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False Starts for a Star | 2017 | Madeline, Who Makes Zines


This race and this country and this life produced me... I shall express myself as I am.  

-James Joyce

Comfortable in Their Skin

One of my students took this picture of me.
I can't, obviously, post pictures of them.
(So, hey, full disclosure: white guy here. I am probably about to be Accidentally Racist and for that I preemptively apologize. It is difficult to talk about the complicated issue of race without stepping into some blind spots.)

The resident slams his hands against the pea green brickwork of my classroom. I do not register this as unusual until I realize that he is distraught not because of a bad phone call or that the administration handed down some deserved discipline for wanton misbehavior. He is beside himself with grief because someone told him he couldn't be Korean.

Whoever corrected him wasn't crushing his dreams that he could move to South Korea and become a naturalized citizen - though this would be a hard road he wouldn't want to walk outside of his fantasies - but that he would never be, in his words, "an Oriental."

He had broached this wish with me a few times - when I got him a Korean dictionary from the local public library, when he searched to find which colleges would allow him to study abroad, and in several of the journal prompts he wrote for my class. I asked playfully if he was a weeaboo, a name for those who emptily fetishize Japanese art and culture. He corrected that he is a Koreaboo, since his fetishizing doesn't extend past that island nation; he barely acknowledges the existence of China, Thailand, Vietnam, or Japan and certainly wouldn't grant that proximal countries influence one another. He doesn't listen to the music that permeates the experiences of his classmates, instead talking about nearly identical boy bands with the same emo kid haircuts and fastidious makeup. I laughed it off as an innocent teenage phase, glad that he wanted to emulate bubbly, studio-produced k-pop and not songs that tell him early death is his destiny.

I did not take seriously his desire to be Korean because it is impossible to switch races. When I was teaching another class about CRISPR Cas-9 - a technique that leads to much easier and cheaper gene editing - he asked if it could turn him Korean. I considered the question more heavily than I should have before answering that it could potentially give his children the phenotypical expression usually seen in Koreans, but that would not make them Korean. Instead, they would have a scientific, genetic version of yellowface and lead confusing lives.

This was not an answer he liked.

When he is more composed - a feat that takes an hour - he complains to me that it isn't "fair" that he doesn't get to be Korean but "boys get to be girls," referencing transgender people. I try to explain that appropriating someone's whole culture because you like k-pop and think Asians, the most numerous people on earth, are "exotic" is a world different from having been assigned the wrong sex at birth.

He remains unconvinced and says the same thing to every adult for the remainder of the day until he finds someone who agrees that switching his race is every bit as reasonable as the hell transgender people go through to transition.

I know that the issue is not really that he isn't Korean, but that he will have to spend the rest of his life being biracial, both black and white but fully able to move in neither culture. He doesn't want the burden of being either black or white and doesn't appreciate the gravity of being South Korean. However, being other than what he is must be more appealing that feeling an outsider in his own skin.

I have encountered a lot of small, red-haired white boys in my school who try to "act black," but they choose the most offensive stereotype of what that might mean. They don't understand what blackness entails in our country (and they drop the act when approached by authorities, turning into golly-gosh Eddie Haskells to try to wriggle out of trouble). They just like the costume of being "ghetto" while around youth of color whom they want to impress. (The youth of color 100% hate the white kids "acting black." This has never stopped the white kids, but it has gotten them punched in the face.) Their version of "acting black" has nothing to do with Toni Morrison or Neil deGrasse Tyson, Oprah or James Baldwin and everything to do with the narrow band of gangsta rap they see in the day room. They didn't struggle for the identity they claim, haven't done anything to earn it, and don't respect it or I wouldn't hear the n-word out of their mouths with every breath. They just think it is fashionable to wear personality blackface. Not a one of them would agree to become black because they know that blackness in American often carries unenviable cargo.

I want my students comfortable in their skin - even the Eddie Haskells - but I can't lie to them when it comes to statistics. When my black students ask why everyone in the justice system seems to match their skin tone, I tell them that black people are disproportionately arrested and, once arrested, are given heavier sentences than white people in the same situations. I tell them about Tuskegee syphilis study and how black men are given fewer painkillers in hospitals out of a medical prejudice that they do not feel the same level of pain. Maybe they aren't kidnapped from their homeland and locked in chains (although one could say they are with for-profit prisons), strung up in trees for looking twice at a white woman, forced to go to different schools and drink from the colored fountain, but it isn't much easier to wear their skin now.

I grew up white, which meant that I wasn't conscious of my whiteness and what it meant for most of my life. I thought of it as a default. There were many black people in my elementary school, a few Latin@s, and a handful of Asians, but most people were some form of white. The words "white privilege" didn't seem to exist in the local (Caucasian) zeitgeist until I was in college. The first time I heard it and the twentieth, I felt defensive. I did not see anything I achieved in life as a result of my race. This was until I saw all the things I didn't have to experience because of my skin, all the times a darker hued person would have suffered severe consequences for the shenanigans that only earned an eye roll from authority figures: the trivial shoplifting; the serial monogamy; the trespassing at moonlit playgrounds; the carrying herbs and candles for witchcraft; the time I was absolved from being involved in a fight because the principal "knew" I had a higher average than the Mexican kid who sucker punched me in the hall; the sneaking around my school after drama rehearsal; my older brother throwing raves of dozens of people in my backyard; my hanging out with high school dropouts and juveniles delinquents. None of this counted against me. My whiteness allowed me to move blithely through the world, so I didn't have to think in terms of my race, but rather could play with the ways in which I wanted to define myself. My privilege was that I didn't have to be "that white kid," but instead could be "that smart boy with the pink streak in his hair" or "the kid always in the background of plays" or "that guy always writing in notebooks" or "that jerk who made out with my cousin at a concert." My privilege was that I was never defined by adults by my race and didn't have to live up to or down to expectations based on that. I was permitted to be other things, something too infrequently provided to kids of other races in predominantly white spaces.

Most of my residents are black. Those who are not are Hispanic. We get occasional white kids and we always remember them, because a white kid who manages to get sentenced is either too poor for his parents to afford a better lawyer than the public defender, too mentally ill to get a lighter sentence, or has committed so many and so egregious of crimes that the courts can no longer look the other way. It is usually the white kids who get restrained several times weekly. The students of other races have often spent enough time in the justice system that they simply want this six month sentence go smoothly so they can get back on the streets for a month before being locked up again for violating parole, missing a session with an aftercare worker, or drinking. It is only inside the walls of the residential facility that they can feel like a majority and they spend most of that experience imagining how much better white people have it.

All the teachers at my facility at present are white. The students assume we are rich by dint of our whiteness. Initially, I thought this prejudice was hilarious until I realized by "rich," they simply meant "not systematically impoverished." We are able to accrue savings without the penalties of job discrimination. (Of course, sometimes they do actually mean rich, which is when I point out that I work for the state in a residential facility and am making about $10,000 less a year than my peers in public school.) Whereas they scoff at the fact that the state will pay for four years of state college for any student who spent any time in a detention facility - I might as well be telling them that the state will pay for their membership to a country club in France for how useful they see the offer - they are certain that their teachers know everything. This is not because we went to college but because we are white. All white people, to their way of thinking, know the contents of books without bothering to read them, a fact that they disparage. (Excelling in school is still seen by them as "acting white" and is to be mocked in their peers whenever possible, an attitude I fight against daily because I teach some bright, if disadvantaged, boys.)

Whenever I can, I try to show them that being black is a positive thing. When I accidentally used slang correctly, one of my students said I was officially black. I reacted to this with delight, shocking him that I wasn't offended by the suggestion, and reference it often. When that student was adjudicated to my facility this time, he started by saying "All Lives Matter." I had to carefully explain that, while we of course acknowledge that all lives matter, right now we are having a persistent issue with black lives being prematurely ended and the culprits facing few consequences, so we are going to focus on that. After that, "Black Live Matter" became his greeting and I welcomed it. When his grades and motivation fell, I leaned on Black Lives Matter to talk about how much his life matter and how he was the spiritual descendent of powerful and intelligent black people. This speech did not sway him, but he appreciated that I cited the positives of being a young black man in my encouragement. His blackness was not something that held him back, despite what he had been told by this society. It should be something that holds him up, something that makes him proud, so that he understands not just that his life matters but why.

Race will always be something my students think about. I would prefer they think about it in the Race in America class they are acing their senior year of college, but I realistically know that most of them will either be thinking about it in the same depressed block that got them into this mess or in a jail cell, surrounded disproportionately with other men of color. I want them to know that they are fine the way they are and I want the world to convince them of the same. I want it to be true that they are seen as just as worthy of being oblivious teenagers as I was, that their race isn't all that defines them.

When I worked as a substitute teacher at an inner-city high school, I was horrified when I was assigned to an advanced placement classroom in this primarily black community. Even here, even when there were a thousand black kids who were just as clever and driven, this class was glaringly white. I am sure that, if I had asked the administration (and I did not because I wanted a more permanent job there), I would have been told that these are simply the students who had done best in their coursework and that no racism should be assumed, but this ignores the society that made it this way. Understand that I do not fault the students in this advanced placement course, nor do I suggest that they didn't earn their place by all established metrics. I just believe there is a bias to the established metrics and, because of this, students of color were deprived of a further chance at academic success that will translate to a better life. When the difference between survival and thriving might be a few college credits earned early on, the difference between a better life for their potential children and a positive effect that echoes through generations, we cannot avoid looking at the roots of the problem.

I do not simply say this as a teacher. I worked as a lowly proofreader for an academic publishing company, preparing the tests that helped place students. I approached my supervisor and the psychometrician when I felt that a question was biased or confusing, relying on information someone who grew up in a minority community might not have. I was told two things in quick succession: I was not paid to question the tests, just to make sure they were free of grammatical and formatting errors, and that our clients, several American states, had wanted these specific questions. We were not in the business of helping minority children to succeed, we were trying to please our clients so they would pay us and we would never be in breach of contract.

I am not a White Savior. I have seen how my residents treat people who try to save them. My facility always gets a few of these a year, volunteers from the local private college or vendors who are easily suckered in by their own guilt and implicit racism. The residents are master manipulators. They would have to be to have survived some of their upbringing. They resent and detest these people, but they will do their best to use them up before they run screaming that they are going to dedicate the rest of their lives to getting us shut down. (They do not, in fact, dedicate much more thought to our facility. Outside the apparent burden of black boys in need of strong adults, they forget their vows.)

I am not colorblind. I know that race affects how my students' lives have been. Within the context of my classroom, race is a frequent topic. My curriculum touches on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, the war in the Sudan and what it means to be taken from your culture and forced into a school that considers your upbringing disgusting. One of my favorite times of the year is when I can get them talking about HeLa cells, stolen out of a black woman's body and used to massively enrich biotech firms. Race is not something I ignore because it is never something society lets them forget.

Soon in Xenology: Navel-gazing? Ethnicity.

last watched: Stranger Things
reading: Prince Lestat and the Realms of Atlantis
listening: Elliott Smith

False Starts for a Star | 2017 | Madeline, Who Makes Zines

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.

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