“I write for whites. Black people already know the problem,” states New Haven author and attorney Robert L. Pellegrino in the introduction of his self-published new book, I See Color: Identifying, Understanding and Reducing Our Hidden Racism.
A standing-room-only event that included the reading of a scene from Emily Mann’s Having Our Say, the latest Long Wharf production, and featuring readings from Pellegrino’s book, was held this past Saturday at Westville’s Mitchell Library. The readings were followed by a dynamic discussion moderated by Ann Green, Community Ambassador of the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation (RWJF), as audience members responded to one of the most topical and controversial issues of our time — racism, and what to do about it.
Saturday’s readings at Mitchell Library also represented Pellegrino’s first public presentation of his book, a compilation of true stories and sometimes painful anecdotes fortified by his lifelong educational quest to understand racism at its deepest levels, and to apply its lessons to his own life. The books, symposia, lectures, movies, and DVDs he sought out to gain understanding of racism were, for the most part, presented from the perspective of black scholars and others in a process he acknowledges is ongoing.
Pellegrino said he had an epiphany about racism after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X decades earlier. Malcolm X wrote that he lamented the advice he had given to a young woman who had asked what she could do to help his cause. He replied, “nothing.” Afterward, Malcolm X reconsidered, offering that white people should return to their own communities to educate other whites about racism — a mission that Pellegrino took to heart. In his book, Pellegrino notes that Malcolm X should have gone further to say, “Go home. Start dealing with racism in your own family.”
Some of Pellegrino’s most compelling stories revolve around confronting racism in his own traditional Italian family. A grandfather spurned him after Pellegrino began dating and later married a black woman. His father slowly evolved in his acceptance of his son’s relationship. There was a gay brother, now deceased, who was initially conflicted about Pellegrino’s interracial relationship, but later came to love and embrace Pellegrino’s wife, Danielle.
Much of what Pellegrino had learned from black friends in college and through empirical observations was made more meaningful as he navigated issues of racism personally, including his role as husband and father. Systemic racism he and his family encountered brought even more clarity to his ideas and opinions regarding racism, leading to first-hand experience and knowledge that transcended the theoretical.
Pellegrino recounted that in attending a predominantly white school in a greater New Haven suburb, his daughter would return home distressed and crying from the taunting she received at the hands of white classmates over her hair and looks. “You watch your eight-year-old kid crying about that, it’ll bust your heart wide open,” he told those gathered for the reading. The school’s denial and dismissive approach to the racial bullying did not help.
The last straw at his daughter’s school came when recommendations were made for his daughter to enter special education classes, even though she was passing all her classes. “We got out of Northford,” said Pellegrino, relocating to New Haven and placing his daughter in the more integrated St. Aedans school, where she was soon studying at honors level.
Part of Pellegrino’s mission in unmasking and working to eradicate the pernicious and corrosive effects of racism begins with defining language we commonly misunderstand. He drew a distinction between what it means to be racist and what it means to be prejudiced. Racism, he said, is the belief that one’s race is superior to others while having the power to oppress. Prejudice refers to the negative notions we may harbor about individuals and groups based on preconceived ideas, though they may be born of past experiences.
The phrase “color blind” takes a hit because it is ultimately part of the denial process, said Pellegrino. “Everyone sees color. This [phrase] denies people of color the respect and distinction of who they are. It makes their color invisible.”
Westville resident Susan Papa, who attended Saturday’s reading at Mitchell Library, said she was impressed with Pellegrino’s honesty “and the request he’s making to the rest of us to be honest.”
Sharon Lovett-Graff, Mitchell Library’s branch manager, along with partners Elizabeth Nearing, community engagement manager at Long Wharf Theater, and Soma Mitra, head librarian at Mitchell, were instrumental in organizing Saturday’s event. Lovett-Graff said copies of I See Color are available at Mitchell Library for loan. The book can be purchased through the I See Color website, at Amazon, or at the law office of Pellegrino & Pellegrino at 30 Fountain Street in Westville.
Click on download the above audio file to listen to an interview Pellegrino did with Babz Rawls-Ivy on WNHH radio’s “Babz Love Talk” program.