Wednesday, August 06, 2008

When Will Race No Longer Matter?

This post is in response to my friend Olga Little's post "Race Does Matter." We decided to write our posts about race for Open Salon. But I figure I will just post it here, too, in case anyone is interested. So this is the post that I published on Open Salon this evening.

Olga and I are actually friends -- she and I work at the same high school on the South Side of Chicago. We teach in the same department. I am proud to call her my friend, and I'm very glad that she doesn't believe that she is just a "token" friend to me. She had written a comment to a NeilPaul post about race, and it inspired me to suggest we do a Point/Counterpoint dealing with race.

Almost as soon as I suggested it, I thought perhaps it was a terrible idea. See, I think it's one thing when an African American talks about race. That makes sense. But when a white person discusses race, it's hard to pull that off. It almost seems condescending -- what do I know about racism? And it's a really frightening topic. It is going to open me up to some really easy criticism from all sides. Am I ready for that?

I feel a great deal of guilt about being white sometimes. It's hard not to. Of course I believe that slavery was terrifically awful. I believe this country has done a horrible job dealing with those ghosts. My students always want to talk about slavery. They always wonder if my family owned slaves. I tell them that although my family is Southern, my people have always been poor. So we didn't own slaves. My people were sharecroppers. My people were also never members of the Klan. They were too poor to be politically involved.

When I started working in an African American school, I suddenly became a minority. My school is staffed primarily by African Americans. The white teachers and staff members are definitely in the minority. I know it's not the same as Olga's experiences -- I go home and I'm back where I started. But it is interesting the experiences I've had in this environment. So perhaps sharing these experiences will prove educational or enlightening.

The first time I was confronted with the idea of race, was in my interview for my first teaching job in Chicago. It was at another high school on the Far South Side. The interview was going fairly well, when the principal asked if anyone else had any questions for me. One of the assistant principals, who had been sitting quietly throughout the interview, spoke. He said, "You are white. How are you going to deal with teaching black kids?" I was taken aback and it took me a moment to answer. I think I stammered something about race not being the issue -- if I give the kids the skills they need it'll work out. Or something to that effect. I would like to believe I would have a better answer now.

At my school, I get the impression that many of the African Americans I work with are waiting for me to screw up. To say something completely inappropriate, so I will be exposed as the racist that I must be. Because if you are white, you must be racist, right? It is rather exhausting. It's almost as if this is a chance to turn the tables on the status quo. Now that the white person is powerless, let's take advantage. I can understand why people would want that opportunity. But it still isn't fun for me. I have never owned slaves. I have never not hired a qualified black applicant. I am not the Man. But I have to serve as the Man's representative. And that's not fair. Actually, fair is not the right word to use. None of this is fair. I don't want to get into fair. So instead I'll say that representing the Man is difficult.

I have had parents and administrators tell me that white people should not be teaching black children. I don't agree -- I just don't think that should matter. I do believe that white teachers have to do some homework in order to be effective teachers to urban black children. I was not ready for teaching urban black children when I started teaching in CPS (Chicago Public Schools). And I quickly realized that no one was going to help me. It was almost as if helping me would be giving a heads up to the other side, and no one wanted to be accused of that.

I turned to my own research to get me through. I read Other People's Children, by Lisa Delpit. It was a tough book to read, because I sometimes felt as though Delpit also believed that white people shouldn't teach black children. But her thesis also was if we are going to be there, we may as well do as little damage as possible. It was through this book that I realized that you have to prove yourself to black students. They don't care what your credentials are. And calling parents is not effective for classroom management -- the parents are usually not involved enough for that to work.

I learned from a fellow teacher the importance of saying "Hello" to everyone I pass in the hallway. White people are perfectly willing to say hi, but if I come across two people engaged in a conversation, I always thought it was rude to interrupt them to say hello. However, saying hello can be a gauge for African Americans as to how a white person is. So now I say hello to everyone. No matter if they seem busy or are on their phone. I make a concerted effort to say hello as unobtrusively but as obviously as possible.

I got married at the end of the first year teaching at the school where I teach with Olga (who came to my wedding). I took a few days off for the wedding, and when I came back to work, I brought an album of some pictures. I worked with a woman who was mean and hateful to me every time I had to deal with her the entire year. She was the treasurer, and I coached the girls bowling team that year. Each week I had to go to her and submit the paperwork to get a check to pay for the bowling. And despite my advanced education, I inexplicably filled out the exact same form incorrectly each week. Remarkable how dumb I am, really. So this woman would chew me out each week. I would play the "dumb white girl card." I hate playing that card, but it's much easier than having to have a big confrontation every time someone treats me like I'm a white idiot. It involves lots of "I'm so sorry. I can't believe I filled that form in wrong again. Wow! I don't know what is wrong with me."

At any rate, this woman helped make my first year at this school somewhat miserable. I brought my album to school, and she wanted to look at it. Which I found surprising. I gave her the album, and she flipped through the pages. She said, "You had a sister at your wedding?" I said that there were several black people at my wedding -- that I actually had some black friends. My friend Kim sang at my wedding. She just kept exclaiming, "Another sister! A brother! Another sister!" And then her attitude towards me completely changed. She was never mean or hateful to me again. I can't believe that's all it took. I'm not sure how you advertise that you have black friends, but I do suggest it. It could have saved me some trouble!

Olga writes in her post about her support of HBCUs (historically black colleges and universities). I understand her support of them -- I support them, too. But I don't think they are always the right fit for all of our students. Olga is able to navigate through the white world. I sometimes worry that she gets more scrutiny even than white teachers, since she does seem able to move from one world to the next.

However, many of our students do not navigate through the white world. They tend to be very isolated. Most of them have gone to black schools their whole lives. They live in all black neighborhoods. So for them, I think that an HBCU could be limiting. I think many of them would benefit from being around people different from themselves. I know that students still tend to segregate themselves -- in my college cafeteria, the black kids mostly sat together, as did the Asian kids, et cetera. But I think that even being around students and professors in class might give them a more realistic view of the world. While some of our students will never leave the South Side of Chicago, they should at least know how to deal with white people should they choose to leave. Or ever have a white boss. Or end of dating a white person and have to meet his or her parents. Just like I had to learn about black people, black people need to learn about white people. I think a disservice is being done otherwise. I think it is safe to say that many a disservice has been done to my students.

I guess the whole point I want to make is -- what do we do to bridge over these huge cultural divides? I tell my students that race is a social construct -- that biologically, we are the same. If I give blood, it can go to any patient with the same blood type. It doesn't matter the race of the patient. We have brought all these meanings to skin color that are made up.

But if we can't trust each other -- if a black person thinks I am befriending him or her just to increase my black friend quotient, or to impress my white friends with how diverse I am, then what are we going to do? If I avoid inviting a black person to a party because I'm afraid she'll think she's just a token, what next? How will we ever achieve the post-racial world that Obama promises?

If it's all about one-upmanship and keeping score, then we will never get anywhere. Then imagine all the white people who have never even had a conversation with a black person. Who are afraid that if blacks are equal to whites, suddenly the world will end and they will lose everything. That doesn't even make sense. I do worry, though, that that fear is one of the reasons why so little is done to truly improve our schools. I think that maybe people are afraid of how the country might change if we suddenly really started educating our urban black youth. Do we want to keep these students segregated to the South Side of Chicago? Do we want them to remain dependent on public assistance? Just so we can cling to our own prejudices? Is that what is going on here???

I suppose my realization is that we have a long way to go on both sides to get where we need to be. That the fear and bigotry is not just on the white side of the equation. But until we solve this equation, we will never achieve the greatness this country promises.

1 comment:

Alannah said...

I am not exaggerating a single bit - this piece brought tears to my eyes. Just pure, honest, good writing.