There seems to be a direct link for me between insomnia and self-exploration via blog writing, so I will capitalize upon this opportunity while my sleep cycle is being disrupted. I admit that I have been frequently opening up a blank window in order to begin writing, only to find that I don’t even know where to start. It’s not so much that I have a lack of things to explore, but rather that everything inside there is so densely intertangled that I don’t know what strand is worth picking up to examine. In a sense, these past 2 weeks have been a sort of slow uncoiling of my inner and outer worlds as they seek to realign themselves together from out of their disjoint.
My sudden career shift has me excited, while also nervous. Nervous because I know that there are many aspects of indoctrined cultural training that must still be challenged within me; in dealing with systemic racism and socio-economic inequity, I must be able to explore the notion of myself as a member of a group, rather than as a unique individual. It is a group that I have tried, at times, to pretend that I am not a part of, even as I have partook in the privileges of its membership, however unknowingly. That group is the little box that I generally avoid filling in on questionaires, the one that says Caucasian or simply–and rather yawningly–White. Attach onto that the further group membership of Male, and even further than that: Raised in High Income and Highly Segregated Area, and there you go. That’s my grouping in this society, whether I like it or not.
I have been aware of what it means to be privileged for some time, based mainly on socio-economic status. But the fact is that I grew up in an area where people of color were few and far between, isolated into small, distant enclaves. So it was difficult for me to reconcile my awareness of socio-economic status with racial and ethnic inequity, however much I knew that it existed. It existed somewhere else.
When a white person finally has an experience where they are made jarringly aware of the fact that they are White, and that they are therefore Privileged, it makes them extremely uncomfortable. They want to avoid, at all costs, such experiences. It challenges their belief in their innate value as an individual, as a unique, distinct person whose worth in society is based strictly upon merit. I can remember distinctly one of these first experiences, though I’m sure there were many more before that that I have effectively blocked from my memory. It was while I was traveling alone in Peru, and I was taken to a part of Lima where there was a huge outdoor market of secondhand goods, in the middle of the city downtown. I was told that I needed to have a guide, that I absolutely could not go there alone. I was not to carry any valuables on my person, and to be aware of my belongings at all times. This was heavily stressed to me, to the point that I was extremely nervous before I went, though I am fairly adventurous when it comes to being in sketchy situations. And indeed, when I walked through the streets of that market, I suddenly became shockingly aware of my utter Whiteness. In the midst of a crowd of dark skinned people living in poverty, here was this white foreigner. The very fact of my existence in their midst signaled my privilege; that I could even travel there from so far away. I wasn’t wearing fancy clothes, I wasn’t wearing jewelry. I had worked hard and saved my money to travel there. But I knew that I was privileged just by the fact of my skin, just by the fact of where I happened to be born. I felt like an alien. I became aware of how strange it was that in one context—my normal environment—things like a nice watch and shoes are just things you get to fit in; but here in this place, such things were what made you stand out like a sore thumb.
And so what I was experiencing, essentially, was the idea of what it feels like to be someone defined as a part of a group based on immediate appearance. I was an Other. I didn’t belong there. That feeling of unbelonging stung. It was highly disturbing. We white people don’t typically understand how it is to be viewed as a part of a group. We resent being made to be aware of this grouping, not realizing that it is something that people of color have to deal with every single day.
It makes me uncomfortable even to talk about these kinds of things, just as I’m sure that it makes you uncomfortable to read them. Am I a racist? Certainly not intentionally. But my society is racist, and unfortunately, it has embedded its racism in me such that I have to struggle to remain aware of it in order to call it out on its existence. We like to pretend that everything has been put behind us. Slavery is a thing of the past. Segregation has been outlawed. Etc. And things have certainly gotten better. But when you see the statistics of the achievement gap in education, for example, or the statistics on prisons, or just simply journey to any inner city grotto, it becomes hard to deny the fact that we’ve still got a hell of a long way to go.
So this is, conversely, what I am also excited about in my current career shift. I am excited to be able to be actively involved in working to struggle against this systemic racism, even if that might be only just within myself. Being an educator in a “high needs” urban public school means that you will have to struggle not only with how society views your students, but with how your students and their families view you. Who are you? Are you just another one of them? Or are you a part of a grouping that goes beyond such petty distinctions, inclusive of all of humanity? The thing is, you can’t deny where you have come from, nor what you look like. But you can deny the urge to ignore your identity as a part of a group, and to stop pretending that everything is equal, that all the world is just. Because it isn’t. Not yet. But it could be.