(published in the Plain Dealer, Letters to the Editor, May 4, 1997)
I am glad to see an intelligent discussion of race relations rather than a superficial examination that attempts to explain away one of our country's biggest problems. Elizabeth Auster's and Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs' side-by-side columns in the Sunday, April 27 Plain Dealer were well written and long overdue.
Auster's observation hit the heart of the conflict. "It's not our overemphasis of skin color that is the problem with race in America today. It is our failure to understand what transpires beneath these skin colors." American Blacks, whose range of actual skin colors is wider than any rainbow's, have long had to live with the reality described by Scruggs: "one drop of African ancestry has been enough to leave [one] no choice: The person [is] black. Period."
Trinidadian writer Earl Lovelace once said, "Our experience has had as its central theme not slavery and colonialism, as is often thought, but the struggle against enslavement and colonialism." I would submit that the Black American experience is similarly rooted not in slavery and racism, but the struggle against enslavement and racism.
Auster's feeling of discouragement at being "lumped into a group" is indeed a first step towards such an understanding for this is a feeling that African Americans have been unable to "dissipate" for centuries.
For those who remain skeptical that whites see race in a fundamentally different way from blacks, I offer a simple test or experiment. I am a Black male who after attending an all Black grade school, graduated from a predominantly white high school (St. Ignatius) and university (Georgetown). I currently teach French and Spanish at St. Ignatius where I was and remain the first and only full-time Black lay teacher. I will take actual experiences from my life and "reverse" them to see if these supposedly "innocent" comments remain plausible.
Your son is doing very well in third year Latin so some of his teachers and counselors continually ask you if you and your son are of Roman ancestry.
You tell your coworkers that your son is going to Morehouse College and they immediately ask if he is on the lacrosse team.
You hand the phone to your college roommate. "Hi sis," he says. That was my roommate Milton. You probably can't tell it from his voice, but he's white."
Sitting at the bar of a downtown eatery, you overhear the patron next to you saying that he is a graduate of John Hay High School. You mention to him that you are also an alumnus and teach there. The patron then quizzes you on the identity of no less than four faculty members before letting slip, "Wow, you really do teach there, huh?"
Having never met you, a couple of your wife's business colleagues, knowing that you teach at John F. Kennedy High School, pull her aside one day and ask her confidentially, "Is your husband, um, Black?"
These examples, rather than seeming innocent, border on the ridiculous. But my parents and I were indeed asked if my facility in French was due to having a Louisiana ancestry. (We do not.) My parents were also asked if I got into Georgetown because I played basketball. (I did not.) One of my college roommates did begin a conversation with his sister by saying, "You probably can't tell from his voice, but he's Black." I have endured several impromptu quizzes from alumni incredulous that I taught at Ignatius. My wife has indeed been asked by colleagues who knew of me only by my profession if I was white.
Our reactions to the O. J. Simpson trials, the debate over Ebonics, and most recently Tiger Woods' victory at the Masters have made us all painfully aware of these "fundamental differences" in viewpoint. Only if we continue to openly discuss them, without minimizing them, can we ever hope to imagine living in that mythical "color-blind" society.
Milton Alan Turner