Friday, April 30, 2010

on what it means to be invisible, from the other side of the racial divide

In high school, I was invisible. But not in the way you might think. I don't mean that no one noticed me, or that I had no friends (strangely enough, I did have some friends, and very good ones, and how awesome is it that I am now Facebook-friends with almost all of them that I care to remember!), or that I felt some keen sense of not being quite counted as a full responsible person and citizen. I mean, my body was invisible: I never thought about the particulars of my body as having any sort of effect on my life or my future. My gender and my race were irrelevant to my ambitions. Invisibility was a privilege. And an invisible privilege at that: a privilege I never even knew I had.

I certainly wasn't racist. I mean, I had like, three black friends!

But I did notice, and fume, those times when my smarts and talents and invisible privileges were not enough to get me what I wanted and totally deserved. Like the time I was nominated for the North Carolina Governor's School, for Choral Music, and made Darren drive me all the way to wherever that audition was. I didn't get in. And while I knew, and knew right away even during the audition, that I had bombed the sight-singing test (I was so nervous I didn't even sing the octave jump right, and sang a fifth instead), what I focused on in my rejection letter was a sentence inserted, I suppose, to make the let-down easy: something to the effect of, you were a qualified applicant with the necessary skills but due to other considerations like diversity of race and ethnicity, we cannot invite you. The invisibly privileged high school kid that I was translated that into: a black kid got my space. It's not that I'm not good enough; it's that I'm too white, thought I.

I know now--actually I knew then, but now I am grown-up enough to admit it--that my nomination was a sort of fluke, and that a completely untrained singer like myself really just wasn't good enough, and I bombed the audition. There's no mystery here. No conspiracy. No systemic social dysfunction.

But I fumed. It was easier to believe that someone else got a space I deserved than accept that sometimes I would come up against a challenge I couldn't automatically ace.

A few years before that, a much younger and more naive teen, still new to my NC junior high, I auditioned for the senior high school musical (Finian's Rainbow, if you're curious, and yes, I still have the bright yellow T-shirt). During that fantastic experience, the 14-year-old me met a marvelous guy with a speaking role and crazy trumpet-playing skills, as well as a sense of humor, incredible smarts, and an unaccountable habit of paying attention to me. He was fun to talk to and easy to hang out with, despite the fact that he was a couple years older than me--a significant difference after all exists between 9th grade and junior year of high school. My first clue that he "liked" me was that all of a sudden he was kissing my ear, on the stairwell between scenes (definitely the first time anyone ever kissed my ear. I didn't know quite what to think about that). All of a sudden that put the easygoing relationship into new and strange and exciting territory.

But that territory didn't get explored. Because he was black.

And it wasn't that I cared. I was thrilled--I already liked him, and was floored that he was even paying attention to me at any level--but I got confronted, by a boy a friend was dating. And told that if I dated that n*** that I would be ostracized and I would certainly never speak to my best friend again. And he meant it. And I knew that because he was in my face, with the crazy eyes.

And so I told that marvelous boy I really liked that it just wouldn't work. I believe the phrase I used was, "it would just be too difficult."

My senior year of high school--and why this happened is still somewhat of a mystery to me--I would eat my lunch out on the lawn in good weather with a few friends. And for whatever reason, we started being attacked by flying fruit. I mean, someone or multiple someones were throwing apples and stuff at our heads--hard baseball throws that really hurt if the aim happened to be right. It seemed to be coming from a group of black guys not too far away, at least, they were aware of what was going on and found it amusing, so they were easy to blame as the culprits. I went and found the assistant principal inside the cafeteria to complain after it had proven to be a regular menace and not just a one-time thing. His suggestion was that we go sit somewhere else. I found this inadequate.

I was pissed. And I was the op-ed editor of the school newspaper, and I launched a full page spread on violence in schools and let the venom fly. It was a symbolic and impotent protest. It was also--I know now--subtly racist, in ways I was completely unaware of, though I suspect that's why Mr. Cockerell made me re-write that thing more times than I can even remember at this point. But what bothers me most, in remembering my outrage, is that I never once thought to ask, why is this happening? I never reached a point where it could even occur to me that there was some reason that might make sense--if not from my point of view, from someone's point of view. I never questioned the assumption that we were lily-white innocent victims of undeserved ire. It wasn't just that we personally were completely innocent--it was that even if it were nothing else than an explosion of racial tensions, that was their fault and had nothing to do with us.

Why tell these stories? Just to publicly confess? To make myself feel bad because white guilt is addictive? To make other people involved feel bad, or to publicly plead for forgiveness or prove, hey, I'm different now?

It's not that, although, of course, the whole premise of "rude truth" is that truth is best shared, crude and unvarnished. It's that I would have been horrified if anyone had ever called me a racist. Or the slightly less condemnatory, "prejudiced." Or suggested that I carried around some bias. Or, suggested none of those things, but pointed out that I was privileged in ways others were not.

It's embarrassing how long it took for me to put all these things together. The turning point was a moment in an ACU prof's office when a classmate came in, typically cheerful demeanor very subdued. Why? Apparently he'd been driving home, past campus, the night before and had gotten pulled over by a cop. Not just pulled over, but asked to get out of the car, and was patted down. Why? No particular reason. He didn't get a ticket, he hadn't done anything wrong. It's just that it was late, and he was black. I realized, listening to that story--told in a completely resigned tone of voice, not particularly angry, just sort of defeated, because after all, it had happened before and it happens all the time--that this would never, never happen to me. I've gotten pulled over. I've even gotten pulled over for no particular reason. But I have never been asked to get out of the car. I have never been searched or patted down. And if I were, I would sue the pants off of whoever violated my rights as a citizen. Because I have the privilege of expecting that these things won't happen to me. I'm not a black man.

A couple years later I tried to lead a discussion about race in my summer "Christianity in Culture" class. One memorable moment: having to stop a comment that began with the ominous phrase, "I'm not racist, but..." I know that phrase. I know what comes after it. "I'm not racist, but, I didn't date a black guy in high school even though I liked him, because he was black." "I'm not racist, but, it was totally unfair that I didn't get into Governor's School just because I'm white." "I'm not racist, but when scary black dudes throw apples at your head for no reason, it's clear that they have a problem and something needs to be done about it." 

This is not new stuff, people. This is just my personal version of a conversion story that ought to be everyone's.

This week I've gotten to see the best and the worst of our difficult public discourse on race. The same week that Arizona passed what is, to my mind, an undeniably xenophobic and racist immigration law, I attended a forum at New Brunswick Theological Seminary hosted by the ARTT (Anti-Racism Transition Team) group. It's a weird, schizoid week for me on this issue, and it has me wondering, how do we get from AZ to ARTT? How did I get there? How can we talk about these things directly, honestly, personally, narrativally, in ways that get people to see the invisible?


Anonymous said...

I just want you to know that I think this is great. Thank you for sharing this, Jen.

Anonymous said...

I was amazed to realize a few years ago that interracial marriage was still technically illegal in NC when I was born ( I'm so thankful that, although they must have had some racial baggage of their own, my parents passed none of it (that might have been there) to me.

JJT said...

jonathan--this Gene Cheek story on This American Life is heartbreaking. I can't believe I'm listening to a man talk about literally laying down his life for his brother at 12 years old...

FreshGreenKim said...

I followed this from your name twin Jen B.'s blog... brilliant! I just had this conversation with someone about statements that begin with "I'm not a racist, but..." I think if we could learn to just speak without qualifiers, but instead put our hearts first, we may find some of those barriers shrinking. Amen!