Friday, July 25, 2014

There I go again, acting white.

Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against white people. This is not a self-loathing post. It's just that every once in a while I find myself behaving in very white ways. I'm not talking music, food, or other things you might find on one of those "stuff white people like" lists. I'm talking power. I'm talking who gets heard, and why.

So first, I should explain that I'm writing a book about race. My research on race relations in a suburban high school will be published by Rutgers University Press sometime in 2016. In the book I talk a lot about critical race theory (CRT), the theoretical framework that helped me understand what I was seeing among the students (don't glaze over - I'm getting to the point).

Here's an actual sentence from my book, regarding CRT: "Infused with the goal of social justice, this area of study privileges the voices of traditionally oppressed groups…" You got that? Privileging the voices of traditionally oppressed groups means listening to what people of color have to say about race, respecting their opinions above those of white folks because, let's face it, they've lived it and we haven't (this is not an invitation for so-called "reverse racism" arguments. We'll save that for a different post). Their experience matters. I wrote those words.

Then I found myself in an interesting situation. An organization I'm involved with is wanting to give more attention to what it calls "diversity issues." To its credit, this organization is realizing that it hasn't been giving race relations within its ranks adequate attention, and it's trying to figure out how to change that. Of course, I assumed that, since I'm writing a book about race, people would flock to me asking for advice. They didn't. Instead, they looked to a few African American affiliates. My response? I got mad. I even ranted a little. Why aren't they asking me? I study this stuff! Why are they asking these others, just because they're…oops.

See what I mean? Part of being white is the expectation to be listened to, to dominate even conversations about racism. True, race is my area of study. But equally true, if whites want to be part of the solution we (read: me) need to be willing to let others take the lead.

Right at the time I was thinking all this through, a fellow blogger, Drew Hart, posted something similar. If you're interested, read his post about how members of the dominant culture tend to dominate conversations about racial reconciliation. Here's the link: Drew Hart's post.

The funny thing is, over the years I've heard lots of talk among youth about "acting white" and "acting black." There seems to be lots of policing of those boundaries, and I think it happens among adults, as well. But black and white people come from a variety of backgrounds and talk and act in a variety of ways. For me, acting white is not about language or dress or music. It's about the expectation to have power, to be in charge, to be listened to. I don't need to rap to stop acting white (although that would be pretty funny). I just need to listen.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

On Walter Dean Meyers

African American author Walter Dean Myers died this week. While I can’t say I’ve read everything he wrote, I can say I liked what I read. My favorite Myers novel is Monster, a book that can be viewed as a response to (or a “signifying” of) Native Son, a much earlier work by Richard Wright. Monster is the story of Steve Harmon, an African American sixteen year old who is on trial for murder. Steve is accused of being the lookout for a botched robbery during which the storeowner was killed. Steve, who was a member of the film club at his high school, narrates his story in the form of an imaginary film he is producing. In his film he describes the despair of prison life and the anxiety of facing trial. Although Steve fears that others now view him as a monster, Meyers depicts him as a complicated person who is capable of sustaining warm family relationships, and of expressing his identity with a wide range of human emotions. “I’m just not a bad person,” Steve tells himself. “I know that in my heart I am not a bad person” (93). While Myers’ ending is ambiguous (spoiler ahead) –we never do find out for sure if Steve committed the crime – in a sense, it doesn’t matter. Myers’ point is that guilty or innocent, Steve remains a person, a human being who, even if involved in this crime, is not a monster.
This is the stuff of childhood studies, an academic field that examines how people tend to conceptualize childhood. Childhood is often idealized as a time of innocence and vulnerability, but kids do bad things sometimes. If children are innocent, when they commit crimes do they stop being children? And how does race impact this view of childhood? In Monster, Meyers makes us face these and other uncomfortable questions. So, in the midst of my steady summer diet of dystopian YA fiction, it’s good to remember an author like Walter Dean Meyers, whose classy writing never included the phrase, “the smile didn’t reach his eyes,” and who understood the power of fiction to make us think.