A student was finishing an assignment that required him to analyze speeches from Malcolm X and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr when he asked me a question about race. I answered honestly.
As we discussed more, I heard sidebar conversations across the room begin to die down. Within two minutes, six students of various races moved to the table, and the result was an open, honest and mature forum on racial relations in America.
Several students expressed anger, some an alarming feeling of helplessness, but many just asked questions, and being the only white person in the room, I was asked many.
In the wake of ever-growing racial tensions, I seldom speak on racial issues publicly, but it is not because I don’t see race as an issue. I’m not so ignorant to say “I don’t see color” – because to say so means I would not see culture, I would not see history and I would not see the continued, writhing underbelly of an institution that is no longer separate but still not equal.
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“How do you feel, being white, in America?” The question was simple enough, but the answer isn’t.
I grew up in a family that struggled financially. My younger sister died at a young age, while my older older sister faced life-threatening medical struggles from the age of 5. When I rode the bus with other students in my community, we all, regardless of race, came from a similar economic background and, to be frank, didn’t give a damn about skin color.
I didn’t realize until I was older, or rather, until I moved two hours away to Southeastern North Carolina, that my upbringing was not the norm. The first time I tried to sit down on my all-black bus in eighth grade, I was greeted by, “You need to look in the mirror and tell me what color you are. White kids sit in the front.” And so I sat in the front, alone, for the rest of the year.
The tension of that first bus ride was not the result of misplaced aggression. It was simply a manifestation of a fact that I, ignorantly at the time, did not know: It can be hard to be anything but white in America. That’s not some hippy-liberal hocus-pocus; it’s just true. I am fortunate that I grew up in a way that allowed me to be somewhat removed from racial discrepancies, but as I began to see situations arise in a new setting, it was undeniable, deplorable and shocking.
“How do you feel, being white, in America?” A few years ago, I would have responded with the notion that people, regardless of race, have the capacity to do good and evil, and that it is unfortunate that a few examples of notoriety have become the stereotypes for various racial groups. I can’t say that anymore. I can’t look at Detroit, Flint or Durham and say that. I can’t work in public education and say that. I can’t look at the glaring facts and say that.
There are good and bad people everywhere, this is true, but a few good, even a 100,000 good, do not and cannot make up for the systematic racial problems across a nation.
A profound sadness
How do I feel, being white, in America? I’ll tell you what I told my students: It’s not guilt. I know myself enough to understand that though I am a part of it, I did not cause this. It is, however, an overwhelming sense of sadness. I hate that I did not do enough to change the world for them, and I hate even more that they have to live in it.
It hurts me that we will continue to hurt one another, and I hate that people will choose to be ignorant and that others will continue to perpetuate hatred.
I’m saddened because I see the future in them, and I don’t want them to stop seeing the future when they’re discriminated against, and I’m sad because I know they will be.
I hate that the world was not at that table this afternoon and couldn’t hear the honest, open dialogue between a few high school students who haven’t spoken to each other until today. This is how I feel as a “white person,” but as a teacher, I feel like regardless of all of this I will be behind them, and their ambitions, till the end.
This afternoon we continued to talk, we continued to learn, we all cried and we all embraced.
These are the conversations we need, and these are the conversations today’s youth are capable of having. These are the conversations that have to start happening.
How do I feel to be a white American? A variety of different emotions. How do I feel to teach these students? Honored. It is my hope that we can grow with them – and learn from them.
Sarahruth O’Boyle is an English instructor at the Durham Performance Learning Center.