but your earnings were siphoned away to benefit one of the most powerful nations in the world *and it's multinational corporations*

The earning disparities, and housing disparities, and educational disparites between whites and blacks in the United States today are the direct consquence of the history of slavery and institutionalized racism.

So no, neither you or I are necessarily doing badly, but for as long as my family has been living and working in this country we would be doing better had we not lived and labored under the economic and educationally stunting conditions of slavery and later institutionalized racism.

Anyone else?

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

In elementary school, I remember being envious of my classmates with long straight hair that they parted to one side with clips that looked like tiny leaf springs that opened when you bent them back and forth. The girls whose hair smelled like fruit because they washed it every morning. My cornrows came out once a week, and smelled like the bergamot oil in my hair grease.

For me, hair length was tied to femininity, and mine was frustratingly locked up in tight coils. I felt alienated from the image of the princess whose tiara sat on a mass of hair that cascaded down her back. The only famous woman people would compare me to was Grace Jones. She wasn't exactly an ideal model of femininity in the 80s.

I would put a towel on my head and pretend I had long hair (Whoopie wasn't the only one who did that). Its horrible to feel like your gender identity is better expressed by a towel than your own natural hair. I begged my mom for earrings, because people would mistake me for a little boy.

I wore cornrows until 9th grade when I began to get it straightened, both chemically and with the dreaded hot comb (which is every bit as bad as they say it is). I fluctuated between breakage and the illusion that I had straight hair.

In college, I rocked a short natural and eventually grew locks. Although natural hair has its own ideological/gender challenges, I don't have to deal with my scalp dying and completely flaking off a month after getting a chemical treatment, and I don't resent rainy weather, humidity in the shower, or swimming anymore.

I recently saw the Lion King and was happy to see the lead female character "Nala" play the adult role in cornrows that ended at the nape of her neck. It was great to see that a woman who looked like me cast as the semi-romantic lead in a mainstream production. Especially a Disney production, which is prominent in the imaginations of kids. I would have loved to see her when I was a little girl.