A Dialogue on Race Relations in America

Jacques Fleury
Spare Change News

I recently joined a writer’s group from the website meetup.com. The first day I attended the group, I was considerably late. Upon entering, a la true Jacques fashion with my cyborg glasses, looking like the black guy from Star Trek, the members (who happened to be all white) looked up at me in a frozen state, tight grin in place. I felt uneasy. But I sat down, started to be my jovial, gregarious self, and eventually I had them in tears with laughter. In the midst of the chilly reception, however, one woman radiated warmth and openness right from the beginning. Her name is Carolyn Mapes. During the group’s second meeting, she waited until everyone else left, sat me down and proceeded to tell me that she too saw how the members tensed up when I first walked in. She said she felt sorry for me because all her white cohorts saw was a big black guy in their presence. Being a big black man in Boston, I am used to being subjected to that subtle yet unmitigated racism, often inherent in the white community. I then asked Carolyn if she would be willing to give me an interview regarding race relations in America from a white perspective. She agreed, and here is what followed:

Spare Change News: Can you tell me a little about your personal and professional background?

Carolyn Mapes: My father was a minister, so we moved around a lot growing up. My mom was heavily engaged in our church and was a stay-at-home mom. The church we belonged to was the United Church of Christ, one of the most liberal church denominations. I’ve spent most of my life performing. I majored in music in undergrad and theater in grad school. I went to New York and pursued performing professionally, but it was tough. So for most of my adult life, I had to have survival jobs to keep myself afloat.

SCN: Where did you grow up and how was the issue of race dealt with at home?

CM: I grew up all around northern Ohio until I was 14. Then we moved to Florida where I went to high school and college. My mom and dad always told me that we – everyone is the same. No one of us is any more or any less than any other person. My parents walked the walk and talked the talk!

SCN: Growing up, were you exposed to people of color?

CM: I remember having wonderful classmates who were African-American and Asian. In the early 1970s, we lived in a suburb of Cleveland called Painesville, where I came into greater contact with people of color.

SCN: Did the media ever affect your perceptions of black people?

CM: I remember some of the sitcoms from the mid-to-late ‘70s that seemed pretty stereotypical of African-Americans in particular. It was pretty obvious they weren’t being written or directed by the people they were representing. It was embarrassing. Because my dad was a fairly socially concerned kind of guy, I was very aware of things like Dr. King being shot. I was pretty young, but pretty aware because I think it was discussed within our family and in his pulpit — the why’s and how’s of it all. Also, at the time, television was just beginning to bring the entire civil rights struggle into our living rooms and I remember watching people getting fire hosed and not understanding why.

SCN: What were you taught at home regarding black people and how did that affect your attitude towards blacks as an adult?

CM: How I saw kids treating other kids at school was very hard for me to take. My parents were lucky enough to meet Dr. King and they felt truly inspired by the experience. So all of the messages I got from them were of compassion and love, while what I saw in school was very different. But I think, because they really treated every person they met with respect, that was the message that got through.

SCN: Have some of your perceptions changed about race over the years and if so, how?

CM: I’d say the biggest thing that changed in my mind is the understanding that I was born into a group [Caucasian] that is inherently racist. Because of the way things were done in this country four hundred years ago, the group I belong to just assumes a place of superiority to this day — and most of us don’t even know it. We take for granted walking into a restaurant or a store and not being made to feel uncomfortable simply because we walked in. I cannot ever really know the African-American or the Asian or the Hispanic experience, but the one thing I can do is have compassion, because fear gets you nowhere.

SCN: Why do you think some individuals in the white community are so afraid to talk about race?

CM: It’s about personal discomfort and accountability. If we actually admit that there is a problem, then we might be part of that problem. By believing that the situation is so much better than, say 40 years ago, we’re kidding ourselves. Just because the racism isn’t obvious doesn’t mean it’s not there. But changing perceptions, talking about it, realizing that we make assumptions about people due to the color of their skin is embarrassing and painful to talk about, I think. And I think that scares people. I think that people are motivated by either compassion or fear. Most people would rather just assume that everything’s okay as long as they aren’t impacted by it.

SCN: Do you observe subtle racist behavior from your white cohorts towards blacks?

CM: I see it all the time. White people don’t even know they’re doing it; it’s just part of who they are. Obviously, I’m making a vast and sweeping generalization, but I’ve seen and heard a lot of condescension toward people of color. Jacques, I watched it happen when you walked into the café and an entire table of white people visibly changed their body language when you sat down. By the power of your wonderful personality, those people eventually relaxed again. But it was palpable.

SCN: I’ve come to accept the reality that none of us living in America are completely immune to racist ideologies; do you think that’s true?

CM: I have to admit that what makes me personally most uncomfortable doesn’t have to do with race per se, but more about class. It’s the extremes of class that rankle me: from “white trash” to the rich. Some part of me feels that I am part of the “underclass” as I so often feel… treated like a second-class citizen in various situations. But it’s fluid, never constant. So often these situations involve personalities, who deal with their insecurities by treating others as subordinates. I try to see them as doing the best they can, though when one is being treated badly, it’s difficult to remember.

SCN: America shows progress in race relations by electing Barrack Obama. What more do you think needs to be accomplished in mitigating nascent racial disunity towards more racial tolerance, understanding, and harmony in this country?

CM: Well, besides the fact that white people need to be slapped awake after a 40-year nap… I think that racism, unfortunately, has been rearing its rather large and ugly head over the past three years. Electing Obama was amazing and wonderful, but the dormant racism in our country has come out via the Tea Partiers and the hard shift of the Republican Party to the right. At last year’s State of the Union address, when Rep. Joe Wilson shouted, “You lie!” at President Obama, I thought, “Wow, now that’s a racist.” Do you think that would have ever happened if President Obama were white? I don’t think so. It’s like that representative felt he needed to put that black man in his place. It was an incredibly disgusting display, I thought. I feel pretty down about race relations in general. It doesn’t get talked about, and I don’t know what the solution is to get the dialogue going. It’s like, “Let’s all just pretend it’s okay.”

Jacques Fleury’s book: “Sparks in the Dark: A Lighter Shade of Blue, A Poetic Memoir” about life in Haiti & America was featured in the Boston Globe. Contact him at: haitianfirefly@gmail.com and visit his website at: www.thehaitianfireflyproductions.com.

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