When We Go to Dinner
That awkward moment in countless exchanges with waiters, car wash cashiers, deans of potential schools for our kids, mattress salespeople, etc, where they look at ME, instead of my wife, when the mechanics of whatever is about to transpire are being explained. Because they assume she has less power than I. Less money, status, visibility, less of whatever it is that white people, myself included, walk around with daily, not even aware of our access and comfort.
We are two women. One black, one white, sitting at a restaurant table as equals. While the menu is recited to me directly, with a courtesy nod to my wife every 30 seconds or so, I become aware of what is happening. I feel my posture change. The tone of my voice changes, softens, in effort to diminish the authority I appear to be receiving. While the waiter looks at me, I look to my wife, to sort of subliminally redirect his attention to her, which never works. It happens so fast. I'm so busy trying to be certain that what I think is happening IS actually happening, I don't even take pause to try to figure out how to address it. She, of course, knows exactly what's going on. This happens to her constantly. By the time our order is complete, she's rolling her eyes, disappointed again by humanity. We shrug it off, dazed. We don't even address it. We can't figure out if they know we're a couple. And whether, if they knew, if that would be a problem, much less considering the racial politics of the situation. Fucking people. It's exhausting.
My wife and I, just five minutes ago, got into this argument about racism and poverty and classism and how to identify it when we feel it, how to call ourselves out when we're being jackasses and we don't realize it. This discussion revolves around a school that is very close to our house that no one wants to send their kids to because it's underperforming, full of kids from the projects, and obviously underfunded. I say HELLS to the NO I'm not sending my kid there, because I'm fearful of my (brown) kids not having access and being let down by the system. She says part of why we say HELLS to the NO is that those low test-scoring kids are also black and that we, and everyone we know, are being racist when we choose not to support that school.
I know I should just sit down and agree with her because I believe that white people, as a rule, should never get to assert to anyone not-white that they're NOT being racist. That is the moment to shut up, and assume you don't know what you're talking about. I'm probably a humongous bigot. But I don't see it. I do feel like this issue is about class SPECIFICALLY. There is nothing more that I could want than a close-by school filled with over-performing brown kids, reading 3x above grade level, excelling, running shit, getting into whatever colleges they want and becoming leaders. I would be thrilled to have my kid attend school full of kids who look like them and constantly excel. But the fact that this is not reality (or even a possibility, given the community's values as they appear to be) is indicative of the problem. The rich kids on the other side of the island perenially go to private. The mobile middle (and mostly white) kids go to outside charters or opt into better performing public schools. The project kids stay in the community school. Thus, all these fancy stupid McMansions (I live in one), surrounding a school full of ignored and underperforming poor, brown students.
The crappy-school monster freaks me out. I am terrified of my kid being as underserved by the system and as ignored, educationally, as I was. I was strung out on a line to wither, a smart, poor kid in a community of working class farming and blue-collar families. I'm fairly certain I could have wallpapered with scholarships and grants, had anyone demonstrated to me that I mattered to the world, that I had something to share. Instead, little inspired by the complete absence of mobility within my own surroundings, I spent a semester at community college in agony before calling it quits, then a lifetime trying to compensate for not having a degree.
I feel compelled to erect steel-plated barriers around my kid because I don't want the tentacles of class and race and privilege to fuck with her flow. Let my kid be as great as she is but feed her a steady, nourishing diet of information, inspiration, wisdom, social interaction, love, support, words, numbers, music, collaboration and structure. EVERYTHING I didn't have, and what every kid deserves.
I have watched all my private client families send their kids abroad for study programs, learn multiple languages, tutor them mercilessly, introduce them to world leaders, take them to Nigeria for college application-building experiences, give them the language to talk about their character-building, extoll the virtues of money management and success above all else, while also wielding their own access and power and influence over the world. And there is nothing wrong with any of that. It's awesome and wonderful to give your kids that kind of benefit. But when my mixed family and I look at privilege and access, even though we have it to some extent, I feel like we're looking at it from the outside. If my kid is going to get into the same schools as the kids who have everything they need to compete professionally, she needs to work twice as hard. Those kids experience success from the get-go. It's expected, revered and natural. They are comfortable surrounded by decision makers and leaders - the BIG ones.
And they're also white. They lead complex enough lives that they need travel booking to Dubai and yacht management and financial strategy meetings and two nannies - of course they are white. They own and run everything. Their school parent friends are CEOs of the public power companies, major sports teams, they own multi-home estates. Is my jealousy for their obvious leverage, and my longing to be a part of their world based on race? Are my feelings about that school, a not very good one which also happens to be full of black kids, driven by racism? Is the white waiter telling me, the white woman, rather than my wife, the black woman, about tonight's grilled halibut special because his experiences indicate that white people ALWAYS have more power, and that it's likely that I am the one who will decide the wine? Actually, yes. Is he racist? Probably.
But I am not, when it comes to keeping my kid out of that bad school. Unless you use the same exact argument as above to determine whether I am, in which case I am. Completely.
I have the power to ask the waiter to shift his gaze to my wife's face. I have the access to put my kid in any school I like, including the one full of kids who look like her, and to help her, and the school turn out scholars. I can't separate class and race because I live in a skin that allows me to claim whichever class I like: to hop on a private jet across Saudi Arabia or go back to my humble country hometown where having just one pair of shoes for school each year was somewhat expected. When I dismiss the possibility that color is a core component of our perception of class, I'm letting it float, but leaving it for someone else to claim. It's too easy. It allows me to remain safely ensconced in my mixed family, pointing outside. I think part of the conversation we're not having is this - there are much more subtle layers of color privilege mixed up in our value systems than we realize, and it's not so much difficult or uncomfortable to see as it is to even recognize in the first place. If most perspectives you encounter on a daily basis for the majority of your life are those of white people, you're saturated with misinformation, whether you like it or not. We get cozy within that and take it as truth, even when we don't want to be that person. Even when you're not toting a firearm on the border of Mexico to keep "them illegals" out, or sitting at a Trump rally right now. Even if your bias is for reparations and all your heroes are black women. Even if you think you're down. And if I can't find my way into deeper dialogue around color, justice, and our collective kids' futures, how can I expect or hope that anyone else can to get there?