Reflections on Ferguson: The Invocation of Memory

Reflections on Ferguson: The Invocation of Memory

This is the first of what will be three reflections this week on the unfolding events in Ferguson, Mo.

I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit. I vividly recall the particular form of diversity of my community and the public schools I attended. In 4th grade, I tutored a little girl whose family had just arrived in this country from France. During my elementary years, I befriended a boy who was Persian. I had many friends who were Jewish, in part because roughly 30 percent of the population of my township was Jewish. Many of my neighbors and friends (including my high school sweetheart) were Roman Catholic (indeed, near the end of my father’s career, he was the highest-level executive in the office who was not Catholic).

I did not have a single friend who was black. The reason was simple: there weren’t any African-American children in my classes. I believe that, on my high school graduation day in 1975, there were no more than a dozen African-American teens in my school of 1200 students.

My parents (God bless them both) were very attuned to this reality and concerned about it. Don’t misunderstand me here; neither my mother nor my father were marching for civil rights during the sixties. During the riots in the summer of 1968, they found ways to send the three of us away, just in case.

But in the subtle and powerful ways of my parents, they made sure that I didn’t grow up with the prejudices that would come to be common around me.

One important part of their method was the week I spent at Camp Sarah Gridley the summer I was seven or eight. Ninety percent of the kids at Camp Sarah Gridley were African-American. I was in a distinct and, with my very pale complexion and almost white-blond hair, highly identifiable minority. It was a dramatic role reversal.

Because of other aspects of my parents’ approach to parenting, I didn’t expect to have any problems just because my pigment was different, and I didn’t. I have vivid memories of the “buddy checks” at the waterfront (where I went from being a “rock” to a “tadpole” . . . at least I could float!), raising the hands of two boys whose skin was as dark as mine was light.

They were just boys to me. And I was just a boy to them. Race referred to something you did in relays.

I believe with all my heart that racism is taught, consciously or unconsciously. Sure, we notice observable differences. But the observation of difference is the beginning of the process of evaluation, not the end. What we think of the difference we observe, how we assess the relative value of the difference attributes and those who possess them, that’s something we have to learn.

Some of it is taught through formal discussion, some experientially. The resulting perspective is very much a product, in significant part, of the inputs a child (or adult) receives.

Still, I think I am prejudiced, and race is one of the triggers. Having been held up at gunpoint by two young African-American males in my sophomore year of college, I still have to deal with a visceral reaction to an informal gathering of young black men strolling at night. It’s my problem and I wrestle with it, sometimes very successfully, sometimes not.

Memories have this kind of power. The positive memory of my camp friends, the negative memory of a frightening confrontation . . . both are powerful.

And both can be invoked, without my willing it, by events that I witness, in person or through the media.

There are a lot of memories being invoked by events in Ferguson. We all would be well-served to identify them and deal with them, as best we can, as memories, not as answers or judgments concerning the people of Ferguson and their current struggles.

7 Responses to Reflections on Ferguson: The Invocation of Memory

  • Richard L. Block

    Dear Scott, we all deal with personal experiences and they seem to shape how we look at life. The military apparently has found a solution to how people get along. The US armed forces is a hodgepodge of races and cultures and yet, for the most part everyone seems to get along. The key elements to success is respect for one another and the military code of justice which is impartial to all. Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, Asians gather together and have their own individual groups, but they unselfishly come together as one in fulfilling their sworn duty to their country. Our civilian society has evidently forgotten what coming together for the common good means and has chosen paths of selfishness instead love and respect for one another.

    • Dr. Scott Paine


      There is no question that the Armed Forces have made substantial strides in areas related to race and ethnicity. I suspect that part of that is a consequence of the training that builds unit cohesion and a sense of commitment to one’s brothers and sisters in uniform. I also suspect that you are right when you assert that part of the problem in society more generally has to do with our preoccupation with our own self-interest.

      However, we also need to acknowledge that the military is not without its challenges with regard to the treatment of others. The evidence of sexual assault in the Armed Forces is deeply concerning. Military training and commitment has not eradicated this vicious form of abuse. So we all have some work to do.

      Thanks for writing!


  • MsVyne ann Roses

    Well said Ricard!!!!

  • […] blog continues a series of reflections prompted by events in Ferguson, […]

  • sjsweeney1115

    Hi, Scott,

    The events in Ferguson have had me reflecting on the Detroit riots of 1968, too. I recall my father tucking a pistol in his briefcase before heading off to work there at the Cadillac plant. We always wondered if he’d arrive home in the evening.

    In college at Michigan State University in 1976, a tall, stocky black male student stood up in a lecture hall one day, upset with the professor. As the student stormed up the aisle to leave, he yelled something to the effect that he was just a “…poor, dumb N—-“. I was speechless that any black person would refer to himself using what I’d always known was a derogatory, insulting term. Furthermore, I felt enraged at that student for publicly affirming those biased attitudes I’d grown up with, attitudes that I’d sought to correct within my home and community.

    I would like to think that I’ve tried to overcome any lingering prejudice from my upbringing. I ask myself if it’s the individual or the race that troubles me when I hear a young man loudly using the “F-word” casually in conversation at Walmart. Or when I see a young woman tossing litter in a county park. I’ve worked to tell myself it’s the person doing it, their upbringing.

    I moved to a mountainous, isolated area in January. We don’t see too many color variations in faces here unless it’s due to more sun exposure while on a John Deere. I miss that. When I shop at the nearest Walmart 45 minutes away, every cashier, every employee I’ve ever seen working there looks like me. That’s still a bit disconcerting. But my experience at this particular store has always been good – people actually ask if you need help, they smile, cashiers engage in pleasant conversation and look at you, too.

    I realized today that when I shop here, I feel more relaxed. It’s a pleasant experience. I expect folks to be civil with each other, to smile at one another, to understand if it takes a bit longer ringing up a purchase. Here, if anyone dared to use the “F-word”, he or she would likely be hastily escorted from the store by a group of camouflage-clad shoppers.

    I don’t know the root causes of the unpleasantness you or I have experienced on campus and in the community. But I would like to suggest that the etiquette we’ve been brought up with is not so unusual. Common courtesy and kindness are valued across the globe. It’s time to start using these practices again. Courtesy starts in the home, costs nothing, but grants tremendous access to a variety of experiences and opportunities.

    • Dr. Scott Paine


      Thanks for sharing your own journey.

      One of the challenges I think we face is that the acts of courtesy are, themselves, at least partially cultural in nature. Certain gestures, physical touch, looking someone in the eye (or not), can mean very different things to people of different cultural backgrounds. What is meant courteously (or at least is not intended to be discourteous) can, in fact, be received very differently.

      What can we do?

      Probably best not to assume we know what something meant, if we found it troubling. Probably best to give the other the benefit of the doubt, even to ask (if presented with the opportunity) why something was said or done or what it might mean. That way, we don’t heighten the potential for conflict. We might even expand mutual understanding.

      Thanks for reading!!