I grew up in Houston, Texas. It may surprise you to learn that Houston is the most diverse city in the nation; most people assume it’s New York or Los Angeles. But the thing about those latter two cities is that they’re really expensive to live in and there are few jobs that pay anything close to what the cost of living is. There are plenty of jobs in Houston, which has a low cost of living, and people move from everywhere, including from within the continental U.S., for that reason.
I went to a high school with over 2000 students; there were over 500 students in my graduating class. I don’t know the exact racial or ethnic breakdown, but I did not go to a “white” school. My offhand guess is that whites had the largest percentage but that it wasn’t a majority over other races and ethnicities altogether. And, though I hated my particular Southern Baptist neighborhood of wanna-be-rich-looking poser yuppies, it was a gift to go to my diverse high school.
At least once per month, sometimes twice, we would have a “culture day.” We had after-school clubs that focused on so many different ethnic backgrounds – we had a culture club that focused on every heritage in school that could be identified: Mexican, South Korean, Japanese, African-American, Indian/Pakistani, Vietnamese…these are just the ones I remember. I think there was a German one, too, because I swear everyone in my school who was white had German ancestry.
On any given culture day, the kids in that group would bring traditional food for everyone to sample during lunch, often wearing the clothing that their parents would have worn prior to coming to the U.S., and usually explained and demonstrated some sort of dance or something. I remember when I covered African-American culture day for the school newspaper one person in the club demonstrated some of what happens at a Pentecostal church service – that was exciting, to say the least!
None of these clubs were exclusionary – you could show up at a Vietnamese meeting regardless of your color and help make spring rolls, or help figure out what to do with the sauerkraut at the German club. Each one celebrated different American heritages. Food unites people – culture days were everyone’s favorite in the cafeteria.
It was a shocker for me when I went to graduate school in Lubbock, Texas, which I came to think of as the “dark side” of Texas. Everyone I saw there was white, which was really weird all on its own, and then, six months in, a Lubbock native said to me, “Well, of course Lubbock’s diverse! Those people are all on the other side of the highway!”
I was horrified. “Those” people?!
I was so happy when I finally got out of that godawful, archaic, ignorant place that I cried when I got out of the city limits with my Uhaul. Maybe I should have had the courage to try to change it…I look at what’s just happened in Charlottesville, and I just know at least a couple of those jerks marched right on over there from the panhandle of freaking Texas. Could I have used my white privilege to change anyone’s perspective before I fled?
I’m not sure, but I should have tried.
Now I live in Maine, the whitest state in the nation. It’s not Lubbock, though; unlike Texas’ dark side, here, I see a willingness to open up and evolve. We do not like the idea of being racists or white supremacists – those things are not acceptable or admired here.
What we lack, though, is any concrete understanding of our own racial privilege and, even more so, comprehension of how we might be able to use that privilege to advance this country’s race relations. We have people of color on the midcoast; they own businesses and live alongside us rather than in some sort of separate, grotesque segregation. However, how might their experiences on the midcoast differ from that of a white person?
Maybe we should ask.
I know that at one elementary school where I work, an African American kiddo was brave enough to point out to the principal that there were no posters of kids that looked like him/her. The principal was aghast at this realization and moved to change that immediately – and not just for the African-American kid! It’s a positive visual for ALL of the kids to see that being white is not any more “normal” than being of color. I heard this story and was inspired to go home and look at my children’s books – and the only book that had a person of color in it was one of my favorites, Corduroy. I began working on changing that immediately.
We should all change that immediately – the earlier we start, the more dramatically we can dismantle this dull, hurtful, monochromatic “normalcy” we have created.