Wednesday, November 30, 2011

It's All Fun and Games Until Someone Plays the Race Card

I am white.

Really, really white.

Haven't been outside without sunscreen since I was 12, my people weren't meant for sun we were meant for rain and despair white.

And like a lot of white people in this country I have never been a visible minority. Race discussions growing up were always about things that happened to other people in other times and in other places. They were theoretical and impersonal. And not having to think about what it means to be a racial minority is probably the biggest unacknowledged part of white privilege.

Now I am most definitely the minority. I am often the only white person in the room and now race discussions make me distinctly uncomfortable, because I'm never sure what I should or can say. It's no longer theoretical; it's my real world.

I have become almost entirely desensitized to the n word. In fact, I have a great speech where I use it liberally that I'm going to bust out the next time I hear a kid say it. It's lost all of its shock value for me, but maybe the shock value of a white lady using it will resonate with them. Or at least give them pause. Or get me fired. The possibilities are endless.

Last week I told a girl that it's not a good idea to leave her cell phone next to her computer and then walk away. "Yeah," chimed in another girl sitting nearby, "there're black people here." Which wasn't what I meant, and both girls knew it. It was said as a joke and taken as one, but not one I knew how to respond to.

And then Monday happened.

Monday was the third of our STAR sessions with the teen parenting group at a local high school. The second session went oh so well after the first, kinda rough one that I've already talked about. But today some of the girls were in a foul mood, we had more than expected and I hadn't reviewed the material in a long time. It was my fault for not coming prepared with everyday examples of enhancing narrative skills, but as soon as I asked the girls for examples of how they incorporate the things we had been talking about (telling simple stories, dialogical reading, having "conversations" with pre-verbal babies by asking questions and allowing them time to babble back) with their babies or other babies in their life, all hell broke lose.

"People don't do those things" said one girl, one of our more active participants.
"What'd you mean "people"" asked a new girl, "You mean black people, don't you. Black people don't do this and that's why our kids don't know how to read."

The first girl didn't necessarily mean black people don't do the things we've been encouraging the girl to do with their babies. She just meant that it's hard to keep all these little things in mind when you're tired, sleep deprived and just want a minute to yourself. But that didn't stop the white people do this, black people do that conversation from snowballing. And what it came down to, in this tiny room with a lot of black teenagers, one black adult and two white adults who should have been facilitating but had really just thrown their hands up and were wondering where to break in, was this: Black communities are broken because no one is raising their kids right (in this case teaching kids to read/giving kids the foundations to learn to read before they get to school). And the one or two people who do raise their kids right then have no choice but to send their kids to the same schools as everyone else and so they're back at square one. You can't count on schools to care and a mom's persistence only goes so far.

In my experience this isn't a black vs. white thing. It's the lack of resources and education that hurts communities and has kids starting schools at a disadvantage and forcing teachers to play catch-up, getting kids up to speed on what they should already know. But that's too fine a point to draw when, for the majority of the population in the U.S. and certainly in this city, being black does equal a lack of resources and education.

It wasn't a conversation that either myself or my co-facilitator knew how to curb. I caught one of the girls sneaking looks at me as I watched, eyes wide and ping-ponging back and forth, trying to take in as much as possible. She smirked and nodded when I made an explosion gesture with my hands. It was clear that the two well meaning white ladies weren't going to regain control of the room so we quietly handed out the give-away boardbooks, said good bye and snuck out into the hall with the sounds of this really intense debate about personal responsibility vs communal responsibility in the black community raging behind us.

So this is my problem, how do I talk about race or address the racial issues with kids who have lived every single day as a product of a racially divided city, with very clear views as to who belongs and who doesn't? Especially when I'm someone who does not belong.

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