Whose reality is it?

The other week I blogged about attending a Roosevelt School District Board Meeting.  I mentioned feelings of validation because the board president and district superintendent both sought me out after the meeting adjourned.  I had been so nervous to speak in that forum about the topic I wanted to address:  the growing reports of hiring and firing practices that favor one racial group over others.  This is a topic I feel strongly about, for obvious reasons… but even stronger than my fear of public speaking was my fear about how I would be perceived in addressing what was sure to be an overwhelmingly non-white audience about racial conflict.

I confided in a friend that I once made a very passionate commentary about stereotyping interracial relationships as being between black men seeking white women as status symbols.  I made these comments in a largely black forum where they weren’t well received.  The feedback I got included a response that basically accused me of thinking I was the Great White Hope.  That phrase, like AmeriKKKa and others I’ve heard since, didn’t have a historical or cultural significance to me at the time.

Ironically, “Fight of the Century” occurred on July 4, 1910… 86 years ago today.

But I digress.  Needless to say, it took a lot for me to stand up in a room full of people whose race is subject to discrimination. So on the one hand, I felt very validated to have these two men who hold positions of authority in my community seek me out.  But some of the content of those conversations was unsettling.  One of the men, Hispanic, adamantly expressed his belief that there is not a racial divide… and that those who had spoken in the public comment portion of the meeting (mostly black), were not concerned about the children the school district serves, but their own personal benefit.  The other man, White, lamented that he just doesn’t see it… there at the district office, everyone gets along.

My kids don’t attend school in RSD anymore, and I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to make blanket statements about whether or to what degree racial conflict exists in our community or the proportion at which black vs. hispanics are being hired and fired and phased out of jobs.  I said as such, but added the disclaimer that I know people in the district who I respect, that feel very strongly that there is a problem, and a big one at that.  But at the time and ever since, I have pondered those conversations and wondered… were we all sitting in the same room?  Did either of you HEAR what I heard? 

I went back to the board meeting archives and watched/listened to some other discussion, and searched online for more articles about the district.  The concerns I heard in that meeting were expressed in other meetings and in media.  When you have THIS many employees and THIS many members of the community you serve, standing up in a public forum and talking about this topic that is largely taboo, how can you possible be unsure whether or not there is a problem?  If you don’t see it from your corner office, does that mean a hostile work environment doesn’t exist?  If you are not at the receiving end of discrimination, is it always obvious to you?  I’m not talking about obvious acts of racism; we can all see that.  But the more subtle ones*.  These thoughts turned to white privilege, especially after my friend thanked me for facing my fears and addressing the board on the topic.  She said something about me putting a new face on it. 

I was far less eloquent than many other speakers whose concerns these men seemed willing to dismiss as non existent.  Since I am not employed by the district, nor do I have children enrolled in the district… is the weight of my perception or the value of my opinion greater than those of the non-white employees voicing criticism, or the black mother whose daughter is facing expulsion for defending herself in a fight, where the (non black) perpetrators are reported to have received no repercussions?  And if so, is it because I am a potential ‘customer’ to be wooed back, or is it because I am white?  Robert Jenson, who authored a compelling article on white privilege (that I’ll post separately, it changed the way I think about race), says it more eloquently than I can.

…I speak with the assumption that people not only will listen, but will take me seriously. I speak with the assumption that my motives will not be challenged; I can rely on the perception of me as a neutral authority, someone whose observations can be trusted.

I’m a little afraid my friend may be right about me having put a new face on it… although not just, as she said, because I am someone whose children left the district and wants to come back… but also because they were more willing to listen to concerns and opinions expressed by someone who looks like me.

*when I’m at my neighborhood Target… the cashiers almost always ask me if I’d like to apply for a Target card.  I can’t recall ever hearing the clerk ask the non white person in line before me if they’d like to apply for a Target card.  Now if it’s hard to believe that I’m hardly ever in line at my local Target with any other white folks,  I live in a community where only about 4f the population is white. Is it their race?  Is it their accent?  Their dress?

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