Thursday, July 28, 2016

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?

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