Tuesday, July 4, 2017

The shark vs the water

N-son and J-son,
back when J-son was cute and geeky.
So, J-son has been wanting for years to get into the welding program at our local high school. On the carrot side, he's really good at building stuff (like bionicles and legos); on the stick side, he's dyslexic and hates-hates-hates the regular classroom, and (back on the carrot side) he knows welders earn big bucks. He's had every reason to want to get into this welding program, and he finally did, and we were all excited . . . and then he went to the orientation.

At the orientation, there was a giant auditorium full of kids, and J-son was the only black kid there. And he immediately dropped out of the program. He might try again after high school, enrolling at our school of technology, but he just doesn't want to spend a year in those social circles; he'd rather be back in his majority-black high school classes, even though he hates the classes themselves.

(For what it's worth, most of the kids in that welding program are from a rural area near here, where about a month or so ago there was a KKK gathering. As sad as I am about J-son pulling out of the program, I both understand and -- reluctantly -- support his decision.)

Me, I can remember the last time I walked into a room full of people where I was the only white person -- it was 2007, a local AME church.  It was a fabulous experience at the same time that it was a massively uncomfortable experience, a memorable experience. But it's not an everyday experience for me, and I know that makes my life different.  I might say, "I don't care about the color of people's skin". . . but the truth is, I don't have to, because I live my life comfortably in the majority bubble of whiteness.

My son's teachers are white. Their doctors are white. Our neighbors are white.  The actors we see at the theater are white. Even people in the daily newspaper comics are white (there are more talking animals than there are people of color -- what does that tell you about race in mainstream American culture?).  So right now, I'm feeling SUPER sensitive to presentations of people, and what that means for my teenage sons.

I love this photo.  But I don't want this to be the message
I send my students about who owns the mathematics
in  our book.
Presentations of people.  A few weeks ago, I got a trial photo, something that might be a cover for our future book.  (We don't have a publisher confirmed yet, but we're pretending like this book is going to work anyway).  One of my coauthors (who is not herself white -- her parents came from Japan) spent a great deal of time prepping and shooting a photo of a dancer who embodies a certain aspect of projections of triangles.  It was a beautiful trial photo, an awesome idea.  But I was all caught up in thinking about my sons; and a white, semi-clothed, ballerina hit too many chords of race and gender and class for me.  My coauthors and I had a heart-to-heart.  We're going to try again, but next time with a hip-hop dancer.

When the Klan was preparing their visit, and our community was reacting with predictable horror and counter-protest marches of faith --- by which I mean, the white community was reacting with horror etc --- my African American friends had a different reaction.  As one friend/hero/mentor wrote on her blog:
The problem is that when the Klan comes to town, you see the Great White shark that threatens you . . .  but suppose “white supremacy is the water”?
And of course she's right.  Truth is, whiteness is indeed everywhere.  (I mean, seriously, where are the black people in the comics?)  And the "everywhere" thing is the hard part.  It's not the hate aspect of white supremacy that threatens my sons.  It's the complacency aspect of it, the idea that well-intentioned people have when we say that diversity means "not caring about people's skin color".   My sons care about their skin color, every day.  It's a big deal for them, partly because they carry their skin with them wherever they go.

One of J-son's favorite new photos of himself.
Not so geeky anymore.
But also for my sons, there's so, so much more than skin color.  Race is tied to geography.  (One of J-son's black buddies was overwhelmed by the fact that J-son lives in such a faraway white neighborhood).  Race is tied to music (do the kids in the welding class listen to hip-hop, or to Country?).  Race is tied to clothing, to hair styles, to diction, to affect.  It's not enough to say, "we don't mind that you don't look like us" when, for my sons and lots of other kids, the differences are so much more than looks, and when the access barriers are so much more than whether people "care/notice/mind" skin color.

When the people who surround us every day look and act like us, we have to be extra careful to care about race and culture and everything that goes with that.

It's not only about whether I, or other majority white people, "care" about skin color.  It's just as much about whether J-son and other people of color feel like owners, or merely like guests, or (even worse) like interlopers.  It's about the water, not about the sharks.  


  1. Back when I was growing up and read a newspaper (for the comics) I used to like Boondocks. But I guess it ended back in 2006.
    The good web comics seem to do a much better job of having integrated casts than do print--for print all I can think of are single tokens--Franklin in peanuts, Della in Luann. Which is better than all the other major print comics I can think of, but is still not close to representation.

    (Dumbing of age is great. Library comic, Unshelved, and SMBC randomly assign races to characters. Something positive has gotten whiter as the main character moved from Boston to rural TX, but his remote boss is black and his best friends are Asian. Questionable content has a diverse cast. Girls with slingshots has a black cast member whose main story arc is getting restarted now.)

    1. One of my favorite comics in our daily paper is Jump Start (http://www.gocomics.com/jumpstart?ref=comics). I like it not only because of the diversity, but also because it's funny without being mean. (So many of the comics nowadays get their "laugh line" via insults, which turns me off).

  2. Why is it so hard not to be simply Americans, rather than sorted by color? I'm so sorry J-son felt uncomfortable, but I can understand; high school can be hard all the way around. Have you looked at a straight apprenticeship program? Here's hoping he lasts until he can reach his goal. Keep up the good work Mom.

    1. I think it's because we are all sinners who are in desperate need of grace. Seriously.

      And we don't actually know of any straight apprenticeships (aside from what he's getting from boxing, but that's boxing and not welding). So we're keeping our fingers crossed that things will work out for next year, once he's graduated [cross fingers] from high school.

  3. I think the most important gift we can give our kids is the space to listen with out judgement and seeing how theyir perspective is "right." In addition to whateer else we might think or know.

  4. God, please help us. Please protect our Black boys. Help us to see their greatness and love them right where they are. Amen.

  5. This is truly the best thing I've ever read about the issue with being color blind. My daughter goes to a daycare owned by a Somali family. Over the winter, I went to a daycare meeting where we were the only white family (tho plenty of white families and Hispanic ones also attend the daycare center). Some people in the room didn't even speak English, and I was the only one who didn't speak Somali, so they were translating for my benefit alone. It was intensely uncomfortable, tho I did try hard to lean into the discomfort and understand it. But I somehow never connected that fully to a daily experience (not sure how, but it is what it is).

    Thank you for sharing. I too wish we could simply be color blind as a country. I'm not sure what the correct path forward even is.

    1. I should add . . . it wasn't uncomfortable because I disliked the people. The ladies at our daycare (moms and teachers) are all _so_nice. I think it was uncomfortable because I felt different from everyone else in a marked way. It is hard to feel different, whether the different is skin color (especially, since that's hard to change) or culture or a host of other factors.

    2. I hear you. It's just so unusual for me to be in a place where I'm the only one like me. It's good to do every once in a while, because it's SUCH a good learning experience -- learning about myself as well as about groups of people I'm not used to being immersed in.