Ed Notes: As you will read, this article is one of those that takes on a life of its own. KIDS relationship with WhyHunger and Jen Chapin goes back over 20 years. We were board members of WhyHunger and KIDS was born as a program of the organization. When first met Jen she was a college student. All we knew about her was that she was the daughter of the late Harry Chapin, co-founder of WhyHunger a well known performer and a leading voice in the hunger & poverty movement. In no time at all, she recognized the potential of KIDS and not only became an avid supporter of the program, but one of the first members of our advisory board. The following article was recently published in the WhyHunger August Newsletter.
I will let Jen take it from here.
THE WAYS IN WHICH I DON’T WORRY
By JEN CHAPIN
This is a guest post originally published in the Kids Can Make a Difference Newsletter a couple years ago. Written by WhyHunger's longtime friend and Board Member Jen Chapin, in this honest reflection Jen wrangles with questions about racism that many have and reflects on America’s racial legacy, how it affects her son (who is now close to 11 yrs old) and what she’ll teach him. Unfortunately, the same questions and racial justice issues persist today so we wanted to share.
I have been wrangling with this essay in my head for months, as I’ve struggled to find the right words to respond to a question that just won’t go away. The stubborn question: In this day, when an African-American can be elected twice to the highest office in the land, is there still such a thing as white privilege? When we can point out so many black Americans among the most wealthy and powerful in media, entertainment and sports, isn’t that proof that the nation has evolved beyond its racist past?
I finally started writing down some thoughts last week and now can’t locate them, which is probably a good thing. This question is so vast and unwieldy, rooted in centuries of slave-trading and terrorism, naked violence and hidden theft, that I couldn’t manage to wrangle these thoughts into concise cohesion.
So I’ll just write about me. Or rather, about my 9 year old son. Or more precisely, about the ways I don’t have to worry, because he and I are white, and privileged.
Our neighborhood public school is 4 blocks away, a pretty straight shot from our apartment along a pleasant residential Brooklyn street. My son has started to walk himself to school sometimes, which is OK with me. He’s careful with cars and crossing streets, and the neighborhood is a pretty safe one. I remind him that my concern is less about him making a mistake than a driver doing so.
I don’t warn him about the police. If he were black or brown, I would. I’d likely say something like the mother character in the Springsteen song “American Skin (41 Shots)”does: “you have to understand the rules / If an officer stops you / promise me, you’ll always be polite / and that you’ll never ever run away / promise mama you’ll keep your hands in sight.”
My son is smart and sensitive. He has a tendency to be dramatic in self- denigration, to loudly berate himself as stupid – “I’m an idiot!” -- for an unspecified trespass. I recognize this a bit from my own childhood personality, and I console him without worrying too much. If he were black or brown, I would worry. I would worry that a teacher or other authority figure was failing to see his gifts, his potential, or even his humanity. I would worry that he had internalized the ever-present if often tacit message in our culture that black boys are intellectually and morally deficient, with certain mystical talents in sports and music but not many in school or the workforce.
When he does enter the workforce, perhaps I should worry, actually. My son’s given name, inspired by a beloved saxophonist, is rare and most often found among African-American men from the South. His surname comes from my husband and is also rare in the Northeast, and most often found among African- American men from the South. On a resumé, this sort of name is 50% less likely than a resumé with a white-sounding name attached to get a response from a potential employer. Or at least it was in 2002, when the National Bureau of Economic Research conducted their experiment. Are things different today, or will they be in the 10 years or so when my son is looking for a job?
Of course, the reason my son has a “black” name is that his ancestors owned many slaves who took that name as their own, as was the custom. My mother’s ancestry is more obscure to me, but she has indicated that her maiden name is also linked with many black Americans, and that there is likely slaveowning in her paternal family’s past as well. Today among our furnishings are several antique items inherited from both sides. Was this furniture made by slaves? Perhaps not, but there is no question that part of the wealth that paid for mine and my husband’s expensive liberal arts college educations – wealth measured both in dollars and in generations of inherited literacy – came from the labor of captive workers. (My alma mater, Brown University, was founded in a major slave trading port, by a major slave-trading family that also included at least one prominent abolitionist)
The fact has been deliberately buried from our national consciousness, but indeed the larger part of America’s wealth was built on slavery and genocide, and continues to build on habits of systematically separating black and brown (and white) people from the fruits of their labor. To acknowledge this is not to swim in guilt, but to be empowered by knowledge and the tools to move us all forward.
And what of my son? The conversations have begun, often prompted by his own questions and observations and a child’s fresh eye toward justice. He’s not quite ready yet, but in a few years I’ll have him read the excellent and exhaustive recent piece by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic, “The Case for Reparations”, and perhaps (I still have to get this and read it myself) the new book by historian Edward E. Baptist "The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism," so he can understand where we all come from, and play a clear-eyed role in where we are all going.
Jen Chapin -songwriter, educator, mother and food justice activist. She is a longtime Member of the Board of WhyHunger, founded in 1975 by her late father Harry Chapin, and has formerly served as Board Chair and Secretary of that dynamic grassroots support organization. She also serves on the Advisory Boards of KIDS Can Make a Difference, FoodTank, and Music2Life, as well as the core group of her local CSA and the wellness council of her sons’ public school. Jen’s music is urban folk soul story songs that search for community Fall 2014 and shared meaning, powered by the funk and improvisation of the city. Critics have hailed her work as “brilliant.. soulfully poetic” (NPR), and thoughtful..worthsavoring” (People), “addictive” (Boston Globe), “smart, observant, lyrically deft, politically aware and emotionally intuitive” Milwaukee JournalSentinel). JazzTimes has called her “a first-rate storyteller” while Relix regards her as “one of the freshest voices singing today." Her latest “wondrous” album Reckoning features the song “Feed Your Baby,” an intimate portrait of our broken food system. In March 2014, Jen led the house band for the TEDx__Manhattan “Changing The Way We Eat” conference.