Thursday, December 01, 2005

my offering.

what follows is my humble offering for blog against racism day, the brainchild of chris clarke at Creek Running North.

sitting down to write this, i realized that i wasn’t exactly sure how to “blog against racism.” i’m excited that chris initiated the project, and i look forward to reading all of the posts that it will generate, but i don’t exactly know how to tackle the topic myself. So, instead of trying to go all grad-school theoretical on you (which would of course just kinda bore you anyway – “race is a social construct? *smacks forehead* you’re kidding me!”), i thought i’d relay an experience from my own life that made me think about race and my place in the proverbial mix.

as background, i consider my childhood, teenage years, and college years as pretty average for a suburban white girl learning about, and reacting to, racism. my family was open-minded and didn’t advocate any racist thinking, and i went to a fair-to-middlingly diverse high school. after a few years at umass, i had been introduced to a ton of theories and information about racism (and sexism, and classism, and...) – the class i took on the history of the civil rights movement with a militant ex-Black Panther was probably the best 3 credits of my college career. in sum, by the time i was a senior in college, i think i was generally enlightened about how racism functioned in this country, and was committed to monitoring my own internalized racism and critiquing external racism when i saw it.

in the second semester of my senior year, i started dating a guy who was a first generation American – his parents were both from the Dominican Republic. actually, his father moved back there after his parents divorced, so he spent a fair amount of time there as well as in new england. pretty early on in our involvement, he invited me to a party at Drew House at Amherst College. Drew House is one of the theme houses on Amherst’s campus, and it’s devoted to African and African-American culture. They were having a big end-of-year party, with all the requisite drinking and dancing, so we went.

i really had no qualms about going – i like to drink and i like to dance, and i’d never been to anything at Amherst, so i was happy to go. i guess the first funny point about how race factors into a white person’s life is the luxury of how little we have to consider it, until it smacks us upside the head. for me, i was smacked upside the head when we walked into Drew House – dark and smoky, dj playing, and about a hundred people crammed in the living room dancing – and after about 30 seconds realized i was one of maybe half a dozen white people there.

this was a pretty unique experience for me. i had grown up conscious of race, but never been faced with it unavoidably – again, a benefit of my skin color. the situation didn’t bother me – abe didn’t make an issue of it, and i didn’t feel the need to. but it was a really eye-opening experience for me to be on the receiving end of some askance looks – looks that questioned, often without malice or hostility, but questioned nonetheless, what exactly i was doing there. i gained a greater appreciation for the visceral reality of what it might be like for a non-white person to inhabit a space surrounded by white people.

i say that i gained a greater appreciation for what it might be like, because i can never fully understand what it is like. i could have been the only white person in Drew House that night, and my experience still would not be the same as that of the only black person at an all-white party. that’s how racism works. it’s not just a phenomenon that happens between two individuals, or amongst a group of people – it’s a social structure that alters the very nature of all interactions. i think i acquired some sympathy for the experience of being vulnerably different that night, but not an empathy for the experience of being black, or asian, or latino. that i can never have.

i’ve had a few more moments, especially since moving to Chicago, where i realize that i’m the only white person there. i always try to be conscious of those moments, how they make me feel. i also try to be conscious of how rare they are, even in a city as diverse as this one. it’s a privilege for me to not have to feel that split second of conspicuous difference, one of many privileges i possess as a white person that i often don’t even fully realize that i have. i try to keep realizing it.


landismom said...

Hi, thanks for stopping by my blog. Great post. I think it's a pretty weird, how easy it is for white people to still have an effortless time being in all-white circumstances, even in this day and age.

Kate said...

Great post! You really write well about your own awareness of race and the acknowledgement that us white girls still won't ever know what it's like to be a person of color (though I wonder sometimes with the way sexism and racism intersects, how much can we take of our experiences of sexism into a way to demolish racism? Sometimes, sexism feels even MORE ubiquitous and damaging than racism to me, but then my also east coast liberal self doesn't allow me to say that without feeling shameful and wrong).