I'm in study circles. Study circles was designed by Euro-Americans and the topic of study and discussion is racism, specifically "white privilege." I've always resisted it, but now it is run by Henry Luvert, and he's a friend I can't say no to. He doesn't say no to me, even when he did not know me at all. I remember the night I met Henry Luvert -- new young "Angry Black Man" in town. I say that with tongue in cheek because that's how some people refer to him when they feel his strong personality. He's got a lot of things to be angry about, but within a short time fresh from Chicago, he had made his connections, alliances, extended family. He became so networked he could help and would help many people. And a man does not build those expansive networks with anger. He does that by caring and being keeping his word.
Back in the day when I didn't have a teaching job, I worked in a small closet-sized office coordinating the all volunteer Multicultural Education Committee, a group of committed Black and Brown teachers promoting a safe climate, inclusive curriculum and "liberation pedagogy" at a grassroots level. We had a tiny tiny budget. I was working for $100 a month. That's right. A month. That was bad, even in the 80's. The Assistnat Superintenden, Robert Newell, had let me know the school board was going to be discussing my budget at the board meeting that night -- that's right, they had not let me know. I should be there arguing to keep it was his advice He knew they were thinking of cutting it in half.
Robert Newell is someone I would like to write to thank him for all the times he stepped outside his responsibilities to check on me. He cared about multicultural education. He cared about our small volunteer committee. He cared about the right thing to do. And he didn't have to. I started typing away on the Smith Corona. He came by my cubby hole again to look at what I planned to say and made some suggestions. I took them all. I sent the word to the Multicultural Committee to come support the budget but being so last minute, when the board meeting came, I sat alone at the time our agenda item came up. I looked up -- way up -- at the board, all white men and then Jonathon West. Jonathon was a professor at Lane Community College and the only African American (make that person of color) on the board. And Jonathon was the only one familiar to me. I don't remember a word I said that night. I just remember that afte I stopped speaking, Henry got up, new in town and let the board have it. I looked at the board who looked unhappy, except for Jonathon, who had his "let's wait and see" look. Then a young mother stood up and in her quiet voice she said she had come to the board tonight to let them know what had happened to her son at school since the first day of school. That morning, she walked in to the bathroom and saw her son with scissors in his hand, bloody lipped, trying to cut it off with a pair of scissors. She had just barely stopped him from doing real damage. Every day at school her son was being teased for being Black. Every day he was being called "monkey" by his classmates, not by his name, and his teachers, no one, did anything about it. Her son said, "Mommy, I don't want to be Black anyore" and he was going to do something to himself to stop the teasing. She told the Board, "I came to you tonight to ask, what are you going to do for my son. I don't know where else to go. Who can help my son?"
One thing, you can always tell what white people are feeling because their color changes when they are really upset. The board no longer fidgeted. Each person sat stock still. Silence permeated. I will never forget their waxen faces, shocked into whiteness. I will never forget that sight. All the color was drained from their faces.
No one comforted Jeanne Drew (I remember her name). The went immediately into the business at hand, and doubled my budget. That was that.
As I look back, of course it's troubling that no one had a word of comfort for Jeanne. But back in the day, the silence was almost expected. It was the action which said everything. That night felt like a bitter victory -- once again at the sacrifice of a young boy and a Mother who brought the image of his self-mutilation to the board that night. I did go up and talk with her and also Henry another network connection for the long work ahead of us all. The work is far far from complete. Which brings me to Henry's request for me to join Study Circle and my not being able to say no.
It wasn't until yesterday's study circle that I found out that Henry had invited Jeanne to come with him to the board meeting. He was going to rile things up, and he needed someone to tell them a truth that would cut through the facade. Henry Luvert had been in Eugene only a short time, and he knew more about what was happening in the classrooms to Black children than the principals and teachers of the buildings in which they were being abused. He certainly knew more than I, the multicultural coordinator.
In my mind, I owe him and Jeane Drew, and Bob Newell "yeses" whenever they ask. If they ask me to step up it's for a good reason and I don't even ask "WHY?" I just say alright, I will. I could do no less than the Mother who was caring for a hurt and abused child to take some of her precious time to come to a meeting to speak up for a program which might be doing some good even if no help came her way during her time of trouble.
Although I resisted Study Circle for years, I go every week and sit with a group of European American people around a table at their work place. Study circles had been a volunteer only circle of people who came from many places, some retired, some students, some working people, some parents and they would talk. I stayed away. It felt like sort of a sick relationship to me, people like me spilling our guts to others and then what?
But when Henry and his wife Arbrella took on Study Circles, they took it to institutions and convinced those institutions to involve every layer of their organization, group by group, to engage in the conversation of "white privilege." And in the six week program, the final week is dedicated to "so what can you do about it?" That answered the "then what?"
From the first day one thing that becomes very evident is that our country is truly divided by a color line. Two very different Americas. For example, it is hard for me to write America with a "c" because that America went up in a puff of smoke, or tumbled like a house made of playing cards as lie after lie -- lies for no reason which served no good -- was exposed. As the historic lies, the foundation of America tumbled, then the work stood out clear in front of us -- Black Brown and anti-racist White. It's hard for me to say "our" country because at home Grandma and Grandpa or even my mom's generation referred to white people as Americans. That is the message immigrants with black hair, in dark skin, Asian eyes get. If you're not white, you aren't American, ever. It's hard for me to say "our country" because as a Winnemem, the land, the earth, is demarcated by lines formed by the true landlords of this land -- the salmon, the great Canadian geese, the deer -- marked by their rivers and mountains and unbound as the skies.
A question is asked on the first day of study circle, "when is the first time you encountered racism." It becomes so apparent that some of us encountered racism on our first day of school, our first time out of the protection of our home, when we were just little children. The other half, when they left town, the protection and control of their families, for college or for a new job, they may have witnessed racism if they were around people of color. And for they most part, it left them feeling ashamed and powerless. Others testified that when they visited Asia or went to Honolulu they felt discomfort because they were the only white person and people stared. Some may have mistakenly gone into a Black bar in Texas and left quickly.
(I can't help breaking here to say that Henry testified when he went to Japan, because he stood a bit taller than Japanese, the hundreds of Japanese coming out of the subway, that he was a head above everyone and all he could see was all this black hair like waves around him -- and looking out on the mass of black haired heads, he got sea sick. Please, give me a break!)
But is being the only white person anything like how it is to grow up in Amerika? If it were merely being stared out and standing out, that is one thing. Racism is deeper than that.
Study circle continues from that point, story shared after story. Stefan's experience as an African American at Sheldon High School where even his close friend can sabotage his day by calling him the N word showing off to the other friends. And learning to be tough "so people would respect him." Or Abas talking about when he went to school in Chicago as a youngster on foot, that meant he crossed three turfs and he'd have to fight his way through them to get to a day at school. Or Snake being asked to speak and in his understated way describing how it is to grow up in a small town, that when you saw a cop car it came from 30 minutes away from the city of K Falls and everyone knew as they saw the police cruise in, they were there to get Indians. Or to hear Paulette talk about her children not wanting to be Black and that day to even hear young Stefan when we were all tho share what it is about our race which we liked. Stefan said after a long pause, "I have nothing to say." Uncle Henry did though and Stefan was there to hear it "Black people endure -- no matter what, no matter if we're poor, if everyone is against you, we endure."
I am caught off guard every time at first at how differently people think coming from the two sides of America. The Euro Americans hear the same story and they feel very sad. Some cannot control their tears. They feel alone and somewhat anxious that now they know and they'll have to do something about it.
People of color hear the story and they feel mobilized. They feel the emotions too but it puts us on our toes to act.
During the confession of guilt because of inaction, I turned to one of our study circle colleagues and said "you never do it by yourself. There's plenty of people who you'll be doing the work with together. Your voice is necessary. Some people will listen to it when they won't listen to an of us. No one can do it alone."
That person felt such relief. It never occurred to him and others also agreed that they would not have to do it alone. White privilege is taught as individual power. It's about ME and doing it alone. I never thought how individualism keeps racism alive. I told my colleague, "You can call anybody here and say, 'This racist thing happened. I need some words.' " That rocked his world.
There are children growing up in this country who are going through and witnessing things no child should. There are other children whose parents use their privilege to prevent the truth to be taught their children mistakenly thinking they are keeping their children "safe" from having to see this discrepancy which white privilege causes. Then their children will grow up, get into the real world, and be angry at not knowing what to do. Some may be even more damaged and may never learn how to care about something humans can't help but care about. Some may even be so shut down that they don't know how to give a F*** really. No tools. But one thing, internally, they will blame and even hate the upbringing which kept them from the power of doing the right thing, from feeling for another person, from the creative power that comes from an expansive fully involved life.
This blog has a second Title besides "Owing Henry." It's "Study Circles: or How to Give a F***."
I'm stopping here for now. There is more to say. But I'll just say that it isn't mean to tell the truth. And truth will make us free.
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