Monday, November 9, 2009

Seeing in Black and White

It is jarring to me when, half a century after the black Civil Rights movement, racial differences are still a constant challenge to fully accept to the point of being blind to them.  The student body at Govans Elementary is predominantly—almost fully—black; white students will necessarily stand out.  As a teacher’s aide on Wednesday mornings, I recently had the opportunity to help chaperone the fourth grade field trip to Springfield Farm.  The bus ride to Sparks, MD was filled with the cacophonous din that only a fourth grade class on a field trip can create.  Seated at the front of the bus (to “guard” the lunches from small, bored hungry hands), I was able to escape the noise enough to chat with a few of the kids.  One of the kids—we’ll just call him D—began to throw questions at me.  Somehow I retained my composure while fielding the question about if the pigs were going to get him sick (the advent of H1N1 paranoia has apparently hit the fourth grade population pretty hard), but it was harder for me to keep from shooting a quizzical expression back after this one: “Are you and H [the one white student] cousins or something?”  This question was asked innocently—D was truly curious.  After answering him with a simple shrug and a “nope!”, I justified his confusion in my head, crediting it to the fact that both of the other non-teacher chaperones there were relatives to students.  

When I came into the classroom three weeks after the field trip, one of the talkative young girls (we’ll call her “Z”) informed me that H had transferred schools.  I remembered that Z and H had gotten into an argument about a torn coat the week before—Z “told on” H to me, saying that she had ripped a hole in her coat & producing the “evidence” for me.  Looking at the nature of the tear (it was a big one right along the seam), it seemed very unlikely that H was to blame, since it seemed like it would have required more upper body strength than a fourth-grade girl possesses to have been executed deliberately, and the soft-spoken H did not strike me as the aggressive type. But was I biased in her favor inherently? Was I predisposed to take her side because she was white, like me?

            In one of Nettie’s many letters to Celie in The Color Purple, she dictates Corrine’s thought process: “All I let myself think about was how the clerk treated me! I was acting like somebody because I was Samuel’s wife, and a Spelman Seminary graduate, and he treated me like any ordinary nigger. Oh, my feelings were hurt! And I was mad!  And that’s what I thought about, even told Samuel about, on the way home.  Not about your sister—what was her name? Celie? Nothing about her.” (187) This moment is followed by a crying spell by Corrine; she is clearly distraught at her self-focused emotional response after one singular interaction with a relative stranger.  Reading this, it seemed that such a response was not only justified, but completely understandable—I think Alice Walker cleverly elicited such a reaction by relating the episode from a secondary party (Nettie) in the heartwrenching literary form of a letter (the structural makeup of the entire novel that packs a serious punch for the effectiveness and accessibility of its social commentary).  It seems grossly non-PC of me to compare my own reaction to D’s comment to me on the bus to Corrine’s response to the clerk, seeing as I am of the historically and currently privileged race in the US, and Corrine is not, and this fictional character exists in a non-fictional historical context where racial discrimination was enforced lawfully as well as socially.   However, both reactions strike me as similar in respect to their feeling of being ‘singled out’, making an otherwise ordinary & comfortable situation awkward, and, in Corrine’s case, excruciatingly painful.  Though my post-uncomfortable-moment period of self-reflection did not give me cause to cry, it gave me cause to feel embarrassed, like Corrine, at my own inability to react more productively and less singularly/emotionally in unanticipated confrontations with a very troubling truth: if we allow ourselves to see the world passively, we submit dangerously to our natural visual inclination to see in black and white. 

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