20 October 2008

What if?

There has been a lot of talk in the blogosphere lately about race in this political campaign. The recent buzz differs significantly from the detached, academic approach to race that J and I have been bandying about in recent posts. This is the real deal. Public, outward expressions of hate and fear of the black man.

I knew they were out there. I am convinced that their numbers aren't large. It is my experience that we have, generation by generation, family by family, community by community, made significant strides toward eradicating the notion of black inferiority and the unquestioned rightness of white privilege. Oh, we haven't finished the job. In fact, J has opened my eyes to the lasting effects of institutionalized racism...effects of which I had been ignorant. And if I can be ignorant of such effects, certainly the vast majority of people we are trying to educate/bring on board must also be ignorant.

So a hard-core racist element remains, albeit in fewer numbers and with less venom than in the '50s and '60s. And to be honest, I think they weren't willing to self-identify themselves (after all, it isn't really in their best interests to tell the world they are racist) until it became apparent that McCain was losing this race. Somehow, the mixture of hate, fear and panic over the prospect of the loss of absolute white power has those closet racists thinking that if they point out to you and me that we are actually thinking of turning over leadership of this country to a n***r that white folks will slap themselves in the head and come to their senses. Oh, how wrong they are. Even within the Republican Party (can you say Chris Buckley, Colin Powell, Susan Eisenhower) there is a growing list of Obamacans. The reason is precisely because of the racist element within the GOP that represents the last sad gasps of the old South. Funny thing is, it seems to be strongest in odd places like Ohio and Pennsylvania. I mean, when I think of Ohio, I think Oberlin College. I think Underground Railroad. I don't think remnant racist component. And for crying out loud, Pennsylvania?

I have a dream that the next person who stands up at a McCain rally and makes a racist remark about Barack Obama is met with McCain's now infamous mantra: "I will make them famous and you will know their names." Let's turn the spotlight on the racists and expose them for what they are. Oh wait. That's the job of You Tube.

I often wonder what my attitudes would be like if I hadn't made a conscious decision, not that long ago, that the only way to understand something foreign to you is to make it familiar. Oh, I don't mean to imply that I have ever been a racist, but I do think that it was easy for me to be all about the equality when I didn't have any friends of color. Let's just say I was talking the talk and not walking the walk. So, I did the only thing I could do. I made a conscious decision to meet and befriend people different than me.

I know that setting an objective to go out and meet black people sounds weird. But I'll tell you why I took this radical approach. I grew up surrounded by white people. And as I grew older, my world only got paler. I looked at my life one day and realized that the only people I knew were those I work with. That meant that the only diversity that I knew was what the university provided me. And let's face it, I'm not that close to that many of my colleagues. They are significantly younger than me and while they have been great about including me, there is a sense of my "otherness". As for real friends, there's Bek. White woman, also older than most of our colleagues. That's about it. I spend a lot of time alone. (Insert appropriate pitying comment here.)

And C-dale isn't exactly a bastion of black people. Well, there are plenty of black people, they are all just 18-22 year old college students. Not my demographic. So I used the tools at my disposal: the internet. I owe a great debt of gratitude to Michael, Clint, Jim, Guv, John, David, Juan, Mark, Alvin, and Charlie. Ok, so I wasn't very successful at meeting diverse women. Sue me. ;) But these gentlemen have all helped me to understand not just their culture, but mine and ours. Every one of them has been very honest and open and despite everything, I consider them all friends. Ok, maybe not Michael. Long story. They might not have known what an education they were providing. I wonder what I have provided them. Thoughts for another post, perhaps.

I remember back when I was a kid and thought that I would be rejected for reaching out. I remember that sense of unyielding distance I had when talking to someone of color. I remember being aware of the "otherness". It didn't help that all my teacher training emphasized a need to be on the lookout for personal bias. I remember feeling overly self-conscious when dealing with students of color about guarding against subtle or overt discrimination. Was I spending enough time with all my students regardless of any differences? Was I speaking to students differently? I mean, really, you can't believe how these thoughts were interferring with my ability to just teach.

I can honestly say that, no matter what you think of my methods, my efforts have been one of the most positive things I have done in my life and my career. That sense of otherness is gone. I don't feel that need to be self-conscious in my teaching. I know that I am treating everyone the same. And perhaps most importantly, I've gained valuable friendships. I've learned that I will be accepted for just what I bring. I have learned that growth is out there for the taking.

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