Growing up in South Carolina, I had no trouble identifying segregation. Blacks sat at the back of the city bus, whites in front. In dime stores, blacks were not allowed to sit at lunch counters. Super markets were for whites; small corner groceries for blacks. Because of slavery, Charleston didn’t have sharp demarcations between where blacks and whites lived. The small houses which used to shelter slaves remained behind the mansions of former masters. Sometimes the small houses were inhabited by contemporary blacks. Neighbors, yet divided by wealth.
As a child, born of parents from the north who knew nothing first hand about racism, I was naïve and accepting. In other words, I hadn’t imbibed racism in my mother’s-milk. Yet even I knew, walking to my white girls private school, that the black granny swinging in the dirt yard and the small brown children hanging off the third-floor porches were poorer than my family. They wore torn, dirty clothes. Brown men in baggy trousers and slouch hats hung around corners, trading gossip. Even I sensed there was something terribly wrong with this–they weren’t working. Later when I rode the city bus by myself, the cruelty of my whiteness made me very ashamed–black women who’d worked all day in whites’ houses had to walk past empty seats, carrying heavy shopping bags, to find a seat in back.
Over many years living in Minnesota, I’ve come to think about racism as a very different kind of problem. Subtle and off-hand, it starts with an ignorance of black culture so deep-seated, so apparently innocuous and unquestioned as to appear nonexistent. A few years ago, I had a smart, white, masters-in-education student who had grown up in northern Minnesota, She quietly but intently refused to believe that she harbored any racism at all. “How often do you interact with black people? How much have you read about slavery and race in America? What black writers or educators, musicians or inventors can you name?” I knew she’d heard of at least two black politicians–Barack Obama and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
It took nearly the entire course for her to acknowledge that she had white privilege (even though her family was poor) and that she took many things for granted which most blacks did not dare assume.
I’m not saying it’s impossible for well-meaning whites and blacks in Minnesota to reach across the racial divide and work together for the common good. But I know, whatever their success, they remain in very different relations to civil power and authority–differences sharpened by centuries of oppression and yes ignorance. It’s the rare white person in Minnesota whose mother or grandmother was forced to be demeaned on a city bus. It’s not so rare for an African-American who lives here now to have that experience as part of their personal family history.
Recently I talked with a black graduate student whom I’ll call Emily. Emily works in a Twin Cities school system–she’s an aide in an elementary classroom. This year, Emily had health problems, as did several of her white cohorts, yet Emily was the only one who had to bring a doctor’s order to obtain a school release for a doctor’s appointment. “You people,” said her supervisor, “often don’t know how to follow regulations.” The white teachers were not treated this way. Emily filed a grievance. “I had corroboration,” she said. So far nothing has been done to correct the supervisor who so blatantly singled her out.
Another graduate student has recently written about teachers in the Twin Cities who have quietly, often with not much support from their districts, become effective educators of both white and black students. Interviewing these educators off school grounds, Andrea (not her real name) discovered several characteristics the teachers share: The most important is that they don’t demean or give up on black students. They hold them accountable, but when they don’t measure up, do not resort to labeling them racially inferior. Such teachers continue to let all their students know, no matter what race or culture, that they as teachers and human beings are concerned and care about them. This means, they recognize their students’ potential, despite their immediate behavior.
Often black culture stymies white Minnesotans because black culture is more vocal, confrontative, “signifying,” than most Minnesotan whites are comfortable with.
A good example comes from a northern suburban middle-school. Here teachers are being coached to “sing/talk/sign” (my words) their black students through daily transitions. For instance, as two students, Jake and Tammy, are making their way to their desks, teachers will say something like “There they go, ok Jake, let’s see the bottoms of those shoes go faster. And Tammy, she’s getting closer, there she goes, swishing past Patsy, and ok, she’s sitting.”
Andrea’s interviews also indicate the importance of empathy in working with students from different cultures. Teachers who have their own experiences of rejection, struggle, fear of failure have a far better chance of helping students whose race and culture differ from Minnesota’s predominately white population. Ultimately, chances are, if students find encouragement in their teachers they are more likely to try and succeed. Education is, after all, a social, communal bus where we all get to take the first available seat.