In Your Words

Welcome to an online version of our weekly segment BackTalk, where we hear from listeners and peruse the ‘comment thread.’

This week, some very poignant reflections on racial identity and the power of stereotypes.

Guest host Tony Cox (who graciously agreed to sit in for Michel Martin this week) talked with Mishna Wolff about her book “I’m Down.”  Wolff, who is white and was raised by her white father, grew up in a predominantly black Seattle neighborhood.  In her memoir, she tells a provocative story of how she reconciled two racial identities.

I was so intimidated - at least, initially - in my encounters with black women and black girls, growing up. And you know, especially my stepmothers or my dads girlfriends. You know, I really wanted everyone to like me, and I really got the message that there was something really wrong with me.

Wolff’s story struck a chord for some listeners.  Commenter ‘Miss M’ found a universal truth about her experience:

As a black woman who has spent my life as "the only chip in the cookie," I'm always interested in hearing the stories of other people in similar situations.  This sounds like a story of a person who just had to learn to accept and love herself and find her version of "home." I'm definitely adding this book to my summer reading list.

Kisha Patterson-Tanski, also a black a black woman, wrote in with a similar reaction.

I often felt that same mis-match, mis-placed feeling … My parents are black and loved being black.  But in a laudable effort to launch me into a higher economic class, I spent a lot of time out side of the black community. So time spent in the black institutions like church and ultimately a great HBCU (which my parents thought would be a comfort), were often uncomfortable, and sometimes down right painful. Despite the brown skin, nappy hair and an entire summer spent at day camp, I never learned to tell a good ‘yo-mama’ joke. I too also thought there was something I was doing wrong.

Thanks ‘Miss M’ and Kisha for your thoughts.

We also had a separate conversation about an issue central to Wolff’s memoir: the power of stereotypes.  Tony Cox talked to Columbia University Provost and social psychologist Claude Steele about his new book, “Whistling Vivaldi: And Other Clues to How Stereotypes Affect Us.”  Steele says stereotypes shape how we think about other people and how we think about ourselves.

Listener Moji Oderinde heard the conversation and shared a personal story:

I've been known to confuse folks to where exactly I fit in. It's funny to see the reaction especially in work situations when some folks just assume I'm a guy and not exactly sure what race just from seeing my name on paper until the real person walks through the door.

But there have been times the stereotypical reaction wasn't funny. Case in point: Last November I was at a Starbucks on a Sunday afternoon and I bought the New York Times along with my beverage. An older (in his retirement years) white guy took a seat a few feet from me and took one of my NY Times sections just beside my frappucino from the table beside my chair. No "excuse me, is this yours?" I had to let him know he just took my paper (without asking) and I could lend it to him. He was shocked, then looked closely to see I had the Business section and apologized.

Check out the rest of the story in the comment thread.  And thank you Moji for your frequent contributions.

Blog it out! Let us know what’s on your mind.  Michel Martin returns to the host chair next week.

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