sex, money, and miscellany: talking about what matters

sometimes race matters

In Uncategorized on August 28, 2009 at 5:18 am

I live in Maine. I just finished a series of five classes in New York City. I will be writing about it for months, probably for years, possibly for the rest of my life. But as so often is the case, in addition to the planned curriculum, there was more.

For me, more included my classmates. Where I live and work, most of my interactions most days are with white people. Culturally we have quite a mix: locals, people “from away”: Long Island, Massachusetts, points south, points west; people who live on islands and people from the mainland, we have people who work with their hands and people who work at keyboards; we have Canadians and Baptists and Catholics and evangelicals; we have the whole gamut from wealthy to profoundly poor, and our towns are so small that it is nearly impossible not to cross those divisions in an average day.

But brown people, we have very few. More in the summer, because of the unfortunate but real correlations between race and class in this country; some people come for vacation, and other people wash dishes, make beds, rake blueberries, and those people who wash and make and rake are often brown skinned: Indian of either stripe or Mexican or Latino/a, or one of countless other categories.

And even then, the percentages are relatively low. For me, with the privileges of education and light skin and some measure of stability, with a schedule that only starts before dawn if I choose it, I would need to make an effort to racially diversify my day, a specific effort to seek out places and routines and contexts where I would come into contact with people whose primary ancestral context wasn’t white. I have not made that effort…

…and trying so hard for diversity would feel odd, possibly tokenizing, possibly ingenuine, even though I’m very much in favor of busing children out of their neighborhoods to diversify their schools, even though I myself am a product of having been bused from a wealthy and primarily white neighborhood into the heart of my own little city where I learned an awful lot that I wonder if my un-bused successors are learning at the suburban campus across- but not downtown.

But in New York, diversity comes naturally, like breathing, like stepping in front of taxis, like the understanding that some of the best food in the city comes wrapped in tinfoil from a propane-burning steel cart that wasn’t there last night.

In my classes of about 25 students were five, count ’em five women of South Asian origin, none of whom were doctors or engineers, although one was just moving away from another prestigious career…and none of whom fit the “good Indian girl” stereotype. That was profound. It was a new kind of context for me, one I have never had. I can find sexual orientation, gender identity, class, professional, political contexts where I fit. I rarely find race and culture. We represented at least four different religions, three sexual orientations, but for just a moment I got to experience a new kind of belonging, to relax a different part of my body and brain.

And for that, I am profoundly grateful.

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