This past Sunday, Rev. Hannah Petrie addressed Pasadena's Neighborhood Unitarian Universalist Church congregation on the topic of race in America. As part of an observance of Black History Month, she asked several members of the largely white congregation to comment on what it means to be Black in America today.
Jennifer Schlickbernd (pictured below) contributed this text exchange she had with her 20-year-old son, Todd.
Jennifer: Hannah Petrie may be calling you tomorrow to discuss an issue she's going to be talking about at church on Sunday.
Jennifer: Because she's going to be talking about a book that someone in the church wrote about being black in the 21st century basically and she wanted to get your assessment of that. She called me this morning 10 minutes.
Todd: I don't understand why that involves me. but okay.
Jennifer: Because you are black in the 21st century?
Todd: Well, you know my stance on that. She's going to get a very Morgan Freeman-esque response, I hope that's what she's expecting.
Jennifer: What the hell is a Morgan Freeman-esque response? And why don't you wait for the questions instead?
Todd: You've never seen that interview with Morgan Freeman where they ask him about Black History Month?
Jennifer: Not to mention the fact I'm not going to be part of the conversation. Neither your dad nor I have seen that interview, what did he say? There's no such thing as race or something?
Todd: Check this out.
Jennifer: Well, if I had his money, I could say the same thing. Except that unfortunately there is still a black experience in this country. Or maybe even fortunately, depending on how you look at it and experience it
Todd: Mm. Well, we'll see. Next time ask me please. Since she supports a good cause it's not a big deal, but typically my response to "Let's talk about you being black" is "No".
Jennifer: That makes me feel good, not sorry. Next life tell your dad not to marry someone black and then you won't have this issue. Naturally she's going to ask you if you want to be involved. I just gave her your phone number
Todd: All right.
Jennifer: You are black, telling people you refuse to discuss it doesn't change that.
Todd: I never said it does.
Jennifer: You implied, however.
Todd: No, I didn't.
Jennifer: Then why not talk about it?
Todd: Because that makes it relevant. If nobody talks about race, it's irrelevant.
Jennifer: But people do. Unfortunately or fortunately it is relevant and that's simply not true. Not talking about it doesn't make it go away. Sorry, it just doesn't change the way you look. That's "emperor has no clothes" time and that's ridiculous.
Todd: No, it's not ridiculous. I never had an issue made out of my race when I went to school because the topic never came up. I never was faced with a group of friends who were concerned with my race, and I never had to take a stance on how I felt about my own race or its issues from the perspective of a person of that race. I only had to discuss issues as a member of society.
When the LA riots came up in history, I discussed them as someone who was too young to know about them, and only referred to them as history. I discussed them as someone who lives NEAR LA, but that's it. There was no "Hey Todd, you're part black. Does half of you have something to say about this as the black part of you?" Nobody says that. Nobody said that. Nobody should say that and nobody should expect my opinion to be anymore valid than another person's just because I'm half black.
Jennifer: Last sentence is not true but you're welcome to think whatever you'd like. I doubt, for example, that you would have been turned down to take that young lady to the prom had you been Chinese for example.
Todd: ... What? I turned her down. I said I didn't want to go as just friends. That's a horrible example.
Jennifer: Now that's an experience you share with other black people who have been turned down because of their race. No, not that example. I remember you telling me that one of your potential prom dates couldn't go to the prom with you because of how her parents felt about you being black. And what you are really saying here is that you think your life wouldn't have changed at all had you been born of another race.
Todd: First of all, I have no idea what you're talking about, but I'm sure some sort of situation was misheard. Second of all, that has nothing to do with me being black and everything to do with the way their parents perceive blacks. My opinion on that situation and an Asian, or white person's opinion on that situation are the SAME -- that person is a bigot.
Jennifer: But you were a victim of that person's bigotry.
Todd: So what? It doesn't matter. It's like anything else in the world that's more or less arbitrary or based on misrepresentation, it's rooted to something in society, not me. It's not my fault and I don't have to feel bad or even care. I do care but the cause is decades ago.
And I can solve that by complaining about being black? Can't! I can't go back and change movies and films used as propaganda however many years ago. All I can do is be as avid and active as possible in representing black, Asian etc. people as people and make heuristics as useless as possible.
Jennifer: So what happens when you are turned down for a job for being black? Sr pulled over and given a traffic ticket? Or singled out in a crowd? The question is relevant as to how you react to having those things happen to you and you could have those things happen to you because you are black. So that is why she is asking most likely.
Todd: They suck like anything else sucks. They suck like getting a flat tire, or like McDonald's messing up your food order, or like your aunt dying in a car crash or something. That person's bigotry is something that will not be cured by me making an issue of race. And alright.
Jennifer: Getting a flat tire and not getting a job are not the same.
Todd: They suck for the same reasons. Was it your fault? No. Issue over.
Jennifer: Nor is having your aunt die in a car crash. Not getting a job because of something that has no relevance to the job is an experience most whites have not had.
Todd: Well, good for them.
Jennifer: So they become different than you. Not in a way either of us like, but there's a difference. You could also ask the bigot why the bigotry as well. But I don't think Hannah knows any bigots
Todd: That doesn't change the fact that someone such as myself can speculate on race as a person rather than having to do it as a black person. I don't like the "What about me?" mentality. Yes, whites have it easier, but that doesn't mean blacks will be able to get anywhere by simply pointing at that difference.
Jennifer: You realize that we both have at least one friend who would say you've been brainwashed, by the way.
Todd: Well, that's on them. We're all brainwashed by something. The moment things are noticeable and separable, fake meanings can be applied to them. That's freakin' life, yo! I can't do anything about that by going "Man, being black sucks because people treat me unfairly sometimes as far as I know." Not that you want me to say that or anything.
Jennifer: You may actually prefer being black to being black 50/100/200 years ago or even being white in those years.
Todd: I don't get the implications of that statement, but yeah, I'd rather live now than 50 years ago. I'd rather live next year than this most likely. And in ten years, I'll be glad ten years have passed. I don't understand.
Jennifer: That's not really what I meant. 50 years ago being black was a lot harder than it is now, not because of technology or becoming more modern or whatever. It's because the Jim Crow laws are gone and there's at least a little more chance of being looked at as equal. However, as the drug wars show, racism has just moved to a different stage. It affects fewer people but it's still there
Todd: Very true, it exists, but saying it exists does not fix the problem.
Jennifer: But running away from race doesn't fix it either.
Todd: It just sways people further and further in either direction. But I'm not running away from it. See, you keep putting that on me. I wish you'd stop, because it means you're ignoring me and I don't like that. This is why I don't like talking about this damn issue with you, because you get upset that I don't share your views on it.
Jennifer: I'm not ignoring you. When you refuse to talk about race, then the issues that are relevant to race become irrelevant. Even if your discussion is simply that the war on drugs is a racist war, that adds to the discussion and can raise awareness. Racism is lessened today because people talked about it, not because they refused to talk about it.
Todd: No, it's lessened today because people DID something about it.
Jennifer: But they had to become aware of it and discuss it so that they would have a plan to lessen racism. Why do you think Martin Luther King made all those speeches? He would have accomplished nothing by not talking about race and the situation they were in.
Todd: Because 50 some-odd years ago the issue was awareness.
Jennifer: The issue is still awareness, trust me.
Todd: That is not the issue anymore. The issue is how engrained it is in the hierarchy of power, in lobbying, in the lawmakers and in who has the money, and THAT is a far bigger issue than racism. Awareness is smaller than that at this point.
Jennifer: Many whites think that there is no racism in America now that we have a black president.
Todd: At least where we live. Either way, you're missing my point still. I don't want to talk about race as a black person. If I'm going to talk about race for what ever reason, I want to talk about it as an observor and participant in society. Being black is not a PHD in racism.
Jennifer: No, not anymore thank goodness. I have bad news. Whatever you do, you do as a black person, just like whatever you do or say, you say as a man and not a woman. You can't pretend to be what you aren't, Toddels.
Todd: I don't have to pretend to be anything. You talk like I'm NOT a participant and observor in society. I am. You mean to say I can't pretend to not be what I am.
Jennifer: But that doesn't exclude you from also being a black person. Right? That's what I meant.
Todd: Well, you're right. But my point is that I don't like the idea that because I'm a black person, I should be the person to talk about racism. I may provide some sort of black perspective purely because I've experienced things only black people have to deal with (or something), but that doesn't mean I have to call it a black perspective. And I don't think anyone should.
Jennifer: But that's the perspective she is asking you for. She may also be asking other white people for their perspective. I know you are not the only person that she's talking with.
Todd: Well, maybe she can talk to half of me and then the other half of me.
Jennifer: Fortunately the black side is everywhere within you, I forgot to tell you that.
Todd: So is the white side.
Todd: And so are the last 20 years I've spent as a human being.
Jennifer: Don't forget the male part. That's important.
Todd: As a male human being, thank you.
Jennifer: I'm not saying it should be predominant, mind you, but it is important.
Todd: The most predominant thing of that list is the last 20 years as a HUMAN.
Jennifer: Well, if you were one of the dogs we wouldn't be having this discussion, so that goes without saying.
Todd: My point is that my race hardly enters into my thoughts on racism, and I just wish I wasn't being approached about this because I'm black. Or gray, rather. It's like "Hey black person, can you talk about racism?"
Jennifer: Except you have a different experience because you are gray/black.Just like you have a different experience on sexism because you are male. It makes total sense.
Todd: Everyone has a different experience with every single issue because they each live different lives.
Jennifer: Nope,. Just like you share a lot of things with other males, not all people are that unique.
Todd: My ideologies regarding race I can guarantee you have nothing to do with race, and everything to do with the fact that you guys raised me aesthetically and that I grew up in Asian land.
Jennifer: But it's still important
Todd: I think we are at an impasse here.
Jennifer: No, I think we have probably said all there is to say at this time.
Todd: Or that. Point is! Fine, I'll do it, but I will still look like this :| This is over the phone right?
Jennifer: She's nice. She said she might come by.
Todd: Oh. Well, that's a different story.
Jennifer: I won't be part of the conversation, like I said.
Todd: I figured as much. Oh! Don't forget tomorrow is my podcast day.
Jennifer: OK I'm sure she'll call you before she comes. Alrighty I have to get ready for us to go