On Tuesday, I went with a friend’s daughter and her friend to a gathering sponsored by European Dissent, which is a group of white people that spawned out of the anti-racist organization called the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. They were hosting a conversation in the aftermath of not only Trayvon Martin but also Marshall Coulter, the local 14-year-old African American boy that was shot in the head by a white homeowner. The talk was held at NOCCA (New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts), where my friend’s daughter and her friend are attending high school. The crowd was a mix of youth and adults, mostly white, and very much mostly liberal and organizer-types.
The evening progressed along an agenda of presentation and discussion, with the most enlightened portion coming from the questions to be answered posed by the audience (coming mostly from the young people). Questions such as What is the value of humanity versus property? How do we get the people who aren’t [the types who come to these meetings] here to hear? Would racism exist if there were no Black people? And then we broke into groups. My group of four was the two young women and their young male friend, all African American and me. As we were turning our chairs to face each other, the presenter read from a script – you can answer any of the questions on the blackboard or a question your group has, but here are the ground rules, this is a mix of mostly white people, and there are some people of color in the audience, should these people of color not want to be in a group with you, should they want to group by themselves, then we need to respect that.
My friend’s daughter said, “Why treat us like we’re special. Why treat Blacks differently?”
And that became our topic, our question. She said, “My [white] teacher told me she admires black skin, the color.” And the friend said, “I hate that they think we’re retarded or ignorant.” The young man said, “I want to be able to speak for myself.” The friend said, “It’s obvious from our classrooms that all the Black students are in regular math and the whites have gone to algebra, they are in the accelerated class, I got in simply because I’ve been here so long, but if you look at the split it’s black and white.” The young man said, “Hines* is very racist.”
Our dialogue meandered: Why would a white teacher call attention to Black skin, as if normalizing white skin? Why are schools continuing to draw a educational color line that is glaringly black and white? Why would a school that had excelled with a large African American student body want to change its makeup?
Only one answer surfaced – racism. As Tim Wise says in White Like Me:
When I was in school, white teachers were among the biggest problems, and still are. Then, as now, they fronted as enlightened, open-minded people, but so many of them reinforced (and still reinforce) racism and white privilege every day: punishing kids of color disproportionately even when whites break the rules just as often (look it up if you don’t believe me: fourteen studies, and they all say the same thing); blaming poor performance by kids of color on their “dysfunctional” families or cultures, or anything but their own tired teaching methods; or writing off racial graffiti or threats as “isolated incidents,” even when they happen dozens of times.
And as I spoke to these young African American students about the reality of their lives, of their not wanting to be treated special, only equal, and their experiences to the contrary, we stumbled into another pothole, and it was along similar lines, these kids were wanting simplicity in a complex world – the subject came up of multi-ethnicity and I said Obama is biracial, and it brought us to the hoopla about Beyoncé’s mixed ethnicity and my young friend said, “Why can’t people just be Black, just call themselves Black?”
There I was the most mixed ethnic background of anyone sitting in our group of four, a Spanish Jew, my grandparents hailing from Turkey, but my grandmother born in Aleppo, Syria, a place our country was about to go to war with perhaps killing some of my relatives, my father born in Cuba, a country we have tried to destroy, and also white European (a mix of English and Irish and Native American) from my mother’s side and looking just as white as a white can look, except now I’m bald, which just makes me look maybe more exotic than I should. And all I could do again, was ask a question with a question, “What is wrong with acknowledging all the parts that make us up?
We have an answer to most of these young people’s questions – it’s racism, it’s a history of oppression, it’s the one-drop rule, it’s institutionalized racism in schools, it’s a long list that points back to the all encapsulating word – race – which is a bogus construct from the get-go – and it leaves me to think that adults have screwed up life so perfectly that even children can’t unravel the riddles we have created.
*Hines is a grade school that was majority African American students, but after Katrina it underwent a major rebuilding – it’s located in a predominately white neighborhood (Lakeview), and rumor (from African American students, some who previously attended and some still there) has it that it is making a strategic effort to become whiter.