While online recently, I came upon an article about Charles Schulz, the famous creator of the comic strip “Peanuts.” The article described how Mr. Schulz introduced a Black boy named Franklin into his comic strip after receiving letters from a schoolteacher, Harriet Glickman. Ms. Glickman wrote to Mr. Schulz encouraging him to consider the positive impact this addition could have, especially following Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination in the turbulent year that was 1968. Mr. Schulz expressed his desire to do this but also his hesitation, writing back that he feared patronizing Black readers who might see the addition as simply a quick nod to diversity. Ms. Glickman persisted, enlisting the help of friends who were black to write Mr. Schulz and explain why they believed this could be such a positive step in a time of racial unrest. Mr. Schulz was convinced and on July 31, 1968, Charlie Brown met Franklin Armstrong at the beach after Franklin returned Charlie’s wayward beach ball. Mr. Schulz made this encounter purposely simple, and the two became friends, unconcerned about the color of each other’s skin. Mr. Schulz later talked about growing up as a person who was white in St. Paul, Minnesota and his lack of preparation to write anything from the perspective of a young Black male character. He has been criticized for making Franklin “too perfect” compared to the quirks and flaws of Charlie and his other friends, but he took a crucial step by adding Franklin to Charlie’s otherwise white world. Franklin appeared in Peanuts 52 years ago, but it took multiple pleading efforts and a cartoonist’s willingness to go against his own editors and publisher to make it happen.
I was only two years old, not yet old enough to be reading comics, when Franklin Armstrong met Charlie Brown. Had I been older, I doubt I would have thought twice about the lack of diversity in a comic strip or anywhere else. I grew up in a medium-sized city in Iowa, not thinking much about my own or anyone else’s skin color. My city was, and still is, comprised mostly of people who are white. In my school, in my neighborhood, in my church, in restaurants and stores, I saw people whose skin looked like mine. The few people of color who found their way to our city typically lived in the downtown area, a fact I recognize now but likely was not aware of growing up. I was caught in my own bubble as our family struggled financially: although my dad seemed to work constantly trying to succeed in his small business, we never seemed to have enough to pay the bills. In the tougher times we used food stamps and moved from my childhood home into a mobile home park. Through it all, I had access to a private religious education, never felt unsafe in my neighborhoods, and received help from school staff and family members to apply for college scholarships. Reflecting on this now, I wonder what my experiences and outcomes would have been if I had grown up in my childhood city and not been white.
Life at college and graduate school continued to lack racial diversity. The professors at my graduate social work program in Milwaukee tried to expand my and other students’ horizons: in one of my classes, we were asked to spend time in an environment where we would be the racial minority. I enlisted the support of my outgoing husband and we found a Baptist church in Milwaukee that we could attend on a Sunday morning. I remember walking in and feeling all eyes upon us: we were the only people there who were white. I felt scrutinized and incredibly self-conscious: this is the first time I can remember being acutely aware of the color of my skin. I imagined people were curious about our reasons for being there, and I felt myself on high alert the entire time as I tried to follow social cues from others and wondered how I was being perceived. Although I continued to feel uncomfortable given our lack of anonymity, we couldn’t have received a warmer welcome from the church members. As we left, several people encouraged us to return the next week; my husband, a gregarious guy possessing a strong singing voice, may well have become part of the choir eventually.
My professor assigned that experience knowing that when you spend the bulk of your time with people who look like you do, you become quite comfortable with it. More often than not, we need some sort of push to go outside of our comfort zone, and that is true when it comes to forming relationships with people of different racial backgrounds. We drove back from the city to our predominantly white suburb and never did return to that church, or seek out any other ways to meet people of different racial backgrounds.
I’ve worked as a counselor for 20 years. I consider myself a caring and compassionate person who believes in the value of all human beings. If there is one nugget of truth I’ve absorbed while trying to help others through emotional struggles, it is that I can never truly understand what life is like for another person. Recently, I’ve been hearing from more people impacted by negative perceptions and treatment based on the color of their skin. I talked to a young Black woman who feels afraid to go for a run in her own neighborhood; she fears being singled out and harmed or even killed. If she ventures out, she tells loved ones her route and when to expect her back. She reached out for help when the strain and unfairness of this all finally broke her down. I can’t pretend I understand what this feels like, but I can acknowledge her reality instead of retreating further into mine.
Americans are having crucial discussions about race, largely prompted by recent troubling events in our country. I can’t add an expert voice to this conversation, but I can show a willingness to share my perspective and admit what I don’t know. I believe that finding truthful answers starts with a willingness to ask questions. Why did it take such persuasion to add a Black character to a comic strip only 52 years ago? Why is my suburb and neighborhood filled primarily with people who are white? Why is a person of color seen in a predominantly white area more likely to be perceived as a threat? What hidden negative biases do we hold in our own hearts? Many of us haven’t asked these questions because we don’t feel negatively impacted by the answers, but plenty of information is available about social policies and laws created to oppress communities of color. For example, I’ve begun to read about redlining in the 1930s, the process which kept Black people in poorer housing situations. The process of redlining identified people of color as higher financial risks and denied them access to mortgage refinancing. This process also devalued properties in minority neighborhoods. I’m learning more about Jim Crow laws, which legalized segregation until 1964 when Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. This is not ancient history; and although laws and official policies changed, the hearts, minds and behaviors of many have not automatically changed along with them.
A motivational speaker I’ve admired started his lectures with the statement, “I’m not going to tell you what to think, I’m going to give you something to think about.” After acknowledging his inability to force others to think or feel certain things, this wise man asked his audience to challenge themselves to consider other viewpoints. I’ve lived in my own racial bubble for years, making it easier to diminish or ignore racial discrimination and injustice that occurs today. I can’t tell you what to think or feel, but I can give us something to think about by encouraging all of us to set aside our own experiences and listen to the stories of those treated unjustly based on the color of their skin. If laws have changed but hearts and minds have not, people can still be treated unfairly and harmed or killed. Opening our own hearts and minds and choosing to acknowledge this is a first step toward bigger changes in our society.
None of us is “guilty” of anything because of the color of our skin: we have no more choice over that than we do our height or shoe size. However, we do bear responsibility for the choices we do make. We have a choice to educate ourselves about racial injustice, past and present, in our country. We have a choice to listen to those suffering from negative perceptions and mistreatment based on the color of their skin. We have a choice to show communities of color that we support their efforts for fair treatment. We have a choice to step outside the perspective we may have lived with our entire lives and remember that a person being mistreated or harmed is someone’s beloved father, sister, cousin, aunt or son. We don’t know what we don’t know, so let’s open our ears and eyes to those who have lived these experiences.
One thought on “Reflections on Race”
This was a thoughtful and inspired piece of writing. This has been weighing heavy on my heart for weeks and I am grateful for the perspective of many such as this. I am listening. Thank you!