Ebony and Ivory

Karol Collymore

Anyone who knows me knows I love Stevie Wonder.  My favorite Stevie song switches every couple of months, depending on my moods.  But when I was a kid, man, did I like singing "Ebony and Ivory."  My dad and I would sing it in the car, switching who was Stevie and who was Paul McCartney.  I didn't realize the significance of the words because my parents did not emphasize the issue of race in our house - a blessing and a curse.  I don't think I recognized it was truly an issue until I was much, much older.  Lately, I've been playing "Ebony and Ivory" more and more.

My favorite kid in St. Johns was gardening with me the other afternoon.  He told me he got in a fight a school with a Black kid.  I asked why and he said to me, "You know, Black people are angry and they like to fight."  I couldn't look at him for a minute.  The pain so immediately hit my heart that I couldn't breathe.  He doesn't go to school in St. Johns, he attends a school in Southeast.  He doesn't have a real test group of enough Black people for this theory.  Someone taught him this.  He's been hanging out with a Black woman for eight months, and those words still came out of his mouth. 

At my last job, something else that caused the same pain.  There was a holiday party where HR asked employees to submit baby pictures for a guessing game.  Most guesses won a great prize.  Well, in an office of many a White face, it wouldn't have been hard to guess me on the wall -  It's a slam dunk.  I told the HR director that I didn't feel like it was fair, I was at a disadvantage.  She emailed me back and said not to worry, "Look at it this way," she said.  "Everybody gets a freebie." More painful, because I called my boyfriend (White) and he said I was overreacting.  He also asks me not to mention racial issues around his parents friends because I won't like what I hear.

Tony Snow, the new press secretary for our president declared recently that racism is a horrible thing of the past and it's time for us to move on.  Well guess what Mr. Snow?  I still can't get away from it, no matter how many songs I sing.   I thought Portland was better, more thoughtful, yet I was called a nigger on the street in The Pearl and have been called "colored" more than my fair share of times.  It hurts more as a grown up, I think, because I was so naive, I couldn't prepare.  And now, I'm one of those people, wondering if all my negative experiences with strangers have to do with race. 

So tell me, progressive Portlanders, how do we fix this?  Is it class, is it race, a two for one combo?  Or can I even talk about it outside the month of February?  Tell me, because I am at a loss. 

  • LT (unverified)

    As someone whose memory goes back to the 1960s, I have to say that only changing minds (and not letting idiots bother you) will solve the problem. I live in the district which elected Jim Hill the first black legislator outside Portland, and Rocky Barilla as maybe the first Hispanic state rep (certainly the first in this area).

    As I recall, Rocky got more flak than Jim ("Jim was born in Atlanta, where was Rocky born?" sort of thing). But I can recall in 1980 when Jim was first running that my boss called me "delusional" to think a black man could get elected in S. Salem. Since Jim and Rocky, Jackie Winters was elected state rep. than state senator. Perhaps it shows how far we have gone here in Salem that she is considered Jackie and a Republican long-time incumbent more often than her race is discussed (as in "Jackie's an icon, how can that young man think he will defeat her this year?")

    Wish I had better news. But in my experience the only solution is for people to stand up to idiotic behavior (esp. white people standing up) and saying remarks are in poor taste or whatever.

    If you haven't read Howard Dean's book YOU HAVE THE POWER, I was just re-reading that last night. Interesting section about how he requested African American roommates in college and found himself as the only white face at some social events.

  • David Holmes (unverified)

    My parents were very prejudice and I remember rebelling against them in the 60s and 70s as a young naive born again hippy. I went to an all white school and lived in an all white neighborhood so the real issues were hidden from me until I joined the Army in 1974. It was at least half black and I learned that many black people didn't like me because I was white, no matter what I thought of them. I've continued to feel hated by blacks to this day, growing in the frustration that only white people are the problem. I think it's very two sided and therefor the answers will also be 2 sided. I've met nice friendly people of all colors. I won't judge anyone before I know them. I don't think it's alright for black people to be racists anymore than it is for white people. It's a dumb game with no winners. I can understand the frustrations of being poor because I live it. I can only imagine the frustrations the world can dish out to black people, but when anyone lets their frustrations turn to hate and anger we all lose. And you know what? Too many people do just that - BUT in the time I've been alive (51 yrs), I can see things slowly changing for the better for black/white relations. Unfortunately I also see the gap between the haves and have nots growing larger too, and as long as they can keep us fighting among ourselves we'll stay stagnant. Change starts within ourselves and moves outward. Your article has done good for the world today. Thanks.

  • greenbean (unverified)

    What we need is more smart educated people to speak out like you have. Don't ignore it- confront it.

  • Chuck Butcher (unverified)

    I am not color blind, but I also do not pre-judge people, anyone gets the fair chance to show me who they are.

    I also am not Black, I cannot know what it is to live in a country run by people of another race, or to be the minority in most situations of general population.

    While I may understand Black racism, I have no more tolerance for it than any other form, so prejudicial hostility is met with dismissal. Too bad.

    How to get past it? There are idiots in any race and any class so dismiss it and move on, without fear or prejudice. Prejudice feeds on fear and reaction, it dies in the face of dismissal. Good luck to you. Chuck

  • (Show?)

    What we need is more smart educated people to speak out like you have. Don't ignore it- confront it.

    I think the power in what Karol has done here is not in being smart and educated--not that I'm disputing that Karol is both those things-- but in being committed to honesty and being willing to share her feelings and experiences even though she knows she may well get negative/thoughtless/hurtful reactions.

    Race is such a big issue in our society it's amazing how little meaningful communication we manage to have about it. It's just too fraught with emotional peril for most people most of the time. My observation is that many black people don't want to talk about it because they feel like they take enough abuse in the ordinary course of life that they aren't interested in volunteering for anything that might invite more. Many white people whose basic intentions are good and who might be able to hold up their end of a reasonable conversation are terrified of being thought to be racist and are mostly limited to either parroting whatever the current most politically correct notions are or to denying that race even matters in today's world. God forbid we should just admit how truly bewildered we are by the whole issue.

    My two cents' worth on fixing things: Don't be afraid to name what you see. Be ready to listen to people who see something different.

  • Wonderer (unverified)

    Could it possibly be that your young friend was speaking from experience rather than mouthing what some racist person in his life taught him?

    At risk of sounding racist, what if in his school experience it so happens that the black kids he has observed were indeed "angry and full of fight?"

    Given how much our popular culture constantly tells them they are victims, who wouldn't be angry?

    Don't be so quick to play the race card every time someone makes an observation about race. That observation just might be based on empirical experience rather than a racism.

    Of course, there are many who will tell us that a simple observation of empirical reality, if it provides a contrast between racial groups, is racist.

    For instance, the pointing out that black high school seniors score, on average, 20% below whites on the SAT, or that the crime rate among black youth is far higher than any other demographic group, or that 70% of black children are born out of wedlock......

    ALL of these empirical realities can be the basis for a generalization in conversation that would immediately be branded by some as racist. They are not. They are realities.

    When is the civil rights crowd going to wake up and stop decrying observations of reality and start trying to solve the problems that make those realities true?

    When are they going to support things like school choice, getting rid of the inherently anti family welfare policies, and stop supporting poverty pimps like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton?

  • Jon (unverified)

    At risk of sounding racist, what if in his school experience it so happens that the black kids he has observed were indeed "angry and full of fight?"

    Or maybe he just listens to the radio. The dominant form of music with teens today is "hip-hop" or whatever they are calling it now. Just listen to a song or two of the more dominant artists and you can come this kid's conclusion pretty easily.

  • nader (unverified)

    Oh please! Wonderer and Jon, you both need to think a little more before you type. There is simply no rational, empirical way for any person to come to the conclusion that "Black people are angry and they like to fight".

    Even given your statistics on the performance of African Americans on standardized tests, this says nothing whatsoever about aggression or violence, and (at least to some) says a whole lot more about the institutionalized obstacles to achievement for minorities.

    And Jon, while a kid may draw misguided conclusions from various art forms I you that you were exaggerating when you say that "you can come [to] this kid's conclusion pretty easily"

    Are all Italian men in the mafia? Do all Irish people drink? Are all Jews rolling in money? Gimme a break, you really would attribute things you hear in some forms of hip-hop music to all African Americans? I guess you believe all black people drive Cadillac Escalades and drink Kristal...

  • scott (unverified)

    Karol - How did you respond to your young friend? (more a curious question than anything else). I'm guessing you took the opportunity for a really good discussion on race.

    You ask, how do we fix this?
    I'm not sure that the issue of race or any other prejudice or bias will ever go away completely. I remember getting picked on as a kid because I had smaller feet than my classmates. Not the same as race, to be sure but I can tell you, it hurt deeply to be ostracized over something that I had no control over. There are some people that will always be looking for something different in someone else in order to make themselves feel better about themselves. In a room full of thin people, an overweight person might be the target (and vice versa), in a room full of whites, the African-American might become the target (and vice versa). It's wrong and unfair and I don't know how to address those situations but to hope that parents educate their children about how wrong it is to judge. Unfortunately, some parents judge themselves and it's unlikely they will teach their children otherwise.

    Your friend learned that idea somewhere or somehow he developed it (perhaps limited experience made broad in his mind) and no one took the time to correct him. I think the best method for teaching kids (and adults but sometimes I have a lot less hope for adults) is exposure and thoughtful discussion. Kids aren't born prejudiced or biased, they learn those things from adults. Sure, a 3 year old might ask an embarrassing question but it is up to adults to use those opportunities to teach the values we want them to grow up with.

    I don't have children so maybe this exists, but what about getting a group of children together of many races to play in the sandbox together? A day once a month at a park around town for parents of all races to bring their children to give them exposure to kids of other races. It would be good for the parents too. We all live in our comfortable little neighborhoods, predominantly 1 race with a few individuals mixed in but no real exposure to other races. If I had kids and there was a day each month, when the weather was nice, that a park (locations varied to expose to many neighborhoods as well) sponsored a multi-cultural play day, I'd bring my kids to every one. It wouldn't have to be fancy -- just some swings, a slide and maybe soem balls to throw around. I wouldn't want my child growing up only knowing other whites. I would want her/him to have friends of all races but how does a parent accomplish that? Portland is a pretty white town, the school in my neighborhood is also pretty white, my co-workers, white and so on. Sure, I can say I have black friends but they don't have kids. So here I am, an imaginary parent who wants to expose his children to other races without a lot of options so I talk and I try to teach but really, isn't the best way for kids to move beyond these stereotypes, etc to get to know each other, play together and develop friendships?

    btw, I always love your columns - thought provoking and sincere and I hope you do continue to bring up the topic of race, especially outside the month of February. It's not something we should care about just one month out of the year; we should be working on it year round.

  • (Show?)

    He also asks me not to mention racial issues around his parents friends because I won't like what I hear.

    I believe that mistrust of the Other is, at the most basic level, an instinctive survival trait that served small bands of hunter gatherers well 100,000 years ago.

    Somewhere around 99,999 years 364 days and 23 hours ago, the people that love and crave power decided to use this instinctive behavior to keep the tribe in fear and in line.

    They are still doing it, but they've developed subtility.

    Now the Right plays the card against some minority group in virtually every election cycle, while the Left is intent on countinuous reminders of victimhood.


    That's all pretty small comfort to a person who gets slammed with racial slurs or even less overt but very real racism in the workplace or in social settings.


    My wife, a Chinese American from New York City, used to get harrassed with "go back where you came from" and other hurtful crap, just walking down the street or out clubbing in Parkrose and Portland.

    I'm afraid that my solution will do Karol little good.

    Any time I hear ANY homophobic, racist, or sexist remarks in the workplace or in a social setting I will challenge the speaker, and politeness be damned.

    If we tolerate this crap or avoid it, we are playing into the hands of the people who have an interest in perpetuating the status quo.

  • Garlynn (unverified)


    What's a "poverty pimp"?

  • (Show?)

    Oh please! Wonderer and Jon, you both need to think a little more before you type. There is simply no rational, empirical way for any person to come to the conclusion that "Black people are angry and they like to fight".

    Do you have children? Have you ever spent any time with them? Depending on how old that kid is, it's very possible that statement was more a hypothesis than a conclusion. He likely understands that being angry is what makes him want to start fights. He may be wondering how much like himself those kids who look unusual to him are. Among other things, human brains are pattern recognizing machines and kids are heavily engaged in building structures of thought and feeling based on what they experience. Kids subconsciously make hundreds of similar hypotheses every day based on their very limited experience. Adults they respect can help them sort those hypotheses out.

    As adults we'll do kids more good if we don't let our own assumptions, predjudices and emotional reactions interfere with our ability to listen to them and give them the benefit of our broader experience.

    "Hmmm, that doesn't seem quite right to me. What makes you think black people are angry and they like to fight?"

    "Johnny hit me."

    "So you think he hit you because he was angry?"


    "You have any idea why he might have been angry?"


    "Did somebody do something or say something to him?"


    "When you get angry what it it that makes you angry?"

    "When people make fun of me."

    Sometimes it comes right out and sometimes it takes a while but whenever I've had this kind of conversation with a kid--no matter what the subject--we usually get to something real and we both end up learning a lot.

  • (Show?)


    I used to think that the kind of bigotry this boy expressed was exagerated or limited to poorly educated older generations. However, I was present when a drunk at a Democratic party function called a friend who is a black woman a racial slur. She was really hurt and I was shocked. If it can happen in a group of educated progressives it can happen anywhere. Since most of us whites in Portland spend most of our time in white only situations we don't see these situations that frequently, but that is not true for those of another race.

  • Mary (unverified)

    John writes: "However, I was present when a drunk at a Democratic party function called a friend who is a black woman a racial slur...If it can happen in a group of educated progressives it can happen anywhere."

    How do you know it was a Democrat? Maybe it was a Republican in Democrat's clothing, and his/her true colors came out after drinking too much. Democrats who are educated progressives don't spout racial slurs. Only Republicans do that stuff.

  • cAptain danDy (unverified)

    Stevie has written some very powerful and pointed songs throughout his career regarding discrimination. "Ebony and Ivory" was not one of them. It was more along the lines of John Lennon's "Imagine", a far off vision, hope, and prayer. I'm not knocking the song(s), but the songs he's written about the reality of discrimination contain more lyrics of what is true, and hasn't changed much since he wrote them.

    For example, think about the Republicans and Republican Lites who represent the Democratic party these days. Stevie said; "We are amazed but not amused By all the things you say that you'll do Though much concerned but not involved With decisions that are made by you

    But we are sick and tired of hearing your song Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong Cause if you really want to hear our view You haven't done nothing.

    It's not too cool to be ridiculed But you brought this upon yourself The world is tired of pacifiers "you haven't done nothing"! We would not care to wake up to the nightmare That's becoming real life But when mislead who knows a person's mind Can turn as cold as ice un hum We want the truth and nothing else

    And we are sick and tired of hearing your song Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong 'cause if you really want to hear our views You haven't done nothing.

    We would not care to wake up to the nightmare That's becoming real life But when mislead who knows a person's mind Can turn as cold as ice umm humm.

    Why do you keep on making us hear your song Telling us how you are changing right from wrong 'cause if you really want to hear our views "you haven't done nothing"!

    YOU HAVEN'T DONE NOTHING --Stevie Wonder (Doo Doo Waps repectfully removed)

    It's as true today as when it was written back in the 70's.

  • gordo (unverified)


    Maybe you're being sarcastic. I've personally heard a lot of people that I know to be progressives who show their racism in overt or subtle ways.

    That's one of the reasons that there's a marked difference between the politics of the Congressional Black Caucus and the rest of the congressional Democrats. There are too many white Democrats who are afraid of being associated with "black" issues like affirmative action and workplace discrimination.

    They're not afraid of alienating the racists on the right; they're afraid of alienating the racists in their own party.

  • Mary (unverified)

    Are you saying that they are afraid of alienating the racists at the CBC? How can Blacks be racists? Aren't they the victims?

  • Suzii (unverified)

    Of course, black people can be racist. They're human beings, not animals, and have all the capabilities of human beings. Black people in America have less means and fewer opportunities to oppress people of other races than do their white compatriots, but that doesn't mean they have less motivation, or are less likely to take advantage of the opportunities they get.

    Gordo is saying, however, something quite different: That many white Democratic Congresscritters are afraid of alienating the white racists in the Democratic base. Admittedly, there are fewer of those than before Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, driving many to change their registration, but that doesn't mean there aren't a lot left.

    <h2>Are you white? Perhaps it's because I'm a person of color, but I've heard far too many "Democrats who are educated progressives ... spout racial slurs."</h2>

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