There were some really great conversations about race and privilege at BlogHer this weekend. It's not something I write about (or even talk about, frankly) very often, but these conversations have gotten me thinking. And as Feminista Jones reminded us, we should all speak up. We should all claim our experiences, and honestly? My privilege is one reason I don't talk about it. I don't need to talk about it. It doesn't affect me. Except that it does. It affects all of us. It affects us as a community, as a country, as human beings sharing one planet. And not speaking up because I feel like I don't have a worthy enough story myself is a really shitty reason to stay silent.
My experiences with "otherness" are not much to write home about. They are very white, in the most socioeconomic sense of the word. They are steeped in privilege, which is a word I'll just apologize now for overusing in this post. When I was in elementary school, I was not popular. I was made fun of for liking books, for listening to country music, for being Jewish-looking (not that I was in any way an *actual* minority, guys. I just hadn't grown into my nose, and my peers had, I guess). I ate lunch in the library, and yes, I felt like a big ole loser nerd much of the time, but eh...I had bigger concerns, like how many library books the librarian would let me check out at once or when I would be allowed to wear pointe shoes. In middle school, some girls threatened to steal my clothes in the bathroom once, but that was an anomaly - I don't think they even knew who I was aside from some random kid to torment. I grew up a theatre kid, which for many people is synonymous with otherness, but I actually had a wonderful group of friends and went to a high school where the theatre kids were more beloved than the athletes (or at least we felt that way), so no stories of being stuffed in a locker or bullied there. Sure, I grew up on "the other" side of Ventura Boulevard, not in Hidden Hills or Calabasas where most of my classmates lived...but I didn't live as far as where all the signs were in Spanish, either. I was right in the middle - sometimes uncomfortable, but squarely settled in my own assured privilege. Full of teen angst, but most definitely in a stereotypically privileged way.
The first time I was confronted with feelings of racial difference was in college, when I volunteered with Equal Opportunity Productions (EqOp) - a non-profit arts outreach program in Los Angeles. We visited schools whose arts programs had been taken away, mostly in East LA, and provided free classes and workshops in self-expression, storytelling and improv. We took a group of kids to a cabin in Big Bear for a week one summer (looking back, how the hell did we do that? A lot of parental trust.) to write and produce their own play. It was a transformative experience for many of these kids, who didn't really know how to put their many pre-teen angsty feelings into words. Who didn't feel comfortable expressing their feelings in public. Who hadn't had experiences that allowed them to be crazy, silly, creative kids with a voice. Who hadn't before been listened to and told that their voices mattered.
And for me, it was surprisingly eye-opening. Not because I'd never been exposed to poverty or class divisions, but because for the first time, I was deeply involved and working closely with a diverse group, first-hand, in a way where I had an active role in Making A Difference. And in my own 20-year-old-with-a-heart-full-of-passion way, it was there that I experienced otherness in a way I hadn't before. See, out of our group of 15 or so kids, there were two who were white and Jewish and lived comfortably above the poverty line. When the time came for the program's director to pair us "adults" with kids to mentor, naturally I was paired with the ones who looked like me. And I get it. It's important for kids to have mentors they can personally connect with, and especially for young minority kids to see strong, grown up minority mentors they can easily see as their future selves. And I fucking loved working with those kids. But I also resented our racially classified mentor/mentee relationships because it was less about pairing me with the white kids and more about not pairing me with the ones who were black or brown. In dividing ourselves based on the color of our skin, weren't we part of the problem? In telling these kids that they should learn from those who look just like them, weren't we closing ourselves off to diversity and shared experience?
I will never know what it's like to grow up as a young, black girl below the poverty line in East LA. That will never be my experience. And so I understand why an organization would pair that girl with a mentor who has been there and lived it. And I do believe that it's the right call. I hate (hate hate hate) stories that look like "white person comes in and saves the poor black kids". That's not the story I want to be a part of. But to be told, without further discussion, that "well, obviously" I would be paired with the brainy Jewish kids made me feel strange. I felt like I was being put into a box I didn't know was mine, told that my experiences were as one-dimensional as my looks. That I shouldn't worry about relating to the kids who didn't look like me, because someone more qualified was going to do that.
I have never experienced systemic prejudice. I have never been excluded from a place of privilege because of my race. My experiences as a Jewish woman growing up in the San Fernando Valley do not in any way qualify me to speak on behalf of minority groups who face real adversity, and I do not wish to be any sort of savior. I just want, in my own naive, sunshiney way, to relate to each other on a human level. And I want to feel like I am making some sort of impact, to do something, however small, to make a world where our humanity is all that matters.
There were a lot of talks this weekend about what it means to be an ally. How to support without appropriation. How to speak up, but not speak for. I don't have answers. I only have my experience, and my heart. And a lot of the time, my heart hurts so much for those I don't know how to help that I dissolve into a pool of helplessness and just freeze. I don't want to freeze anymore.
If you have a story you want to tell, please share. Please link to your blog in the comments. I won't use my friends as my teachers - the internet is out there, and there is no shortage of stories to tell about the systemic abuse that exists in this world. I cannot claim, and will not tell, your stories as if they were mine. But you can tell them. Please tell them.