Monday, November 18, 2013

                                  Tongue-tied in the Suburbs

       When we decided to move to the Detroit Metropolitan Area, one of the most segregated communities in America, we chose a suburb with an excellent high school for our fourteen year old daughter. Our friends were astonished. How could we, who had always fought for civil rights, move to a suburb so racist that the deed to every house forbade Blacks and Jews to live there?

 “People might listen to us,” I answered.

It wasn’t long before I was put to the test.  We were talking over coffee after a tennis game.

    “I have to move out of Lathrup Village,” said Betty. “The housing values are going down. You know what I mean!”

I wanted to do was tell her she ought to know better than to engage in white flight, but  Betty had a temper. 

I couldn’t think of any other way to put it, so I kept quiet.

That silence haunted me for weeks. If I didn’t say anything, I was condoning Betty’s racism, wasn’t I?

I called a friend in Lathrup Village.

“I have lived here for fifteen years and love the neighborhood’s diversity. Besides, the housing values have gone up 15% in the last two years.”

I called another friend who gives workshops on racial healing.

“Interrupt oppressive speech,” said Mary. “Know your facts. Be sure that you stick to ‘I’ statements. Don’t point your finger at Betty or use ‘you’ phrases like ‘you shouldn’t say that.’”

 I practiced a bit. “Let’s see: I would enjoy living in a more diverse community and I have a friend in Lathrup Village whose property values have gone up.”

I went back to the tennis court, but Betty didn’t bring up moving.  One day, someone mentioned affirmative action.

“My grandparents came from Poland,” she declared petulantly. “They worked hard and they made it. I don’t see why Black people can’t do what we did.”

“Facts,” I muttered frantically to myself; “’I’ statements, no ‘you’ statements, no blaming.”

“Those immigrants planned their journeys in advance,” I said.  “They saved up money for their passage and had relatives in America.  African Americans were kidnapped and enslaved, had no money or friends, and were deliberately separated from their tribes when they were sold.”
        Betty seemed startled, but she didn’t argue. My friends looked interested, not antagonistic. I felt elated. I had found a way to stand up for my values when prejudiced remarks were made.  I needed to learn facts, work on my temper, and practice making “I” remarks in front of my mirror until I could get a genuinely non-blaming expression onto my face.

Practice makes perfect:

You have just been to lunch with a white acquaintance. As you walk back to your car, she realizes she has left her pocketbook at the table. You go back to look, but it isn’t there. She declares:

      “It would be right where I left it if they hadn’t hired so many black waitresses.”

            How might you respond?

Annis Pratt is a writer and community activist living in Birmingham, Michigan. She is the author of three non-fiction books and a series of environmental novels. (see




Caroline said...

Good reasoning and some great answers. I love the "I" proposals. Thanks!

H. Kirk Rainer said...

I once traveled to Birmingham (Detroit)on business; it was more than a decade ago, but I still remember the some of the pristine houses and the company I called on; it was Halo.

But on the subject of differing views, such challenges to/from deep-seeded convictions are difficult to overcome (you have your beliefs and they have their own...and so on).

Still, "there can be no great disappointment where there is not deep love"(Martin Luther King Jr.)

So on to more challenges--disappointment or not.

Gail Kittleson said...

Good eg. of "changing the world one person at a time . . ." We need that these days.


Sherry Carter said...

I can certainly relate! When a house went up for sale in my old neighborhood, the next door neighbor said, "I hope no blacks or Mexicans move in or we'll have drugs and crime everywhere."

I reminded her that the family down the street who had drunken parties, sold drugs, and had out-of-control kids were neither blacks or Hispanics.

She admitted that was true and didn't make that comment again - at least to me.

Annis Pratt said...

Thanks for the great comments. Kirk-it rights you with your own conscience when silence suggests assent. Too, there's always the chance that folks will listen to you when you are in non-blaming mode and maybe open their minds to your information.

Annis Pratt said...

Thanks for the great comments. Kirk-it rights you with your own conscience when silence suggests assent. Too, there's always the chance that folks will listen to you when you are in non-blaming mode and maybe open their minds to your information.

Liz Flaherty said...

Caroline was right--the "I" system is great. I can never think fast enough to say the right thing and too often remain silent rather than exacerbate an already-painful scab.

Claude Nougat said...

Well done! And you leave us with a really hard question to handle, you had me stumped. I know, I've been in that situation. I sometimes refer to our experience in Sweden compared to Egypt (I've lived in many countries): in Sweden my Dad got robbed blind, including cash from selling his car on a Saturday afternoon and leaving it (stupidly as it turns out) in a locked drawer in his desk. In Egypt, in the 3 years we were there, nothing was ever stolen.

The trouble with that wonderful story is that it's a little long to tell...So I'm often left with the rather lame statement that I've been robbed in places where everyone who worked was white (like in Sweden, LOL!)