I have never been so aware of the color of my skin.
That was my main reflection after spending a day of YAV orientation in New York City.
My time as a Young Adult Volunteer (YAV) started with all 48 YAVs gathering for orientation, or as it is affectionately called “Dis-orientation.” There was no time wasted in disorienting us! We jumped into Crossroads Antiracism training on the first day which focused training people to have the tools to dismantle racism.
As one of the first activities, we were asked to work in our small groups to write a six word essay about why it was important to have these conversations about race before we go out to do a year of service. One group wrote “Because white supremacy isn’t extinct yet.”
This statement first stuck out to me because the use of the word “yet” reminded me of an inside joke. But as we continued this training, my thoughts kept coming back to that sentence. Even though I am guilty of thinking it is a thing of the past, white supremacy isn’t extinct. But it can be.
During training, we discussed what characteristics, abilities, and qualities are valued and seen as good or the norm. Some examples were white, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, English speaking, educated, healthy, employed, well dressed, clean. These characteristics allow people to be in the center of society.
From there we dove into the harder question: What characteristics don’t fall into this narrative that we have painted to be right and good? Who are the people that we cast into the borderlands, the outskirts of society? Maybe you are already thinking of some. The qualities that make you uncomfortable and put people on the outskirts of society. Things that we tend to view as bad or wrong. A few of the examples we used were: brown or black skin, overweight, uneducated, having an accent, not speaking English, illiterate, depressed, unwealthy, old, weak.
That may have been hard to read. But it’s real. And one thing I learned from this is to not brush away the hard feelings, but to lament.
We are built around a center of white supremacy and that leaves many people in the borderlands-the area that surrounds this center of norms. Not just in this country, but around the world. There are characteristics that are seen as good and bad and the value of people is based around how well they fit into the center of our social hierarchy. And the center of this system is white.
It’s okay for it to be hard to hear this. Its okay for this to be bringing up a lot of feelings. It did for me. I had so many hard feelings while doing this training. All of them in a big jumbled mess to the point where I couldn’t tell you what I was feeling or thinking. I still don’t know if I can. I know that there is anger toward our systems of oppression, sadness for the pain and trauma white people have caused throughout history and today, and guilt for my complacency in seeing problems but doing nothing about them.
But white guilt and shame gets us nowhere. White supremacy isn’t extinct yet. It can be, but it isn’t an easy road to get there.
I sat in this training wanting to do something about all of this but not knowing what to do. I was hoping the facilitators would tell us how we can fix it. I wanted to have a checklist of things I can do to make me not be racist and to fight systemic racism.
But that is not how this works.
New York City
We took a trip to New York City the day after we officially completed the Crossroads Antiracism training, but the discussions of race had not stopped there. The excursion was to help us put into practice some of what we had been learning and notice the systems of White Supremacy all around us.
I was very aware of my white skin the entire time. The fact that I have lived for 24 years never having to think about how my skin color is affecting me and those around me shows how White Supremacy is ingrained as a norm. I was aware of my whiteness as I sat on the subway and walked through the streets.
I was aware of my white skin as my group walked into a small visitors center and gift shop to use the restrooms. The employee at the counter happily greeted us and talked with us. As we milled about waiting to use the restrooms but buying nothing, our presence of eight white adults did not seem to be an issue for him. Would it have been the same story if eight black young adults walked in off the street in search of a bathroom? I think not.
I don’t want to make this seem like I am saying I am now so aware of my white skin and I am ready and equipped to fight racism in every way. I am so far from perfect. I mess up. I messed up less than 24 hours out from this training as we were in New York City.
As we walked down the streets of Harlem, we saw a black man laying on the sidewalk, obviously in pain and needing help. There were two people who had stopped to help him and were calling an ambulance. Many people were walking right past him with little regard for what was happening. Classic bystander effect.
As we walked toward him on the sidewalk, I had time to think of what I was going to do. When we got to him, laying on the sidewalk in pain, I did nothing. I kept walking. Didn’t ask if I could help in any way.
I was thinking about being white and walking through a predominantly black neighborhood. I didn’t want to be seen as a white savior. I was so hyper aware of my white skin, aware of all the harm that white people have done trying to fix things. I knew I didn’t want to fall into that category, so I did nothing.
Two weeks later I am still thinking of that specific moment and feeling the same thing for how I acted. I feel ashamed and sad that I did nothing. It makes me feel sick.
Inaction is an action
After learning what I have, I cannot be complacent in this unjust world any longer.
With the constant reminder that white supremacy isn’t extinct yet, I am spurred to take action. I can’t go back and change that moment in Harlem, but I can change how I react in this world of white supremacy each day going forward.
It is hard to think about, but I would rather acknowledge that I have benefited from my ancestors oppressing people and work to fix that rather than ignore the damage that was caused and keep the unjust systems going.
Two weeks after this training, it is still fresh in my brain. I hope it stays there for the rest of my time as a YAV and long into my life. Taking action to break down the borders that oppress people is the only way I see to move forward and that’s what I plan to do during this year.
This happened one year ago. June 1st, 2014….a day that will go down in infamy. Well, to me it will. For many other Facebook countless friends of mine, they will also have (or have had) a similar day. However, this is not the reality for millions upon billions more people around the world. On my news feed, I am not a minority. In the world’s population, I am a minority. I have been to college. It’s one of the things I admitted more feebly and timidly this past week when I was in Mexico teaching English. (I was subbing for the week while my fellow YAV, James was on the Migrant Trail walk. This is a 75-mile walk done in order to simulate – even the slightest bit – the trek that millions of migrants have taken across the Sonoran desert).
As I sat with my host father after dinner one night, he asked me what I had studied in college. I told him Adolescent Education and Adolescent English and that I was trying to decide this year and discern further if teaching is the career I wish to pursue. I told him that I had experienced how education seemed to be more respected in other countries besides America. Therefore – I also told him – it is not as respected and as a paid-well job in the United States as other jobs (i.e. optometrist, pediatrician, lawyer, etc). These are the complaints I have often heard from my teaching mentors and other family friends back home (New England society) and therefore, find myself repeating these same truths that I have found consistent with my own experience.
Next, my host father asked me how much I would make as a teacher in this new teaching job. (I am staying in Tucson after my YAV year and teaching at a local high school). I told him but I was afraid to admit a number that would be a little more than his wage. When he told me that he made $50 a week. My jaw dropped. “But you have this huge home!” I stated immediately, trying to find something to cover up my inaccurate, naive, and privileged comment about how teaching jobs don’t pay as well as other careers in the States. Well, this might be “true” in America but that would be “rolling in the dough” here in Mexico. Mi padre went on to explain more about how he had built this house and how he did all the foundation, cement, tiling, plumbing, roofing. All of it. Todo. My eyes kind of glazed over as I stayed fixated on his previous comment. But it didn’t even make sense. His house’s appearance did not match his income. How can someone who looks so happy and his house that seems to have so much come from an income that is so low? But that is the reality in Mexico, he told me.
Our conversation died down for the evening. I retreated to my departamento – the apartment off the side that the family rents out to bring in more income. They had let me stay in this whole room to myself. I felt selfish when I realized they could have rented it out this week to someone else other than me. I wish that they had so I would not be monopolizing the space. This reality check came after this conversation – when they moved the previous tenant’s furniture out of the room – so they could make space for me. I mean, that was not the only reason. She was moving out anyways. But they could have used that room. Instead, they wanted me to have it. Their hospitality was unreal. An American would never do that! I wish I was not occupying the room. I wish a paying tenant was there.
All this talk of recognizing one’s privilege – that is often found throughout the YAV year – has been summed up in two occasions:
1) My college graduation. See picture of myself and my three best friends above. Here is the Facebook status I wrote upon the 1st year anniversary of my college graduation:
2) A flashback to my high school opinion’s:
When I was in high school, I used to say to my family and friends, “I love airports! You see all sorts of people in airports! People from all walks of life!”
“Yes, you do,” my present self would reply. “However, you see ‘all sorts of people’ who can afford an airplane ticket of $250 and above. You see ‘all sorts of people’ who can all afford expensive designer or at least luggage that looks presentable. There are not going to be people here who are food-insecure. There are not going to be people here who are homeless. Yet surprisingly, they may be a man who is an orphan because his two parents died in the war.”
I am privileged. I am white. I am from a middle/upper-class family who has access to higher education. Of course I’m going to be walking through the airport….However, millions of people do not even know what the inside of a plane or a lecture hall look like.
I guess there are a few things my professors left out of the syllabus…
Update - James
Students and ladies of DouglaPrieta Works. Working with the ladies of DouglaPrieta Works to have English classes for the kids in their local neighborhood has been one of the highlights of my time on the border. They have shown me how one can positively impact a community in a sustainable way through community building, education and agriculture. Los estudiantes ymujeres de DouglaPrieta Trabaja. Trabajar con las mujeres de DouglaPrieta Trabaja para tenerclases de inglés para los niños en su vecindario ha sido uno de los mejores momentos de mitiempo en la frontera. Me han demostrado cómo se puede tener un impacto positivo en una manera sostenible a través de formar comunidad, educación y agricultura.