One of my favorite lessons to teach my students is value (which in art, means the transition from dark to light). We look at black, at white, and about ten or so (of literally thousands) shades in between. Then we look at a photograph of our classroom that’s been converted from color into what we like to call “black and white”. But I ask them to examine the photo carefully. I ask them: how much is pure black? Pure white? Not very much they realize. Most of everything is varying levels of gray. Purple in the real world becomes a lovely steel gray when converted into black and white. Yellow becomes something I’d call “soft ash.” I tell them that if they want to learn how to draw realistically, they need to learn how to identify and discern and create all those endless shades of gray. They need to get comfy within ambiguity. This is no easy task.
It’s a metaphor that translates into pretty much every realm of life, I have come to realize, including that of race and racism. Because despite what many of us might like to think, this issue isn’t so simple. It isn’t just black and white, this way and that way; it’s mostly shades of gray, and some of them are really hard to discern, notice, or navigate. The thing, I think, that gets in the way for most of us white people is that we want it to be simple. We want it to be quick and easy. We don’t want to have to examine all of those uncomfortable and often indiscernible shades of gray within our field of vision. We want it be clean and explicable and divisible—but it just isn’t. If we want our society—our world, really—to heal, we have to navigate the discomfort. We have to be willing to swim amidst all that gray.
An interest of mine is anything outer-space related. I love reading articles and watching videos about star systems, astrophysics, satellites, astronomical photography, planets, rockets, astronauts, NASA, and the International Space Station. I regularly watch NASA TV to see landings, launches, or cool images coming in from huge satellites and telescopes. I follow the Mars Rover on Facebook. But lately I’ve been completely enchanted. By what, you might ask? Not a newly discovered planet or star or any kind of phenomenon. By an astronaut. Specifically, a female scientist turned astronaut as of 2009.
I’ve been thinking lately about why I’m so moved by her. She is, no doubt, an amazing scientist who has done remarkable things in the field of immunology, but many astronauts have fascinating or brave careers prior to winding up in space. I realized, yesterday, watching her on NASA TV on her first broadcast from the ISS that it was really quite simple:
She’s a woman.
I’m a woman. This immediately makes me more drawn to her. For the mere fact that she’s more like me. She shares more with me. Looks more like me. And she made it to the top in a field outside of her initial area of expertise that is dominated by men. This makes me, almost instantly, more inspired by her, more interested in her. I think this is a very human and very normal reaction. The underdog thing is a part of it, too: of the 536 human beings who have been to space, she’s the 60th woman. I did some additional research. Only 14 black astronauts have been to space. The first black astronaut candidate, Ed Dwight, was selected in 1961, but resigned from the Air Force (and therefore from NASA candidacy) in 1966 “after government officials created a threatening atmosphere.” He went on to work in Engineering, real estate, and the arts, as a sculptor. In his lifetime, he’s created over 100 public sculptures, mostly chronicling African American history. Despite spending hours of undergrad in art history classes, until today, I’d never heard of him.
But. Thinking about this female astronaut I have such an affinity for reminded me of the Halloween party I chaperoned at a charter school I taught at in Portland, Oregon. My students were all black or hispanic, and many of the little girls were dressed up as Wonder Woman, Cinderella, Beauty, even Snow White. It was cute, but also heartbreaking: where were the princesses or heroines who looked like them? Who they could perhaps better relate to or identify with?
Here, I’m trying to address one of the primary tenets of systemic racism: “Can I turn on the TV or pick up a newspaper and see people of my race or gender widely represented?” I think this concept sometimes makes people feel really uncomfortable, but it’s true and it’s OK: we all NEED to see people who look like us doing extraordinary and inspiring things for the simple fact that it reminds us that WE CAN TOO. I think all astronauts are pretty amazing, but because there aren’t a lot of women who travel into space, my initial reaction to a female astronaut is stronger: she’s an immediate reminder that I can attempt to do anything I want, even if it’s not the norm for my gender, my age group, or my cultural/familial expectations. And even though I’m not black, I won’t lie: reading about black astronauts, especially the female ones, got my heart feeling even more fiery-melty! But my point is: I’m a white woman, and there are white women represented widely, but I still get extra-excited when one pops up in a field that I’m not only interested in, but is still heavily dominated by men. How can we expect black Americans to be OK with how frequently they’re underrepresented across a majority of fields? How is that fair or empathetic of us? This is something I think a lot of us are guilty of being dismissive about.
Today I read an article that presented a pie chart that showed an average of white people’s social networks on Facebook. On average, white people have about 92% white friends, with the other 8% divided up into Black, Asian, Hispanic, and other. I thought to myself: this can’t be true for me! So, I went and reviewed my friend list. The majority of my friends are indeed white, but perhaps rounding out to about 75%. Over the last ten years, I’ve worked in schools populated by mostly Black or Hispanic students, and I lived in Latin America for nearly two years. I’ve dated outside of my culture, race, and language. I’ve taken Latin and African dance classes, and I currently work in a school for refugee and immigrant students that come from over twenty different countries, practice several different religions, and engage in all different kinds of dress. I think my decisions to pursue such employment, interests, and lifestyles was because of an experience I had when I was 22 that forced me to confront the confines of the bubble I’d been raised in and within which I continued to exist. Once I saw its walls, I broke them and vowed to never go back. I refuse to pretend this world is anything that it isn’t. However, I can’t write this and pretend it’s always been easy. It hasn’t.
Before you think I’m trying to brag, keep on reading. While many of the above experiences altered or expanded my awareness, understanding, and tolerance for different cultures, religions, and lifestyles, they first threw me up against all kinds of terrible and uncomfortable walls. What were these walls? They were preconceived notions and prejudices that I grew up with. They were strange truths that forced me to look at my own privilege more honestly. They were not thoughts or feelings or realities I chose or wanted to have, but I had them because of where I was raised and because I’m privileged by my race and because of how I was educated. It was a rather raw and uncomfortable (and at times, difficult-as-hell) process. It required me to face the fact that pieces of me were faulty and judgmental, were not what I wanted them to be. It forced me to face the reality of my privilege, and the blindness most white people have about their own privilege. I was, at times, tempted to quit and just become jaded and opinionated and fearful. I realized in the middle of it all why people often become narrow-minded, angry, and shaped by their prejudices as they get older; because it’s really, really easy. It’s really easy not because we want to be hateful or discriminating, but because it’s familiar, because it’s comfortable, because it puts us first and preserves our power, and most of all, because it prevents us from having to recognize those faulty and unpleasant parts of ourselves.
The beauty of exposing yourself to people, places and things that are different from you is that you expand as a human, you appreciate the differences and grow to realize, too, all of the beautiful similarities. You widen your existence and your perspective. You become more understanding and compassionate. But you don’t get all that glory without first identifying, working through, and exterminating the engrained judgments or prejudices that you perhaps did not choose but still behold due to your upbringing or schooling or both. This is an incredibly uncomfortable and unpleasant experience. And it requires that you tear a few massive holes in your precious ego—and let’s be honest, who the hell enjoys that!?
Living abroad and working in schools where I was the racial or cultural minority has forced me to confront these flawed ways of thinking in my own brain. I’ve become a more tolerant, open-minded, empathetic, and curious person as a result. But after the events that transpired last week, I still found myself absolutely dumbfounded. I was dumbfounded by not only the violence that had occurred, but by people’s reactions to it. The anger and hatred confused me. The overt racism enraged and confounded me. The willing ignorance tore my heart to papery shreds. The flabby idealism lacking any real ground annoyed the shit out of me.
I thought and thought and thought about what was happening, and I realized something: the older I get and the more experiences I have, the less certainty I feel, the less I can claim to really know. For someone who used to feel quite sure of herself, this is rather unsettling. So I did what I normally do. I read, read, and read some more. But the articles weren’t enough to truly grow my understanding and my ability to respond to the events that were transpiring. So I then I did something else I often do: I bought books. Three books on race, racism, and urban education (and for good measure, a collection of essays on feminism).
I can’t tell you how many books I’ve already read on race and urban education, but, I’m not black, so I can’t ever experience racism (or in the case of the books on urban education, the generational poverty that can occur in combination with systemic racism)—but I can keep learning about it, I can keep reading about it, asking about it, and I can listen to others’ experiences of it. And then I can share what I learn. And I can hope that my words make sense to and resonate with people I know and maybe even inspire them to be more willing to examine their own prejudices and preconceived notions and uncomfortable questions.
I hope that we as a culture can either get out there and experience more ourselves, or at least be willing to listen to people who have experienced things we haven’t or won’t ever. As long as we remain fixed before our narrow, comfortable scopes, we’re going to stay stuck, and very likely things will get worse. And worse. And.
There are people I know who would tell me I’m insane for thinking these things, let alone writing about them. They’d tell me I’m naive and buying into a massive, left-wing conspiracy. They’d tell me that I took Obama’s bait. That I’m helping him get what he wanted: to see this country fall apart. They’d tell me that black people ARE more violent than white people and I must be blind to believe otherwise. They’d remind me that both men had been carrying guns. They might even tell me that Alton Sterling pointed to his gun to intimate a homeless man. They’d tell me that not only are many blacks ruining this country, but the Muslims and other immigrants are, too. They’d tell me black lives don’t matter when they’re taken by other black people. But… I can’t. I just can’t believe any of that. I can understand where such beliefs come from. None of them feel right to me. None of my experiences with black or Muslim people or immigrants from elsewhere correlate with such thinking or accusations. And I’ve worked everyday Monday-Friday for the seven years of my life with black, latin american, muslim and other refugee/immigrant students. There are exceptions, of course, (as there are in any large group of people, including whites!) and there is a problem with violence in the inner city, but it’s not so simple, it’s not a black and white (or black compared to white) problem. I think it’s huge and ancient and complicated and solving it requires the breakdown of systemic racism as well as widespread personal bias or prejudice. We have to start somewhere. I wish we could stop with making sweeping generalizations, and start with better listening and more honest self-reflection.
Life would be a lot easier if it were black and white, but it’s not. Just take a picture with your phone or camera in B&W mode and you’ll quickly see—most everything is some beautiful and enigmatic shade of gray. Instead of being intimidated by it (you should see my students’ faces when I present them with all the possible shades of gray that exist!), let’s revel in it. Let’s learn to identify and discern all those nuanced differences, let’s aim to understand both what’s similar and what’s not. Let’s be willing to do what is difficult or uncomfortable. Let’s be willing to admit where we’ve been wrong and tear a few holes in our egos. Let’s be willing to focus on the similarities, rather than the differences. This is, I think, the only way.
Featured image was found via Google on DeviantArt
PS: One thing: I do think we’ve become a sort of victim culture and an entitled culture. A lot of it grosses me out and pisses me off. But no, I don’t think the Black Lives Matter movement is a part of that. And yes, despite being quite liberal myself, I think a lot of young liberal people are clueless and thoughtless and are just supporting this stuff because it’s cool to do so. I hate that shit but that doesn’t invalidate the importance of these issues.