I’m sitting in a chemistry lab with 25 other students. I waver between compete fear upon the introduction of new information (nomenclature anyone??) and enraptured interest over the micro-infinity that makes me, me; carbon atoms that belonged to 20 other living organisms before they were ingested into my own existence.
It’s the little things that matter (chemistry joke). As cliche as that sounds, the hugeness of that phrase is not lost on me. I am, at the physical level, really little things. I am also an individual with unique desires, opinions and quirks, because of all the relatively small circumstances that accumulated to make up my history. I live in a great big world with huge ideas and problems and hopes, and all of that rests within a single pin-prick poked into the vast corners of space.
I travel an hour each Saturday morning to take advantage of my husband’s availability to stay home with the kids and slowly work towards attaining a bachelor's degree. My fellow students are mostly women. Many are tackling the requirements for the nursing program, others are working towards engineering. I am here on the presumption that I will someday be a chemistry teacher, but between you and me, I come here to figure out what the world is made of: that simple. Only my financial aid counselor doesn’t like that answer: so, chemistry teacher.
Upon arriving to class the first day, I notice immediately that I am in a multiracial setting. I am instantly excited. This shifts into me being mortified by my own excitement. I have to pause and search my heart. Why did race even make it on my radar? Do I have expectations that this experience will be different or special, and why? Don’t I believe that all people are the same? I I silently freak out for a minute and then find my breath. I am surely not the only one that could feel this way. Am I the only lame, white girl that feels this way?! My rural, “Hillbilly Elegy,” mountain-town foundations are shaken by the exposure to not “white” people? I get a flip-flop sensation in my stomach just acknowledging how this affects me. My tiny world is very incomplete. It’s uncomfortable to think about, and down right difficult to find a receiving ear to talk about it.
It would be easier to say, “Hm, I didn’t even notice how diverse my class was” because people are people and all that jazz- end of conversation. Now I don’t have to incorrectly assume that the articulate young woman with good posture sitting across from me is Asian, because she is actually Pacific Islander. And I don’t have to consider that the shy, soft spoken girl behind me looks Indian, even though she is Pakistani but that means little to me, because while trying not to think about race, I stopped giving two fucks about anything outside of the bubble that I live in, and I can’t point to Pakistan on a map, and why does it even matter since she is a second generation American and was born in California…? I am being facetious only to highlight that not knowing these things causes fear in general; it is a scary kind of vulnerability. I struggle with the humility of acknowledging that I know less than other’s about certain things. And race seems like a pretty important thing to know about, so yeah, I’m terrified of being the fool. But fuck it. Hiding behind the veil of color-blindness isn’t going to save me from this conversation.
I have inadequate exposure to people. I live in a white neighborhood, and share classes with predominantly white people in my little community college. I homeschool my kids with other families that are mostly white. I shop in a grocery store with familiar white faces at the checkout line. I can count on one hand where I might come across a different race in my daily existence, and that is a stretch. I know that this is an evil to the future of understanding my world. I read like a mo’fo, and although I can gain a perspective of what another ethnicity is like, I am struggling to stay afloat in a community that’s major tolerance is for ignorance. This town still proudly flies a rebel flag, and has three consecutive streets named Hang Tree, Black, and Spook. And that's just the outward bigotry. The quiet bigotry is what really frightens me.
I have an insecurity that I wear the ingrained racism of my backward-town like a patch on my sleeve. If I don't actively probe these feelings, there is a good chance that systematic racism will hide in the corners of my intellect. I want to be a part of a community that celebrates this woman sitting across from me. She just explained the naming of cations to two other students while I sat next to them quietly confused. She is black. How can I get a full view of this world that I am trying so hard to understand, if I don't see her?
I am down to take ownership of my cowardice and hold true to what I know; that if I want to figure out what the world is made of, I need to look into the eyes of other races. We are sharing more than carbon atoms, and I want to celebrate our similarities and differences.
I have made an effort not to shy away from matters of race over the last year. I wish I could say it is something I've always done, but I can only do better when I know better. Thank you Maya Angelou. I am by no means saving the world, but discussing issues that we have made such an effort to bury, can force our minds to grow, and eventually our hearts. Here are a couple of the ways I have strived to figure out what the world is made of, outside of my Chemistry class:
1. Go back in time. Teaching my children the history of immigration, indentured servitude, and slavery, has created an insatiable desire to know how our country was established. It's invaluable to go back this far before I am able to wrap my head around our current social dilemmas.
2. Read all the books! Or at least make an effort to read outside of your comfort zone. Here are some of the books I read this year: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. There Are No Children Here by Alex Kotlowitz. The Hate You Give by Angie Thomas. A Young People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn.
3. Relearn Words. The Google definition of “white supremacy” falls short. If we are only looking for racism to display itself beneath a white hood, we are missing the social, political, historical and institutional poisons that currently plague our country. There is a difference between discrimination, prejudice and racism. Don't let the media give you their interpretation. Use your words.
4. Engage: I had to get real uncomfortable with my book club. I chose a book that some refused to read, and it got ugly, but it also got real. And I felt inspired by the women who responded with open hearts and shared their own personal insecurities about racism.
I am still on a journey to undo an ignorance that I grew up with. I am grateful to know enough now, to speak to my children and teach them to recognize racial intolerance when they see and hear it. I continue to hear the concern from people in my immediate bubble, that I shouldn’t shame my kids for being white. I hear the fear in that statement. Equipping them with the knowledge to discern when racism is happening is an empowering gift. How they use that gift will be up to them.