Sunday, October 2, 2011

Talking While White

I spent the day yesterday at the Collingswood Book Festival, trying to get people to buy The R Word.  While we didn't sell many books, I did learn a lot from the experience.  First, the people around me selling science fiction and horror novels were making a killing.  I started to think we should have put a vampire on the cover of The R Word, even though it's realistic fiction.  We could have explained the vampire as representing a metaphoric theme that runs through the text -- "Racism sucks the blood out of our society" or something like that.

Second, we discovered that there are a lot of Phillies fans in Collingswood, New Jersey.  Maybe instead of police detectives, I should have made my protagonist's uncles baseball players.  Or maybe they could have sold hot dogs at Citizens Bank Park.  In a moment of desperation I did say that The R Word stands for RBIs, but nobody seemed to buy it.  Oh well.

The crowd at the festival was mostly the browsing type, but several people did stop to look at our poster and ask, "Ok, I'll bite. [I knew we should have had a vampire on the cover!] What is the R word?"  When I explained that the R word is Racist, because my story is about a young, white girl who, through her friendships with kids of color, begins to think about race and about what it means to be white for the first time, most people ran for their lives.  Well, not really - this was a very polite crowd.  They nodded, broke eye contact with me, and slipped away as quickly as they could.  A few, though, made some interesting comments.

First, there was a white woman who listened to my spiel with a frown.  She nodded quite confidently and said, "Oh, I know all about this.  I work at [named school here that I'd never hear of].  I deal with this every day.  On the weekends I let it go."  At the last sentence she flicked out her hands in a washing-away kind of movement.

Soon after, another white woman walked by and picked up a copy of The R Word, studying the back cover. When I explained the story line to her she placed the book down on the table and said, "I work at [another school name I had never heard of], so I'm inundated with political correctness."  I tried to explain that my book was not about being politically correct, but about exploring an important topic with young people, but she would have none of it. By the time I finished my sentence she was gone.

The third interesting conversation I had was with an older white man.  When I explained the basic plot of The R Word, he nodded encouragingly.  "I know all about this," he said.  He then told of an experience from back in his high school days. He lived in a white neighborhood, but his high school was integrated, half white, half African American.  (I'm assuming those were the days of bussing, because he seemed about my age and my high school experience was exactly that).  Anyway, the white kids and the black kids used to joke around about dating, the joke being that they all knew it would never happen.  Then one day, an African American girl invited him to a party.  At first he thought she was joking, but when it turned out she wasn't he agreed to go.  He went to her house to pick her up, and when the girl's father came to the front door and saw a white guy standing there waiting for his daughter, he slammed the door in this poor fellow's face.  So this man knew all about issues of race, because he had been a victim of racism himself.  Luckily, though, a few minutes later the mom came to the door, apologized, and off the two young people went to the party where the teller of the story was the only white person present.  "Everybody was as nice as could be to me, though," he assured me.  "We wound up having a wonderful time."

Okay, I'm not trying to be mean here, or overly critical of white people.  However, I couldn't help but notice some common motifs that ran through these comments. The first two women, who worked as either teachers, counselors, or administrators at schools with high populations of color, found talking (and presumably reading) about race somewhat distasteful, and certainly not something they wanted to think about in their free time.  They got enough of "that" at work. They are faced with race every day, but perhaps they believe that a good educator must be colorblind, so they'd rather not think about it.  Some whites fear that just talking about race puts one at risk for being called a racist (there's that R word again).  Lots of researchers have found the colorblind approach in full force among school personnel.  Teachers and school administrators don't think about race because, after all, what does that have to do with education?  Education isn't about race, it's about working hard. Race doesn't matter, and anyone who says it does is "playing the race card." "I don't care if my kids are black, white, or pink with purple polka dots," I've heard many a white teacher say, "I treat them all the same." Now, if we were working from an equal playing field the colorblind approach might work.  But unfortunately race has mattered from the beginning of our nation's history and still matters today. Schools that take the colorblind approach have more, not fewer, practices that perpetuate racial inequity.  How sad for the students of color who attend the schools represented by these two women who view the topic of race as either distasteful or politically correct.

The last man I spoke to jumped right into the "reverse racism" argument that is also a common response when whites are confronted with the issue of racism. He seemed like a very nice, thoughtful, intelligent guy. He was certainly no Archie Bunker, and I'm not calling him or anyone else a racist. Just to prove how nice he was, he ended his story on a positive note --"See, African Americans are nice people, too!" Yet, when faced with the topic of race, the first thing he thought of was the one time in his life when he was treated unkindly by an African American. He didn't think of all the opportunity and benefits his whiteness had ensured him throughout his life. He didn't say, "Yes, I lived in an all white neighborhood because the realtors kept blacks out, or the banks wouldn't grant them mortgages.  Although my school was integrated, the presence of whites in the student body ensured I got a quality education. I slid easily into my first job, where I was promoted regularly, because I'm white." He referred to all of this in our conversation -- all except the being white part, that is. He didn't recognize how, along with his own hard work, his whiteness functioned to help him achieve. To him, it all happened very naturally. But he did remember that one time a black guy slammed a door in his face, and he felt it was important to share that with me, someone he had just met, to show solidarity with people of color. He'd been a victim of racism, too.

P.S. He didn't buy the book.

No comments:

Post a Comment