A Crack in the Wall: Moving Beyond Racial Conditioning

By Storyteller Gene Unterschuetz

Story Summary:

 In A Crack in the Wall a white man has an experience at a copy shop that causes him to examine the negative impact racial conditioning has had on him. He is disturbed when he realizes that he has been indifferent to the historical suffering of African Americans, and he becomes painfully aware of his subconscious denial and patronizing attitude towards them.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: A-Crack-in-the-Wall-Moving-Beyond-Racial-Conditioning

Discussion Questions:

  1. How is it possible for a white person to be unaware of systemic unjust treatment of African Americans?
  2. Discuss how racial conditioning can cause white Americans to deny the systemic injustice that for African Americans is all too real.
  3. Why is being treated in a patronizing way so devastating?
  4. What are the rewards of connecting cross-racially?

Resources:

  • Savage Inequalities, Death at an Early Age and The Shame of a Nation by Jonathan Kozol
  • Honky by Dalton Conley
  • True Colors – ABC Prime Time Live 1994
  • Longing: Stories of Racial Healing by Phyllis and Gene Unterschuetz

Themes:

  • African American/Black History
  • Civil Rights Movement
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Taking A Stand and Peacemaking

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Gene. I’m going to tell a story called A Crack in the Wall. It’s adapted from the book “Longing: Stories of Racial Healing.”

In 1993, a friend invited me to a Race Unity workshop. Uh, and I really didn’t wanna go. I was really nervous about it, because I knew my life was going to change. Or I, I thought my life would change because I had never really delved into the whole issue of race. But I went anyhow. Uh, and I got snagged right from the beginning, because I was learning about institutional racism, and something I had been totally ignorant about. But I was learning how in every institution, African-Americans and other people of color, have been disadvantaged, uh, by the racism that permeates the institutions of the country. Uh, what I was learning is that, that whites – white people, white citizens wield power in virtually all of these institutions. And, so, we were given the definition. Racial prejudice plus power equals racism, and so the… it was a really compelling equation. But it led to the deduction that if you’re white in America, you’re racist. And I had a bit of a reaction to that.

I was thinkin’, “Well, I don’t really have any power. You know, I don’t feel superior. I’m just a cog in the, uh, corporate machinery.”

So, but as I listened to more of the lectures, aaa… I, I learned about the inequalities, yea… oh… abou… as far as, uh, disadvantages that people of color have in this country because of inter… and the institutional racism. I had been ignorant of all this stuff.

I grew up in the 50s. As a child, I was old enough to have been aware of the race riots, and the protests, and all the civil rights stuff that was goin’ on at the time. But when, when I saw the, the videos that they were showing in the workshop, the imagery of the, of, uh, people getting’ blasted with water hoses, uh, children and adults getting’ attacked by snarling dogs. These weren’t just blurry images.

I didn’t have any memory of them at all, and I’m thinking, “How can, how can I have grown up in that period and not have been aware of that, because I was only 50 miles away from Chicago, where a lot of this stuff was going down?”

Well, to be aware of your indifference can lead to denial. Denial is a kind of a tricky, uh, thing to understand. Uh, denial occurs when you are aware of something that’s in(un)conscionable, and you can’t label it, or don’t want to acknowledge it.

Uh, another example would be, if there was a hideous creature standing in front of me, and somebody said… started to describe it to me. And, uh, said how it smelled, what it looked like, and something.

And I was unable to perceive it, and I would say, “No, no! You’re just imagining that. You know that’s not real. You know, let… you’re, you’re being oversensitive. Let’s just, just get on with normal, normal life here.”

That would be a kind of an example of denial, when there’s something that egregious, that’s so obvious to other people, that you can’t see. So, it’s a tricky thing to, to… for us who are white to get our brains around.

Uh, and I was learning that African-Americans in this country have been pointing to racism, that hideous creature, for centuries. And that white folks had not, and still haven’t, have not been able to recognize it, label it, and give it, give it, um, give it, uh, uh, you know, the reality that it’s due, you know. It’s sort of invisible.

So, I started to become aware of my own racial conditioning and it was, was get… was becoming a little bit painful for me, because every time that we… I left the house now, I was aware of my racial conditioning. If I was driving through a fast food place, I was conscious. If the cashier was black, I would get a little anxious, and I was, suddenly, conscious of that. If the cashier was white, I would feel at ease. In my conversations with, uh, acquaintances who were African-American, now I was really sensitive about what I was saying.

“Are my words coming out racist, exposing some deep-seated racism in me.”

Uh, I’m sure people were aware of it, but I was just becoming aware of that stuff, so I was really nervous about what’s coming out.

Uh, watching TV, I would see African-Americans in important peo… places in new shows and, uh, different, different sh…, uh, programs. And I would actu… I would be aware of actually wondering if they were qualified to be in those positions.

So, uh, in public places, I had to think, “Well, how do I interact with African-Americans? Should I smile at them? Should I look in their face? Should I say something? Should I just act nonchalant? But that’s not really doing anything.”

It was very, very painful. I felt very clumsy and awkward, as if I had just read about the history of the piano, and now I was sitting down at a baby grand and tryin’ to perform a Chopin piece.

So, one day, back in 1993, I walk into a local copy shop preoccupied with my own project, but I, uh, at the service counter, I see an African-Am… young, African-American woman giving directions to, uh, the attendant that was serving her. So, I kind of went and hid behind a, uh, kiosk of, of supplies, and watched the whole action. I had never seen an African-American in that shop before, and I’d been going there quite a number of years. In fact, I wasn’t even sure if there were any African-Americans that lived in our town. So, I wanted to see how this white guy that was serving her, eh, uh, handled this unusual situation.

So, as I was watching her, I thought, “Well, look at that young, black woman. She is really competent. She’s really confident in what she’s doin’. She knows her stuff. Look at her take charge there, and she’s nicely dressed, nice pantsuit. I bet she works for some law firm in the area here.” And, uh, so, as I’m thinking this, all of a sudden, I’m thinking, “Hmm, you know what! I’m being patronizing.”

And it really knocked… knocked me for a loop. I have been… had, uh, gone to the third night of the workshop that I referred to. And, so, in this workshop, we were told that we, as white folks, feel superior to black folks, and, uh, and that we are born racists. But we learn racists… racism, and, uh, and, so, we can unlearn it.

So, I’m standing there and I’m having this thought about being patronizing and thinking, “How do I unlearn this, in this situation?”

Uh, I’m tryin’ to apply my, my new understanding here, so, I discovered what I call “a crack in the wall.” The wall is this, uh, is this racial conditioning. And I discovered this little fissure where I could see through, and see that there was a reality beyond the wall. And I asked myself what lay beyond the wall?

Well, as we started traveling, my wife and I, we, we formed many relationships with African-Americans along the way, who were very generous, sharing stories with us. Uh, over the dinner table, they would talk about, uh, racial situations that their family members were involved in.

You know, just coming home from church, being stopped by the police, and being asked, “Why… what are you doing in this neighborhood?”

You know, fellows going out for loans and, uh, being rejected for loans and so forth. These were things I was unaware of. But the generosity of the people that, uh, we were interacting with, was, was… had the effect of breaking down all of this mythology, that we have been raised with, as, as white citizens.

Um, so, after years of participation, uh, in the workshop, uh, going through all the classes, and actually becoming a facilitator myself, I really thought I knew something. But what I discovered is that the truth about race and racial healing lay outside the classroom, beyond the state line, out of my comfort zone. If I had known how many embarrassing moments it would take for me to develop just a little bit of humility in this issue, uh, I probably wouldn’t have accepted the invitation to go to that first workshop. But, you know, embarrassment is a small price to pay for the rewards of engaging in racial healing. The rewards are sharing compassion, sharing forgiveness.

Uh, sharing forgiveness and trusting. Learning how to trust people from whom we’ve been separated, and trust being trustworthy. That’s a big one for me. Learning how to be trustworthy as a white man in this country is a biggie. So, these are the rewards. And, they convince me, that, um, when we eliminate the separation, when we go… somehow whittle away at that crack, we get on the other side of the wall. We engage. We, uh, we connect with folks, and then we learn how we can, how we can, uh, build communities that are, uh, ensuring the well-being of all of its citizens.

Images: How Stereotypes Impact Racial Conditioning

 

Story Summary:

Images is a white man’s reflection about the powerful and debilitating impact of the disparaging imagery that has been historically used to shape the perception of African Americans as dangerous. While he realizes that his mistrust of African Americans was formed by racial conditioning since childhood, as an adult his conscience is burdened by the knowledge that he caused others pain when he displayed that conditioning in cross-racial interactions. He vows to make a change.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here: Images-How-Stereotypes-Impact-Racial-Conditioning

Discussion Questions:

  1.  Why have disparaging images been used to discredit African Americans throughout the history of the United States? How might those images impact a person’s self esteem and his/her ability to gain access to the benefits of society? Cite some examples from our history.
  2.  Why are disparaging images so injurious? Is it possible to free oneself from the harmful influence of disparaging images? How? What particular strength is needed to overcome the power of disparaging images?
  3. Do you think disparaging images played a role in the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and other unarmed young black men in recent years? How do disparaging images impact a person’s sense of freedom?
  4. At what point in one’s life does ignorance fail to be a valid excuse for hurtful thinking and behavior towards others?

Resources:

  • Documentary: Ethnic Notions – California Newsreel 1987
  • Book: Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
  • Book: Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Book: Longing: Stories of Racial Healing by Phyllis and Gene Unterschuetz

Themes:

  •  African American/Black History
  • Crossing Cultures
  • Education and Life Lessons
  • European American/Whites
  • Family and Childhood
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Gene. I’m gonna tell a story called Images, adapted from the book “Longings: Stories of Racial Healing.”

In 1949, when I was four years old, living in Chicago, I named my beloved, black, cocker spaniel Sambo, from a character, a favorite character in a book that I, that I really treasured as a child. I was 50, when I found out that the term, Sambo, was actually a caricature that had been applied to black men during slavery, and it was devastating, and very destructive, and had destructive, uh, repercussions. I di… wasn’t aware of that when I named my dog. Does that make a difference?

I remember a rhyme we used to, uh, to say as children to help us make choices. It was the eeny, meeny miney, mo rhyme. It went, “Eeny, meeny, miney, mo. Catch a tiger by the toe. If he hollers, let him go. Eeny, meeny, miney, mo. My mother told me to pick the very best one and you are not it.”

There were two versions to this rhyme. One involved the tiger, which was an animal I was familiar with, but I was confused because tigers didn’t have toes. And the other choice was the N-word, and I didn’t really know what the N-word was. I thought maybe it was another animal but I wasn’t sure. My parents didn’t clue me in on that. My teachers didn’t tell me. Is that okay that I didn’t know at age four?

The images I saw on TV and in the movies of black folks were… portrayed them as either buffoons or savages. So, when we went into the city to zoos, and, uh, amusement parks, and so forth, I saw folks that looked like those, those people that I saw on TV. And I was ve… anxious and I stuck close to my parents. So, how did my early childhood and my adolescence prepare me to be, to be an adult?

Uh, in 1966, I decided to take a trip around the United States in my, in my car. My destination was New Orleans. The moment of travel… the moment of…the romance of travel faded the moment I left my dusty little country road and hit rural Route 72 and headed east to connect up with a… another southbound route that would take me down, down to New Orleans.

Three days later, I arrived in the Big Easy, a lonely and frightened country boy. After I walked around the, uh, French Quarter for a day, I checked into a, a hotel in an adjacent area to the, to the French Quarter. I remember the, uh, elevator attendant, who was an Afri… elderly African-American man, and I got into the elevator.

He said, um, uh, “Good evening, Sir.”

And, I, mm, kind of, mumbled, “Hello.”

Uh, so, remember my… the imagery that I had grown up with. Uh, and so, all the way up to the fifth floor, I’m really cautious about this guy.

And I’m thinking, “Ya know, I better watch out. He might, he might jump me or do something to me.”

Uh, so, we got up to the fifth floor. The doors open.

He said, “May I help you with your luggage, Sir?”

Certainly, he must have rendered this service to every patron, and probably hoped for a tip. I, all I could think of was the imagery of this black man entering my room and knockin’ me over the head and taking my stuff.

I said, “—- no!”

He was so shocked by that response. Looking back, I’m really embarrassed with that response. You know, before me, was standing a man, and because he was African-American, I automatically thought that he was dangerous. It never occurred to me, that my behavior was a response from my racial conditioning that I had received as a child. All that imagery was, was kind of guiding my reaction to, to this man in the elevator. But, you know, I, I felt, at the time, I felt that my behavior was justified. After all, I was out of my element, in a new environment. Uh, I felt cornered. I thought it was just an act of survival.

And my thought was, “Ya know, I may have to fight this guy or run for my life!”

That’s really where I was at, at the time. I know that seems kind of “over the top” today, ya know, and maybe a little, um, a little too cautious. But images are powerful, and the images that I had grown up with as a child were really what, what motivated my response to that, to that elevator attendant at that time. Does that make a difference that I wasn’t aware of that conditioning at that moment?

In California, I met… this was years later, in California, I met an African-American man, uh, and we had a long and probing discussion about race and racial healing. We had been to many of the same places in the Deep South.

And I brought up the issue that I had heard about called unfinished business, down there in the south. And, uh, so, we started talking about that. And…aa, what he, he really helped me understand it a lot better. Because he said his understanding was that the unfinished business in the south wasn’t just, uh, an issue between blacks and whites. It wasn’t just a unity issue but, in many cases, it was a family issue. Second and third cousins remembered the, uh, atrocities that grandparents and, and great-parents… grandparents had either perpetrated or, or, or, uh, endured from, from one another’s relatives.

So, uh, at one point he said, “Ya know, there’s just one thing I can’t get out of my mind.”

And I was waitin’ to hear what that was. Finally, he said, and his face was just full of pain, and I was waitin’.

He said, “It’s the idea that black people are less than human.”

And I watched his face, and, uh, I thought, “Wow!”

He sa… and then he continued, and he said, “It’s the devastating images.”

And he c… and he told me that the devastating images that have persisted throughout the centuries have made it almost impossible for white folks to accept black folks as equals. Um, h, so, we just stood there for, for a while and let that sink in. Uh, the pain that he expressed really took this to a deeper part of, of my being, ya know. Uh, because, you know, you hear a lot of things and, ya know, sometimes you can kind of abstract it. You know, you can’t really relate to it but that pain really carried it deep.

And finally, he said, “How do we get over that?”

I really had no answer for him, at that point in time, but I do have to answer that question for myself. What do we do?

So, I have knowledge now. I have knowledge about the devastating images that have, not only conditioned my own behavior, but have really impacted how we relate black to white in this, in this, uh, country.

So, I have choices to make. Who will I pick as friends? Will I visit them if they live in black community… in black neighborhoods? Uh, how will I respond to others’ pains that relate to racial injustice? How will I work with people? how will I collaborate with people who regard me with suspicion? These are challenging questions.

Uh, but the good news is that there is a… My experience is that I’ve been able to replace the negative images with positive images of a multitude of people that we’ve met along the way. Uh, so, it’s easy for me to imagine that there will be a time when we can collaborate and, uh, build communities that are devoted to our common prosperity. I ha… I have faith in that. I have no doubt that, that will take place.

So, today, my question is not a, a cautious, “Is my, is my, uh, ignorance, uh, an excuse for not being accountable?” Conscious of my responsibility to make a change, the question I ask myself is, “What can I offer – how will I make a difference?”