At the very beginning of this semester when I wrote my introduction, I made a promise to be honest. I’ve kept that promise and I don’t plan to break it. This final project has been a daunting task that I’ve been dreading. I’ve struggled with what I would do because I want my words to have an impact and most importantly, get me out of my comfort zone. The more I have learned about diversity, privilege, and oppression, the more I become aware of how much I don’t know. I always feel enlightened when learning more about these sensitive topics, but with that feeling also comes the acknowledgement of how much I still have yet to learn and how much growing I still have to do. I’m not proud of how unaware I have been, but I hope that my open-mindedness and eagerness to learn will get me closet to where I need to be in order to be an effective ally and also a culturally sensitive social worker. In this blog I am going to attempt to sort out some of the messages I grew up hearing from key adults in my life. I also want to give a warning that some of the things I say in this blog are offensive and hurtful. Please know that I’m truly sorry that this was my experience and I hope you understand why it’s important for me to say it out loud. I promise my intent isn’t to offend anyone, I simply want to call it out, acknowledge the distortion, and move on having learned that I can do better because I’m more aware. I also want to let everyone know that I am open to criticism so please be honest with me in your responses. If you’d prefer to not write it out in a comment, I’d appreciate the opportunity to have a face to face conversation.
So here goes…
When I was around nine years old, my mom’s best friend (also our neighbor), got guardianship of her two nieces and nephew, all of whom were biracial. We spent a lot of time together and they felt like extended family. One day, the oldest niece was suspended from school for fighting someone who was using racially derogatory language toward her. I was eavesdropping on her phone conversation and I heard my mom say how unfortunate it is for the kids that they are biracial. After she got off the phone I asked about it and she explained to me that interracial relationships are fine, but not if you plan to have children. She further explained that children who are biracial “don’t know how to identify or where they fit in.” Specifically, she said, “to white people they are black, and to black people they are white.” I was totally perplexed by this because I could clearly see they were both, but I didn’t see why they had to be one or the other. I couldn’t figure out why that was a big deal. I suppose at some point I justified this way of thinking in my mind, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t affect my dating habits. I grew up knowing I wanted children someday. Naturally, I wanted to do right by them and predispose them to an identity crisis. So I never really considered it an option for me to date outside of my race. Even though I never heard either niece or nephew describe being biracial as a hardship, I accepted what my mom said as truth and let it impact one of the most important decisions I could make about my future. So in my mid-twenties, when I became somewhat romantically involved with a biracial man, I found that I was hesitant to move forward or to allow myself to truly fall for him. I deeply appreciated his companionship but I couldn’t bring myself to take it to any real level of commitment. It’s taken be a long time to really admit this… I didn’t want to believe that I was struggling with what it would mean to be with him because he was biracial. Could my mom be right? It seemed ridiculous… but maybe there was truth to it? Even though I’m incredibly happy in my current relationship and I wouldn’t change it for the world, I do wish that I had been more open-minded around this topic. At this point I feel the best thing I can do is to end the cycle on this way of thinking when it comes to what messages I pass down to my children. I can promote love and healthy relationships without putting limitations on what it may look like.
I believe one of the most tragic cornerstones of America is the lack of exposure to the historic racism. Our history textbooks are filled with a narrative that perpetuates white privilege and is taught in a way that makes racism and oppression seem like something that only existed in the past. Surely we talked about the history of slavery and how horrible it was. Then about the civil war and the “end of slavery.” I don’t remember ever hearing about anything after the civil war era. It seemed like the end of a fairy tale, almost as if we should just conclude “and they all lived happily ever after.” Or maybe this thought that “they are no longer slaves, what else do they want? They should be grateful for freedom.” I can vividly remember sitting in my Modern American History class as a sophomore in high school. This was the first time I had ever heard about Affirmative Action. I should take this time to remind you that the student body of my high school was almost completely white. Our class discussion on Affirmative Action was literally formed around the simple question “should someone be admitted into college based solely on race?” It’s important to point out that there were quite a few of us in that class who were expecting college to be the next step after high school. Furthermore, we hadn’t even begun the college application process at that point. I distinctly remember there being this shared anxiety in the room that we were at risk of missing out on an opportunity to better ourselves and get a college education simply because we were white. Instead of creating an opportunity for us to learn about what it means to be privileged and have education much more accessible, it created this idea of reverse discrimination. I’m not going to try to pretend that I felt differently than my peers during that class discussion. Because I wasn’t able to recognize at that point that the chances of me not getting into college was small, I was truly upset by this. Clearly that class discussion had an impact on me emotionally since I am able to recall it so well over 16 years later. It instilled this distortion that white students have to work harder than students of color and that Affirmative Action was a free pass of laziness. We also failed to address the gender and nationality access to education through Affirmative Action. I guess what I’m trying to say is that we will develop these emotionally charged opinions that are not educationally informed. Our education system has left us racially illiterate. Until taking this 504 class, I had minimal experience in thinking critically about what information was presented to me through my education system. It took me until grad school to recall my initial introduction to Affirmative Action and how disproportionately it was represented. I’m positive that fewer than 1/8 of the students in my Modern American History class have reached grad school. Even for those who have, it’s highly unlikely that unless they are going into a field like social work, they aren’t ever going to have a class in which they dissect oppression, racism, and social justice.
As I was growing up, both of my parents drilled into my head that I was not better than anyone and also, nobody was better than me. I remember there being a lot of emphasis on treating every person with respect and always pointing out their best qualities despite someones wrongdoing. I also remember how mom would be one of the first people to offer a perspective that brought to light a justification for someone’s actions. She would always suggest to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes before we formed our opinion of them. However, this message didn’t really translate in all situations. When I started graduate school and was accepted into the Detroit Clinical Scholars program I was so excited to be a part of something that I feel is so important. I explained to friends and family that I would be working in Detroit through the program. I was questioned by nearly everyone as to why I would want to do such a thing. I was asked if I was fearful of my safety. It was then that I remembered the message I received from a family member about black neighborhoods being unsafe and this idea that all black people were gang affiliated and/or involved with drugs to some extent. Based on the conviction in their voice, the fear was very deeply rooted despite never having a personal experience in these settings. Luckily, my undergrad experience never allowed this idea to settle in my head.
To wrap it all up, I have to say that my education has saved me from a life of fear and continued cultural ignorance. By no stretch of the imagination am I perfect. I know that I still have distortions that I haven’t begun to recognize and analyze. However, I feel as though I am on a path that will lead me to recognizing them and continuing to learn from it. I have started finding non-confrontational ways to talk through the messages I received with the people I am close to in hopes that dialogue will lead us to a place of enlightenment. Perhaps most importantly, I am setting a primary focus on the conversations I have with my children to encourage critical thinking, understand privilege, and how to stand up for people in all situations. Will I be perfect in doing this? Absolutely not. I am still learning and will continue to do so. My hope is that my children and all of the future generations will be significantly better than the one that preceded it.
If you made it this far, thank you so much for reading my blog. I want to say again that I’m sorry if these topics were difficult to read. I’ll admit that it was much harder actually putting it to words than I ever imagined it would be.