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On Pronouns and Empathy

This isn’t something I’ve talked a lot about except with a few friends back home and with my parents, but I want to talk about it now. When I am in a room of only white people I get extremely uncomfortable. I am white. The first time in my life that I experienced this was when I got to Stanford, where despite all promises of diversity, people are still very much segregated on campus. It was presumed that because I am white that I would go hang out with the white kids. But every time I tried to do that, I ended up getting into arguments with people about race and class, because they assumed that I was “a member of the club” and would say horrifically bigoted things casually. The problem is that I have very little in common with the white kids at Stanford, because Stanford receives applicants from and admits very few poor whites, despite the fact that poor whites are an enormous portion of the population (not Stanford’s fault, I am evidence they want to do the right thing, it is indicative of how bad our education system is). However, even then, I would have only had something in common with the poor whites who grew up urban like I did (a very small segment of the population, as I unhappily found out when I had to have a discussion with a poor white kid from Arizona who needed to be educated), so really, I was uncomfortable in the white communities. In several meetings I would look at my friends in communities of color and say: “look, I know I am white, and I know that means I have some advantages, a fact I know because I grew up white in a non-white community and I am the “whitest” of my siblings, but you know I grew up in the same neighborhood as you.”

I had more in common with the Hispanic kids from South Central Los Angeles than I didn’t with 98% of the white kids I interacted with on a daily basis. And the only time anyone thought that was weird or unusual was when I went to Stanford, I had been living with that reality, very comfortably for 18 years at that point. In fact, the idea that it should not be that way was shocking and horrifying to me. This is why I was uncomfortable in rooms full of white people. I know a lot of people are going to be mad at me for saying this, are going to think I am being a jerk or unfair and that’s fine. I’ve done this before, but I think we have to talk about this, because my whiteness privileges me to a lot of things, including shallow introduction in a community that feels as foreign to me as China did.

I am white. I have no delusions about my whiteness, my mom didn’t run around lying to me to convince me otherwise. Everyone at my high school knew I was white, they treated me like I was white, and yet, I am not white in some key ways. I used to come home from parties at Stanford fuming, and my friends would blame my anger on me. Why can’t you pretend? Why can’t you go with the flow? Every time I heard something like “poor people should serve in the military more frequently, they are better at killing” or “they only got in because of Affirmative Action” I had to call home and release my uncensored, uncodeswitched anger on someone. People didn’t realize, of course, that I got in because of Affirmative Action, my SAT scores weren’t poor, but they weren’t perfect either, I had no APs because the high school I went to didn’t offer them, Stanford admitted me on the hope that because I was under-resourced that I would flourish with the right resources and they were right. I listened to my friends call EPA ghetto, when EPA was the closest thing I had to home. People told me poor kids didn’t succeed because they didn’t work hard enough, and I thought about the kids back home that were working too hard to go to college. And every time I got mad, someone would say, why are you so angry. My response then and now is the same, because in my eyes, they were talking about my friends and family, and anyone who grew up in urban working class culture knows that you don’t do that without a fight.

This is what I am fighting for, every single day. People asked me why I was so upset about Trayvon and I said “because he could have been one of my students, my nephew, my significant other, my friend.” This is personal for me. And as much as that fact made it difficult for me to go to Stanford, that is something I am so incredibly grateful for, I would have and did make the choice that it was more important to cling to that than to fit in, and it is the choice that makes me happy every single day. Because as I look at the comments of this case, as I argue with people in education, as I take care of my kids in my classroom, the words those people and they and my ring in my head and I can’t help but be grateful for the richness in my life that I have because I was raised to believe that all people were my people. I believe Trayvon would be alive today if each and everyone of us thought of him as being one of our children. I know this, because I have seen how fiercely everyone, rich people included, fights for their own kids.

I had perhaps more impetus than others to not pass. My mom, when I graduated from Stanford told me she was proud because she had wanted two things for me; she wanted me to get a world class education and she wanted me to hate yuppies. My mom’s code word for privileged people is yuppies. I don’t hate privileged people. Hate doesn’t have the kind of power love does. Hate cannot sustain you. But love, love will last you a life-time. That is what most poor kids are fighting for when they fight; for love. For the love of their families, their friends, and their significant others, and their neighbors. We grow up in a world where we know our neighbors as if they are our own family. When I came back for my favorite holiday, the 4th of July, I came back to a multi-ethic neighborhood hosting a block party, where I taught new immigrants how to use sparklers and where food was shared. I grew up in a community. And that experience was painful, and it was hard, but I CHOOSE to see the beauty in it and what I got out of it, just as I CHOSE while I was at Stanford to see the good there. Both places did their damage and their good, but at the end of the day, I still think Stanford has more to learn from my community than my community has to learn from it. They can start with understanding what a community is, and end with knowing what it means to love thy neighbor.

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