I work at a very racially diverse high school, the most racially diverse high school in Oakland. It is also likely the most segregated high school in Oakland. 15 years ago, it had a strong majority of African American students and over the past 10 years the demographics have shifted dramatically. As the white population of students increases, the African American population has been going down, the Asian population increased a little and the Latino population stayed relatively the same. Many of the new white students are coming from private schools and their parents have decided this school is good enough to choose over other private high school options. They are often coming because of a few academically elite programs at the school. These programs, which ethnically look more like private schools than they do like the school’s overall student body, have brought up conversations about equity and the lack of diversity on many occasions. I have blogged about this in my 100 days of white privilege, day 92 & 93.
In these posts, I shared about an event that a group of students from my after school program put on. It was a facilitated discussion of a group of people, called a fishbowl discussion. The fishbowl was led by a group of African American students to offer a space for students of color, specifically African American students, to come together and share their experiences being in classes where there is a white majority and very few other students who look like them. The students in the fishbowl shared times when they were marginalized, tokenized, felt outside of the culture and not included in the unspoken cultural norms instilled in these spaces. There were tears shed, pain revealed and ultimately the circle was a healing space for these students to talk about the pains of racism and cultural exclusion they have been through.
Many students both in the fishbowl and ones who came to observe felt like they have little or no room to express their discomfort in these spaces and instead, it is expected of them to fit in, to find a way to conform to the established culture already present. These students did what they needed to do in order to be successful in these spaces. They contained themselves at times when they wanted to scream. They swallowed their opinions and thoughts about certain things in order to not be perceived as angry or controversial. They code switched. They were in Rome and did what the Romans did in order to receive the benefits of these programs.
After the fishbowl happened, the reaction from many white students, parents and teachers was interesting. They felt attacked and then shared how they now felt “unsafe” around the school. I talked more thoroughly about this situation in the blog posts so I don’t want to go into it too much here. My main point is to contrast this situation with another one.
I have been teaching a civic engagement and social movements class for the last four years. The first couple of years, the class was very racially diverse and over the last two years, there has been an increase in African American students. In the same two years, I have had 3-4 white students enroll in the class and by the end of the first week, they have all dropped out, while all the other students stayed in the class. This year I had a conversation with one of the white students who dropped out and found out my assumptions were on point. He was uncomfortable because of the amount of Black people in the room. He didn’t say that exactly, but through my conversation with him, it was clear what he was talking about. He felt like he was being made fun of by two boys in the room and didn’t feel like he could handle the culture of the space. Judging by the other white student’s body language during their time in the class, I strongly believe this sentiment was felt with them as well. It was a culture clash, and the white students didn’t feel comfortable enough to participate, so they left.
I was disappointed and frustrated. I had been excited for them to join in and bring more depth into the discussions, add a wider range of perspectives and engage in cross racial dialogue that many of their other classes don’t offer. I was excited for the possibility of these white students getting to deepen their understanding of race and ultimately push them to widen their perspectives and do the necessary work to end cycles of racism.
Robin DiAngelo, in her amazing work on White Fragility, discusses white people’s feelings of entitlement to racial comfort, which this is a clear example of. She explains that white people are so used to being in racial comfort and are rarely forced to be in spaces or conversations in which racial discomfort is felt so when they do feel this discomfort, they act out. They blame the people or event that “caused” the discomfort (usually a person or people of color) and then penalize, or retaliate or just disengage and leave the situation. The situation from my class perfectly flows with DiAngelo’s point. These white students felt racial discomfort. They didn’t want to engage because they didn’t have experiences where this level of racial discomfort was felt. Their skin was not thick enough, calloused enough.
On the flip side, in the elite programs I referenced earlier, there is a majority of white students and the overall program culture is white. Black and Brown students who come into the space often feel uncomfortable. Students shared in the fishbowl about what they had to go through and still they stayed. They code switched, they learned the culture of the space in order to navigate it. They swallowed their discomfort and found a way to make it work.
People of color are often in spaces of racial discomfort. To be not white in a socially, politically and economically white dominated world, it is impossible to not navigate racial discomfort. It is a part of life. White people, on the other hand, are rarely forced to feel racial discomfort and so when we do, it is quite literally a culture shock. If we stay in the shock long enough to get comfortable with the uncomfortable, we can learn. If we run away, we miss out on the potential to grow.
One of the many things I have learned in my time on this planet is that the more comfortable I can be in spaces where I likely don’t know what’s going on and I can admit that I don’t know what’s going on, I grow. To sit in discomfort and find a place of comfort in it, I expand.
These young students were uncomfortable and got scared of being in another culture. They were in shock and instead of facing in and sitting in their discomfort, they left and ultimately miss out on the depth of beauty and joy and love that the black community brings. Yes, it can be hard. We (white people) are raised to be emotionally fragile. We have to build up emotional callouses in order to take the sometimes hard joking, the strong play fighting with words, the straightforward honesty, the seemingly teasing behavior that is a part of many Black communities. It is a part of the culture, it is not meant to offend. It is meant to build each other up so strong that the hateful white world can’t take their sense of self away. It is strengthening.
White people don’t often get raised in communities and spaces where we have had to build up our emotional callouses. We can be fragile, particularly in regards to race. It takes time to build up the stamina, learning how to take blows with humor and without letting it break down our internal self worth. I won’t ever say that being a white woman in often times mostly black spaces, has been easy. AND, beyond measure, it has been worth it. I stayed past the culture shock and have been exposed to people and community that have challenged me and helped to transform me. I have deepened my sense of self, strengthened my ability to deal with challenges, learned to grow flowers out of cemented pain and learned to laugh from my hair follicles to my toe nails. I am deeply grateful for all the times I sit in the uncomfortable in order to learn what I don’t know.