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Wednesday
Sep192007

I'm Not Racist. I Have White Friends.

A while ago I had agreed to write for BlogRhet mostly because I would do just about anything for Joy of GingaJoy and because that site has some provocative writings by both authors and commentors alike. You need time to read it because you'll want to get all wrapped up in what everyone is saying, but since my time is incredibly limited, I'll be glad to get my own writing out this week.

It is amazing to be in this position I'm in. Both in writing and in life. Much of the time I'm in unexpected positions with strangers who don't know nor do they recognize me as a person of color. More often than not, people of color know. Also, more often than not it is people of Caucasian decent who utter those words that make me cringe, close my eyes, and count to 10: I'm not racist, I have black friends!

Lately, in my dealings with parents (both black and white) I am confronted with finding a way to reach them. It's not easy to hear things about your children that are unfavorable, but just this morning a white mother and her son came to see me to talk about his getting picked on and jumped by a couple of younger kids and he felt the need to say to me: I have a friend in P.E. who is nice to me. Nick. Black Nick. Do you know him? (We have 1300 students)

Well, no. I don't know every black person, honey.

His mother sensed the discomfort I felt with that statement and chimed in.

Oh, we're not racist. That's just the way he is trying to tell you that this kid is black.

Yes, I realize that. I just don't know why that fact is important. He got jumped by two kids. Neither one was black and we're here to talk about his getting beat up.

Other situations are downright fascinating because of what I'm learning. Mostly, it's the language of black folk. Now, I can turn in on and hang with just about anybody no matter their color. Sometimes, my job necessitates that I let the kids know I am an adult who cares and wants to relate to them without bringing myself to their adolescent levels. Saying "ain't" isn't in my vernacular, but I use it when I choose.

Recently, I've worked with a teacher who gave out Grammar Citations to students who used that and other abominations to the Pure English Language, but I vehemently disagreed with that. Slamming the language of a people by delivering holier-than-thou writ is not the way to show students the language that is acceptable in the working world. It can be done better than that. Telling students that "What works in the world of Work must be practiced in the world of School" has gotten me farther than I could have imagined.

Slang of the young has a curious fascination for me. Some of my favorites are "Get my name out your mouth", "He be mean muggin' me" and the one that always gets a raised eyebrow, "You better get him" are the colorful phrases I hear on a daily basis. Get him? And then what? Kiss him? Slap him? What do you want me to do after I "get" him? Usually, they calm down enough to smile when I say that. I know I've been included in their lives, however, when they call me "Fam". Yo, listen up, fam, I ain't do nothin' to that girl. That teacher ain't telling the whole story, Fam.

I envy their creativity and their innovation to dream up such phrases. I yearn for that ease with which they pronounce their expressions.

Yet, even in their discourse, I see a division. It's in the lunch room, too. There are things which we cannot control and if the black kids want to sit with the black kids and the white kids want to sit with the white kids there's not much else to do. Surely, they see it and surely they feel it, but we won't force it.

These divisions are too big for me at times. Digesting the way kids talk, the way adults treat one another and teach their children to do the same, watching as society plays out in the classroom - it's too much at times. Breaking them off in smaller chunks is the only way I can do that. Doing that requires my daily discourse to be open and hear things and that is sometimes an awful lot of patience.

Recently, it just required me to read something beautiful that the equally beautiful and talented MeL wrote to me that I cannot keep to myself.
And of all things, I'm watching "Beauty Shop". And the girls are getting all "Amen" on Maya A. and Alicia Silverstone chimes in and they look at her like she just called out the girls on the plantation.

And here's the point on it all.

I dawned on me. Here's the thing.

The thing about me. About some other white-as-wonder-bread girls I know.

We're of a generation that learned history, and some of us looked back with a little discernation. And I look at the black women. The powerful, beautiful women I know. And I don't know what it feels like to come from where they from or have their history - their ancestry. But I can look at it, detached from it as I am detached from the slave-owning ancestors (or the polygamous ones from my mormon heritage for that matter) and I'm detached from it all. But where I see no beauty, nothing to be proud of in so much of my own heritage ... I see the beauty in the heritage of the black woman - of their ancestors who survived, who overcame. I envy that. I envy the power of the struggle, the pride of the win.

The only thing in my own heritage that gives me any of that for myself? Yeah, got that from watching "Iron Jawed Angels" on HBO. If that's not sad.. well. That IS sad, so there you go.

You talked lately (recently?) shit too many beers, y'all. About race. About the very quiet crickets on it sometimes.

So here's my scoop. I'm timid to talk about it, but if I did.. it would be to say that it is beautiful. That when Maya says "and Ain't I a woman?" I want to shout an AMEN to the heavens, but the freckles on my pink face remind me that the pride is not mine. Reminds me that all I have is generations of relatively priviliged whiteness where a few of the folks committed themselves to a life of cultish misery.

So here it is. I fear the black woman, because she has a power I know nothing about. She has an inner strength that I spend hours in therapy looking for. She lets her "FUCK YOU" flag fly, and while she pays the price for it in "those" looks and the knowing glances of the shitheels in the room, I wish I could at least fake confidence at least half as well as she does. Because she hides her insecurity and puts that strong chin up, while I'm off in the fetal position in full view in the corner.

Forgive any half-drunken missteps, I admit my ignorance wholeheartedly. But there's pride there, and I wish I had it. It's beautiful, it's strong. It bears the beautiful badges of suffering - that which makes all women beautiful - but it wears it in a way my baggy eyes and worn out body has not yet managed. The pride. In my upbringing, pride was a sin. As an adult, I am learning that pride is a virtue. Who knew?

I couldn't have said it better, Fam.
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Reader Comments (22)

before everyone starts making all sorts of comments that will just make me feel stupid, i decided to take this opportunity to say that you are just wonderful and i wish i could be like you.

that's about all i've got in me to say right now, but it's true.

September 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLara

"Telling students that 'What works in the world of Work must be practiced in the world of School' has gotten me farther than I could have imagined."

Living in the south - we have our own odd language issues that cross race barriers. Some of the smartest women I know say "ain't" and I've always had inner conflict about that. I won't bore you with my analysis, but the quote above is a brilliantly inspired way to look at those quirks and I think it's excellent to teach.

Also - is that quote from a particular post? I would love a link to it.

September 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterZoot

Love it. I am white, married to a black Cuban man. My kids are mocha. Let me tell you, my eyes have been opened wide to the differences between the cultures. There's so many cultures within the black community, that I do not even think white people know about!

September 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBobbi

Kelly, I just have one question, and I don't even know if it's going to come out of my head properly...but, how do the white and black students interact at your school? I know you mentioned the division at the lunch table -- but aside from having classes together, are there any circumstances where the two groups willingly interact?

Are there "unwritten rules" about how the two groups act toward each other? Do unwritten rules even exist or is that just a phrase someone created to justify the different behaviors between the two groups? Or are the behaviors really all that different?

So many questions. I don't even know if I'm making sense. It sounds so much better in my head.

September 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDana

Oh you always hit it right on the head!

September 19, 2007 | Unregistered Commentertanilan

This is a deeper issue than can be fully digested in a post. I do think that with you at the gate, offers students a level of safety and consciousness that wouldn't exist if you weren't at the gate. There are clicks/cliques and groups all throughout our lives that separate us (Sunday being the most segrated day of the week--not to mention groups within groups sororities,fraternities, Jack & Jill, Links, etc)--(with this parenthesis I already know that many of your white readers will not even know what any of this means :)) I wouldn't worry too much about that. If you look closely you will see that kids float back and forth between groups. What you want is the floating, the back and forth of exchange--usually around music, artists, clothes/fashion. You can't force commaraderie, but you can create an environment that supports groups and floaters.
Keep the Faith, Fam!

September 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLovebabz

Hey Lady,
Wow! How do you keep it up? MeL hit it right on the head for me. I started subbing this week and I can't help look at the school, the kids and what is going on with different eyes. I mean I was aware of racism, hated it but you've made me think about things I wouldn't normally.

September 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBugladynora

Zoot - That's actually just a quote from my own brain. Huh. How about that? Feel free to quoth me. Use the word quoth, too.

Geez, Dana. That's not really one question and it's sorta a post on it's own. How about I answer them in the next post?

I love what you said about floating between groups. That's very healthy and gives us the best perspective on what REAL diversity is.

Nora - I specialize in abnormal thinking. Err, was that what you were saying?

September 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMocha

What? You're a "person of color"?????? You should have told me that long before I got addicted to this place.

Just kidding.

This is a very strong post, and I imagine that many teachers see the very things you do. Things that many of us don't see with the kids that are our collective future.

I work with college students - from different backgrounds and ethnicities.. It always amazes some of them when I can identify an artist playing on their entirely-too-loud iPod or car stereo. They seem shocked when they hear certain songs on my computer. I guess "old" white men are supposed to listen to hard rock and country, perhaps?

And that is a great post by MeL.

September 19, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRWA

Oh Mocha… I love your ‘mutzah’…. Your ‘balls’ to take on subjects that so many of us think about, feel but cannot speak of for various reasons… and beautifully written by Mel. Your fearless that way but eloquent in making it palatable… I need someone like you on my fundraising team!!!

Recently – our work has taken on a more, errhhh shall we call it… direct approach towards Diversity. I am hesitant to call it anything other than approach because their interpretation of the Canadian Laws is… Your Black. I’m White. He’s a man. You’re a woman. He’s Sheikh. You’re Muslim. She’s disabled. I’m not. Learn to co-exist with one another and don’t say compromising jokes. The end.

For many – that is their take on Racism. And if they stay within the confines of such thinking – they are fine. To do that – stick with your own, that way you don’t have to look stupid by saying something that might not be seemingly compromising to you… but to another – it is. Your attempts at being sympathetic – can at times make you look pathetic and insincere. So stick to what you know and speak out against anything that is seemingly discriminating within your world – say it ain’t right. That won’t make you racist – it’s the right thing to do. Doesn’t matter if you don’t understand why it’s hurtful or painful to say or share. Just speak up and say – it ain’t right. Stop. Good. You are now a well-rounded and diverse person. The end.

Sad… because Diversity encompasses so much more than that. But that is what they recently preached to me at a Diversity Training class that the entire organization is mandated to attend. It is based on a government program that is mandating Canadian companies to be in full compliance to the laws on Diversity. That alone is a topic I will rant about in a blog posting of mine in the future. So - I pushed the boundaries and asked the questions of inclusion (thanks to your recent posting – it has been on the forefront of my mind a lot). I asked what steps has the company been taking to ensure that we gain an understanding and become knowledgeable of our fellow cubi-mates. “We’ll have to take that under advisement and get back to you…. “ Nice. Patronizing. Insincere. KC is rocking the boat again.

I don’t have the answers – not that I am expected too but I see a trend that is disheartening and much like you were ignored at your one conference at BlogHer… I too am faced with the same realities on similar subjects. There isn’t a clear and concise answer to the questions asked… but I don’t think that the mentality of yesterday has evolved much over the last 50-60 yrs on the issue of Diversity…

I've taken over your comments and I apologize but you certainly got me jazzed & given me inspiration on a few upcoming posts. Thanks hon!

Ciao bella,
KC

September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKC

I know, too many questions. I'm sorry! I just started with one and the others came out.

September 20, 2007 | Unregistered Commenterdana

Amen Mel! and of course Dean Mocha. That power, that beauty, that pride, I see that too. I admire and crave that as well. Putting words to that feeling I've never been able to define, quite. Thanks.

September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterTricia

Thanks for sharing that beautifully expressed missive from Mel (and thank Mel for me, too). I know where she's coming from, and my "history" as a person does not come from centuries of any particular proud cultural tradition, as I am a Generic Caucasian of Multiple Origins, but I do carry some of what was created in recent generations of my own family--a kind of cultural richness born of the abject poverty and creativity of the sharecropper's family.

And oh, language. Personally, I embrace the "ain't" (and all that goes with it, down South). Do I use it in formal, "proper" situations? Well, no. But I do love the freedom of expression that allows me to tell everyone, say, at a fancy dinner in Chicago one night, "Y'ALL! Erin just put a spoonful a' 'taters on her nose!"

Because I am classy like that.

September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterBelinda

Tag your it! I am new to this whole tag meme stuff, but since I love your blog and find you so very interesting I though why not. So check my blog for the rules and follow suit. I am off to prison Oct 1, so try to fit it in before then.
Love,
Babz
www.lovebabz.blogspot.com

September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLovebabz

That mother felt the need to tell you that either because she is just naive or because of the greater truth that the dialog between the races is all fouled up and none of the races are clear of the responsibility for that problem. I want to say the former, but I wouldn't be surprised if it were the latter.

Some white people literally look at black people like a box of chocolates; they never know what they're going to get.

Works the other way too.

Sucks, I know.

September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterRW

I'm still trying to figure out how my white privileged life matches with the discrimination I face as a disabled woman. It doesn't even come close to the challenges of dealing with racism, though. Not even close.

September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterDaisy

The term I find interesting is the use of "minute." For instance, the other day I saw a former student whom I had not seen in years. He says to me, "MizAngie, man, I hadden seent you in a minute!"

This post is one of those that realllly gives me a headache because I feel "yeah!" for the woman you quoted about the pride of black women. I am proud of women who are able to work through day-to-day issues, etc. But then I think "booooo!" that she can't find another kind of strength of her own character in which she can take pride. Maybe it's because I'm a Texan and have such pride in my ancestral history from the Alamo and San Jacinto and things like that. Maybe it's that whole southern "Steel Magnolia" thing I'm rockin'. (ha) I don't know, but I think all women carry a strength inside themselves that enables them to handle pregnancy, delivery, and to nurture. Maybe a lily white privileged woman just hasn't needed to tap into that strength while other women have had to for survival, but it's there. I'll stop here. I could rant and ramble on this all night.

Isn't it weird that we're still so segregated despite the integration?

September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterMizAngie

Thank you for sharing what Mel wrote. She, like you, was able to speak directly to me. If I could, I would echo her words back to you....because that is how I feel.

September 20, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJanice

I enjoy reading your blog, Mocha Momma. Quite insightful.

September 21, 2007 | Unregistered Commentere.Craig

Absolutely awesome post!

Mel wrote beautifully too, but unlike her, I grew up with pride. Maybe it's the mixing of heritages, all of which had a fierce struggle. I don't know. But I got it...the beautiful and strong part, proud but not prideful. She nailed it.

Julie
http://theartfulflower.blogspot.com/" rel="nofollow">Using My Words

September 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterJulie Pippert

I'm having a flashback to BlogHer and your comment about being the "practice black person" for a lot of people.

I think that a lot of white people are just racially conscious enough to feel embarrassed about how segregated their lives are, so they compulsively try to deny/explain it. Personally, I think I'm pretty good at keeping that impulse in check most days, but it comes up more than I'd like to admit. I lived for a semester in South Africa, in 1996, and when I was there I couldn't bear being perceived as a white South African. As if I could control that! It felt so odd that no one would sit next to me on the bus, but there, as the country was still emerging from apartheid, I could understand why someone might be afraid of me. I hated it as an experience, but I understood it.

I also have something of the experience from the other side -- straight people often feel like they have to tell me about their neighbor/relative/friend/coworker who is gay, even though that person has nothing to do with whatever we're supposed to be talking about. On the one hand, I appreciate that they are trying to signal to me that they aren't homophobic. But I do always feel like they're also signaling that they are at least not entirely comfortable.

September 21, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterLiza

Being Jewish in an area where there aren't many Jews I experience much of the same stuff, as do my kids. They are a minority everywhere they go, with cultural variances from their friends --- white or black.

Believe me, I've heard "Oh, do you know Marvin Gold? He lives in Montana. But he's Jewish." (we're in Illinois) I try to instill pride in my kids in their heritage, in their culture and in their difference. I encourage them to embrace any friends that are Jewish, but I encourage all their friendships just in other ways. They like having at least one or two kids who celebrate the same holidays and speak the same language. And I don't mean Hebrew -- I mean the language of kvetching and matzah balls, of lox and bagels and of knowing what it's like to sit in Temple all day long.

And I guess like you, whose race seems ambiguous to some, no one looks at me or my kids and thinks (in their ultimate wisdom) that we are Jewish. So, yes, you hear many things because of that.

My favorite response to when I say "I'm Jewish" is "Oh."

September 23, 2007 | Unregistered CommenterKvetch

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