Wednesday, July 7, 2010

July Resolution #3: Practice Writing About Race

“And why do haters separate us like we Siamese?” –The Roots

Being racist against myself might not seem like an ideal topic for a happiness blog, but if I can learn to write about it, it’ll lift a great big weight off my shoulders and help me feel more confident about my point of view.

I’m trusting you to understand that:

1. I understand that I am privileged.

2. I hate all kinds of prejudice so, so much. I am prejudiced against prejudice.

Before I came to Philadelphia and became an AmeriCorps member working in the Philadelphia public school system, I mainly thought of racism in the abstract. I was raised to believe it was wrong to discriminate, and I thought that was the norm in professional settings, at least in terms of race. I also thought of integration as something everyone agreed was good. This is a story about how I was naïve.

On the first day of AmeriCorps training, the director gave us a talk called “The Big Picture” but it might as well have been called “Poor People are Fucked.” She showed us the Philadelphia numbers that proved how much the school system is letting down African-American children. The numbers she gave us were from the school I’d be working in, and that solidified my determination and excitement about actually getting to work for change. (It was the Fall of 2008. Everyone was drunk on hopeandchange and I was no exception.)

It didn’t seem like a big deal to me that I was one of very few white people in the company until the second day of training, when one of the staff members (a charming Latina with whom I later became friends) stood up in Classroom Management training and said ”Caucasian people cannot do discipline. They can’t control a classroom.” I was absolutely shocked that no one thought to question that statement or offer a counter- opinion. Because I have this annoying tendency to believe what people say about me, that comment cast a shadow over my whole learning process. Unfortunately, those comments were the norm.

(So wait—before this, did I think only white people were racist? Maybe! That’s racist!)

As The White Lady, I caught a TINY glimpse of what it’s like to be a racial minority, to feel trapped in someone’s expectations of you, to be frustrated and held back by stereotypes. I was treated with fear and suspicion that was made worse by the fact that I’m an out bi person. (Are schools ever not homophobic?) For two years, I was talked down to, accused of being snooty, accused of “thinking I’m Gandhi” because I was enthusiastic. (BTW a Gandhi quote was the slogan of the camp, but I never quite made it to being the change I wished to see. Still working on it.)

The worst part was learning how far we are from actual integration. I felt so deeply unwelcome that I stopped being able to imagine a peaceful future.

On Inauguration Day, when the students I loved so much were celebrating the fact that Obama would “stop the white people” and a coworker told the kids I was “from a separate culture and “probably a Republican,” (!!!) something inside me just cracked. (I wanted to be all whiny, like “Hey, I phonebanked!” but that seemed kind of wrong.)

I was having a deep, awful epiphany and I felt like I had no right to write about it. I knew I would sound whiny and privileged, especially in a poetry slam situation. I wrote a lot less than usual, and after a while I couldn’t stand the sound of my voice, so I stopped performing. I lost my point of view.

Now that I’m in more loving situations, I’m grateful for my time as The White Lady—it gives me maybe more compassion and even more of a drive to work for integration and, yes! Hopeandchange.

So I’ve opened a memoir folder on the desktop marked “White Lady Issues.” Maybe I’ll share the happy parts here!


  1. It is sometimes so very difficult to be the person who is trying to help in a world where suspicion and hostility are parts of the (only sometimes warranted) norm. And it is certainly not whining to express frustration, especially when you're cognizant of the historical tragedies that brought things to the messed-up place they are.
    I wish there existed a button that says, "Look at my face. I'm an individual." We could all wear one.

  2. Great post. People who ought to know better (educators) can be so close-minded sometimes. Sad.