Saturday, February 24, 2007

Tracing Race: one immigrant's journey from race awareness to anti-racist consciousness

I have often pondered what it is that my husband and I had in common in our lives before we met. We share many of the same values, though we grew up in different parts of the world in very different environments. We both grew up in small families with a lot of quiet time to ourselves, respect for nature, close siblings, and often minimal, yet loving supervision. Those are the commonalities we've known about for a while, but only recently did we both realize that one of the experiences we both had was that of growing up white in a homogeneous community, comprised almost exclusively of other white people.

Unlike my husband, who is American, I am a white European immigrant to the U.S. who grew up in the Czech Republic, a former communist country, where whites make up about 96 to 98% of the population. As a comparison, my husband's home state's white population is about 90% of the total.

This is interesting. We are now white parents of a white child in the whitest major city in the U.S. (coincidence?) and are working on our own race awareness and thinking about how to raise our child in an anti-racist way. In order to parent this way, I find that I have to do a lot of soul searching. How have I thought of "race" throughout my life? What was I taught about the concept and how do I perpetuate what I was taught? What kinds of things do I want to perpetuate and how are these related to what's ingrained in me? In order to begin to answer some of these questions, I need to look at my early experiences and how these have shaped me.

In my country of birth, the largest racial minority of color are the Roma people, a self-identifying term of a group also known as Gypsies. According to unofficial estimates by the Human Rights Committee of the United Nations and the European Roma Rights Center, there are approximately 200,000 Roma living in the Czech Republic. This would make the Roma people about 2% of the total population, though on the census the numbers are much lower, one of the reasons being mistrust of the government and historically-based fear of categorization and discrimination based on race.

The second largest group of color are the Vietnamese, who, according to the census make up about 0.2% of the population.

Because I grew up in such a homogeneous culture, having had only a couple of short-lived friendships with a few Romani children when I was very young, I was very sheltered from the concepts of race and racial diversity, though not from the concept of racism. The only memories of outright racist comments I have were those made by whites about the Roma. These had to usually do with stereotypes regarding negative personal characteristics that white Czechs commonly attribute to this group. I also remember jokes about Asians. You know, the ching-chong-style ones a la Rosie O'Donnell.

Despite this, I don't remember having any negative feelings about any groups based on race growing up. Maybe a little bit of fear around groups of Roma, because of the stereotype that many Roma are pickpockets. Mostly I din't think about race. It just wasn't on my radar.

I do remember feeling confused about why the Romani kids in my class were dropping out one by one until there were none left by the third grade. Today I know more about institutionalized racism in the Czech school system (and all other sectors, for that matter) and about the racist practice of segregating disproportionately large numbers (between 46 and 75%!) of Romani kids in special education schools. It is estimated that between 75 and 85 percent of all Romani children drop out of "mainstream" schools. Why? Much of it has to do with discrimination, absence of inclusive curriculum and multicultural teaching techniques, the lack of diversity among school staff, and in general, a sense of alienation these children often experience in, let's face it, racist and hegemonic institutions. From my own observations and readings I've done, I have found that this parallels the experiences of many minority and immigrant children in the U.S.

Because people of color and whites live very separately in the Czech Republic and because a vast majority of the only children of color with which I came into contact left school, the majority of my childhood was spent surrounded solely by whites. It was at the age of fourteen that I suddenly found myself in an environment where whites made up only the tiniest minority - maybe 2%, in my own estimate.

When my family immigrated to the U.S., I began attending a high school program for new immigrants. The majority of the students were Asian and African. The school had some Latinos and just a handful of Europeans. Three or four of us, I think. I was thrilled. Ecstatic, in fact. "So many new people to befriend! So many cultures to learn about!" I remember thinking. Freshmen year I had three best friends: a girl from Ethiopia, a Romanian girl, and a girl from Laos. I flirted with a boy from the Philippines and began learning vocabulary and phrases in all the above languages. I felt totally in my element.

When my English got "better", I was transferred to another alternative program, this one catering to American-born teens returning to school after having dropped out. Many of these students, or so I was told, had been in gangs or were teenage parents. All students but two in this program were black. Only one of the students, an African-American girl became my friend, but we never really got that close because there just wasn't enough contact time. The foreign children and I shared the experience of being new to the U.S. and learning English as a foreign language. The African-American girl and I seemed to have very little in common other than attending a school where "rejects" congregated.

After a year in two alternative programs, my Ethiopian friend and I were transferred to our neighborhood high school. I felt a sense of community with the other English as a Second Language (ESL) students, but the ESL classes were academically not challenging enough for me. Mainstream classes were too difficult, because I was still new to the English language. My friend and I skipped classes together and talked and joked freely about race and race relations, albeit in what many would now call politically incorrect terms. This was my first opportunity to reflect with another person on the questions of race.

On Ally Work, a blog dedicated to "helping White people fight White Supremacy", contributors Rachel and vegankid talk about the significance of approximating moments in the development of empathy needed for anti-racist work. To quote Rachel, "approximating moments are a way Whites can develop more empathetic orientations. . . that help Whites grasp what it is like to be the victim of racial discrimination."

One such defining moment, I remember clearly, occurred when my Ethiopian friend related a story of traveling to the city, where ironically I live now, shortly after an Ethiopian man was murdered here by racist white skinheads. My friend was terrified. Hearing her talk about this had an enormous impact on me.

At the time of our friendship, I began to feel like a social outcast, because school wasn't working out for me since my mainstream American teachers didn't have the skills or time to include English language learners. Maybe that's why I gravitated towards others in the school that may have been perceived as "outcasts" by the school system.

My first love interest in regular high school was an African-American boy who ended up in "juvie" . At the time I became obsessed with listening to rap, R&B and African-influenced world music. Though I couldn't understand most of the rap songs I listened to, I thought I had "found my groove." I was mad about white on black racism, though I had a very limited understanding of the underlying historical context. Around that time I began dating my first boyfriend, who was also African-American. I hoped to have a child with him, because I believed that if races mixed, racism would be eliminated. A few other interracial relationships followed. This intense race awareness-building phase lasted a couple of years and while in it, I managed to humiliate myself thanks to some very awkward and insulting interactions I initiated and ridiculous papers I produced in college.

In college, I also learned about my family history. Though I knew that my father was Jewish, I didn't know that most of his family members were imprisoned and died in concentration camps. I had heard a sanitized version of this as a child, but, perhaps because my family wanted to protect me emotionally, I hadn't really ever learned what all of this meant. I was also not in touch with my father and we reconnected during my college years. He came to visit me and told me stories about his parents and relatives and gave me a little star of David pendant. This was another defining approximating experience for me that shook me to the core.

Other than friends, authors like June Jordan and Tony Morrison opened my eyes to racism and oppression.

The strangest paradox of that time is this: Perhaps because I was so ignorant and naive (though teaming with compassion for the oppressed), I felt completely free to pursue friendships with anyone and say whatever was on my mind. Now that I know more (of course there is still so much to learn!), I am more reserved and fearful of bridging the gaps I, too, was socialized to internalize.

The quiet, inward phase of learning about oppression and trying to understand the inner workings of this culture and my place in it lasted many years. I have lived in the U.S. for nearly two decades, but it has taken me this long to finally begin to be able to put my finger on what it is I have experienced and observed here.

The new phase of my life, as I see it now, is about continuing to learn (and unlearn much of what I've internalized), but also about talking about this process, taking a stance, and following through with action. After all, that is why I started this blog. I look forward to linking up with other allies in this work, because it is crucial to not work on this in isolation.

I don't want to be paralyzed by the fear of saying something wrong or the fear of being punished if I stick my neck out and act against injustice. I want to take responsibility for the white privilege I've inhereted and help dismantle white supremacy. Though I may have once been a stranger in this land, this is my home now. And I do come from Europe, the cradle of white supremacy. And because I am beginning to see clearly how racism plays out, it is my responsibility to work towards social justice. I vow to continue doing internal work, an essential step towards becoming an anti-racist parent, and to follow up with action in a more public sphere. What that looks like will begin to materialize the more I focus on anti-racism work.

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