Thursday, August 11, 2016

Five Things I Learned the Hard Way This Summer

Five Things I Learned The Hard Way This Summer

1. The library is not free (for people like me).

There should be a sign on the front door reading, "WARNING: This establishment's services are free ONLY if you are responsible and organized and On Top of Life." I owe $33 and some change on books and [mainly] DVDs I cannot find. This is one situation where having a bigger family is helpful; I keep opening up children accounts to dodge fines that have accrued. Since I'm working in descending order, my goal is NOT to have the 1-yr-old blackballed from the public library before she can talk. Or read.

2. I wish I had never introduced hand sanitizer as a viable form of hand cleaning.

It all started as my lazy approach to keeping entering-from-the-outside-world filth controlled (after our whole family kept getting sickness after sickness last school year). To avoid a battle each time we came into the house, I bought a four hundred ounce pump of hand sanitizer and set it right on the inside of our garage door. But now... now that we spend our days around like.all.the.time, the kids try to pull hand-sanitizer trick on me to clean their chocolate-frosting-hands and their mud-caked-hands and their GOD HELP ME poop-spotted-hands (it happens). No no no... CHILDREN... you cannot shortcut on poop. You gotta immerse under water with foam soap and sing the damn alphabet all the way through. Maybe twice.

3. The dentist ain't half-bad.

I was dreading our annual (**this is NOT the recommended frequency**) dentist visit last week where I had loaded in all three of the teethed children's appointments, plus mine. I got all of them through their appointments with bribery reminders and without major incident, and then it came time for mine. Sweet Lord above! I am reclined. I have my eyes closed. I can't yell or reprimand my children, even if I wanted to due to mouth-wide-open position. I don't know where they are or what they are doing. My dental insurance includes receptionist oversight of minors, right? I told my dental hygienist that I have been playing my cards all wrong by avoiding the experience... Next summer I will schedule weekly appointments.

4. A solution to the laundry situation = swimwear.

I don't know about yours, but my kids cannot seem to master the "Can it be worn again or is it dirty?" discernment required to know what constitutes a toss to the hamper. I swear I've explained the rules... If it has no spots and does not smell, it can be worn again. If you have not come into contact with an infectious disease, it can be worn again. And least of all - if you've had it on your body for less than an hour, it can be worn again. With All Of The Water that comes with summer (sprinkler games, water balloon antics, squirt gun wars, pool trips), my kids are in and out of dry clothing faster than you can say LAUNDRY NIGHTMARE, each time without consideration of "can it be worn again or is it dirty." I JUST figured out the solution days away from the summer's end: skip clothes. They go straight from pajamas to swimsuits. And pretty much stay this way the remainder of the day. That is, until they come into contact with an infectious disease...

5. Reading programs motivate kids but moreso obsess them.

I want my kids to read during the summer. I want them to do it, just because. But those are not my kids. My kids are the ones who fixate on rewards. They are fixators. And obsessors. And collectors. Put before them a summer reading program which draws young people based on their need to be positively affirmed with collectables and trinkets...and we have a match made in hell. Because "unlocking" each of their ridiculous reading rewards is on them. But driving them to wherever they pick them up is on me. (Never mind additional time-sucks of educational Scavenger Hunts that lead to the cheap little plastic whatevers). If I had to do it all over again, and it is between digressing in their reading over the summer or going through the hell that is Summer Reading Programs, I might have chosen illiteracy.

P.S. School starts today, so remind me about these discoveries in 9 months, K?

Thursday, July 28, 2016

Invitation to My Dinner Party

I have learned, finally, that I do better when I pay attention to my heart. Not the emotional life of my figurative heart, although that's entirely true as well. I actually mean my Heart. The physical one in my chest. It beats faster sometimes, like all hearts do. But it has taken me a lifetime to sharpen my awareness surrounding my physical heart's increases in tempo.

My heart has been a freaking yo-yo for the past week. I've calmed it, then recalmed it... Then read facebook. Then  calmed it. Then watched the news, then clicked on links connecting me to articles. Then re-calmed it. Then re-calmed it again. Then, again.

And I sure as heck know better than to write when it's going gangbusters in there. My experience of a fastly beating heart is lower functioning reasoning skills.

It's finally even.

So here I go.

I think pontificating about sensitive topics in the absence of sharing personal experience with the charged topic is like shoving a plate of food in someone's face instead of inviting the individual to your home for dinner. It's an intrusive, abbreviated version of what could have been a meaningful experience. We are good at not-framing...and getting better. We post and tweet and like and blast and shove all sorts of dinner (often with fastly beating hearts) into recipients' faces, whether hunger is involved or not, without them having the slightest clue about what got us there. Of course, they return the favor with an equally large plate of food. As much as we care not to admit it - particularly when others arrive at places different than where we are standing - I would argue that folks come to conclusions for reasons that would resonate with anyone put in their shoes. Their history, their stories, their relationships, their family of origin, their city of origin, their baggage. Brene Brown is quoted saying, "Maybe stories are just data with a soul." If we separate the soulful data attached to our personal life stories from our talking points, we lose. It takes time, but I'm a believer in STARTING with the story.

I'm starting with my own. And it's going to be a dang long dinner party. Find a comfy chair.

The events in our country's post-Independence-Day-week meant a lot of soul searching for me (in-between fastly-beating-heart episodes), and I needed to go on a wild goose chase for both my deeper, difficult-to-retrieve and right-on-the-surface memories in order to trace the dusty footprints leading me to my beliefs about race in this country now.

NOTE 1: I feel very, very confident that I screwed this up. I am not a real writer or researcher. I have not read one academic book on Race In America. I'm just me. Little ole me. I feel certain that I made at least one inference that was unfair and formed at least one conclusion based on faulty connections and made at least one blanket statement based on lazy generalizations. At best (and what I'll hope for), this will come off as dumb and at worst, potentially offensive and insulting. Please forgive me ahead of time. Whatever this writing experience lacks in smartness, it makes up for in honesty. Focus on that. Honesty. Of the author. Not her stupidity.

NOTE 2: I am not expecting this to change the world. Telling this story to myself is, as it turns out, what mattered the most. So, I wrote it for me. I'm just inviting you along if you choose.

NOTE 3: Memories are crazy things, in that they are often all wrong. Or, at the least, not reliably accurate. I suppose my whole point in encouraging "the telling of the story" is to demonstrate how we all come to the place we are in because of our life-acquired perspectives. Memories are not short of those, either. I haven't filtered my memories through any sieves but the sieve of me. Sorry if you were there, and I got it wrong.

NOTE 4: The statistics about population and demographics almost all came from, so as to keep the numbers comparable. When a suburb was too small to be noted on that site, I turned to Wikipedia. I only included four race groups (White, Black, Latino, and Asian), only because those were the most prominent of all represented.

NOTE 5: I began this entry the week of July 12th, thinking I'd hammer out a thoughtful account in one night. When that night turned into the next morning (Sweet Jesus, was that day of parenting tough) and I hadn't scratched the surface, it became clear to me this was a long-term project. It has taken a few weeks, pecking away, to get to publishing.

The Elementary Years

Raised in Louisville, KY.
Population: 597,337  Race breakdown:W(hite): 70%  B(lack): 22%  L(atino): 4% A(sian): 2%

I went to elementary school with a lot of black kiddos, a few black teachers, and one black principal. Mrs. Hodge-Trice, my 1st grade teacher, was my favorite teacher of all time. She was black. But I remember her most because at the end of each grading period she would buy a slew of toys and place them out on a table and, based on our work ethic in math activities, we were allowed to go select one. What kid doesn't like toys? Truly, human children are shallow creatures.

My principle, Mrs. Johnson, had the longest, most glamorously long legs and wore her hair in a highly-perched bun nearly every day. If I'm being honest, I thought Mrs. Johnson was the most beautiful woman I'd ever known up to that point.

I tell these stories because they said to me, while still color-blind, "Mrs. Hodge-Trice sure is nice. She likes me. I like her. She buys toys." and "Mrs. Johnson is who I want to be... she is smart, happy, and tall." (P.S. When I was in kindergarten, a girl on the bus said that I ought to check to find out if I was a midget... I mention this, because I have always been hopelessly short-legged and in elementary school particularly pip-squeak-like. Tall women made me salivate.). So, there really was no valuable take-away at the time outside of toys and height. But I do think visiting Mrs. Hodge-Trice every few years in her classroom all the way until she retired (The last time I returned with a fellow student, Rachel Jacobs, when we were young adults) sure was cool. And I think observing a black-AND-woman in a position of leadership as a child (principal may have well = God) had to have gone a long way. They were both ladies I admired and respected. And they are both black. That's not novel or all that unique. But it's a very special part of my story.

Hillary Jackson was one of my buddies at Chenoweth Elementary School. Maybe I was an idiot, but I don't think I did the best-friend-thing in elementary school. I had lots of girl pals. And Hillary was One Of My Girlfriends. Hillary is black. Things were honky dory until I remember that at recess one day during whatever-game-it-is-that-3rd-graders-play, I must have somehow left her out. Did I not tag her for re-entry into a freeze tag game? Not invite her to do clapping games? Not pick her for my kickball team? Or maybe a group of us kept her "it" too long without offering to switch out? I didn't know what I did then, and I do not know now. But Hillary knew. And she told me about it. Her words were something like, "You're going to be like that... I see," and stormed off. You have to know that I didn't do Be Like That. If I hung my hat on anything as a young tike, it was least-likely-to-get-into-trouble-or-cause-a-rift. I was the essence of innocence, compliance, and non-conflict. Basically, I was a weenie. And so, I was dumb-founded by this. The next day was science fair day and my stand-up presentation board was right next to Hillary's. So I approached her about her earlier words, wanting to understand. "You know what I'm talking about," she responded. I SWEAR I DID NOT KNOW WHAT SHE WAS TALKING ABOUT. What I do know is that although we remained friendly with one another for several more years, Hillary and I split up on that day. Something inexplicable was between us. And I let it happen, because I didn't know what else to do. I'm pretty sure I processed this out with my parents, because it bamboozled me so. I have NO CLUE what they said. None. But I, to this day, have a sad spot in my heart for having lost Hillary. And for her having lost me. It took a few years for me to reflect on this life event with any degree of clarity. But at some point I concluded that Hillary was noticing something that I had the priviledge not to
notice. She was noticing that we 4th graders were slowly ceasing to be colorblind. Perhaps her wordlessness surrounding it reflected that she hadn't quite put all of her observational pieces together yet either. But it was clear that she FELT it.

I tell this story, because it said to me, "Black kids notice stuff white kids don't." Even as I still assert
that Hillary's beef with me that day was most certainly something done unknowingly on my part, it still matters. It STILL matters. It still deserved examination. And discussion. I only wish there had been an opening to do so.

The Middle School Years

I went to Westport Middle School for grades 6-8. Westport, as I remember it, was a pretty colorful place. It was also a relatively rough school, although I do not mention those statements back-to-back to connect the two. I do not know how the aggressive behaviors (read: fights) related to race (black vs. black? white vs. black? white vs. white?) or if there was a relationship at all.

But I do have a pretty clear picture of the attendance grid on the gym floor in P.E class.. You know what I mean? When the gym teacher, who has like 45 kids to manage at once, can only take attendance civilly if we are separated out, cross-legged on little masking tape dots, equidistant from one another, and told to be silent until further instruction... I was sitting in my little spot, when I heard from behind me the word, "Cracker."

Yum! Snack time! Who knew P.E. could be so great!

Did I already mention that I was a naive soul? Before too long I realized that it was me who the black girl two grid dots away was talking to and that she was calling me one, not offering me one. My memory says that we did not know one another's names or favorite colors or boy crushes. Acquaintances, we were not. I do remember smiling. Because, that's sort of my thing when I don't know what else to do. And waving, looking into her eyes,  I hollered "Hello." Black-girl-I-didnt-know-two-dots-away looked at black-girl-one-dot-away-from-her (likely her accomplice in the ordeal) pretty confused; they were searching each other's faces for what was next. And there was no next. That was the end of that. I didn't know it, but I think I diffused something. Why were they messing with me? Were they looking for a reaction? Where they hoping to feel some power over a shy, intimidated soul who would shrink and do nothing? Or were they hoping for aggression, excited at their chances to engage in a fight? When I offered neither weakness nor anger, instead nice... there wasn't much else to do.

Again, I know I brought this home to my parents. And AGAIN I haven't the foggiest notion of how they coached me. My guess is that I laid on the nice, with a smile, "hello" and eye contact, ever day thereafter to make it impossible for me to be seen as rude or racist or whatever they deemed as cracker-like.

The reason I tell this story is because it counted as the very first time in my twelve-or-so-year-old life that I remember being part of a REAL, bonified racial moment. And because I learned the power of head-on, looking-someone-in-the-eyeballs, unexpected "nice" in response to a charged moment. I wish I could tell you that I learned those girls' names and sought - at the very least - acquaintance with them. That would have been an even braver and more productive response. Glenn Doyle Melton wrote recently that "fear cannot survive proximity." I believe this. But even though I didn't get closer than the couple grid-dots away during attendance and all I could muster at the time was a smile, "hello," and eye contact, I suppose that counts as proximity when cowering was an option. Even today, when faced with the choice between silent, distant retreat or aggressive, in-your-face rage (the ole fight or flight model), I try really hard to choose neither. Not when the third option of nice proximity is available.

At the beginning of summer, I had a tradition of inviting my schoolmates to an end-of-school-year party in my back yard. We lived in a brick house in St. Matthews, a highly sought-after inner ring suburb to downtown Louisville composed of older, sometimes historic, homes. Although it was modest in size (3 bedrooms), my house's location and charm spoke, "We are well off." I didn't know this for a long time, but we were only able to swing that house because my father's parents had lived in it before we did. We became owners after they passed. All of my neighbors were old and white. I hankered for playmates. When I went girl scout cookie selling each year, since my parents taught me to be respectful to the geriatric community, I had to say "yes" when each neighbor invited me in and consequently satisfy each and every one of their unmet social needs. Lots of Old People = Lots. Of. Stories.

I remember the year Turquoise White came to my party. She was one of my black classmates. I remember her as the most talkative and bubbly soul. Everybody liked Turquoise. And, as far as I could tell, Turquoise seemed to like everybody. When Turquoise's mom picked Turquoise up that afternoon, she lingered for a long time on our back porch, where Mom had set out snackie foods. I only know this story, because Mom retold it lots of times. Otherwise I would be clueless, since Turquoise and the rest of us were busy milking all the play time we had left. My mom had invited Turquoise's mom to help herself to the snacks. And she ate and talked and ate and talked. And Mom kept politely chatting, too. Mom was beginning to wonder if she were planning on staying all afternoon, when all at once she began loading up a paper plate WHILE talking on and on. (It's worth mentioning here that, while everyone loved coming to our house and eating my mom's food, she was NOT a fancy host... I imagine brownies, turkey sandwiches, pickles, and maybe cheetos on display). Turquoise's mom piled high and deep. High and deep. And concluded it with a paper napkin, unfolded and draped over the top layer. Then, finally, off Turquoise and her mom went, perhaps to feed her whole neighborhood. My mom always told this story with warmth. I think she really did think Turquoise's mom was a stitch, just as I had always thought Turquoise was.

The reason I tell this story is because it stuck out to me that Turquoise and her mom were out of their element. I remember it took quite some time (over the phone! imagine that!) to give directions to their family to my house. And that, heck, since it was an ordeal to get there, maybe Turquoise's mom figured she may as well stay a bit. And get a meal in in the process. And maybe one for brother and sister. Although I had several black peers to my house over the remaining years I lived at home (SHOUT OUT TO HIGH SCHOOL TRACK AND FIELD END OF SEASON PARTIES!!!), this might have been the first, and it made me recognized how pale my whole neighborhood looked. I may have gone to a school that taught me the richness of socializing with lots of kids different than myself, but I came home every day to a lot of people looking just like me (except with a lot of wrinkles).

The High School Years

duPont Manual High School was a magnet school in our very large Jefferson County School system, meaning one had to apply in order to become accepted as a student there. It was located in downtown Louisville. If it helps at all, imagine my school bus snatched me up, got me to the local neighborhood high school (which would have been my assigned school) where I transferred sleepily to a different bus, and then made my way along interstate highway to my final destination, a Gothic-style three story building. The whole rigamarole lasted about an hour and a half (for other friends 2+).

It Was Worth. Every. Single. Minute. And then some.

My Manual experience held two magical qualities that I later came to discover were not to be found in most of my college and adult friends' high school experiences. The first magical quality was that everyone wanted to be there. They had written compelling essays and submitted detailed transcripts to ensure it was so. We wanted to be there to get smart, do well, and be successful both there and beyond. It wasn't spoken. It was in the air. In my insecure moments, the full-of-expectation air was sometimes hard to gulp, but - man - once airborne, greatness is viral.

The second was that it was wildly diverse. In. Every. Way. I do not know if this is true, but it felt to me that the minority populations combined came close to equalling the white population. Since it drew from the entire Jefferson County district (which is a very, very large place) and since neighborhood and proximity-to-building had nothing to do with how the demographics shook out, it was like the United Nations. Blacks, Indians, Asians, and on and on. Non-racially speaking, Manual also celebrated as one of its magnet programs The Youth Performing Arts School (YPAS), which drew in whimsical ballet-dancers, piano prodigies, theater nuts, and aspiring painters - so there was an artsy crowd, too, along with all the other typical-high-school subgroups: goth, gay, skater, computer geeks, pot-head, preps, jocks... held together by the common thread of wanting to get smart.  This slice of heaven was where I called home for four beautiful years.

In addition to classes, I ran Cross Country and Track and Field all four of those years. And although my Cross Country Team was composed of only gangly, cooky runners who were white, my Track and Field experiences yielded lots of black friends. Two of my four years running distance for the Track team were under the leadership of a black coach. At some point Coach somehow got his hand on public transportation vouchers and transfers, allowing those who used it to get home free. Because my parents loved that I chose Manual but did NOT love what it was doing to their gas budget and personal time, I rode the public bus home most days (before my driver's license and beater car replaced it). I remember being the only white runner who stood in line when those were getting handed out. Again, part of my story.

While at Manual, I built social skills that made me feel confident talking to any single soul I wanted to talk to. I lifted weights and small talked on strength training days right next to Line-Backer-Looking shot-put throwers (did I mention I'm little?). High School was when I learned all sorts of super-un-important-but-interesting-to-me facts about black people's skin (it CAN get sunburnt) and hair (it is generally NOT washed every day) and was exposed to public display of gay affection and what people act like when they're high and that guys in ballet leotards in Calculus class can be totally fly. On longer bus trips to and fro track meets at different schools, I remember all of us athletes, exhausted from an afternoon exerting ourselves in humid-heat, found time to give shout-outs and high-fives to EACH member of the team, from the mostly-white 1 mile and 2 mile runners to the mostly-black 100 meter and 200 meter runners. And when it came time to pick a senior prom theme song, the Student Council Steering Committee, of which I held office, had bold conversations about how to make selections. In the end, it was voted on by the entire class, but the Steering Committee was responsible for the choices. I remember that it was very on the minds of leadership how not to pick songs that lent themselves too strongly to one population of students or another. We had LOTS of populations, so song-choice deliberation was tedious.

We could roll with differences at Manual High School. And race was just one of them.

I tell this story (of my general high school experience), because it frames my obsession with diversity ever since. It was like crack-cocaine. The growth I experienced from 1993-1997 had a lot to do with Magical Quality Number One. But I give Magical Quality Number Two the same, if not more, credit for the shaping of my launch-into-the-world status on graduation day. Truth be told, it was the hybrid of the two that formed Magical Quality Number Three: young people of every walk of life accepting each other and concurrently working toward the common high standard of greatness for themselves.

The College Years

Columbus, OH
Total population: 787,000 Race breakdown: W: 61% B: 27% L: 5% A: 4%

Westerville, OH
Total population: 36,120  Race breakdown: W: 88% B: 6% L: 1% A: 2%

Even though I went to a big-ger high school, I knew pretty emphatically that I wanted a smaller undergraduate experience; big schools sort of made my head spin. And haven't I mentioned really preferring [intimate] dinner parties? Anonymity is for some. It is not for me. So my search quickly narrowed in on private schools. One of the first stats I looked up for each of the smaller universities I was considering was "% of minorities." I wanted people of color to be at my dinner party!!! Sadly, I learned quickly that single digit percentages were more the norm than double ones. In the end, I landed on Otterbein College (now University) in a small suburb (Westerville) outside Columbus, OH. It barely made it over the two-digit hump at 11% minorities at the time (that percentage has since grown dramatically). And it met all my other criteria... So Ohio bound I was.

When I first arrived, I wondered if I had misinterpreted the brochure. Did they mean eleven TOTAL??? Because I'm a little slow, it took me about a full year to recognize that most of my college-mates came from smaller Ohio towns. Even though they chided me for my southern draw and asked repeatedly whether I awoke to roosters back home every morning, the large sum of my Ohio mates were raised in far more rural settings than I. When I told them my bus hit the interstate to get me to high school every day, it about blew their minds. The interstate was how people arrived TO their towns. Not travelled within them.

So 11% minorities probably felt like the mother-load-of-diversity to them. But, for me, it seemed puny. You should have seen the extra-curricular group I joined, The Gospel Choir. We had soul, thanks to LaJoyce, our director, infusing it... but we were the whitest dang gospel choir I ever done seen. The racial-diversity-addiction I could thank my high school experience for was suffering major withdrawal. And, not sure if anyone is paying attention to the city stats, but Columbus's race-breakdown revealed a smaller white presence and bigger black presence than Louisville - which was NOT what I was experiencing. But, then again, I was insulated twice. Once, inside a suburb several miles further out from downtown Columbus than my old stomping grounds were to Louisville's city center. Second, inside my college campus's bubble. No car = I ate, slept, ran, studied, dreamed, sororitied, doughnut-ran Otterbein College. I tried not to notice, and - honestly - I became a very happy clam at Otterbein, even with one of my heart's longings being only partially met.

Then, one day, I met this guy. The-guy-that-became-my-husband, Scott Arthur. It was at the end of my college experience that we started dating... and for us, that meant long, long talks about EVERYTHING. He was one of the raised-in-a-small-Ohio-town guys, except  - because of several moves - he was raised in several of them (his last residence before college was Logan, Ohio - Total Population 7,152... Race Breakdown: White 97%). As we evolved from fledgling romance to a richer and more vulnerable place, we began sinking our teeth into the tender-er topics. You better believe one of them was race. P.S. Scott is white. Did I say that? Anyhow, now you can picture him All White.

He did not share the optimistic outlook I did about race. For instance, when I talked about how communities and schools diverse with people of color were such beautiful and desirable things, he looked at me like I was literally flesh-and-blood Pollyanna herself. He challenged me by explaining that there were way too many things standing in the way of that reality. Although he didn't graduate with any black or browns in his high school class, by then he had already picked up on the public perception that the more minorities there were in a neighborhood or a school, the lower the quality of either experience. I was horrified and, quite frankly, not sure I liked what he had to say OR him at all. NO NO NO... I said. All you have to do is look at what the social fabric was at my high school. SEE? I didn't make that up. IT HAPPENED! I was THERE! He was interested to know my experience... and he did think it was beautiful. But he also thought it was very, very, very unusual and that it was perhaps naive to believe it to be as re-creatable as I did.

WAIT. Just as I felt that my mostly-homogeneous private college surroundings at the time were insulated, it may have been that my high school experience was just as bubble-like? I thought THAT was real. And THIS was superficial.

Which is it? Which is REAL? And if neither, WHAT THE HELL IS REAL!?

But then I got close to graduating and Getting A Job moved to front burner. So I tabled my existential crisis, and sent applications out... teaching applications to AmeriCorps and Columbus Public Schools, almost-but-decided-not-to entrance applications to seminary and graduate school in order to pursue psychology, and ultimately to Powell United Methodist Church for a Youth Director position.

Out of College

Columbus, OH
Total population: 787,000 Race breakdown: W: 61% B: 27% L: 5% A: 4%

Powell, OH
Total population: 11,500 W: 88% B: 1% L: 1% A: 7%

Powell United Methodist Church is located in Powell, Ohio, a suburb even slightly further removed from Columbus's center. Powell had, at one time not so previous to my calling it home, been a farming town, rich with fields and barns and the like. By the time I worked there, it was quite the residential hub. Columbus executives were like fish in a barrel. It was [mostly] manicured, mall-and-retail-happy, and always providing the construction sounds of large, expansive homes going up.

The youth group that I served there was composed mostly of students in the Olentangy School System (although some Dublin or Worthington Cities), and the schools were populating rapidly with children of these [mostly] affluent Powell families. Since I was raised in a frugal home with nearly no name-brand things, I remember feeling initially very intimidated by teenage girls in my youth group who maintained acrylic nail manicures. Of course, everyone was lovely. Truly, lovely. If there is one thing I've learned, it's that people are people. I fell fiercely in love with my people (kids) at church, as it ought to be. Every single little white one of them.

I am setting the stage for a conversation I once had with some of my older youth. We had organized a first-summer-out-of-college gathering and I beamed as they each shared their coming-of-age experiences that first year in the adult world. Their adjustments had been without too much incident. However, one of the girls, Ashley, shared a thing that troubled her. She said that she felt it was a disservice to have been surrounded by nothing different from her in high school. She said her days at Olentangy High School did not put her in touch directly with any black kids (a few were there, just not in her classes). And, as a student at Miami University (private university in Oxford, OH), where  - again - all of her particular classmates and doorm-mates shared white skin, she felt failed again. She confessed that she didn't know if she had had a conversation or interaction of any length with a black person in her life. And that, at the very least, the thought of having one left her feeling uncomfortable and intimidated. She was not being disrespectful or meaning anything disparagingly towards black individuals (like, for instance, that there was a reason to feel intimidated)... She was being honest. And, if anything, I think she felt despairingly towards herself, as a result.

I tell this story, because - although I had lived and worked with these students for two full years at that time - I hadn't connected the dots that PEOPLE ACTUALLY FEEL THIS WAY. Of course they would, though, when you look more closely at it, which Ashley made me do. And, to perpetuate things (and which Ashley was alluding to), when you get to a certain age and have not claimed mastery over something, there comes a point when it is natural to then avoid-that-thing. Like, "by now I should know this, but I don't. So I'll just put myself in situations where I won't have to actively not-know it." I actually do this with people who've introduced themselves to me more than two times, with whom I find myself often in public places, and whose name I either cannot seem to remember or cannot seem to pronounce. I stop attempting to get that information (THEIR CORRECT NAME), and just say, "Hi" in a noncommittal not-real-direct-eye-contact sort of way.  So, could Ashley - now a young adult - be in a position of resignation, embarrassed about but accepting of the fact that she is and will always be not-comfortable around black people, not ever doing the real-eye-contact thing? If this is a real dilemma, which I know it is because Ashley is real (and pretty awesome), how many young white people have this in common?