Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A White Person's Experience of Racism (because who else's experience counts?)

“Today we are going to discuss cultural diversity,” says the parent trainer, hitching his pants against his crotch. Elvira gets the impression he is nervous. Meanwhile, Moira is rubbing her shoulder, wondering if the baby-sling is doing permanent damage to her shoulder muscles.

“Racism is a system where the white people hold all the power and privilege,” says the trainer. Elvira nods, but is confused. Didn’t he just describe the United States? Is he saying that’s wrong or that’s just how it is. She decides on the latter.

“I am SO tired of feeling guilty about privilege,” says Moira, crossing her legs under her on the chair. Two children later and she still has a body that looks good in tight yoga pants, and a chic bob that brushes against the fine bones of her chin. Elvira is wearing stretch pants that look like they’re being modeled by the Michelin man and her hair is dyed a lurid shade of magenta. Somehow that didn’t matter when she was making breakfast for her children this morning, but suddenly she feels the opposite of confident mother and neighborhood aunt. She should have remembered that these white people always look like they stepped from a magazine. Twenty years in Los Angeles and she still wouldn’t know where to buy their kind of clothes. Perhaps the stores are in the shopping malls Elvira is too intimidated to visit. Her children don’t have the same problem, spending all their money on movies and hot dogs and music that would frighten the devil, but they have never brought her back anything from their Saturday trips to the mall. She doesn’t mind really – the clothes don’t come in her shape anyway.

“I feel like I need to apologize for being born white,” says another participant, arrested for a moment in her consumption of a rice cake. She unscrews the cap of her metal canteen and gulps some water. “It’s not like I asked to be born with privilege and power.” Other participants nod in agreement. Elvira wants to say something, only she’s not sure what. It feels like she is holding onto some information that’s an important part of this discussion, but it takes too long for her to formulate the idea and by the time she’s practiced it in her head in English, the conversation has moved on.

“The thing is,” says the white woman sitting next to Moira, “just because you see the outside doesn’t mean you know my story. I may have been born with privilege, but I had a totally screwed up childhood.” The women around her and the trainer pull a sympathetic face. Elvira thinks about her childhood. Lots of noise, lots of laughter, but not a lot of time for her feelings on any matter, let alone her right to exist, to have an opinion. Some things don’t change. Except the laughter. These white people take themselves much too seriously.

“And when I try to get my child in the car seat,” sobs one of the participants, “I have to struggle with not getting angry and forcing her.” There is a suitably appalled silence. “I want so much to respect her needs and feelings, you know, her right to take up space, but it’s so HARD!”

As usual, the parent training has turned into someone’s private therapy session. Getting your kid into the car seat? Is that all you’ve got to be worried about, thinks Elvira. I wish I had your life.

(Photo by Gerard Castaneda)

1 comment:

Erica Jean said...

Loved the stereotype of the LA woman with the rice cake and metal water bottle. Totally made me laugh!