Monday, July 2, 2018

The Unfamiliar

I had an experience this Spring that I tucked away, waiting for the right moment to take it out again and examine it. I had coffee with BOE Candidate Sabina Taj at a little place on Route 40 called Caffe Bene. I arrived before she did, ordered and went to find a seat. It was relatively crowded, so I had to scan the room several times to find a spot.

Slowly I realized that the place was filled largely with students, with laptops, studying. Whether in groups or alone, they were there to study. They were mostly young women, but not entirely. And, except for me, everyone was Asian.

I had an uncomfortable little tingly feeling. Do I belong here? Is this a space for me? And I thought about how my experiences as a white person have prepared me to assume that I will always be in environments where people who look like me are in the majority. No one ever came out and said this overtly; it just was.

Most of us say we want to live in a diverse, integrated world where everyone is equal. But I wonder how often that really means (for white people) that we can live with a largely unchanged white world in which there is a smattering of representation from groups that are “other.” It’s easy to point fingers at people who are over-the-top racist. But how do we feel in situations where we are in the minority?

Does it feel uncomfortable? Dangerous, even? Do we feel conspicuous?

Then how must it feel for people of color when they are thrust into similar situations? It’s far more likely in our culture for that to happen. And we just expect that, or, we don’t think anything about it. It’s invisible to us. And its invisibility to those of us in the dominant culture perpetuates it.

I remembered this piece from 2016:

Where Do We Stand?

“One woman said, and I'm paraphrasing here, that perception of this issue was so different between blacks and whites because:
Black people have to deal with white people all the time, but it's possible in our culture for white people to be almost completely separate from blacks.
That's segregation. It colors the decisions we make.”

Going into unfamiliar places and situations where I don’t necessarily feel in control has been educational for me. And humbling. I’ve realized that there are so many tangled threads of unknown bias within me. It’s not exactly enjoyable. But I think it is valuable.

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