Another Opportunity To Check Your Racism

I’m not a big fan of our biggest local taxi service. Some bad experiences have left me with a sour taste and general distrust. But you know what I hate more than the taxi company? I hate that I can’t complain about the cab service, and just be talking about the cab service.

This is what happens, probably nine times out of ten, when I tell a story about a cab driver who was dishonest, or unsafe, or whatever the complaint is this time. The listener immediately asks some variation on: “Was he… from another country?” “Did he speak much English?” “Was he [insert race or ethnicity here]?” Often the question is preceded with the classic, “I’m not racist, but…”

The answer to the question doesn’t even matter. My problem is with the question itself. Why is anyone asking it? Why are so many people asking it? What kind of assumptions and biases are they trying to validate, and why?

When I tell stories about people being kind, thoughtful, witty, fun, or smart, nobody ever responds by asking about the person’s racial background. Never, at least as far as I can remember. If there are any assumptions made about that person’s ethnicity, they go unspoken.

And when I tell a story about bad behavior, I don’t remember anyone ever asking, “So, was he white?” “Was he European American?” “Let me guess, he was a native English speaker?”

IT’S NOT OK WITH ME. A story about bad behavior shouldn’t make your mind default to dark skin!

I resent being put in the position of answering such an offensive question. It’s easier when I can say the person was a white American with no trace of a different accent. In that case, everyone accepts that it was an individual acting poorly, and nobody gets stereotyped. But when the person is from any other racial or cultural background, there’s a knowing “hmm,” and I feel like I become complicit in the racism by answering the question. No matter what words I may say about an individual’s actions not reflecting the group, I still have this sense that I just reinforced another person’s stereotypes, and helped racism score a point. I never wanted to be part of something so ugly; I just wanted to vent about a bad taxi experience!

It gives me some empathy for an experience that people with privilege don’t often understand very well–having to represent an entire community. Maybe my fellow Mormon friends can understand this one. Once people find out I’m Mormon, they forever view my actions through that lens. They want to know how my words, actions, thoughts, politics, relationships, emotions, morals, etc. relate to my religious identity. They tell me all kinds of stories about “the Mormon neighbor” they used to have. All of that is completely fine with me, by the way. But it shows me how much power one person has to affect another person’s entire schema of Mormonism, for better or worse.

It’s a different experience for a person of color, but there are parallels. And that’s what comes to mind every time somebody asks if my negative experience was with a person from a different race. I feel this pressure, related to what a person of color must feel all the time, to represent an entire community. And I feel like I let that community down when my story doesn’t reflect well.

It’s not ok.

Let me tell you what I think of the wall…

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time. I need to write about it now.

First, I’m going to tell you a story. Then, I’m going to tell you another story. And then, I’m going to tell you why I’m so full of anger, hurt, sadness… that I can’t even talk much about it.

*  *  *  *  *

First, a story. Many of my friends have heard it before, because it’s one of my favorites.

My first year teaching, our student council was made up entirely of white students. Election season came, and once again, only white students were running–with one exception. A brave Latina girl from our Beginner ESL class decided to run for president. She was still new to the English language and new to the country, but she committed to getting up in front of the school and giving a campaign speech. Just her decision to try made me proud!

Then I watched her designing posters, putting them up around the school, and carefully preparing her speech. I assisted a little with the English, but the ideas were all her own. Her process and effort made me prouder still.

Election day came, and this student got up in front of the school, beginning her speech by introducing herself in Spanish. Still in Spanish, she asked for everyone who could understand her to please raise their hand. About a third of the hands in the room shot up, and the looks on so many faces were just priceless. They were all looking around, confused and surprised, as if noticing for the first time how many Spanish-speaking students go to our school.

The rest of her speech was in English, and it was some of the most beautiful English I’ve ever heard. She talked about the importance of every student voice being heard–no matter who you are, where you come from, or what language you speak, your voice matters. She very honestly expressed that she loves our school, but feels some voices don’t get listened to. She promised to do her best to listen and represent all students. It was beautiful. I’d heard her practice it multiple times, but I still teared up listening to her delivery. So proud!!

Maybe my favorite part was listening to the students’ conversations as they filed out of the cafeteria. It was mostly summed up by the one (Latino) kid I overheard saying, “I didn’t know we could do that…”

My brave student changed things that day. She didn’t win the election (although they found another space on student council for her), but it didn’t matter. She let a huge portion of our student body know that this is also their school, and they belong, and their voices matter. She gave them permission to walk taller and take ownership of their school and the spaces they occupy.

*  *  *  *  *

Another story.

My second year of teaching. I’d already gotten used to hearing little comments from my students that communicated their feeling of “not belonging” in the United States. It didn’t matter that many of them had lived in the US for most, if not all, of their lives. They spoke of themselves as “others,” not as Americans. They spoke like kids without a country–lost, hurt, jaded, afraid.

But it was 2008, and Obama won the election. We didn’t talk much about it, because politics at school is so sticky. Then it was January 20, 2009, and TVs were set up around the school for anyone who wanted to watch the inauguration before school started. That wasn’t politics; it was history.

We didn’t start class on time that day. We couldn’t tear the kids away. They were glued to the screen, completely riveted. I’m telling you, the light in their eyes changed that day. The comments changed. It was just like the student election the year before, “I didn’t know we could do that…” The kids started speaking with hope in their voices. They talked about the United States as their country too. If a person of color could be president, then who knew what else was possible?

I don’t care what you think of Obama or his politics. His election and inauguration was a powerful moment in our nation’s history. It meant something very real, and very personal, to my kids.

Today, when my students learn that Obama is the only non-white president we’ve ever had, and that we still haven’t had a female president, their jaws drop. We’re raising kids now who can’t fathom a country where only white men get to be in charge. Their perspective is skewed, and I love that it’s skewed! They believe in a world the way it should be.

*  *  *  *  *

America, you broke it. All of it. We’d made so many steps forward, and then you had to go and break it.

I can’t tell you how much it hurts me to be living in a Trump world. It doesn’t even matter that he’s only a presidential candidate at this point, and hopefully will never be more than that. The damage he’s already caused is enormous.

I’m not so naive to think that everything was sunshine and roses pre-Trump. I’m not one of those people who think racism ended the day Obama took office. I’m very aware that it’s been there all along, never went away. But we were making baby steps. And now this.

Once again, my kids are walking around in fear, outsiders in their own country. It isn’t just that Trump says terrible things about them; he’s made it ok for anybody to say terrible things about them. All the time, they’re hearing hate spewed in their direction. They’re hearing that they’re unwelcome here. That they’re what’s wrong with this country. After all the sacrifices their families have made to be here–sacrifices that most of my readers and I will never really be able to understand–to work, learn, and contribute, they’re treated like this.

They’re just kids! America, how dare you treat my kids this way! How dare you keep handing the microphone over to Trump! He may have a loud voice, but we never had to listen. We could have changed the channel a long time ago. But instead, America, you’ve egged him on. You’ve gotten on his bandwagon. You’ve spread the hate, loud and proud. You’ve validated the ignorance and treated the racism as worthy of air time. You’ve defiled democracy by allowing Trump’s name on the ballot, and then you’ve continued voting for him. How could you? How could you do this to my kids? To your kids? Because guess what, America, these are your kids too. And you’re failing them.

The kids are so confused right now. They’re full of hurt, and anger, and fear… And I don’t know how to help them. They don’t understand what’s happening in our country right now, and how could they? It doesn’t make any sense. They have all these feelings, and no idea what to do with them. (Also, I have all these feelings, and no idea what to do with them.)

Much like the adults (who have more developed prefrontal cortexes, calmer hormones, and way fewer excuses!), the kids are getting swept away in the fervor. There are the kids spouting lines they hear from the Trump camp, with very little understanding of the harm they’re causing. And there are the kids fighting back and standing up for themselves and their friends and neighbors. But they’re kids, and they don’t always know how! They have so many thoughts and feelings, but they don’t know how to make sense of them, how to express them, how to be heard. They’re leaping into action, with no thought for where they’re going to land. Some are getting carried away by tidal waves that they can’t even name. The emotion is infectious, and emotions lead to choices and actions that aren’t always thought out…

America, you say you’re going to build a wall, but you already have. You’ve built so many walls this last year; I can’t imagine how much time and work it will take to ever bring them down. You’ve built walls between people. You’ve built walls around people. Inside people. I’ve spent my career working so hard to break through my kids’ emotional walls, to find their soft and vulnerable inner voices, to help them express what’s inside. But now I’m watching those walls go back up. And helping them find the words, the safety, and the forum to express themselves, to share their voice, is harder than ever. Helping them to feel empowered and hopeful, when I’m feeling helpless and despair myself, is so hard. I want to assure them that things are ok, that the adults have this under control, but none of that’s true. It’s not ok, and it’s not under control…

All I can tell the kids is that we need their voices, their thoughtful contributions to society, more than ever.

Building walls is easy. It’s tearing them down that takes real work.