Does race matter? Readers share their stories in response to Cecelie Berry's essay "Was He Black or White?"

Published May 12, 2005 8:18PM (EDT)

[Read the essay.]

I am maybe 10 years older than Ms. Berry's sons, so I'd be willing to wager she and my mother are of the same generation. My mother is a wonderful woman who has done her utmost to raise her children to recognize the privilege of their upbringing and return that gift to others. Growing up, her best friend was black. She is, and thus I am, white.

I remember my brother once telling a story in which, given the context, my mother could guess that some of the characters were likely not white. Afterwards, with a slow shake of her head she commented on her surprise that my brother had felt no need to include anyone's race in the narrative. She was amazed, that from her generation to ours, we had moved to a place where it was no longer a defining characteristic of a person. Socioeconomic background? Maybe. Race? What a silly thought.

In contrast to Ms. Berry, it was a different experience -- an entirely positive, inclusive experience -- for my mother to realize this. Mom needed not fear the unanswered questions of what happens when we subsume our cultural identity, given the white domination of American culture. But without falling prey to idealism, I do think the fact that families, black and white, are having these discussions is an indication of generational shift.

I'm currently one year into a relationship with someone of mixed racial heritage. He has a notably white European name and identifies largely as black. It's always amusing to watch reactions when my acquaintances first meet him, because I am certain his name creates a misleading mental image, and they are not to be blamed for their surprise. It just never occurs to me to mention his race beforehand, although I'm not certain I would know how to describe him or that he has found a comfortable lexicon.

The anthropologist Benedict Anderson suggests that all communities are constructs, products of media and the capitalistic structures of modern society. Ethnicity is not a construct, it is a fact. But perhaps now we are reaching a point where the younger generation is constructing a new understanding of race, one where our community no longer is delineated by such descriptors.

-- Katherine Maher

Ms. Berry's piece on race was wonderful, so poignant. She got it right. It always frightens me when whites say, "I don't see color," and then with that proceed to call me "Miss Yvonne."

Just the other day I was inquiring about stationery in a popular store on the Upper East Side. The saleswoman, young and in her early 20s, asked me, "Are you familiar with the difference between thermograph and engraved?" I wondered, as I have many times before, whether she would have posed that question to a well-dressed, articulate white woman.

My well-meaning white friends often suggest that I not write about African-American topics. Do they advise their white writer friends to not write so much about topics pertaining to white people?

-- Yvonne Durant

When are all the decent and well-intentioned people of the world going to get it through their thick skulls?

The question Ms. Berry needs to ask herself is not, Does race matter? The proper question is, Does race exist?

Here's the answer: NO!

Race is the single most thoroughly unproven idea in the history of science. All of the thousands of attempts to define and delineate races have failed utterly. They have failed just as surely as all scientific studies of astrology, homeopathy, demon possession, and UFOs.

It's true that genetic and morphological parsings of the human species have given us important insights regarding the movement of populations across the globe. Yet it is precisely this global view of humanity that proves the fiction of racial boundaries. And the single most important genetic trail is the one that leads backward, proving our common ancestry as a single species.

Racial "identity," no matter how deeply felt, is a psychological fiction, just as disconnected from our flesh and bones as religious or national identity.

It absolutely infuriates me when people say, "Oh, I know that astrology isn't 'scientific,' but it's useful." Or, "Yes, I am aware that race is not a 'scientific' concept, but it is socially pervasive, and therefore valid." People say these things as though scientific reasoning is an optional adjunct to a mature and moral worldview. It isn't optional anymore.

Science's failure to reify race is the answer to eliminating racism. If you want racism to stop, you have a personal responsibility to remove any racial label from yourself. That's it! This is not some touchy-feely stratagem of "coping" along a "journey." There is no journey! The answer is here! Race is fake! Stop perpetuating the lies and the misery!

Too many people are floating along with Ms. Berry in an anti-science void. This is truly shameful. She says, "history cannot condemn me because ... I have only the best intentions." History can't, but I sure as hell can.

-- Conrad Spoke

Ms. Barry's article mirrored discussions that have happened dozens of times in my household, and I'm sure in many others like mine. I am white; my husband is West African. I have found that my parents -- who are white and who have lived in relative homogeneity, and my husband -- who up until five years ago lived in the almost totally black world of Senegal, seem to see eye to eye on the waning significance of race. I however, am apparently the voice of pessimism. My parents and I, and my husband for most of his life, have had the benefit of the safety and security of seeing ourselves when we turn on the TV, when we look at the president's face, when we see corporate CEOs. We have been told that anything is possible for those of our race, and indeed, that race only mattered to the racists.

For my 3-month-old baby, however, I know that will not be the case. Race will be a powerful factor in his life, and although less so than even 20 short years ago, it would be foolish to think otherwise. I will tell him about racism, in its present slippery forms. Of course, I hope that his experiences can prove me terribly wrong. Growing up as a biracial child who already looks indistinguishable from an African-American child, I hope that the changing world does not ask him to prove himself as anything other than a respectful, loving member of this society.

-- Colleen Daley Ndoye

This article hit home like possibly none other that I have read. Ms. Berry and I must have been separated at birth, as our experiences are so similar. That black Americans view their everyday experience through the colored glass of racism has often been pooh-poohed by whites. But it is real.

I will never forget the day that my son, then 7 years old, vehemently argued that he wasn't "black" but brown. I know that epiphany is repeated hundreds of times each day in America and a little bit of my son's (and other brown children's) innocence is lost that day. A blanket is placed over them, and they must continue to fight to succeed "despite their color." He's a teenager now, well mannered and polite. But my husband and I must prepare him for how to behave when he is inevitably pulled aside for DWB. How sad. How very, very sad.

-- Deedee Arnall

Being one generation younger than the author, I can attest to the tightrope walk that upper-middle-class blacks still face in their quest to find their "place" in this racially charged world. Despite the impressive achievements of Condoleezza and Clarence, there exists a perception (in certain black circles) that their rewards came at the expense of an undefined measure of racial identity. And, unfair as it sounds, I'm not convinced that assertion is too far off base.

Without question, there are other talented blacks of equal skill, experience and repute. So what tipped the scales in favor of these ultra-right-wing ideologues? Clearly, in the instance of our new secretary of state, a willingness to ignore duty in favor of pleasing the president was key (and equally true of everyone else in W's administrations). This being true, is it fair to focus extra attention on Rice for her behavior? I think, yes. For Thomas and Rice and Armstrong Williams, their success has clearly been enhanced by a different kind of affirmative action, one that they are reluctant to admit.

If the president felt "obligated" to offer Thurgood Marshall's vacated Supreme Court seat to a black jurist, how delightful that the slot can be filled by a man committed to a overturning Marshall's legacy. If one needs to pack the Cabinet with extra black faces to reach into our growing conservative base, make those faces as conservative as possible.

The "You're different ... I don't mean you, of course... You're like us," mantra became a bitter pill to swallow in my suburban experience. Having a family of my own now, I am sensitive to helping my kids navigate these waters while not scarring their psyches by engendering a racial bias. It is a real challenge, but one that will continue to affect our society until race really doesn't matter. I'm encouraged by the racially blended marriages of some of our friends, but wonder how long it will be before I can truly "exhale..."

-- Tom Cunningham

I really enjoyed this excerpt from your new book. Coming from a progressive white family, I found that my own parents had a much harder time dealing with their children dating (and marrying) outside their race than what they taught me as a child.

When my parents felt that they should remind me of the difficulties of marrying outside your race, I said in effect that you reap what you sow. To not accept my girlfriend and eventual wife because of the discomfort her race would cause them was hypocritical. Parents are always looking out for the interests of their children, but it delights me to no end when I hear stories like this one, where the parents are put on the defensive about their views of race. It's further proof that race will eventually become a back-burner issue. Class and social hierarchy, in my opinion, will be a much larger issue than race in the future. And unfortunately, all signs seem to indicate that it's only going to get worse as time goes on.

-- David

Of course race matters! This is America where race informs, and infects, everything.

Having said that, I'm torn between praising Salon for publishing this piece and wanting to "slap some sense" into the head of this writer. No doubt, she'd see that as a symptom of my blackness, so I'll simply speak to a bit of her idiocy, from her generation. As a black woman born in 1962, I'm here to inform Salon's readers, both black and white (as well as Asian, Native and Hispanic) that African-Americans most certainly did (and still do) value education before the writer's (and my own) generation. It's how our communities thrived, how institutions were born, how generations of blacks were educated and then educated others.

The sad fact and the larger issue is, this writer's parents bought into the greatest fallacy of the 20th century: integration as the savior of black people. And this writer's resultant self-loathing and desperate pleas for acceptance from whites (and embarrassment and rejections of most things "black") are the natural result of integration and the belief that black people can only be something, be anything, in reaction to or by comparing ourselves to white people.

There are many of us who, thankfully, were raised to believe that we are imbued with ability and talent and intelligence because those things are not race-based. In our generation, many of us were blessed with activist teachers and mentors who gave us prideful ways to think about ourselves and our possibilities. "Tony" suburbs and white communities, then, afforded access to the wrong ideals, no?

She's right to be concerned and to talk about race to her children. Her sons are misguided, as are many of this next generation; race does matter most especially to them, and unfortunately they'll find out when they start to drive, when their expectations about what's fair and "right" get challenged in the simplest ways: they can't get a cab, they're suspected of shoplifting, they're assumed to be less intelligent, and so forth. They will also learn these truths in the harshest ways: as their generation of black men becomes the first in 400 years burdened by a lost generation of men before them, assaulted by a society's notion that they are inherently bad and deserve nothing less than confinement and punishment and on and on. And there's not enough space to talk about how race matters in the lives of Hispanics, Asians and Native people and yes, even in the lives of whites. Books continue to be published about it, and articles written, from the ridiculous to the sublime.

Race certainly does matter, and here's hoping that the damage done to this writer is a healing salve and a formal education for her own sons that they may somehow, along with folks from other races, reshape how race matters in this country.

-- K. Smith

Ms. Berry, that your children ask you, "What difference does it make?" is testament to your guidance and example.

Also the daughter of an internist and a Ph.D. pharmacist, I preferred gospel to their opera, feral intellectuality to their focused discipline. I endured the betterment lessons (although my obsession with horses is with me to this day), was thoroughly ostracized at my exclusive high school because of my looks and my mind, and basically felt that all the white people who thought Ronald Reagan was little boy Jesus incarnate just didn't get it.

In my 20s, at UCLA and beyond, I dated black guys, white guys, old guys, young guys, and hung out at L.A.'s jazz clubs where I was once asked if I was deaf. ("Damn, girl. There must be something wrong with you...") Mostly they just decided I was a bit too, um, unknowable and left me to my own devices, shaking their heads, bemused.

In my 30s I went "white," marrying an old-line scion of a fine family and moving to an exclusive enclave in the gilded environs of Newport Beach. No one there "got" me either -- although not a few tried. I guess I was considered "exotic."

In my 40s I took my son and my library and moved far from humanity to the mountains -- and built a ranch where I live to this day. Not one of the redneck yahoos up here knows what to think of me either, but all my cronies and colleagues from Caltech and JPL adore me for my fabulous nerd-dom, as do my kid's flamboyant coterie -- who refer to me as Muth-ah.

The funny thing is, my son -- who went to an 87 percent Hispanic high school, feels that white men are getting the brunt of it these days. I sent him to college at William and Mary to disabuse him of this notion, and I think he's being hyperbolic, but nonetheless.

My point being: To people of a certain mind and temperament (i.e., us) "race" (whatever that is becoming) isn't so much a matter of pigment as it is of culture and expectation. When I find someone like me (not a particularly common occurrence) I cleave onto them like a lamprey and give grateful thanks for every moment in their presence. Your wonderful essay did this for me, and I just wanted to thank you for making me stop and think this morning.

Your boys are fortunate indeed to have your perspective... it will be fun to see where they end up on this continuum.

-- A. Hansen

I've never thought of myself as bourgeois. Even in French-influenced Louisiana that was too highfalutin a word for me and mine. What we were was thoroughly middle class. Growing up, mine was a racially and ethnically mixed neighborhood of doctors and judges, mailmen and bus drivers. I grew up under the expectation -- no, the presumption -- that I would go to college.

Still, I know that struggle to define what it is to be black. To try to figure out if it even mattered. Now, at 32, I know that it does matter. It is one of the few things my husband, who is white, and I argue about. It's the assumptions from both sides that wear you down. The double checks on your credit, the belief that you magically understand the myriad conflicts and tribulations plaguing Africa, and the questions. The same stupid, ignorant questions over and over again, which are still better than the silent presupposition that they already know all about you.

And, on the other side of the coin, questioning yourself. What is it to be black, and do you have it? Is there really such a thing as black culture, or is it all about class? If there is such a thing, are you betraying who you are by not keeping up with who's who on BET?

I wish there was a conclusion to this letter, but right now I'm still trying to figure it all out. Hopefully, my nieces, nephews, and eventually my own children will have an easier time of it.

-- Wahrena Pfeister

I notice that Cecelie S. Berry did not even contemplate the possibility of the child in question being Asian, Latino, Anglo-biracial or anything else. She has internalized the old Southern legal dichotomy that everyone is either pure black or pure white.

I find highly offensive her reference to "Nightmarish, secret costs: 'too dark' siblings being marginalized; the very light ones passing into oblivion as they passed for white."

Anyone who "looks white" is white. To say otherwise is racist. What's wrong with "passing" for who you really are?

-- A.D. Powell

It is naive for Ms. Berry to believe that her son or any other child is immune from prejudice and misunderstanding. Ms. Berry's academically gifted son wanted to know why there were so many Asian and Indian kids attending the same summer camp as he. Doesn't sound like he is color-blind to me. He may have been raised to blur the color line between black and white, but apparently, in her son's world, those of other racial backgrounds are game to scrutiny and misunderstanding.

If Ms. Berry truly wants to explore the complexities of race in a predominantly white society, she needs to dig deeper, because the perspective from which she discusses race is a flawed one. In this day and age we cannot continue to talk about race through a black/white dichotomy. The culture and history of African-Americans are profoundly important, but we cannot begin to overcome racism and cultural ignorance until we are willing to discuss how it affects all races, colors and creeds.

-- Carolina Kim

I'm 40 and absolutely pale white in the sun. I was raised by people who spoke racist epithets on a daily basis. I also grew up to not see color, thanks to a grandmother who was born in 1900 and who didn't approve of the un-Christian things her husband had to say about those different from him.

So today I don't see color. I rarely think about it. I have friends of all races, and they are just... people. When my eldest daughter was about 18 months old, she encountered a black friend of ours at a gathering of friends. It took me 10 minutes to figure out why she looked at him so oddly. Overall, my children have grown up around people different from themselves, and they are pretty much as color-blind as I am.

If they have to stop and think about the color of someone's skin, it's better this way. We're better for it.

-- Virginia Legowik

Racial identity is still a controversial subject in our society, so I appreciated Cecelie S. Berry's first-person essay. However, as a person of color who is neither black nor white, I clearly noticed that missing from her otherwise multifaceted look at race is an acknowledgment that there are more than two categories of race in the United States. She completely ignores the experiences of Latinos, Chicanos, Asian Americans, Arab Americans, Native Americans, multiethnic Americans, etc., and our stake in discussions about race. While she did mention Asians in her son's summer camp, her perspective of race is framed around black in relation to white, or white in relation to black: "I have taught my children to note that other people -- white or black -- may think..."

To describe "other people" as only white or black is a huge omission of millions of Americans. Pragmatically speaking, I know that historically, white and black issues have dominated our discourses about race. However, if we are to have the honest discussions that the author strives for, shouldn't we also break out of the myopia of thinking race is just "Was he black or white?" What if Dominick, her son's class clown, was neither black nor white?

-- Jessica Chen Drammeh

To understand her son's slack-jawed reaction to the "black or white" question, Ms. Berry should look at her son's class photo. Are all the children either black or white, or do they reflect the spectrum that I see when looking at my high school graduation photo, taken only a few years ago? People like myself, who fit in multiple boxes, have complicated the either-or viewpoint that she had to grow up in.

-- Alexandra de Shazo

In New Orleans, there is a strange kind of unkindness based on "blackness" similar to what Cecelie Berry describes; situations develop that would be absurd if not so cruel.

The choir director of my church told me of a shameful episode at Xavier (a local and very good black Catholic college). A series of jazz performances was being performed. A band from a local magnet school came onstage to perform. They had black and white students, about equal numbers. It is a middle school, so they were kids, really. The audience booed them off the stage. Imagine, adults booing children off a stage. They never got to play. Needless to say some were in tears.

No apology was given; the assumption was that the negative response was due to the presence of white children and/or that it was a magnet school, which supposedly drains resources from other, non-magnet schools. The fact that this was a vehemently unkind act seems to have bothered no one.

Black or white does not matter; right or wrong does. Ms. Berry, you are correctly using your life experiences to teach your sons, and that may look like prejudice to them: But if you make it clear to them what is right and wrong along with it, that is all right. You seem to be doing that. Don't worry.

-- Sarah Jumel

Thank you so much for publishing "Was He Black or White?" by Cecelie Berry. As a college-educated black woman who was born and raised in Colorado Springs, I can identify with everything she said. I think it's important for white people to understand that all minorities, especially black, struggle to live in what is basically viewed as a "white world." I can remember living almost my entire childhood and never seeing a black Barbie (I'm 36), envying blond-haired blue-eyed white girls, and even being rejected by some black men in pursuit of that ideal.

Racism is so ingrained in society that many whites fail to notice it. They still follow us around in stores, get nervous when we get on an elevator, and make patronizing comments about our braids or clothing. And you can't watch a hip-hop video without a majority of the women having light skin, straight artificial hair, and skinny bodies that defy their natural body type.

It ain't easy being a minority. And I'll admit my generation had it a lot better than previous ones. Still I hope that Ms. Berry's article serves as a wakeup call to the "majority" -- that in order to eliminate racism, they've got to start with their children and hopefully, educate themselves in the process.

-- Essie Harris

As a black parent, it's very hard not to inject the issue of race into your children's lives. An act of protection and love -- a necessary barrier to the searing realities of being black in America, even in 2005. I think that asking your children the race of another child at the age of 6 could be a bit premature. Regardless of how many white liberals believe that racism is dead in America, the sad fact is that racism survives and has profound effects on African-Americans.

The stigma of being black in America affects each of us, black and white, and the effect is wholly negative. Hopefully a day will come for black and white children when their parents don't ask the race of "the class clown," or assume that all drug dealers and pimps are black because of media stereotypes.

But black people can initiate this process by limiting their specific and personal race dialogues that they have with themselves. There can be a day when "you people" will not be taken as an offense by African-Americans or when nervous white women don't grab and clutch their purses as an African-American passes nearby. If small, tentative steps are taken between the two races, then maybe, just maybe, the heavy issues of race will begin to fade and mothers will not be interested in the color of the skin of the class clown or the serial killer.

-- Allene Swienckowski

I enjoyed Cecelie S. Berry's article and I thank her for sharing her experiences on raising children in a nation that professes both colorblindness and diversity, and yet lives up to neither of those aspirations in full.

But I object to her portrayal of Asian and Indian Americans as overly simplistic, a casualty of the continuing mindset that this country is divided between black and white, when it is in fact divided among black, white, brown, yellow, red, and a mixture of all these "colors" -- we live in a much more multifaceted society than articles on race typically acknowledge.

My parents emigrated from Taiwan to America 20-some years ago. But they did not come from a nation where education was reserved only for the "elite" -- they came from a nation that emphasized education, period, pushing kids of all ages and all backgrounds to work as hard as possible in school. Taiwanese embrace education on a society-wide level with a fervency that is simply different from the American perspective on education but that does not fall under Ms. Berry's particular explanation to her son. And why should the presence of so many Asians and Indians at a summer camp dredge up unpleasant feelings of racial competitiveness, along the lines of "we were here first"? Anyone who comes to America has the right (if not the opportunity) to succeed, even if they are first-generation immigrants who have only called this country home for a few years or months. Being here longer doesn't give someone more right to have an education or a well-paying job.

-- Catherine Chou

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