“Here. Here. Here.” Rodney Glasgow’s words reached out to the audience, to the students and invited them into a space where they could be themselves. A space where they didn’t have to monitor their words, seek out clues or dial up the right code. A place where there isn’t a constant need to build credibility, to prove over and over again that you belong. A place where there wasn’t a need to do more and be better to be considered just as good and still considered the anomaly. A place where there isn’t a need to combat every message perpetuated in the media, culture and the air that we breathe. Here you could breathe.
But I was drowning.
Last week I was excited and nervous to attend the People ofColor Conference (POCC) in Houston. To be clear, the POCC is not a diversity conference; it is not a place for people of color to educate white people on their experiences, or to workshop race relations. It is space created within the independent school community for people of color to come together to network, support, learn, and share with each other. It is a safe space. It is not created by or for white people. It was the first time in my life I had ever been in such a space. Even when I was not in the majority, when I may have been one of a handful of white people in the room, the structure of the environment was created by people who looked like me for people who looked like me. I always knew how to navigate the waters. For four days last week I was lost.
Really, it happened sort of slowly and beyond my consciousness that I was only minimally aware of the dynamic. But at the end of the day I was exhausted. I was tired of having to watch everything I said, lest I be outed as ignorant or a racist. I was tired of having to constantly re-establish my credibility my right to have a voice in the conversation. I constantly remembered that I was a guest and worried that I was making a good impression. I didn’t want to let my colleagues down. I didn’t want to be exposed as just another white person who didn’t really get it. Although, I have often wondered how I can, being white.
It’s really important for me to acknowledge that even though I was the only white person attending from my cohort, I came with seven colleagues; they really worked to protect and care for me. They cared for me as though I was their child. I was not excluded or isolated in any way, except that I was. I couldn’t join in on the collective cultural experiences because they weren’t mine. The multiple cultures reflected back during these four days, for the first time ever, did not include my experiences or me. It was hard.
By the third day, I succumbed to the exhaustion and sought out my bed. I needed to be alone in my own head, in my own me. The tipping point was a brief, exchange at a workshop I had been most looking forward to. Rosetta Lee, an amazing speaker and facilitator was giving a workshop on how to guide conversations on race. I sat in a diverse group of people to brainstorm why these conversations are so difficult. Within seconds the African American woman sitting across from me, dismissed me. It wasn’t anything loud or dramatic but it was there. It was as though I didn’t exist in the group for her. I felt the anger flicker through my veins, almost making me shake. I wanted to scream at her, “How dare you! You don’t know me! You don’t know anything about me! How dare you dismiss me!” But of course I didn’t. I turned to the young Asian woman on my right and we had a pleasant and thoughtful conversation. But even with that, the wonderful experience I had with one woman of color, what stuck with me was the dismissal. I had enough. I was exhausted. I wanted to cry. I couldn’t breathe. I went to bed.
In the room next door my female colleagues had gathered for a sleepover, a kiki they called it. I could hear them laughing. I dug deeper under the covers, I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I hurt. At some points I slept. A friend’s laughter drifted through the room and for some reason brought clarity. The words from the speakers of the last couple of days came to my head. “Here. Here. Here.” “White people don’t know, they just outed themselves.” “In order to build the identity of the slave you also have to build the identity of the slave master.”
I was tired of having to make my way in those days. Rosetta Lee uses the analogy of a fish out of water. A fish trying to make their way on land where everything is foreign and they can’t breathe. I was a land dwelling animal in the water, trying desperately to keep my head above the water with the waves constantly coming down. Sometimes softly and gently as when I was with my friends and sometimes rough and crashing, tossing me around. I was too tired to swim anymore.
This is what it is like every single day for people of color. Every day people of color have to build credibility, live within a culture that not only doesn’t reflect their experience but also takes the liberty of re-writing it. Every day worrying about what they say, how they say it. Every day making up for the images that continuously misrepresent their culture. Every day having to find a way to be true to themselves and still live in a place that wasn’t created for them. Every day people of color have to ask for entry into a white world. I only had to do this for four days. And I was so wrung out.
The thing is, if you would have asked me about this even the week before, I would have said that I already knew this. I could even have spoken at some length on why and how this happens. I knew this! Except I didn’t. I knew it the way I know my multiplication facts, or some science theory, or even an event in history. But I didn’t really know it. It was separate and outside of me, because I couldn’t really know it. I had never experienced what it was like to be other so how could I know? Until these four days in Houston. The most painful gift I think I have ever received.
So now I know. Now what?