Sunday, August 23, 2009

Wake up call...

The phone rang at 6:30 this morning. I knew who it was. There's only one person who calls me this early. My student, former student, who is currently working as a seasonal, migrant worker at a food processing plant in Wisconsin. I've known him since he was 13. He's 19 now. I taught him for two years when he was in middle school. Then he was sent to live with relatives in Mexico.

I've been getting phone calls like this now for years. From Mexico and LA and now from Wisconsin. For a few years it was only every few months. He'd walk for miles at night to the only pay phone in town. It has always been this way for us. He reaches out when he's angry, hurt, and worried that he is about to become violent against somebody - either himself or another.

Life for him is not never has been. And he wants so much more. The full story of how I became his crisis hotline is much too long for this one post...but, what prompted today's call is important.

I plan to put him through college. I've known this for years. He's known it for a few months. We talked about it recently while he was back in LA a little while back and I let him know he had options. He didn't have to go to Wisconsin with his grandfather to work in the factory this summer/fall, to pick the pieces of rat and frog from the beans. (Yes, his main job is picking out the pieces of cut up rats and frogs from the conveyor belt before the beans move to the next phase of cleaning and end up in the cans we buy at the store. Eww! That's how I responded when he first told me. Now we joke about it. Eww! is what we say every time we talk.)

He's about at the end of his rope the system, the 14 hr. a day shifts he works, the falseness of the employer, the way Mexicans are treated, they way he feels beat up and abused (asked to do more than possibly can be done, more than is asked of others), the government, everything and everyone who is not kind. He's the guy that a lot of people would pass up standing in front of the Home Depot...He's the guy that a lot of people would dismiss.

He's also the guy fighting to follow his dreams of going to college and studying psychology. He loves to think. For a guy who only spent a few years learning English in California during his early adolescence, our conversations are amazing! He's fighting the internal battle of knowing that everything in his upbringing is telling him to give his hard-earned money to his grandfather, his struggling uncle, his brother without US citizenship, etc. He laments how little will be left for himself. Then he talks about the privilege he has because he carries a US passport and what that means he must do for his brother.

He wants to make it on his own...maybe with a little help. But, today he blew me away. Toward the end of our conversation he asked me if my offer was still good (to help him with college) even if it took him awhile to get there. You see, even though he called me this morning to help him find a way to not give up on the end of the conversation he was still putting his family's needs first and not seeing college as an immediate possibility. He wants it...but he can't give it to himself yet.

Now here's where my need to check my privilege comes in. I'm sitting in my comfortable home, knowing that I'm trying to offer him a way into my own middle class life. He's outside the bunkhouse, knowing that he simply cannot walk away from his sense of familial obligation. We talk about the tension: his life's dreams vs. his family's expectations, individualism vs. communalism, capitalism and exploitation, cynicism and hope. It would be so easy, so easy to judge his say that he's being stupid for wasting his time working in that factory, to say that he could offer so much more to his family with college under his belt.

Witnessing has made me know better.

We talk, and I share my frustrations. We talk, and he shares his. We talk, and I have to check my cultural and class-based arrogance that would argue with him. We talk, and I have to respect his process. We talk, and he is heard, and seen, and valued.

And I'm glad we talked. At least I know he won't give up on life today. And because he doesn't, neither do I.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Destruction of a Movement, Sinking into Privileged Despair

In the scheme of things it's a small thing, really. There's so much that comes together to subvert and destroy what is an essential movement to develop...white people coming together en masse to work toward racial justice. But, I just bumped into myself again, and came face to face with one aspect that I don't hear talked about nearly enough.

Many of us (white folks) feel like if we can't be like the premiere, perfect anti-racist person then we might as well give up. (Yes, I know that privilege oozes out of that statement and could rightly be considered the most important aspect to discuss. But, that's where my conversations with other white people trying to act responsibly usually go.) What I don't hear very often is the discussion over what sets that feeling in motion.

For example, last night I sat down to offer up a post. As a newbie in this realm I wanted to link up my topic to Tim Wise because I respect his work and often find his analysis more well-crafted than my own. I learn from him...and I think plenty of other people should too.

But, as I cruised his blog (Tim's Main Blog) and saw how much he really offers, the feeling swept over me...what in the world do I have to contribute? How could my voice possibly add in a beneficial way and not just be unhelpful clutter? My sense of self sank and I ended up not writing a post. In fact, I sank into a sense of personal self-pity that left me unmotivated to do the other work I'd intended to do that night.

Why is that a big deal? It's because my lack of motivation for doing my own work showed up because I was in some way disappointed at not being at a Tim Wise level.

Again, I'm already recognizing that it's a privilege position to even sit and reflect this have the time and opportunity to follow my own emotional self-pity into laziness and not have it adversely affect my life.

And, yet, I think there's something to be gained by realizing that if there are lots of people doing what I'm doing then we need to really deal with it. If I (and others) can resist entering that place of "well he's doing so much...I can't do what he I'll just go over here and sulk" then maybe, just maybe, we'll be more likely to resist our privilege to do nothing and figure out a way to contribute in our own way.

After a night of destructive thinking, I awoke this morning realizing how much that tendency to compare might be stopping people from taking up action.

Although it remains true that I respect Tim's essay-writing capabilities and appreciate that his voice is in the world, I also have to remind myself that there's room for ALL white people to find their unique voice and speak out about racism, privilege, and how we can work more effectively for racial our own, hopefully continually improving, way.

For me, today, more effectively means that I search within myself for my own offering to the conversation without worrying whether or not I've achieved my perfection standard. Yes, I'll make mistakes. Yes, there will be times when I add to the clutter. But, my belief must be that struggling to learn and speak about how white privilege and whiteness show up in my life and how I allow them to derail my efforts at times can perhaps shed a bit of light, on occasion, and perhaps, just perhaps, support others to do the following: Stop the comparison. Use our voices. Speak out against privilege whenever and wherever possible. Create community around our attempts at subverting racism. And, stop the cycle where we as white folks allow ourselves to turn away from working at racial justice (even for a moment) because of our own insecurities.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dis-ease in the white community

"I have an uplifting view of the world. Racism has become unacceptable in our society. We have outlawed discrimination and more and more people are transcending race. In fact, race has no biological reality.”
I used to speak using this language. I know plenty of people who still describe their approach to race this way. Admittedly, this sounds like the right and healthy approach to most white people and some people of color! The trouble is what many of these statements ignore and deny. The trouble is what is left unexplored and unsaid. The reality is this: There is a deep dis-ease regarding race residing within much of the white community. We are uncomfortable, but we don’t know what to do about it!