Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Nothing New?

During my time at Pierce College, I have had many opportunities to learn new things, radical ideas, interesting concepts. I say to myself "well, yes... college is like that." But I have been to college before and this learning thing is nothing new.

After 52 years of living I have a pretty good grip on who I am and where I fall in the societal scheme of my world. I am a product of a teen marriage. My divorced parents are decendents of mixed European races: Danish, German, Irish with a bit of Native American thrown in. I have two siblings; We grew up low to middle income. Pretty ordinary for an average American.

When a learning opportunity presented itself, I jumped on it. I'm not going to lie, the idea of spending two nights in a hotel and having all meals prepared... throw in a little live entertainment... of course I am ready to learn something new.

Along comes the Students of Color Conference(SoCC) in Yakima. Yes. I applied and was accepted and I was ready to have a fun-filled weekend. I expected the performances and I knew I was in for some interesting workshops about race, equality and diversity.

First on the agenda: White Race Identity Caucus. "Who am I?" as Jean Valjean sings "24601."

I had no idea.

I felt like we were going to be asked to stand up and say "Hello. My name is Darcy and I am a white racist."

I had no idea that because of the color of my skin, I am a racist.

I wanted to argue, "but I'm not a racist!" I am not.

But I am white.

And with my white skin, comes privilege that no other groups can claim. Yay me. I win.

Why didn't this feel like a win? I don't want privilege simply because I was born of white European decendants. Thats not fair. And it for sure doesn't say anything about my talents or brainpower... or anyone else's. I want fair. (I can talk about fair later.)

There was a moment of silence in that room where we all tried to absorb this concept. I did not like it at all. This concept argued in my head. "I try to be the same to everyone... but my skin color makes it different."  It doesn't matter how much I want it to be otherwise, it colors every interaction I have with people every day.

Now that is a learning moment, isn't it? My skin color makes me different. After 52 years I have just now felt for a moment what it was like to be judged by the color of my skin. (A moment can't really give me a true understanding of what it is like to be on guard all the time, but it helps put a little, tiny check mark in my experience tab.)

This concept was presented to me on our first night when we were all asked to select an identity group. I selected white because that is what I am... although I have liked that I have Native American heritage and have read about different tribes and watched documentaries, I know this does not make me a Native American nor an expert. And also I didn't claim this identity because I have not taken the time to research my father's grandmother's lineage. So, white I shall be.

The important lessons for me were to really look at the advantages I am given and haven't even thought about the fact that I have them. I have power and privilege and because of that, I have a voice that is not silenced by oppression. I can walk into my child's school and demand things that will be given because it came from me. I can get upset and angry in public and it will be a sign of my passion for what I believe. A woman of color must not show passion or it is interpreted as a "race thing" and she runs the risk of losing the attention of the policy-makers, the administration, the people in power. She has to be so much better at public relations than I.

A person of color runs the risk of losing ground every day. Every new day brings the same battle, the same hidden traps and the same pitfalls.

Here is where fair comes in: I learned the difference between equality and equity. Equality is when everyone gets the same thing, but equity is when everyone gets what they need. We all have different needs so equality isn't really equitable... it's a new and interesting concept for me, and I like it. I was reminded to look at the meaning of oppressive terms and think about who is the minority and what does that mean? I am a minority and yet we still call the greater population of people of color "the minority."

The list goes on. The topics I listed were a small drop in the larger pond of issues I had skipped merrily by in my ignorance until the White Race Identity Group Caucus "kicked me in the teeth," as one of my fellow White Caucus attendees stated so eloquently.

I remember the feeling of terrible loneliness as I left that room and stepped out into the hallway. As I made my escape, I ran into an incredibly nice young man from our group. I said "how was your identity meeting?"

He was so happy and excited, he was practically vibrating with joy. "I love it! I am so excited about my culture and my people! This is the best conference ever!"

I was genuinely happy for him. That is how it should be for him. I was also sad for the white students who were in my group. There was no joyful celebration of identity for the minority.

Our somber group dispersed into the hallway packed with people laughing and cheering. I couldn't even begin to identify with the explosion of excitement and anticipation. I wasn't excited. I was bummed, actually. I wanted to be somewhere safe so I turned away from the crowds and made a dash for the doors where the Yakima wind was blowing fresh and clean.

I went straight to my hotel room and when I got there, I felt even lonelier than I did at the Students of Color Conference. I sat down and cried.

Then that got old very quickly so I quit being a baby, made some coffee and went to the next session and learned more.

And then the next... and the next... and the next and learned.

What I learned at SoCC was really quite profound. I need a few more years of constant study to understand the whole concept of power and privilege and oppression. And even then I may not know everything I need to know.

Every speaker, dancer, storyteller, and presenter was motivational and profound.

I can't really explain how moving the experience was. I have more to learn, certainly. Given an opportunity to go to the conference again, I would take it, for sure. I want to make sure I convey the idea that this is a journey begun. I am not the flag-waving proclaimer running through the streets. I am not out there in that way.

What I hope to do in my life is interrupt oppression in the way that I can do it and to do it... every day. I know there are little injustices that happen minute by minute and my goal is to not tolerate it. The kicker here is that I may not recognize oppression. I know its tricky but I am going to try... do not listen to Yoda. There is TRY. If we keep trying, we will get it right.

In one of the sessions I attended on Sisterhood, I was sitting there in a roomful of women when the speaker dropped a bomb.

"Thank you all for coming. Men, thank you for being here to support women. You are not allowed to speak. You may listen." She took a breath then continued, "White women, thank you for coming. You may not speak, but you may listen."

I was shocked and hurt. I remember a moment a few years ago when I was helping at an event where a musician performed for a small group. After the music ended, we were all talking and when I spoke, the Privileged White Male singer said "stop talking." It was awkward and embarrassing.

I have never been in a similar situation like that again... until SoCC. But this time it was different. I was handed an opportunity to learn. To see what being stifled feels like. To know that I could speak... but that I wasn't welcome to speak. For that two-hour period I was not allowed to participate because of the color of my skin.

That was powerful.

1 comment:

  1. Darcy, thank you for writing about your weekend experience at the conference. I want to hear more.

    I know we talked a bit about it when you got back but it feels like this should be a fluid, on-going discussion. And it seems too important and significant for me to 'comment' on here.

    I would love to sit down together with just this topic in mind. A long relaxing afternoon with no other commitments hanging over us. And not trying to fit it in between other topics that we feel the need to catch up on, like people tend to do in our society.

    Thanks for sharing, Darcy. I'm grateful and would like this to be just the start of an important discussion. ~ B