Even though Ruha Benjamin lived in Conway, South Carolina, from age 9 to 16, the place she still calls “home” is the neighborhood in south-central Los Angeles where her grandparents migrated in the 1950s and her mother, a teacher, now lives. Yet this neighborhood bears the label of strongly negative stereotypes, despite the strong sense of community and mutual support Benjamin has experienced.
Yes, gangs are there, and police helicopters, street kids are shot, and the police line kids up against the wall. But, Benjamin says, when she goes back to visit “there is an incredible affirmation where people I don’t know stop what they are doing to say and do positive things.”
Whereas as a kid, she took for granted this ethic of “I’m going to reflect positivity back to you,” she says, “it started to hit me as an adult going back.”
For example, when she would take her boys to the track, “a third of the time some elder comes and gives them a big pep talk about working hard, caring about each other, and treating your mom well.” The sense of community this reflects, she says, “completely defies the stereotypes of this neighborhood.”
Reality is of course more complicated than it seems at first glance. On October 18, in her first lecture in a series of lectures and films titled “Racial Literacy,” cosponsored by Princeton Public Library, Not in Our Town Princeton, and Princeton Garden Theater, Benjamin spoke on “Race Unplugged, Moving Beyond Sound Bites of Pundits, Politicians and Pop Culture,” in which she explored various sources of racial illiteracy: talking heads on the media, the political framing of race, pop culture, and social media.
In her second lecture, on Tuesday, November 1, at 6:30 p.m., in Princeton Public Library’s Community Room, Benjamin will look at reality through the lens of race. “When I am talking about reading reality in this series,” she says, “it is about seeing beneath the surface, about narratives we are fed about different people, communities, and neighborhoods. It’s this unveiling; let’s look beyond the stories we are fed.”
Her concern is with the often devastating consequences of these narratives. “Those stories are so powerful because they feed very violent institutional practices,” Benjamin says, highlighting their effects on educational funding and the practices of police and hospitals, among others. “These narratives feed very concrete practices that affect people’s life chances and their experiences.”
Benjamin, an assistant professor of African American studies at Princeton, speaks to the “Racial Literacy” program’s potential effect on attendees. “Hopefully it will be like putting on a new pair of spectacles” and seeing that “what I’ve learned about this is actually wrong.”
In her lectures Benjamin will talk about common mistakes we make in terms of diagnosing racism, rather than viewing it more appropriately as endemic — “a cancer or illness that afflicts our entire society,” she says. “It is not about a few bad apples; it is about the orchard and the way it was first planted.”
Clarifying why we misdiagnose the nature of racism, she says, will serve “as a basis to start diagnosing what’s wrong more accurately, so we can act on it and begin to change both individually and collectively in how we interact with one another and what we expect of our institutions.”
If we look at the effects of race on the public education system, for example, the critical issue, Benjamin says, is the decision on who funds public education (which is in part property taxes). “There is an unfairness built into it,” Benjamin says, noting that kids should be able to go to school in Trenton and have the same resources and support for teachers as Princeton.”
One important commonality we have as a society, she says, is that we are all taught how to see race through the media and are learning the wrong things together “despite what our parents, teachers, and books try to teach us.”
The media, for example, tends to focus on splashy news regarding the treatment of different racial groups in schools rather than exposing the “everyday, mundane systemic forms of racism that we take for granted.” But it is the endemic racism, she says, that is “more worthy of our collective anger and protest.”
Benjamin was born in India and moved to Los Angeles at age 3. Her mother, of Iranian heritage, and her father, an African American, met in India during the 1970s when her father was on a service trip in South India with a group of Baha’i youth from Los Angeles. Her father heard her mother, then a college student, giving a speech. “They decided to get married the next day,” Benjamin says.
She cites her family and the Baha’i religion as strong influences on her “motivations and commitment to the kind of work that Not in Our Town does.” This kind of work, Benjamin says, “is quite core to what the Baha’i faith is about. The oneness of humanity and the eradication of racial prejudice is one of its central social teachings.”
Benjamin, who has lived in Princeton for just two years, says that Not in Our Town, one of the organizations sponsoring the racial literacy program, was “one of the first organizations that popped up on my radar.”
Not In Our Town started in California in 1995 with the making of a documentary about a series of hate crimes in Billings, Montana. Reaction to the film resulted in the formation of groups within specific communities across the country to address issues of hate, bullying, and inclusivity. Not In Our Town Princeton originated from discussions of racial injustice among members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church, and Nassau Presbyterian Church in 1998 and 1999. Visit www.niotprinceton.org.
Linda Oppenheim, a co-chair of Not in Our Town Princeton, talked about the motivations behind the Racial Literacy program, which has gotten support from the National Endowment for the Humanities through Princeton Public Library and from Kidsbridge Tolerance Center. “We see this as an opportunity to bring to the community skills that we recognize are critical for people’s success in their work, in schools, and in many areas of their lives in our rapidly diversifying society,” she says. “Learning these skills will enhance intergroup understanding, communication, and relations.”
Oppenheim explains that racial literacy involves, first of all, an awareness of the experiences of other groups in the United States — “the information parts of American history that have been ignored or treated superficially or minimally [particularly in school curricula].” Secondly, literacy demands an understanding of “how that awareness affects our behavior toward each other.”
The program comprises two lectures by Benjamin as well as a screening of California Reel’s “Race: The Power of an Illusion” at the Garden Theater. The three-part series includes “The Difference Between Us,” Tuesday, October 25, 6:30 p.m.; “The Story We Tell,” Monday, November 7, 6:30 p.m.; and “The House We Live In,” Tuesday, November 15, 6:30 p.m.
The series will be supplemented by a resource list that will help people “continue educating themselves about American history and events that had powerful effects on various racial minority groups, the consequences of which we can see through today,” Oppenheim says. PBS maintains a website about the series, www.pbs.org/race, with exercises that people can use to become aware of their own biases.
The organizers will also be offering attendees an opportunity to find a buddy to turn to for support as they try to practice new skills. “It is our hope of making this not a one-time event, but beginning a process that people can continue even after the program is completed,” Oppenheim says.
Speaking on whether and how race has been an issue in her life, Benjamin says that until she was 3 she lived in the black and Latino Los Angeles community where her father grew up, where she “was in kind of a bubble.” But when her father took a job at the Louis G. Gregory Baha’i Institute and the attached Baha’i radio station (which focused on socioeconomic development in the surrounding rural area), she found herself in the small town of Conway, South Carolina, where “the different sides of the tracks were clear — the wealthy over here and the poor over here.”
It was in school that Benjamin became cognizant of race. “I was seeing different treatment in the schools — the idea that to be a black kid in honors classes was not to be black; you were doing something outside of the realm of what was supposed to be black,” she says.
She remembers sitting in class and raising her hand over and over and not getting called on, and also the notes a friend of hers got in her locker, asking “Why are you making all As? — Stop acting white!”
But Benjamin recalls something else in her life that outweighed the racial prejudice and helped her to succeed. “At every point in my life I was surrounded by an affirming community. I had elders in my life in addition to my parents who were so encouraging and expected me to do well,” she says, citing in particular “The Jazz Lady,” a DJ at the Baha’i radio station: “Every time she saw me was a shower of love and encouragement.”
“I think we form our personalities in relation to these kinds of interactions,” she says. “If most people are thinking less of you, expecting less of you, people live up to that. When people are encouraging, loving, and expect greatness of you, I think you can rise to that.”
But she adds a cautionary note. “It takes more than a family to do this, more than a kid telling himself he can do it. Everyone around them has to affirm it.” Her own experience has made her understand that this affirmation is a communal responsibility, especially to the youngsters in a town.
While in South Carolina she had already become aware of how race and class operated and felt drawn to the anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa and the role students played in it. During 10th grade, she lived in the South Pacific, where her parents worked with the ministry of education for the Marshall Islands. At the beginning of that year Benjamin decided she wanted a different experience than what her town and high school offered, and her parents supported her quest for an alternative school.
A woman in Conway, South Carolina, had given her a brochure about United World College in Swaziland, and she did her 11th and 12th grade years there. The school, which borders South Africa near Johannesburg, was created by anti-Apartheid activists of different backgrounds so that their kids would not have to go to school under Apartheid. It later joined the United World College organization, and by the time Benjamin was there it drew students from all over the African continent and beyond.
During breaks Benjamin traveled, usually with other students, to nine countries in Africa, often staying with the families of classmates. In her travels she noticed that she felt like she fit in better in countries outside of Swaziland.
In Swaziland, which comprises one main ethnic group, she says, “in many ways it had more in common with my experience in Conway, South Carolina — it was somewhat insulated and kind of indifferent or antagonistic to outsiders, if they were not Swazi, not in the ‘in’ group. It reminded me of the South, where the boundaries between groups, between insiders and outsiders, were so pronounced.”
In countries outside of Swaziland, she says, “so many groups were living side by side, I felt as an outsider I could feel at home more easily. I learned to appreciate that — this comfort with not having one group that can expect everyone else to cater to them and be the center of everything.”
But it was passing through New York City en route to Swaziland that 18-year-old Benjamin met her future husband, Shawn, at Columbia University’s dormitories. After nine more months in Swaziland, Benjamin returned to New York. They married in 1997, just before the start of Benjamin’s freshman year of college.
She had considered schools in South Africa but ended up applying only to Spelman College, a historically black women’s school in Atlanta, Georgia. The big surprise for her was that her experience did not match what she expected: “the ideal of what this place was going to be — about sisterhood, because you were all the same.”
But it was a deep learning experience for her. “The main thing I learned was that despite the demographic similarity there was so much difference in the student body that I could appreciate and see because we were all black women—class, which was very pronounced, nationality, religion, sexuality, region of the country.”
This was a very different experience than she might have had at a majority white school, she says, where all these differences “become flattened because they are against a white background.”
“It wasn’t all hunky dory,” she continues. “There was conflict and hierarchy within those [different categories], but also a freedom. You didn’t have to represent and speak on behalf of black women; you got to have your own thoughts.” Also, she felt she had more intellectual freedom than she might have at a predominantly white school, “where implicitly or explicitly there is always a struggle against this dominant white curriculum.”
Starting as a child development major with a minor in drama, she switched to sociology after her first class. Describing her experience at Spelman in sociological terms, she says, “The basic lesson I learned there is that our experience of race is crosscut by all these other differences that exist; your experience of race is shaped by all these other social locations and systems of difference and domination.” Called “intersectionality” in academic lingo, the idea, she explains, is that “different social structures overlap and crosscut one another — race, gender, and class intersect — and depending on the combination of factors, one’s experience can be dramatically different within a racial group.”
Another important idea she learned was that of proximity. Even if people are living in close proximity, “that closeness doesn’t take away the various hierarchies that exist,” she says, noting that this is encoded in restrictive covenants that still can be found in deeds but are not enforceable. But their message illustrates the concept of “proximity”: “You can’t sell your house to someone of a different race. They can’t live at your house unless they are there to work for you.”
This idea that it wasn’t proximity but hierarchy that matters reaches all the way back to slavery, when black women nursed white children. “The idea is that we are not scared of being in proximity; it is when people get out of place that racial order kicks in. The underlying fear is really of losing your status; sometimes we forget that we can be close socially without necessarily disrupting the racial hierarchies that are still there.”
Her thesis, a comparison of the black midwifery tradition to what happens in medical/obstetrical practice, paralleled her decision to use a black midwife to deliver her older son, Malachi, who was born a week before she graduated in 2001 from Spelman.
“Black midwives were often the ones delivering babies of white women before they had the medical profession take over,” she says of this longstanding tradition. She found that the midwives charged on a sliding scale, which was not common in medical obstetrics. Also, when women give birth in hospitals, she says, “the rate of interventions robs the autonomy and agency of women. The home birth tradition is centered on the woman.”
Benjamin did find one convergence between the two systems. The natural childbirth movement was becoming commercialized, and people were finding ways to profit from it. “The things you could buy to support the process were creating their own hierarchies and exclusions,” she says.
Accepted by University of California-Berkeley in its sociology graduate program, she and her husband moved to California. In the second of their six years there, the couple’s younger son, Khalil, was born, this time with a certified nurse midwife who could be covered by insurance (although she went through the vast majority of her labor at home).
At Berkeley her focus was on the sociology of science and medicine, focused in particular on biotech. She took the same set of concerns and questions about inequality, power, and race she had looked at in her thesis and studied how they worked during the creation and implementation of an agency devoted to stem cell research. She was a fellow at the agency studying its social dimensions — who was included, who was excluded, and what interests were being prioritized.
Although this was a popular initiative, she found that the main constituency behind it and meant to benefit from it were patient advocates, mostly white and from an upper middle-class background. They “felt that bringing up issues that had to do with inequality, whether race, class, or disability, was getting in the way of the science and the implementation. When those concerns were brought to the table, they were often dismissed or actively opposed,” she says.
She concluded that “science doesn’t take place in a bubble; it is not outside of society. It takes place in an already unequal context — what we do in science, technology, and medicine is affected by the existing social order.”
After receiving her degree in 2008, Benjamin had a postdoctoral fellowship for two years at University of California-Los Angeles in the Institute for Society and Genetics, which brought together life scientists, social scientists, humanists, and doctors to think about the social dimensions of genetics.
She next spent four years at Boston University, teaching classes both in science and technology and on race and ethnicity, sometimes bringing the two areas together in one class.
Benjamin is currently working on two projects. The first book, “The Emperor’s New Genes,” examines how genomics research in different countries is shaped by social and political processes. The second book, “Racing Technology,” is looking at how bias is built into technical systems that affect almost every aspect of people’s lives, from employment to healthcare to policing.”
Benjamin’s husband, Shawn, is a writer and avid cyclist. Malachi, 15, is at Princeton High School, and Khalil, 13, is at John Witherspoon Middle School.
In her November 1 lecture, her talk will be on racial literacy, which she maintains is not an optional skill set in the 21st century. Princeton High School graduates, she says, need to have basic racial literacy, which includes understanding historically how deeply racist our history is, sociologically how our institutions perpetuate racism, and culturally how the stories we are told fail to address that endemic racism.
“This is not something we are talking about just to feel good about ourselves and as a favor to people of color,” she says. “It is something every one of us should be invested in.”