Racial Autoethnography (Part 3 of 3)
This is the third and final part of my racial autoethnography for T. Mauricio’s class. It is not the whole part of the last 5 pages, because some of it was too personal to share online, but it most of it! Hope you enjoy!
Right away when I came to Westtown’s campus, I noticed a difference in the way race was discussed. Not only was it addressed in all settings–my Peace and Justice class, in assemblies, in clubs, in Meeting for Worship–but it seemed like many people actually wanted to talk about it. There were also black students who were more vocal about their experiences at the school and outside of it in terms of race. Many of the stories and experiences that I heard were very similar to my own: not knowing what to do when a white classmate says the n-word, how to deal with or respond to ignorant comments about black hair, journeys of navigating a predominantly-white institution in general, etc. I was moved hearing them share stories so similar to my own, and by second semester, I joined SUMAA (Students United for Multicultural Action and Awareness) with a Latina friend. I desired a space where I, too, could speak freely about how I felt about my race and learn new things about myself and the experiences as I shared.
After freshman year, I became a lot more comfortable talking about race, and more specifically, talking about my own race and how that has affected my life. The end of the year was a turning point for me. I was devastated when my black girl senior friends/”big sisters” graduated because they had been the people who had been amazing mentors, ran clubs like SUMAA, and spoke their minds clearly and truthfully. Right before they left, they told me that I was a leader in my class and in the school now, and reminded me of my responsibility to the population of students of color in general at Westtown. Although these were not their exact words, this was the underlying message and I did not want to let them, or any of the SOC, down. Interestingly, I would say that I became an advocate for improved race relations and SOC because I was somewhat curious, but mostly because SOC at Westtown needed leadership. Many were, and still are, unhappy with the way Westtown dealt with race and I could not stand for students feeling that way any longer. I was called to action.
I began to think of race all of the time–in the classroom, in relationships, on dorm, in clubs, in leadership, in mentorship. I feel this experience may be similar for many other SOC at PWIs. They are called to action because of necessity and because if they do not, they, or others, will not have a platform to speak their minds. It is almost impossible for us not to think of this work. White students have the luxury and privilege of not having to think about race and this part of their identity in the same way.
In the following years, I began, little by little, mentoring younger black girls. Just like my mentors had, I would informally check-in with them every week and make sure they were feeling supported. I also joined the leadership team of Bridges, the mentoring program for domestic students of color in the Upper School, became an active member and later club head of the Students of Color Association, and helped create and lead the Black Student Union.
In one-on-one or small group settings, I was often called “so white” by my black friends, or “so black” by my white friends, but these affinity groups provided me with some middle ground. In them, I felt a sense of power, not necessarily because I was the leader, but due to the sense of identity and belonging that I felt when I was there. I craved more of this–not because I felt I did not belong in other communities at my school but because in this one, I could always be myself. I did not have to code-switch constantly or dismiss my friends’ racist jokes. In these groups we talked about problems proactively and this made me feel like I was spending my time meaningfully.
That being said, I soon wanted to expand my knowledge and sought enriching experiences outside of my community and I attended lots of diversity conferences over the course of my sophomore and junior years, including the Student Diversity Leadership Conference. I quickly felt that same sense of belonging and purpose in these places and I soon enrolled myself in Westtown classes that I believed would help me further understand the history, complexity, and how I am implied in the subject of race. These courses included: Schooled in Race with T. Pat Macpherson, Contemporary Affairs with T. Joseph Daniels and Nonviolence and Social Change with T. Kevin Eppler which touched on race in different capacities, and finally, the Sociology of Race, Inequality and Power.
What was most empowering about these classes was the fact they did not sugarcoat the issues or skirt around stories, and we were clearly able to identify our own biases and find our role in improving the problems we saw on campus, in our greater communities and in the world. Before taking these classes, there were two thoughts that often crossed my mind. Firstly, I would ask myself, what is the point of working towards something that may never happen–at least not in my lifetime? Every time we “take a step forward”, we take ten steps back! I have had the same experiences over and over and over again, heard the same slurs and seen the same violence against my people for years and I doubt that any of that will end anytime in the near future.
Secondly, my only experience before with race was personal and emotional. In every conversation about race in which I entered, I could never separate myself from the issue. As Joe Feagin writes in Racist America, “Most theories about U.S. racial matters do not take seriously enough the existential perspective of the oppressed others, their everyday experiential intelligence. When black men, women, and children speak of being black in a country largely controlled at the top by whites, they typically do not speak in abstract concepts learned from books, but voice accounts of racialized encounters with whites” (Feagin, 23).
Today, I feel that these classes are one of the only things that bring me a true sense of hope and comfort that understanding and common ground can be found. They give me perspective, context, and processing space. Overall, I am beyond grateful for the experiences I have had at Westtown regarding race. Not only have they taught me about the harsh realities of racism and ignorance, but also patience and acceptance of our world’s current state. It has provided me with skills and opportunities that have helped me express my emotions more effectively based on an intellectual foundation. More specifically, having the ability to talk about my race and race in general has made me a student and person committed to discerning and solving other social issues. Race and racism has been the most interesting way for me, personally, to understand and empathize with the experiences of other minorities and has been a gateway to my interest in subjects I would not have considered previously. I look forward to taking this mindset and curiosity to college.
Feagin, Joe R. Racist America: Roots, Current Realities, and Future Reparations. 3rd ed., New York [u.a.], Routledge, 2014.