In Response to: The Rules

Lawrence Otis Graham ’83’s essay in the Oct. 8 issue, describing how affluence and status couldn’t shield his family from bigotry, drew a large response from readers. Here are excerpts from letters, Web comments, and social-media posts; more can be found at PAW Online.

I give thanks that Lawrence Otis Graham ’83 boldly put his personal account into print. On a weekend when my church in Washington, D.C., celebrated 60 years of racial integration, I was profoundly saddened by reading his article. He reminded me of stories told by friends and colleagues — the Afro-Caribbean boxer who, to avoid police detention, “dressed up” to ride his bicycle through an affluent Route 1 suburb to reach the gym where he trained; the colleague who shared how the waitress had filled in the gratuity line on his restaurant bill because “you people don’t tip”; and others. 

It should greatly distress those of us who benefit from the privileges and protections of whiteness when legislatures and courts visibly shrink legal protections for the dignity and rights of people of color. But our shame should run deeper when white culture, on the street or in its elites, quietly neglects, prejudges, or condemns a person on the basis of color alone.

Mr. Graham makes clear that the petty grit of white privilege and prejudice tightly clings to the American fabric. He offers us a disturbing but necessary wake-up call.

The Rev. John S. Kidd ’72
Washington, D.C.

I was perplexed by Lawrence Graham’s article about how his affluence and status failed to shield his family from bigotry. The rules his children were taught to follow to reduce the risks of being profiled were heartrending reminders of the continuing barriers they and other minorities face. But why did Graham think his achievements would insulate his son from some louts, presumably resentful of the fancy private school he attends, shouting a racial epithet at him? What did he expect school authorities whose response he found lackadaisical to do? And how was his son so seemingly unaware that, despite the post-racial milieu among his privileged classmates, some racism persists in our society?

Philipp Bleek ’99
Monterey, Calif.

Great piece on how race is still so present in our lives. Thank you for sharing.

Heidi Miller ’74
Greenwich, Conn.

My heart broke many times as I read Lawrence Otis Graham’s article. His recollections and his son’s experiences resonate with me and, I’m sure, with many blacks who believe that education and/or wealth will shield us from certain indignities. The “rules” I learned as a black child newly arrived from London were similar in intent. My parents taught me always to be polite, to never fight back, and to leave any space I used cleaner than I found it — so no one would think blacks were violent or dirty. Outraged, my heart would break as I cleaned up urine or garbage left by people who used public toilets before me. As I now teach my 11-year-old not to wear his black (Princeton) hooded sweatshirt at dusk, and other rules tailored to his current dangers, my heart breaks again. These contortions are necessary to protect ourselves and our children, but they’re also hurtful.

The rules suggest that we control others’ negative perceptions of us. But sometimes, racial hatred is willfully blind to your humanity and dignity, as shown by the men who verbally assaulted Lawrence’s son. So I devised another, color-blind rule that I’ve passed on to my own son: There are damaged people who derive power from others’ pain. Never forget that, but never be like them.

Andrée Peart Laney ’83
Scotch Plains, N.J.

No matter how gut-wrenching and grossly demeaning the indignities Mr. Graham describes and the wisdom to his children to avoid, endure, or tolerate them, they don’t match the racist brutality heaped upon African Americans in the South of my youth. Even so, the civil-rights struggle moved cities and towns like Birmingham and Selma, Ala., Philadelphia and Jackson, Miss., as well as Memphis, Tenn., from murderous racial violence to the election of black mayors — some of them multiple times. As painful as stop-and-frisk, driving-while-black, and excessive surveillance by security guards are — even the shooting of far too many unarmed black males by law-enforcement officers — they don’t rise to the level of the assassination of Medgar Evers, the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, the murder of the three civil-rights workers in Philadelphia, Miss., “Bloody Sunday”and the murder of civil-rights workers in Selma, Ala., and the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in Memphis. If we can’t confront and solve much of what Mr. Graham describes, history will be very unkind to us when it compares our time with the 1950s and 1960s — and rightly so!

David L. Evans *66
Cambridge, Mass.

This is compelling, heartbreaking, and so important for all of us to understand. The fear and institutionalized and personal racism that persist in our society have to be called out and named. Thank you, Larry Graham, for your honest and clear-headed account.

Cathy Ruckelshaus ’83
Chappaqua, N.Y.

Despite the subtitle on the cover of PAW, the point of this article must not simply be the alarming futility of protecting one’s self or family. It needs to be about re-examining the value of being exceptional.

What is it about Ivy-grade intelligence that makes some of us think we can “earn” an “exemption” from exposure to unwanted characteristics of cultures of exception, but still have generous access to the desirables? Cultures of exception actually function on the basis of “needing” the exceptions. That leads to systemic behaviors to assure that (a) the need is met and that (b) the opportunity to meet the need is “protected.” Some of those behaviors are greed, paranoia, aggression, and idiocy.

Facing such behaviors, “smart” people can spot and embrace the formula of cultivating separation as exclusion. Alternatively, being raised in an environment of cultivated separation can easily create a mindset where one thinks, “I don’t know how to be exceptional without being exclusive.” Those birds of a feather flock all the way to exclusionary societies.

Mr. Graham’s story is one about dedicating his adult life to a world of exceptions, by the way, among mostly white rich people instead of mostly black rich people. Graham’s situation started with a stipulation ... that exceptional is good. And we should ask, “For what?” Graham had thought he knew enough about being exceptional, but he now describes that he didn’t. Yet someone with his means should have a better response than “The Rules.”

Malcolm Ryder ’76
Oakland, Calif.

I am most grateful for the article by Lawrence Otis Graham about race and privilege. I have been in discussion with individuals and groups in Baltimore around this issue, and Mr. Graham’s article is one of the most helpful things I have seen.

John B. Powell Jr. ’59
Baltimore, Md.

My late husband and I, ’70s-era prep school/Ivy League/Seven Sisters “Exceptional Negro” alums, home-schooled our three sons with African and African American, mostly male grad students at Ohio State to teach biology, French, and mathematics. We traveled internationally with our sons and sent them to space camp, oceanography camp, engineering camp, etc., with an eye toward developing conscious, global citizens, judged by the content of their character. Hah! 

In 1998 our eldest — twins — were barely at Princeton 30 days before “the dark one” was stopped at 10 a.m. and asked by five campus police officers to show proof of ownership of his bicycle. No one in authority thought it significant — until their father arrived. The University’s response? “You are too involved in your son’s life.” 

Years later, at the other twin’s philosophy-department graduation reception, neither faculty nor staff spoke to him, us, or his grandparents. My father turned to my husband and said, “Einstein’s theory extends beyond energy. Systems of white supremacy are never destroyed, just reconfigured.’” 

I’m sorry your son and your family had to endure this trauma, but as the old folks say in church, “Count it all joy” ... your black son could have been shot or killed. Pace yourself; it’s a very long and arduous journey bringing black American sons to safe adulthood. 

Paula Penn-Nabrit p’03
Westerville, Ohio

I really appreciate Lawrence’s article. His son’s story helped me see “white privilege” more clearly. I am white and have always understood it to mean: “Things happen to others that don’t happen to you. You are afforded a privilege of not having certain things happen.” However, it was always very abstract. Maybe the adage of it being difficult to see what you don’t see is apt. But reading the rules he and his wife set for their children helped me to connect with it in a real way. When I imagined myself being given those rules or giving them to my own children, the reality of being my race was more clear. Thank you for helping me to see this.

William Stevenson ’99
Manhasset, N.Y.