Is a community that’s almost 98% white inherently racist?
My lucky-to-be-a-Los Angeles-native answer is yes, yes it is. Uniontown, Ohio – I’m talking to you. It’s white because of the history of discrimination and economic changes that allow some people to live somewhere and keep other people away.
But lesbian couple Jennifer Cramblett (pictured above) and Amanda Zinkon—who are moving from their very white town after a sperm bank mixup resulted in the birth of their half-black baby girl Payton—gives rare visibility to the way that warranted or not, individual people actively work to maintain the segregated status quo of their town’s boundaries, by leaving for a more diverse town where they say their child won’t feel out of place.
The message is this: Even white people realize that white America sucks for non-white people, but no one really wants to be a conscious part of improving those demographics.
The story begins two years ago, when Cramblett contracted Midwest Sperm Bank to inseminate her with sperm from a blonde-haired, blue-eyed man (donor 330). Allegedly, due to a clerical error in the sperm bank’s non-digital filing system, Cramblett was accidentally fertilized with sperm from a black man (donor 380). (Note to self: never use a medical service that still pencils in their appointments and keeps ballpoint-pen records.)
The couple discovered the semen mix-up five months into Cramblett’s pregnancy. And while Cramblett and Zinkon are now happily raising Payton, the surprise has left the couple to grapple with the racial politics of their baby’s hometown—as if for the first time ever. They realized there’s nowhere nearby to get their daughter a haircut. They noticed the looks they received in public places. They want out.
Just last week, the mothers filed a suit against Midwest Sperm Bank in hopes of receiving the financial settlement they need in order to leave Uniontown for good (a strangely low $50,000).
While Cramblett and Zinkon tell CNN they love their mixed-race daughter Payton “unconditionally,” they say they are nervous to raise her in Uniontown, where according to the couple’s lawyer Timothy Misny, there are there are “no biracial children and no mixed marriages.” The 2010 Census confirms that Uniontown boasts a 97.43% white population.
“We want her to grow up in a community where she feels accepted, feels like it’s normal to be who she is,” Cramblett tells CNN.
Is there a right or wrong thing for Cramblett and Zinkon to do? I don’t know Payton, but I think she deserves to grow up in a place and go to a school where she sees people who look like her in class. But I also think the white kids in Uniontown deserve to see kids who don’t look like themselves in class, too. This doesn’t have to be Payton’s responsibility, but really—shouldn’t it be somebody’s?
People have tried to reassure me that white parents in almost entirely white communities can still teach their children about anti-racism. But when it comes to education and storytelling, isn’t real experience with real people of various identities always better than just news reports and Black History Month? The couple is likely to leave town regardless of its settlement victory. It’s unclear whether the rest of Uniontown’s youth will change. The all-white world tends to withstand it.
This whole incident goes to show that racial segregation can be very self-selecting at times. A non-white baby was born into this white area, and her white parents recognize the need to get her out of Uniontown as fast as possible. Cramblett and Zinkon don’t want Payton to be a token; they don’t want to the de-whiten a town they thought fitting for a white baby. In fact, they are eager to maintain the status quo; so entrenched are the facts of local attitudes and demographics that the possibility of altering them seems undoable.
Cramblett and Zinkon are likely to have never confronted their town’s racial realities if this hadn’t happened to them. Uniontown is White America. White America is where you find the most restrictive and fantastical aspect of white privilege in its truest form – our occupation of a position in society that allows us to exist without ever confronting the daily manifestations of institutionalized racism.
In her outline of white racial identity development, Dr. Janet E. Helms emphasizes the way white people are often un-politicized on racial issues until they have an “encounter”– an experience that makes them personally aware of racism. “Before I had North, I never really gave racism or discrimination a lot of thought,” wrote Kim Kardashian on having a half-black daughter. “I guess it was easier for me to believe that it was someone else’s battle. But recently, I’ve read and personally experienced some incidents that have sickened me.” Some people begin to feel the effects of race after their encounter. A lot of other white people remain blissfully colorblind.
Cramblett and Zinkon seem intentional in their commitment to honoring Payton’s mixed-race identity, but I can’t help but wonder—what if the kid was white?
If all had gone as planned, they’d be living in Uniontown with their white baby. They’d have play dates with other white people and never think about race as something they also have. They wouldn’t have to move towns, because they’d have gotten to raise the baby in an all-white town (AKA the “normal American experience” that many aspire to, including gays and lesbians). They find it impossible to imagine a different way to they live. So they’re leaving. Which is sad, since they finally seem to understand why race matters in a place where it’s likely undiscussed.
Payton’s experiences coming of age in Uniontown would be harsh, much more oppressive than those of her white peers. Her potential damage is much worse and much different from the slow damage of ignorance inflicted when parents raise a white child in a community in which non-whites barely exist—or only exist as help.
Ironically, the couple’s baby is fitting with demographic trends. Since the year ending in July 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau confirms that more babies were born that weren’t white than were. Payton is the norm, not the exception —just not in Uniontown.
What would Payton’s life had been like in Uniontown? What does the town’s two percent look like? Local politician John Arnold provided a glimpse, bragging in an official statement about the number of “African-American children and babies from all around the world” adopted by local Mennonites there. He doesn’t know why Cramblett and Zinkon think they must leave. Payton could’ve had friends who looked like her, but they’d be internationally-born, Christian conservatives raised by missionaries. Awesome.
Arnold’s is a pretty strange call to defense and an unenviable vision of a childhood, especially from the perspective of lesbian parenthood. While I hope that Cramblett and Zinkon find a place where they can raise Payton as a respected member of her community, it shows the lengths that white America’s strange relationship with race—where it wants it to not exist— will go to self-perpetuation.
Where should the Cramblett-Zinkon family move? We took a look at the numbers on Ohio’s urban demographics.