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Eye Opening

Posted on 23 May 2010 by Barbara Beckwith (2)
 Liz Petry, author of "At Home Inside: A Daughter's Tribute to Ann Petry" and
"Can Anything Beat White? A Black Family's  Letters" 
comments on her blog
Barbara Beckwith has done a brave and wonderful thing in writing What Was I Thinking?: Reflecting on Everyday Racism. I’ve long believed that no one in the United States is without racism. It’s impossible to live in this country and not harbor prejudice of some sort. I acknowledge a problem with white southerners. The accent makes my skin crawl, and I just assume that they won’t like me because I’m black. Rational? Of course not. But understandable since I was shot at in Virginia when I was sixteen by two good ol’ boys in a pickup truck with a battle flag flying from the antenna.


My dad, whose prejudices were far more ingrained than mine, (I called him the black Archie Bunker because he seemed to dislike every ethnic group except for Jewish people, who had helped him get an education), did point out that white southerners who liked black people could be much friendlier than cold northerners. And I’ve recognized over the years how limiting my attitude is. But the reflex is still there. I hear Mitch McConnell or Jim DeMint and strains of “Deliverance” play in my head.

Barbara has presented an unvarnished look at her own perceptions about people who are different from her. The result is truly revelatory.

She describes herself as “white, upper-middle-class, currently able-bodied, and heterosexual.” Until she entered the work world, her contact with African Americans bordered on deprived: the nursemaid, a neighbor’s chauffeur, and two college classmates. She doesn’t mention other minorities as part of her early years, so I suspect they were nonexistent. I am filled with admiration that she stepped out of her comfort zone to attend a workshop on white people challenging racism and then continued to write and speak about bias in the world around her.

What Was I Thinking? is a small book, a mere 40 pages, but it contains a powerful message – that white people have myriad opportunities to overcome their prejudices.

The writer in me particularly enjoyed “Words Matter,” in which Barbara examines the transmutation of labels for people from Central and South America, for gay people, for Jewish people, and for my people who have been colored, Negro, black, Afro-American, African American, and are now back to black (with “of color” thrown in). Barbara issues the challenge that we need to decide what impact these the labels have on how we perceive people and to use the each group’s choice of labels as a way to examine our feelings about “other.”

Beckwith’s essays and speeches should be required in every public school in the country. Her musings on racial jokes put in words feelings that I’ve had that it shouldn’t be OK to put down any racial group, even if the group being mocked is one’s own. My attitude is beyond strict, and it came from my mother, who kicked my dad’s oldest brother out of our house for telling a Polish joke. I must have been five or six years old, but her action had a profound effect.

And the chapter titled “ ‘Aha’ Moments” was a revelation for me as I have obviously never known the benefits of white skin. I did wonder, though, if some of the privilege comes not just from whiteness but from her class status. After all, I doubt that UPS would have allowed a shabbily dressed white woman or a young white punk with tattoos and a baseball cap on sideways to skip the credit card requirement.

In any event, I thank Barbara Beckwith for giving me a great deal to think about and urge others to read and reflect.

This entry was posted on May 22, 2010 at 12:06 am and is filed under Uncategorized

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