A Catch 22:

I feel as though I am not in a position to make an educated, experienced disquisition on the subject of race.

My feeling this way says a huge amount on my feelings about race.

Greg and I met up a few days after I moved to Brooklyn at a cafe where the cookies were good & the music was loud & everything was expensive. This is, of course, New York in a nutshell, but I digress. About three cups & too much creamer in, Greg (who moved from the Third Coast to the East Coast about two years ago) popped The Question:

So? How do you like New York?

The first three things I responded with:

1. It’s so big
2. It’s so loud
3. It’s so diverse

Since my very first visits to New York, I’ve been floored by the way so many people mill together, indifferent to the vast differences between them. I imagine that this is in no small part due to the sheer lack of space here: New York City squeezes nearly 8.3 million people into 304.8 sq miles (that’s about four times as many people as Chicago into a space not all that much bigger). As Greg & I kept talking, it became apparent that I was not the only Chicago transplant so amazed by the ethnic integration of my newly adopted home.

I understand that Chicago is notorious for being one of the most segregated & institutionally racist cities in the US, but I’m still figuring out how this affects me. Katie Sosin’s assignment (Read Uprooting Racism by Paul Kivel & make a “Jaime’s Knapsack” list based on “Unpacking the Knapsack of White Privilege”, an article by Peggy McIntosh) set me off to a new sort of awareness – or more specifically, tuned me into my lack of awareness.

I don’t know where to begin in this. I am one person, very small, very lost, but I will try to express what it is I garnered from Kivel’s work as it has paired with my limited life experiences. I feel that the problem with race is that there is a problem with race, even when we don’t see it as a race problem. If this sounds too obvious, or like a generalization, I apologize, but I believe it’s our lack of recognizing race-as-racism that helps to perpetuate the issue (that &, you know. About 10,000 other, more blatant things). One of the best points Kivel makes is that being sensitive to race will not quash inequality or superiority. Affirmative action; socio-sensitive scripts; anti-discrimination laws: these are all moot if there is no change in mindset. A white employer who hires a non-white individual will not be made empathetic to bigotry, just as a man hiring a woman will not, by way of his hiring practices, be made to understand sexism. Being told that we need to be “aware of race” is not going to make us empathetic to racism, especially if you’re a well-off white individual who has never really had to deal with the problems posed by racial injustice. As a pale little blond person, I definitely fall into that category: though I understand things need to change, logically, why would I ever want change? My life is good, right? I am never subjected to scrutiny or back ground checks. To my knowledge it has never been assumed that a young white child in my care is my own. I shop at thrift stores, but should I need to make a good impression on, say, a job interview, I have the means to get a dress from a full-price retail store.

Racism, as I know it, is a blindness – knowing or otherwise – to every day phenomenon. It is people accusing Mexicans or Indians of “stealing all their jobs”. It is hearing about kids who “act black” (or white, or Mexican, or whatever). It is visitors to Humbolt Park referring to the neighborhood’s residents as “Mexicans” when Puerto Rican flags hang from every windowsill. People who confuse Koreans with Filipinos with Chinese with Japanese, justified by the claim that “all Asians look alike”. Saying or thinking or acting in a way that makes you better than someone else, just because of your ethnicity. This sounds obvious, but think: how many times a day do you see this? Hear this? Do this?

The other day I was speaking with the artistic director of a theatrical dance troupe here in Brooklyn, & we got to talking about the Midwest. I mentioned that I had gone to school on the Illinois-Iowa border, a few miles outside of the Quad Cities. Her demeanor stiffened a bit, & she mentioned that they once had a gig at the Iowa State Fair.

“They didn’t know what to do with us,” she said, & recounted an incident in which one dancer, who is Asian, was approached by a fair-goer who told her that she was “so pretty – like a little China doll.” She looked at me as though I, by way of my former Midwestern residence, must be just like the person who said this to the dancer, that all people west of the five boroughs must be like this. It goes both ways, then. Racial defence, ignorant (or, worse, active) offense.

There’s no real resolution to Assignment #4. If you wish to see my Knapsack of White Privilege a la Peggy McIntosh, you will find it here. There’s been a lot of very uncomfortable exploration in this assignment, but I think discomfort is part of what keeps people from effectively talking about race – the fear of being branded racist or ignorant, of offending or being too PC. But sometimes you’re going to have to offend. Sometimes you’re going to have to look issues head on, regardless of who might be shocked as you barrel through. Sometimes you have to stop being so nice & start getting things done.

This one was very, very hard to get done.