A few summers ago, I was hired to assist in a program for youth of color in a SW Michigan school district. I was excited to work with middle and high school students with a leadership program I developed.
I gave no thought that the school district was having problems or that they were mostly comprised of students of African American descent. I was feeling pretty invincible. I was not going to be intimidated by that.
As I met the staff, I began to feel the first waves of uneasiness.. Few seemed like they were listening and there was little eye contact. No one smiled. I watched as they glanced at each other with knowing eyes. I laid out what the program would be like and I got no nods. What was up with this?
It was not the enthusiasm I had hoped for.
It was unsettling.
I was beginning to feel my whiteness in this staff made up of 100% of people of color. Maybe I wasn't going to be a good fit here. Obviously, not just my opinion.
This was the first time, really, that I felt different as a person. I had worked with many mixed groups but my confidence was unbalanced. Why had they hired me? I was supposed to be in charge, but felt timid. Not the normal me.
About midway through the program, a time in which the students knew me but didn’t seem to accept me, the high school group of about 25 asked if they might take a break in the gym across the hall. Immediately, I said yes. Happily, I thought they were beginning to warm up to me.
My assistant, a local woman who baked cakes and worked at the Farmer’s Market, told me I was making a mistake. I am not sure you want to do this, she said.
I smirked to myself. Did she really think that this teacher of 34+ years could not do a ten minute break in a gym. PSHAW.
Needless to say, I was schooled. Those students were teaching me about white privilege. It was disconcerting. When I entered that gym, it was as if a nightmare was playing out. They were on bikes, throwing basketballs at rolled up bleachers, a girl with a wheeled chair was dragging it up to the balcony to see if she push roll another girl down the concrete stairs, a boy and girl were headed to the locker room, and that’s when someone turned off the lights.
In that pitch blackness, I realized that this was like an initiation. Those kids wanted to accept me, but I needed to be hazed first.
It was a turning point.
First of all, I needed to figure out how to “read a room”. Sure, I had worked with small groups of color, but not in a community where the language spoken took me several seconds to decipher. Where the expectations that I expected were based on experiences these kids had never really had. Not all kids have the same upbringing, I get that. But when the culture provides the framework of what to reach for, and there is nothing to see up there, you don’t even try to reach.
This took me many sleepless nights to try and understand.
How was I going to make a difference here?
As the summer progressed to the big event we were putting together for school and community, I watched as my students began to take charge of their goals. My leadership was given to me and my respect for them was relayed back.
When I look back at that summer, I liken it to riding a bucking bronco. It was so important for me to get off the horse and look it in the eye, speak soothing and encouraging words, while asking permission to get back up in the saddle. Finally, the anger dissipated and we got each other.
Not just words.
As I watch people’s anger boil over, I think we have to remember that the problems of our racial divide will not be solved in a few days or months.
We all have a problem in America.
For years now, there has been a divided rhetoric.
United States don’t feel united at all.
As Americans, I believe, it is time to get off the horse. Look other Americans in the eye.
Thanks for listening.