We are all the same, different, equal (fill in the blank). Yesterday was day two of the NCORE conference in New Orleans and it began again with a bang, a boom, a sonic blast off from the comfort zone. Lee Mun Wah debuted his film, “If These Halls Could Talk” – and for 90 minutes, I heard “uh huh” murmured by the folks of color in the audience, and I saw both POC and white folks wiping back tears, and for 90 minutes the packed, standing room only, room sat enraptured by a screen where a group of students talked about what their life has been like. Let me sum it up for you – those of color were sad, angry, tired, weary, distrustful, and fed up – those who are white were confused, numb, shell shocked, cut off and discomforted.
The highlights of the film – a young white man who breaks down and says he has always considered people of color as less than human. The anger of people of color is nothing new – the hopelessness that informs the first part of the film does slowly shift to faint hope for redemption – but there is still so much trust that is missing from the conversation, from the relationships.
I wrote down a list of the things I heard people of color asking for in the film:
1) I want to be heard.
2) I want you to pronounce my name.
3) I want you to ask me about my country, where I come from, I come from a war zone.
4) I want to represent my people not dress to your norm.
5) I don’t want to leave my culture at the door just because you think African American is synonymous with rebellious.
6) Why can’t white people get used to us?
7) I want to trust white people.
8) I don’t want you to pass because I can’t.
9) I don’t want to be afraid.
10) I don’t want you to be afraid of me.
11) I don’t want to be afraid of you.
12) I want to go to a diverse school, not just one that appears diverse in the marketing literature.
13) I want you to take responsibility for you and your ancestors.
14) I want to feel safe in places other than my home and church.
15) I want you to get past your guilt.
16) I want you to stand on your own and sit with the negative emotions when they come up.
17) I don’t want to have to comfort you when you hurt over racism.
18) I don’t want to be compassionate.
19) I want a break.
20) I want the choice to take a day off from racism.
21) I want you to take responsibility for the hundreds of years of oppression and to talk about it.
22) I I don’t want to be rejected because of the color of my skin.
23) I don’t want to let down my ancestors by trusting you.
24) I want you to work, for free, like a slave on this issue.
25) I want to stand up for my people and not take anything from you, but I want to take from you because you took from my ancestors, even though I don’t want anything from you.
26) I don’t want to make white people feel comfortable anymore.
27) I want you to inherit the guilt.
28) I want you to say I’m scared, I’m afraid, and I don’t know what to say.
29) I don’t want to cater to white people.
30) I want to trust myself.
31) I want to feel safe with white men.
32) I want to feel safe as a black man.
33) I want white people to learn about the culture of brown people.
34) I don’t want your guilt, I want you to get passed your numbness and to feel.
35) I want you to get right with yourself as a white man.
36) I want you to keep trying even though you are failing.
37) I don’t want my children and their children to go through this.
38) I care about whether you take it personally so I can take it personally.
39) I want you to look into my eyes and don’t look away, every time.
40) I want you to reach your hand to me, not me having to reach my hand to you.
41) I want you to walk over and take my hand.
Lee Mun Wah said if we could name 20 things people of color asked for in the film, we’d win a DVD set of his films. By now I’ve lost count of the many requests and needs people of color have put out there for us to hear.
Afterwards Lee Mun Wah had us form into groups of two – that’s right – a packed room and we are grouping into twos, almost like speed dating, but this time, it was speed getting to know all about you and build a relationship with a few guidelines. My partner, her name is Paola – her parents told her it was an American name, but it’s not, it’s Italian, it’s Spanish, it is perhaps American depending on who you are speaking with, but clearly it is not a white person’s name. She said some people pronounce it Payola, Crayola, which bothers her. She’s given up trying to tell anyone how to pronounce her name unless something in them registers with something in her.
She said her best friend in school was Muslim and that when she was seven years old she went to her friend’s mosque and freaked out. Similarly, she was raised Catholic and her friend came to her church and her friend freaked out. No adult talked to them about why they might be freaking out or what to do with that fear, and despite their momentary view into dissonance, the girls remained close even without either one understanding the other (Paola came to the United States when she was six and spoke only Spanish).
My new friend is interesting – she’s young, she’s been an outsider, a Latina, and she has aligned herself with other outsiders. She tells me that her own mother was adopted and when she heard my story yesterday she recognized it – it’s challenging she has heard, it’s not for everyone she understands. We broke for lunch and everyone went down to the Grand Salon to hear Melissa Perry Harris speak about active service and action items versus chalk board learning. We left there and return to Lee Mun Wah for a deeper dive into who we are or think we are.
Again we are paired up – this time silently, we are to look in someone’s eyes and without speaking partner up. I sat down with a statuesque woman with large eyes. We sit across from each other and speak a script to each other – this is who I am, this is who people think I am, this is what I want people to understand, this is what I need people to do in order to understand. She tells me about herself – and I catch whiffs of conflict – her family doesn’t register her success or maturity, her family thinks she is the family interpreter of ghetto, a lot of people think she is a bitch. We shift to me, I tell her my download which follows the script:
What We Do Not See
When others look at you what do they see? They see a strong woman with conviction, positive, forceful, driven.
What don’t they see and why? They don’t see that every day I die a thousand deaths of uncertainty, regret, doubt, sadness, fear, anxiety.
What do you wish they’d see and why? I wish they’d see that I don’t easily fall into a label – I was raised a Spanish Jew – marginal in the Jewish culture because we are Black Jews (5% black blood), marginal in the white culture because we are Spanish and my father spoke with a thick accent, marginal in the Spanish culture because my mother was a gringa and never learned how to speak beyond guidebook Spanish with an atrocious accent, marginal in the heterosexual world because my sexuality has always been fluid and I myself eschew the label of gay, lesbian, homosexual. Marginal again because I have a child of color which makes me belong to a family of color, which makes me have to identify as white when I don’t want to.
WOW, my new friend Stephanie says, and she means it, not just on the level of hearing my story, but on realizing that she has always been the one with the spin – she is the one who told me the surface layer of her story, the ghetto her family thinks she owns – is it because she is Black and raised by a white family, this is her WOW that she reserves for those who are worthy to know. She wasn’t expecting me, the white woman with the feminine earrings, sporting the bald head that she said made her think I am a strong woman, bold to rock it bald; she wasn’t expecting my truth to mirror hers so closely.
Once again, we find ourselves all tongue tied about who we are, who we think we are, who we think they are, who they think we think they are and we can’t even remember who they is versus who we are – it is a process of breaking down the normative and trying to fit the pieces back together but this time in a different puzzle. Lee Mun Wah says we spend way too much time finding out what we have in common and giving short shrift to our differences – he gives us tools for staying in the conversation – “I noticed you looked away and I was wondering if it was personal, cultural or some other reason and I want to know because I want to stay connected.”
I didn’t come back to something my partner said that stood out for me and continues to haunt me, when we were speaking about her professional life she said, “I know because I’m a Black woman that my opportunities are limited.”
At the end of a long day, which included a thirty minute stint with the White caucus meeting I attended, where I again voiced my confusion over carrying around this peel and stick white label that doesn’t really adhere to me and listened to other white people who are trying to find their way in this conversation, I walked over and met my son, Tin, and we went to the park to hear jazz. Music and friends are a balm that New Orleanians use often and always – a temporary bandaid to cover the ouch from a long day’s journey into our collective hearts of darkness.
If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up people to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.
– Antoine de Saint Exupéry