Fruitvale Station & Ma Rainey: Recent workouts for my whiteness

Fruitvale Station
Fruitvale Station

Fruitvale Station is an emotionally wrenching cinematic foray into the last twenty four hours of the true story of Oscar Grant, the young man who was “accidentally” killed by a BART transit worker on New Year’s Day in Oakland, California in 2008. After the movie my mother of Black sons heart left the film on a stretcher writhing in uncomfortable whiteness. Wrenching in it’s realism the viewer experiences an unshakeable journey as she/he becomes easily enamored and charmed by Oscar, and woven into the life of his daughter, his family, his relationships, and the consequences both good and bad of all of his choices.

In the opening minutes of the movie the viewer sees the actual cell phone footage of the real Oscar’s last few minutes alive. (It was this montage of footage from other passengers that was instrumental in bringing so called “justice” to the situation.) I went to the movie with my dear friend Edwige, a woman of color and a sister to two brothers Oscar’s age. I sobbed through much of the last thirty minutes of the film. Sobbed. After, I found myself feeling oddly apologetic about all the crying and shaking I was doing. She reassured me, saying it was even a relief to have me crying next to her. We sat in a cafe for a few hours after talking about Oscar’s life, and unpacking the experience of watching it unfold, and ultimately end in front of us.

For the next several days and weeks after seeing a film like this, or a play, or reading a book by and about people of color is when I find myself riding my own internalized racism merry go round from one scene to another. For example, on New Year’s Eve Oscar is at his mother’s house for her birthday dinner. The house is cozy, and filled with relatives and friends, food and festivities. In my head I noticed that I expected to see a house that didn’t look so much like the one I grew up in. The next question I ask myself is what did I expect to see? Where were the drugs? The yelling? The things that can explain why this could have happened. In that moment is where my race and class assumptions come floating to the top, like dead things on a lake. If I can stand my own current assumptions and truths, I accept an invitation to change.

Where this used to be a very painful process, now it is unpleasant, and reassuring at the same time. Reassuring that I am opening up more and more to these dark and recessed places where my assumptions, prejudices, and ignorance still hides. Unpleasant because there seems to be no end to the socialization, the conditioning, and the privilege.

One of the hardest moments was when I realized that if Oscar had been on my subway car that night with all of his friends, and I had been alone on the car with them I KNOW I would have felt threatened by their very presence. This man, who will be my son in nine years looked scary to me. Without seeing Fruitvale Station I would not have had the opportunity to have lived with that moment, followed by wanting to fight my way into the ambulance with him and insist every step of the way that MY SON get the BEST CARE EVER RIGHT NOW. Watching I was aching to be able to insert myself into the film, and work every ounce of power and privilege that I had to make sure he lived. If I was there, would things have been different?

Ma Rainey's Big Black Bottom
Ma Rainey’s Big Black Bottom

Seeing a play that is set almost one hundred years ago, might seem at first to have a little less potential for cathartic exploration in the white mind and race department. Not true. In this case the opportunity to witness the “hidden under world” of the Black experience in this historically rich play by August Wilson (who was biracial, which I never knew) was uncomfortable for the viewer for an entirely different set of reasons. When the band members are downstairs  in the windowless cold basement, waiting for Ma Rainey to arrive for the recording session, their story telling safely out of the gaze of the white man, paints a very real picture of past and present institutionalized racism.  The anger, humor, defeat and passion of the play all combine into a surprise ending that left this the white viewer with a cataclysmic sense of both shame and enlightenment.

Readers of this blog, and participants of presentations often want tangible next steps on their own journey to racial justice. Reading a book by an author of color (alone or in a book group) or going to a film or play written by a person of color, about people of color is a great start. Not only are you are giving an important message to the publishing, film and theater industry with your financial vote, but by bringing along a few friends you are creating a space for a shared inquiry into your experiences as viewer of any race. Herein lies the potential for expanding your edges, and shedding light into your personal and shared racism. This, in my experience is when shift on a much larger scale is allowed to happen.


I would like to “dedicate” this post to the students in the graduate counseling program at the University of Maine, who I recently had the opportunity to work with on the topic of racial justice, counseling, and white privilege. I was so struck by their honesty, and openness in class, and in their pre and post evaluations of my presentation there. Our shared experience was transformative.

A spontaneous brotherhood jam and Friendsgiving

I pulled off a spontaneous dinner party and jam for seven the other night. OK, so I had help prepping and the easiest guests ever. BUT the point is that spontaneous is not in my vocabulary. It is a goal of mine to not need to plan everything, and leave room for surprises. I want to model that to the kids too. In this case a spontaneous invite to one, turned into two because Hassan’s most amazing brother Malik was in town from Los Angeles. They asked me to make sure Eddie could come, and before you know it, we had a big ole party at my house.

Brotherhood of goofy faces/ Mama C and the Boys 2011
this is serious work/ Mama C and the Boys 2011
Malik's glasses -the prize of the night/ Mama C and the Boys 2011

Marcel went around the table asking everyone what they were thankful for that night. The answers:

1. Feet to walk around and skip and dance with

2. Buses and planes that bring you to your brother

3. Everyone in the whole wide world

4. Spontaneity

5. This great dinner mommy made

6. Music

7. Having a family of choice in Portland

Have any Friendsgivings in your plans in the next few weeks? Are you inclined to the planned jam–or the spontaneous flavor? What are you looking forward to?


Just one quick resource to share with you that the fabulous Nancy shared with me yesterday: 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days from Chicago Now. I haven’t read them all–but by the looks of it a real range of stories from the triad and beyond.  Come back tomorrow to meet my interview partner for the Adoption Blogger Interview Project 2011 unveiling!

Cassava plants and apple trees: Ethnicity, race, and place Vignette #2

Terese and Marcel

This is the next vignette in my series on Race, Ethnicity, and Place. Dinner the other night at the home of a family from Rwanda is the setting for this next vignette. My readers I trust will provide the compelling conversation around it.

Back story: The young woman in this story, who I will call Terese graduated in June, from the middle school where I teach. She had been my student for two years.  I knew of her older brother, but only by name.  I never had an extended interaction with her parents, prior to this dinner I am writing about. Continue reading “Cassava plants and apple trees: Ethnicity, race, and place Vignette #2”

I’m White, you’re not. Where do I start? Race/Ethincity Place Pt I: follow up

Roy and Uncle as Easy as a Sunday morning/ Mama C and the

From reading the responses on our first vignette here on the topic it is clear that-if you are asking yourself how do I start a conversation with a stranger/aquaintance/freind of a friend  of color and not come across as a complete dork/stalker/or uptight White person you are not alone. (Or non White person, but I’m not imagining that is who I am speaking to here.) Continue reading “I’m White, you’re not. Where do I start? Race/Ethincity Place Pt I: follow up”

Vignette #1: Making friends of color (Race/Ethnicity/Place a dialogue in many parts)

The Nina, the Pinta and Hassan

I am really jazzed about this series of vignettes, and the TRA community exchange happening here in the process. I’m open to adapting the form of this to meet the needs of the participating community. So OFFER FEEDBACK please. Some vignettes will speak more to some members of the community than others. I hope to cover a range of topics (over the coming months, about once a week) so that TRA/multi-racial readers through adoption, marriage, birth and any other means will feel interested and invited to participate. Thank you to all who have enthusiastically endorsed this undertaking on and off line! Let’s get started.

Vignette #1: Making friends of color as adults

Before adopting Sam I had zero Black friends. I mean the kind of people who you call when you are excited about a life event, or in a panic.  The friends who have to be at the graduation, or else it doesn’t count.  I had acquaintances of color in college, and friends of friends when I lived in New York City after college. I dated a few Black men in and out of college, but had not remained friends with them.  It was not about choice, I would tell myself, but circumstance. Was I waiting for them to find me?

The present moment:  I am sitting in a heart of the city diner waiting for Hassan to join me and the boys for breakfast. Everyone else in the very small breakfast nook is White-except for one other obviously TRA adopted Black girl, and an Indian woman with her toddler and partner.  When he shows up Marcel hurls himself towards him, almost tackling him with love. Sam is more laid back, waiting for Hassan to come to the table to exchange greetings.  My feelings for Hassan range from maternal to sibling like to occasional-groupie. Hassan is a beautiful, brown skinned jazz musician/composer in his mid twenties. He is an African American male born and raised in Cincinnati. He was introduced to me through Eddie-our former Haitian-French nanny-big sister-friend. Our family friendship with Hassan includes visits, texts, phone calls, and family dinners.  As he reaches the table, I get up and meet him with a giant embrace.

I consider for a second if the people in the diner think he is Sam’s or Marcel’s father? He looks older than he is. I realize I care a lot less what the hell people think about me and my family  than I used to.

We share a meal. We decide on the after meal outing. We talk about kindergarten, baseball, his visit home, and being a Black man in Portland. He says that he loves it here. He loves the space and freedom he feels to create here. He went to college near here, is discovering as an adult his profound love of the outdoors. He did not have this as a child, and is in complete awe of things like watching the sun rise from the top of a mountain, and being on a sail boat far enough out that there is only water on all sides.

When I asked him point blank if he thought I was doing my children a disservice by raising them here he shook his head NO emphatically. He said the kids will know the world wherever they live, as long as I keep doing what I do. He talked about the rich diversity of his friendships here in Portland, and how that is what brings him back. It is not about just having Black friends, it is about having friends who are everything he said. Black, Jewish, gay, Hungarian, poor, Muslim, Asian… “But,” I interrupted him, “what about everything I can’t teach them about being a Black man, a Black person?”

He paused. He thought. Then he said, “As long as they have friends who look like them, and who share the experience of being Black in the world, they are going to be fine. And they have that at school and out of school. It doesn’t have to be everywhere. It just has to be accessible in the form of a few close friends.” Of course this is his opinion, and of course this is what I want to hear. I realize this, and continue to push. Continue reading “Vignette #1: Making friends of color (Race/Ethnicity/Place a dialogue in many parts)”